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Fides in Statius’ Silvae

Neil Bernstein

Paper 3 examines the Flavian poet Statius’ deployment of fides as the structuring force of interpersonal relations in the Silvae. I focus primarily on the poet’s appeal to fides as a means of imagining voluntary, enthusiastic participation in structures of domination. My approach is similar to discussion of the fictions of libertas in Silvae 1.6 (Chinn [2008]). Praise of subordinates’ fides suggests that their extraordinary loyalty is a voluntary gift, when in reality the threat of punishment compels their service. The exemplary tradition accordingly shows the exercise of fides in extremis, such as when a slave risks his life for a master or a wife for a husband during wartime. The peaceful and idealized world of the Silvae has no place for such testing, and so substitutes the fantasy of the subordinate’s voluntarily supplied affection, service, and love.

At the level of the private household, Statius uses fides to describe slaves’ and freedmen’s discharge of their obligations toward their masters. The deceased slave Philetos is worth his master Flavius Ursus’ tears thanks to his fides (Stat. Silv. 2.6.10-11). Comparison to an animal, however, deprives Philetos of agency: Statius observes that owners mourn their faithful dogs in the same way (Silv. 2.6.19). The absence of fides-language in the similar poem mourning Melior’s freedman Glaucias reinforces the distinction between the two subordinates. Statius claims that Melior would have made Glaucias his son and heir had he lived, whereas Ursus never extended such an offer to Philetos (Laes). The appropriate virtue to celebrate for a notional son is not fides but pietas (Bernstein).

In the public setting, fides describes an imperial freedman’s discharge of his services for his emperor; it is a bureaucratic virtue (Lotito [1974/5]). Statius reassures Domitian that his faithful subordinates discharge their duties enthusiastically and lovingly. Through his use of fides-language, Statius assists dependents in proclaiming their loyalty to the emperor, including Claudius Etruscus, whose father was dismissed by Domitian, and T. Flavius Abascantus, who owed his position to his recently deceased wife Priscilla. Statius grants fides a religious dimension in relation to the godlike emperor, who is worshipped by his freedmen as if his priests (Silv. 5.praef.).

Comparison to familial relationships in these poems illustrates the emperor’s control over his faithful servants. Domitian declared his interest in overseeing family life by renewing the Augustan marriage laws and taking the title of censor perpetuus. The freedman Abascantus’ love for the emperor is greater love than for his wife Priscilla: he would have killed himself in order to join her in death (Silv. 5.1.207-8).

One essential contrast between the representation of fides in the Silvae and in the prose accounts in the exemplary tradition is between a peaceful world and a world in conflict. Valerius Maximus’ chapters de fide (6.6-8) show fides tested under threat of death: slaves risk their lives for masters threatened by proscription, as do faithful wives for their husbands. The implication for the gentle world of the Silvae is that these extraordinary slaves, dependents, and spouses choose to display affection and solicitude for exceptional masters even in ordinary circumstances. In his encomiastic context, Statius can only imagine the possibility of displaying fides in extremis, such as his wife Claudia’s hypothetical braving of mythological hazards to demonstrate her fides to her husband (Silv. 3.5.44-51), or Ursus’ hypothetical equanimity were he to endure property loss rather than the loss of his beloved Philetos (Silv. 2.6.60-70).

The Silvae rarely describe emotional friendships between equals. Amicitia typically means patronage in this world, however delicately it is figured (Coffee [2015]). Statius addresses patrons and describes their relationships with their families and subordinates (Nauta [2002]). Where the rare example of friendship between equals occurs in the poem, fides does not describe it. The term has been reserved for the hierarchical world of the slave, freedman, wife, and loyal subject of an autocratic emperor.

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Fides in Flavian Poetry

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