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“Virgil's Teachings: Competitive Ecphrasis in Stat. Silv. 4.2”

Adalberto Magnavacca

Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa

This paper aims to explore anew Stat. Silv. 4.2, a meaningful example of a well-debated topic: the relationship between the encomiastic poetry of Statius’ Silvae and Virgilian epic poem.

Critics have long recognized the deep influence exerted by the epic genre, primarily the Virgilian one, on Statius’ Silvae (GIBSON: 2006; VAN DAM: 2006). Stat. Silv. 4.2 represents a very meaningful case study in this respect (see the treatment devoted to this poem by MALAMUD: 2001; 2007; NEWLANDS: 2002): while dealing with the description of the banquet hosted by emperor Domitian in his palace on the Palatine, Statius is given the opportunity to confront Homer and Virgil, the two epic poets par excellence (Stat. Silv. 4.2.8-10):

           …        non, si pariter mihi vertice laeto         

nectat odoratas et Smyrna et Mantua lauros, 

digna loquar.                                                             

The Unsagbarkeitstopos quoted above – itself a blatant adaptation of the “many mouth motif” employed by Statius at the very end of his epic poem (see Stat. Theb. 12.797-799 with POLLMANN 2004; see also CURTIUS: 1948; HINDS: 1998, 34-47 and MERLI: 2013, 85-88) – is applied here to link Statius’ poem with the two illustrious predecessors through the metapoetic image of the laurel crown (KAMBYLIS: 1965), but acts also as a meaningful anticipation of what Statius himself is going to remember at the end of the poem (Stat. Silv. 4.2.63-67): the poetic victory at the Alban Games in 90 CE. In this way, the figure of Virgil can be considered a suitable poetic Doppelgänger of the emperor: in the past Domitian gave Statius a golden crown for his poetic merits (Statius was proudly conscious of his status of ‘poet laureate’: see Stat. Silv. 5.3.227-229), while in the present Statius is evocating the image of a laurel crown (possibly) assigned by Virgil and Homer in order to broaden his poetic skills in order to praise Domitian’s banquet.

According to this interpretation, I will argue that the adjective odoratas (Silv. 4.2.9) can be retained (it is printed by COURTNEY 1992 and defended by VAN DAM 1992, but the majority of recent editors prefers to print adoratas: see COLEMAN: 1988; LIBERMAN: 2010; SHACKLETON BAILEY: 2015), due to its particular link with the (poetic) Underworld: in Verg. Aen. 6.658 inter odoratum lauri nemus, in fact, we read of a ‘fragrant laurel grove’, where seers and poets (Verg. Aen. 6.662 quique pii uates et Phoebo digna locuti) are hosted. This particular connection with the Underworld is exploited elsewhere by Statius to express the magisterial influence played on him by Virgil (GOLDSCHMIDT-GRAZIOSI 2018): in Silv. 4.4.54-55, in fact, he portrays himself as a singing poet near the tomb of his master (et magni tumulis accanto magistri), a gesture that likens Virgil to Statius’ father (Silv. 5.3.36, where Statius is acclinis tumulo quo molle quiescis), himself a school-teacher and responsible for Statius’ education.

Having acknowledged the importance of Virgil both as an imperial character and a father-like figure, I will analyze anew the palace ecphrasis (Silv. 4.2.18-37), trying to emphasize the points where Virgil and Homer are alluded to. Starting from the very beginning of the presentation (Silv. 4.2.17, a quasi-quotation from Verg. Aen. 7.170) I will try to cast light on the intertextual strategies displayed by Statius in order to enhance the differences between Domitian’s palace and the one of the epic traditions (on this point see already KREUZ: 2015, 228-254): thus, we can discover new allusions to Hom. Od. 4.71-75 (Menelaus’ palace) in Silv. 4.2.20-22, to Hom. Od. 7.84-102 (Alcinous’ palace) in Stat. Silv. 4.2.26-29, and to Verg. Aen. 1.726 (Dido’s palace) in Stat. Silv. 4.2.31 (on this last point see CANCIK: 1965, 76). In all these cases, the texts alluded to are declared insufficient to fulfill the encomium for Domitian’s palace and, according to this, of Domitian himself (after all, the palace is ‘lesser only than its owner’, tantum domino minor: Silv. 4.2.25): by merging in one poem the encomium for the palace and the one for its master (Stat. Silv. 4.2.38-56; on this encomiastic feature see NEWLANDS: 2013), Statius is able to create a new type of encomiastic poetry from the magisterial role played by his magnus magister, Virgil.

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Imperial Virgil

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