Skip to main content

Scholars such as Henriette van der Blom, Alison Cooley, and Susan Treggiari observe that a biological connection with heroic ancestors inspired descendants to emulate their deeds and mannerisms (van der Blom 2010: 88; Cooley 1998: 206-7; Treggiari 2003: 144, 148, 150). Silius Italicus’ Punica features the descendants of many famous regnal and early Republican heroes, such as Cloelius, a descendant of the early Republican heroine Cloelia, and Scaevola, descended from Mucius Scaevola. Using Crixus, a descendant of Brennus the Gaul, as a case-study, I argue that Silius undermines Roman expectations anticipated by Roman perspectives of shared traits between family members.

I begin by elaborating upon Roman views on family in relation to what I term “genetic transmission”: the manifestation of similar (and at times, identical) character traits in different family members. Suzanne Dixon explains that one of the functions fulfilled by Roman children was “continuity”, namely the ensuing generations of families (1992: 102). Therefore, the sharing of familial traits is a powerful means of guaranteeing that deceased ancestors remain alive.

My case-study is Crixus, a descendant of Brennus, the Gallic chieftain of the Senones who sacked Rome and attempted to seize the Capitoline Hill in 390 BCE. Scholars such as Daniel Conner, Leo Landrey, and Helen Lovatt have focused mainly on the Homeric, Lucanian, Statian, and Vergilian intertextualities present in the Crixus episode (Conner 2018: 80-92; Landrey 2014: 624; Lovatt 2013: 28). Although a non-Roman, Silius uses Crixus to illustrate aspects of Roman exemplary thinking. Silius describes Crixus as “bloated with the pride of his ancestors”, tumens atavis (4.150). This grotesque image of swelling implies that Crixus’ ancestral pride is not positive; the Roman tradition of revering one’s maiores has become disfigured. If the purpose of the Punica is to infuse Romans with ancestral pride, then Silius’ portrayal of Crixus is a complication – his only attribute is an inflated ego because of Brennus. Crixus’ arrogance is best exemplified by Silius’ ekphrasis of his shield: “The boss of his shield bore the image of the Gauls weighing out the gold on the sacred peak of the Tarpeian ridge” (4.153). Since Brennus successfully invaded Rome, Crixus’ shield emphasizes his obligation to maintain the reputation of his ancestor. The overwhelming need to match, and even surpass, one’s ancestral legacies is something which all Romans would have understood.

As a grotesque and swollen replica, Crixus falls short of the virtus he should have inherited from Brennus. This is exemplified by Crixus’ death at the hands of P. Cornelius Scipio. Both Brennus and Crixus ultimately die, but Brennus and his men do so knowing that they have utterly humiliated the Romans; yet Silius allows Scipio to pay the ultimate insult to Crixus by telling him that he did not even match the achievements of Brennus, never mind surpassing them (4.286-88). I conclude by arguing that Crixus is a cautionary example: a true hero must offer more than his ancestral legacies; while providing an advantage, they cannot be substituted for traditional Roman values.