This paper examines a possible intertextual reference to Ovid in the first word of the Punica of Silius Italicus, and argues that Silius deploys this allusion to reclaim the didactic persona for a traditionalist (and, in particular, Livian) moral narrative of Rome. While the Punica’s second word (arma) has received broad scholarly interest, commentators and other scholars (Feeney 1982; Spaltenstein 1986; Pomeroy 2010) have read the poem’s first word (ordior) only as a reference to Livy or to the generic expectations of prose composition, even those who note the rich intertextuality of the Punica’s opening lines (Tipping 2010). To date, no one has explored the possibility that Ovid is the intermediary between Silius and Livy. Moreover, scholarship on Silius's reception of Ovid (e.g., Bruere 1958; Wilson 2004), while emphasizing the importance of the Metamorphoses and Fasti, has paid less attention to the influence that Ovid's other generic experiments may have had on the Punica. This oversight has diminished our appreciation of the generic enrichment that distinguishes Silius's re-conception of historical epic.
The Punica’s opening word, ordior, in fact appears only once previously in Latin poetry, in Book 3 of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. After a 100-line proem, Ovid begins the content of that book with Ordior a cultu (3.101). In light of the many other first-line and/or first-word allusions in the proem of the Punica, it is unlikely that Silius repeats Ovid by accident, especially given the significance of opening lines in ancient works (Gratwick 1991) and their use as intertextual signifiers, not least by Ovid himself. By starting his epic with a reference to didactic elegy, Silius signals that his project is not indebted solely to Vergil: didactic ordior complements the epic arma. The Ars passage in particular is an Ovidian mission statement of sorts (Myerowitz 1985) and thus useful as a marker for an alternative poetic mode. Silius, like other Flavian epic poets, enjoys digressive moments and aetiologies (typical of Ovidian epic), including an extended digression on the origin of Falernian wine (Pun. 7.162-211) with linguistic markers connecting it to Ars 3.101.
Nonetheless, Silius’s allusive play is dialectical. Ovid, at Ars 3.101ff., makes a radical move, as he recapitulates the traditional historical narrative of Roman morals (in which a fundamental change occurs after the Punic Wars) but rejects the negative judgment, instead proclaiming a preference for the mores of his own time and the cultus that created them (Mader 1988; Gibson 2003). Silius, with this allusive ordior, appropriates the didactic persona of the Ovidian interlocutor to re-establish the traditional narrative for his Punica: Rome's moral zenith (the Hannibalic War) validates Rome forever, despite future moral degeneration (as at Pun. 3.571ff.). The use of ordior also connects the poem back to the preface of Livy, who twice uses the verb while discussing the suitable way to begin his work in comparison with how poets begin their poems. The “window-reference” intertext thus not only complements Silius’s adaptation of Livy’s preface in his proem (as read by Pomeroy 1989), but also puts two rival constructions of the Roman past into productive tension: Silius will wed Ovidian poetics to a Livian perspective on Rome’s moral history. An analysis of Silius’s ordior that accounts for his intertextual engagement with both Livy’s moral narrative and Ovid's didactic voice will broaden our understanding of Silius's reinvention of historical epic in the Punica.
Bloody Excess: Roman Epic