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The death of Marcellus in Silius Italicus Punica 15.334-398

John Jacobs

In recent years, scholarship on heroism in the Punica has expanded its focus beyond Hannibal (Stocks 2014) and Scipio (Marks 2005) to undertake a sustained engagement with the plethora of other heroic figures in the epic, including, most notably, Fabius and Marcellus (Ariemma 2010; Fucecchi 2010; Tipping 2010; Marks 2014). In broadening the horizons of this investigation into heroism in the epic, scholars have come to appreciate much better how well Silius complicates (even eradicates) the many purported dichotomies between Roman and Carthaginian. This paper contributes to this ongoing conversation about the nature and scope of heroism in the poem by offering the first close reading of the death of Marcellus in Punica 15.334-398, with the goal of illustrating how Silius engages with his predecessors in both historiography and epic in order to elaborate a counterfactual version of events (Nesselrath 1992; Cowan 2010) according to which it was Marcellus, and not Scipio, who would have, could have, and should have led Rome to victory over Hannibal in the Second Punic War—if only he had not died prematurely at Venusia.

In preparation for the pathos of the death scene in Punica 15.334-398, Silius reminds his reader at several key points throughout the epic (1.132-133, 3.587, 8.254-255, cf. 17.298-299) that it was Marcellus, and not Scipio, who was famed as Rome’s greatest general at the outset of the conflict, most notably for slaying the Gallic chieftain Viridomarus in single combat at the battle of Clastidium in 222 B.C. and thereby earning (for the third and final time in Roman history) the spolia opima. Furthermore, it was Marcellus, and not Scipio, who gave Rome her first “victory” in the war by successfully defending Nola against Hannibal’s onslaught (12.161-294, cf. 12.295-319, 420-422), a victory which Silius explicitly sets above his winning the spolia opima (12.278-280). Finally, in book 14, Silius isolates the narrative of the Sicilian campaign, culminating in the fall of Syracuse, from the rest of the poem in order to cast the book as a miniature anti-epic in tension with the Scipiad which occupies the surrounding books 13-17 and, accordingly, in order to pit Marcellus against Scipio in a literary, if not historical, competition to take on Hannibal.

The narrative of the death of Marcellus in Punica 15.334-398 begins, in a sense, at the end, with a proleptic lament for the (soon-to-be) fallen general which culminates with the haunting image of the consul already lying dead on the battlefield before Silius has even begun his account of the circumstances surrounding his fall: iacet campis Carthaginis horror / forsan Scipiadae confecti nomina belli / rapturus, si quis paulum deus adderet aeuo (15.340-342). In a pointed rejection of Lucretius (Scipiadas ... Carthaginis horror, 3.1034), Silius suggests that it was Marcellus, and not Scipio, who was the real Carthaginis horror. In the lines which follow this striking eulogy for Marcellus as the hero who might have been, Silius often agrees with Livy (27.25.6-29.6) in his succinct version of the ambush (Bernard 2002-2003; Levene 2010; Pomeroy 2010), but Silius dramatically heightens the pathos of the situation by bringing Marcellus’s son into the narrative and by having Marcellus succumb to the Carthaginians only after witnessing his son’s death right before his very eyes. At two key points, Silius uses forsan (15.375, 393), as he had in 15.341, to speculate on how things might have been different: this clustering of examples of forsan (by far the densest in the epic) strongly marks how significant a turning point the death of Marcellus was for the subsequent course of the poem and the war. At the same time, Silius’s introduction of Marcellus’s son undoubtedly sends the reader back to Vergil Aeneid 6.854-892, where Marcellus appears in the Underworld not with this son, but with a later descendant of his who would have, could have, and should have been Augustus’s heir—if only he had not died prematurely.

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Men and War

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