This paper is an examination of the relationship between intellectual history, imperial ideology, and poetic technique in Statius’ Silvae. In the aftermath of the Roman conquest of Britain, the literary use of the name “Thule” was significantly altered; it was applied in particular by Statius to the island of Britain, and located at the western edge of the world. The argument of this paper is twofold: first, I emphasize the novelty of the Flavian-era identification of Thule and Britain, in contrast to the preceding geographical tradition; second, I focus on the details of Statius’ placement and description of the island, noting the ways in which geographical innovation and poetic imagery combine to increase both his praise of his patrons and the glory of the Roman empire.
Recent scholarship has tended to read the application of the name “Thule” to Britain, and Statius’ placement of the island in the west, as being in continuity with earlier geographical thought (Romm 1992; Wijsman 1998; Evans 2003). But a survey of the prior tradition demonstrates that there is no evidence for this identification or location of Thule prior to the Flavian era. Ancient geographers consistently followed Pytheas (frr. 6–9 Mette) in placing Thule in the extreme north, beyond Britain (Strabo 1.4.2-3; Ptol., Geog. passim; Mela 3.57; Plin., HN 2.186-187, 4.104). And the few mentions in the Latin poetic tradition do not specify the location of the island, emphasizing its cosmological rather than its geographical significance (Verg., Geo. 1.24-35; Sen., Med. 375-379). By contrast, in the four references to Thule in the Silvae (3.5.20; 4.4.62; 5.1.90-91; 5.2.54-56), Statius clearly envisions it as the now-conquered Britain. Through the arrangement of his geographical catalogues, references to the setting sun, and the use of adjectives meaning “western,” Statius emphasizes the island’s (re-)location, contradicting the prior geographical tradition and attaching to the name “Thule” the attributes of Britain, traditionally the westernmost island. This geographical revision is found exclusively in Domitianic poetry: it is seen elsewhere only in Silius Italicus (3.597-598; 17.416-417), and is abandoned by later writers (e.g., Tac., Agr. 10.4; Juv. 15.111-112).
The transference of the name Thule to Britain is thus more likely associated with contemporary Roman military expansion, and is best understood as a rhetorical amplification of Flavian ideology, casting the new dynasty as having surpassed their Julio-Claudian predecessors (cf. Evans 2003) and extending their conquests to the defined limit of human habitation. The structure of the lists of frontiers in which the name appears is closely associated with the organizational principles of Roman imperialist geography (cf. Purcell 1990; Murphy 2004), and thereby implicitly fulfills the long-expressed claim that the boundaries of the empire and those of the orbis terrarum were coterminous. Moreover, the principal feature of Thule in the Silvae, its darkness, further emphasizes the new location of the island. Modern commentators have interpreted Statius’ descriptions of “darkling Thule” as references to its location on the Arctic Circle and the resulting long winter nights (Coleman 1988, ad 4.4.62; Laguna Mariscal 1992, ad 3.5.20). But Statius’ language is more closely connected to his own epic descriptions of sunsets (e.g., Theb. 12.228-231), and his use of this sunset-topos here serves both geographical and panegyrical purposes. In the Silvae, Statius regularly employs the aesthetics and language of epic as a means of heightening the praise of his patrons (Bright 1980; Hardie 1982; Gibson 2006); the language used to describe Thule in these passages similarly elevates the Roman conquest of Britain and the activities of Statius’ patrons to a more epic level, locating the events of Roman history in what had formerly been a fantastic, unreachable place. Statius’ Thule is thus an example of the ideological re-fashioning of the world map that resulted from Flavian military conquest, and at the same time a means of furthering his own poetic end of honoring his patrons.