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The Best Defense: Triumphal Geography and Empire in Silius’s Punica

Adam Kozak

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Although Vergil’s Jupiter promised imperium sine fine, Silius’s Jupiter does not guarantee it and instead encourages the Flavian dynasty to preserve the integrity of Rome through expansion and the conquest of distant lands (per uulnera regnum, 3.588). Silius uses geography to communicate the victory of Scipio, who defeats Hannibal and ensures Roman imperium, and to praise the Flavian emperors in the Punica. Scipio’s triumphal procession features representations of the places taken from Carthage and the laudes Domitiani in book 3 show Domitian triumphant over lands beyond the edges of the empire. By encouraging Domitian to expand Roman influence, Silius aims to recreate for Flavian Rome the invigorating challenge that Hannibal presented to the early republic. For Silius, war with external enemies directs Rome’s destructive impulses outward and avoids the civil strife witnessed firsthand by the poet in 69 CE.

Scholars have come to recognize the importance of space and place (e.g. landscape and geography) in Latin literature and epic in particular (Murphy 2004, Skempis and Ziogas 2014). Studies of space and place in Silius’s Punica have examined geographical knowledge in the poem (Bona 1998), landscapes (Augoustakis 2003, Morzadec 2009, Santini 1991, Šubrt 1991), and natural phenomena (Manolaraki 2009). Furthermore, the Punica is influenced by the contemporary realities of Flavian Rome (Mezzanotte 2016, Wistrand 1956) and, as Marks (2005) has observed, Silius’ Punica creates a Vergilian-style teleology with the past intimately connected to the present. However, the role of geography in constructing this teleology has not been given enough attention. Geography defines Scipio’s victory and connects his triumph with the Flavians’ military achievements.

In Punica 3, Jupiter declares that Rome has declined but the hardships endured in the war with Hannibal will make Rome strong enough to continue to expand (quo maxima rerum / nobilior sit Romam malis, Pun. 3.584-5). He states that Vespasian will found a new dynasty that will conquer distant places on the edges of the empire and that Domitian will celebrate a triumph after conquering Germany and will one day subdue Bactria and India (ab Arctoo currus aget axe per urbem / ducet et Eoos Baccho cedente triumphos  3.614-5). This prophesied conquest of the east is not empty panegyric, but rather aspirational. The Flavians’ expansion of the empire is the culmination of the teleology that Silius constructs in the poem.

The triumphal geography of Domitian’s victories echoes Scipio’s defeat of Hannibal and his triumph at the end of the poem. As Scipio kills Hannibal’s soldiers at Zama, Silius summarizes the places they had conquered (Saguntum, Italy, the Alps, 17.491-502) that Scipio symbolically retakes by defeating Hannibal. Scipio scatters Hannibal’s troops to the ends of the earth and is compared to Vesuvius spreading Italian ash across the world (17.592-596), a powerful image of the spread of Roman power. Later, in his triumph, Scipio parades images of places in Africa and Spain, representations of the conquered Carthaginian lands that have now been brought under Roman rule (uictas tendens Carthago ad sidera palmas / ibat, 17.635-6). His triumph parallels the military exploits of the Flavians seen in Jupiter’s speech in book 3. By portraying Scipio’s victory in geographic terms Silius recalls the exploits of the Flavians and intimately connects them. This suggests that just as Scipio needed Hannibal, the Flavians must seek their own Carthage against which to test themselves and with which to strengthen Rome. It is especially significant that Silius’ Jupiter does not promise imperium sine fine but rather imperium for a long time (longo aeuo, 3.593). Therefore, expansion must be Rome’s substitute for a defensive stance toward outside forces. The only alternative is self-destruction and civil war.

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Lucan Statius and Silius

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