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Sicilian Strife in Silius Italicus' Punica

Julia Mebane

Indiana University- Bloomington

Although Latin writers on civil war revel in inverted norms, paradoxical extremes, and collapsed boundaries, they typically center the city of Rome in their narratives. Writers from Caesar to Lucan describe how discord born in the Curia and Comitia expands outward to encompass the whole world. As Florus writes of the conflict between Caesar and Pompey, Caesaris furor atque Pompei urbem Italiam, gentes nationes, totum denique qua patebat imperium…corripuit (“The madness of Caesar and Pompey gripped the city, Italy, peoples, nations, and finally the whole empire, wherever it extended,” Ep. 2.13.3). His perspective reflects two centuries of Roman thought on the dynamics of internecine strife.

In Book 14 of the Punica, Silius Italicus departs from this tradition by portraying discord as an external threat that the Roman army must confront in Sicily. Scholars have long recognized Silius’ interest in civil war themes, but tend to downplay their role in the latter half of the epic (Ahl, Davis, and Pomeroy 1986: 2502-4; McGuire 1997: 88-146) Yet Book 14, which recounts Marcellus’ capture of Syracuse, should be read in a similar vein (Marks 2018). Drawing on poetic convention, Silius portrays Sicily as the product of a violent separation from the Italian mainland (pelagus laceratae uiscera terrae/ discidit, 14.15-6). Its acrimonious geography is mirrored in the population of Syracuse, which is divided in its loyalties between Rome and Carthage (pars Punica castra,/ pars Italos, 14.107-8). As Marcellus makes landfall, he must confront not only the literal threat of Carthage, but also the figurative threats of tumultus (14.279) and seditio (14.292).

The conquest of Sicily illustrates the Roman army’s resistance to the paradigm of civil war. This resistance comes to the fore in the story of Asilus, a Roman soldier taken captive in the First Punic War, and Beryas, the Punic master who freed him. Figuring discord as social inversion (Lowrie and Vinken 2019), Silius describes how the former slave and master meet again on the battlefield. Rather than kill Beryas, however, Asilus pardons him, declaring, fas hostem seruare mihi (14.169). Nefas is a key term for civil strife in Flavian literature (McGuire 1997: xi); by formulating his behavior in opposition to it, Asilus conveys Rome’s triumph over the self-destructive impulse that doomed it at Trasimene and Cannae (Tipping 2010: 35-44; McGuire 1995).

Silius’ association of strife with the soon-to-be province of Sicily rather than the city of Rome reflects the historical moment in which he wrote. A witness to the events of 68-69 CE, he saw firsthand how turmoil on the periphery could make its way back to the center. He invites readers to consider this context at the conclusion of Book 14, when he urges Rome’s current generals to imitate the exemplum of Marcellus (14.682-88). Issuing an implicit warning against the temptations of rebellion abroad, Silius offers a distinctly Flavian perspective on Rome’s ancestral curse.

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Flavian Epic

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