Clayton A Schroer
Scholars have never known what to make of Statius’ Silvae 4.5. This lyric poem dedicated to an ancestor and namesake of the emperor Septimius Severus constitutes a stylistically and historically compelling poem (Vessey 1970, Nagle 2009). Nonetheless, critics have puzzled over why Statius insists that Septimius is Italus, Italus (Silv. 4.5.46)—even though he is from North Africa. The status quaestionis holds that Italus, an exclusionary ethonym unlike the more inclusive Romanus, elides Septimius’ African heritage (Coleman 1988, Farney 2007, Hulls forthcoming). However, this assumption eschews the poem’s reflection of the rapid diversification of the Roman elite during the Flavian era. Using historical evidence along with modern literary theories, I argue that Statius presents both Septimius and Italian identity as hybrids. Italian identity is revealed to be transformed by and inclusive of—rather than exclusionary to—people from the margins like Septimius.
When national identities begin to change, Homi K. Bhabha argues, we witness the creation of new identities within so-called “third spaces” (Bhabha 1990). In these spaces, the myths justifying one group’s power—think Rome’s Aeneas-myth—are redeployed and reinterpreted by another, marginal group. This process, which hybridizes formerly exclusionary claims of identity, is clearly discernible in the Silvae. Statius’ geminatio in Italus, Italus is an allusion to Horace’s Ilion, Ilion (Coleman 1988) in his third Roman Ode (3.3.18), itself a reminder of Rome’s Trojan roots and status as a genus mixtum (Aen. 12.838). Statius’ contemporary Italy and North Africa blend into a “third space”, wherein, to use Bhabha’s terms, the atavistic Aeneas-myth is redeployed to unify the “plural modern space” of Roman empire marked by Septimius. It is for this reason that Statius likens Septimius’ arrival to Italy from North Africa to Aeneas’ voyage from Carthage (Silv. 4.5.37–9, following Vessey 1970). This conceptual move is one the “bicultural” poet Statius frequently employs (Newlands 2012): what could be more Italian, he suggests, than being not-entirely Italian—a hybrid?
Others before Statius, including the emperor Claudius, had made similar arguments (Dench 2004). Claudius had advocated for the addition of provincial elites to the Roman senatorial class by citing the hybridic origins of Rome’s founding fathers (CIL XIII, 1688; Tac. Ann. 11. 23–4): Numa was “foreign;” Tarquinius Priscus’ father was of mixed ethnicity like Statius’ Septimius. For Claudius, the hybridity of Rome’s early ruling classes offers a precedent for senatorial diversification (Farney 2007, Lee-Stecum 2014). To be sure, newly-minted elites from the provinces, like Statius’ Septimius, worked hard to attach themselves to an Italian identity (viz. stories of the emperor Hadrian’s family origins). Indeed, such processes of creolization encourage not the eradication of hegemonic identity politics, but rather the redistribution of who can be included within privileged ethnic groups (Palamié 2007, Thompson 2019); just so, Septimius shows how inclusive the definition of Italus can be. Adapting a poetics of power in use for well over a century, Statius’ Silv. 4.5 offers us a vivid portrayal of a Rome that was rapidly changing without abandoning its traditional identities.
Hybrid Epicenters: Peripheral Adaptation in Flavian Literature