Statius' Silvae 4.3, a poem on the construction of the Via Domitiana along the Italian coast from Sinuessa to Puteoli, has been variously interpreted. First, the poem has been read in terms of imperial praise (e.g. Newlands 2002: 284-325). Second, the poem has been seen as an elaborate metaliterary exercise (Smolenaars 2006). Finally, the poem has also been understood as participating in the Flavian theme of dominating nature (e.g. Kleiner 1991). I suggest that an ecocritical perspective (see e.g. Rigby 2002; cf. Saunders 2008 on Vergil’s Eclogues) adds to our understanding of the poem by carefully examining the way it constructs “nature” and “sustainability.” By taking seriously ecocriticism’s “return to the referent,” that is, the belief in the essential reality of the natural world, we may see more clearly the relationship between technology/civilization, nature, and the stewardship of nature in Statius’ poem.First of all the poem exhibits an extreme interpenetration of categories that we would term “nature” and “culture.” It has often been noted that Statius cheerfully recounts the transformations of nature in language that suggests violence, destruction, or degradation (see 42, 50, 61-4, 77-8, 81). By itself this attitude suggests that Statius has little sense of ecological sustainability. Noted less often is how Statius characterizes nature itself in negative terms normally reserved for humans. Thus, the earth is ill-intentioned (maligna tellus, 29; cf. 45) and the personified river Volturnus is (in military and epic terms) destructive (79-80). Other human-cultural qualities are assimilated to nature (21, 29, 45-6, 79-80, 86-8, 126-7). Both nature and human activity engage in the same kinds of destructive acts, thus complicating the simple nature/culture distinction. The violence of nature is countered by human violence, and a sense of sustainability is established upon the peaceful resolution of this conflict.
The relationship between Domitian and nature is also complicated. The emperor is characterized as “better and more powerful than nature” (natura melior potentiorque, 135), which again leads to the interpretation that the poem wholeheartedly endorses the domination of nature. Read in its proper context, however, this statement is part of a larger characterization of Domitian as a god who orders the universe: he can move cities closer to one another (25-6), create the landscape (72), and even effect climate change (136-8). Contrasted with Nero’s destructive (and evidently non-divine) attempts to alter the landscape (7-8), Domitian’s achievement in the construction of the road is, cosmologically speaking, a perfectly “natural” act. Likewise, Domitian enacts laws (cultural devices) that prohibit the “unnatural” act of castration (13-15) and promote sustainable agriculture (11-12). Finally, Domitian’s building projects in Rome are connected with the Flavian constellations (18-19), thus establishing a connection between the physical city and cosmic order. Even the establishment and sustaining of empire are cosmological events (153-7). Then as now, the ideal is simply the harmonious blending of human society and the natural world. Indeed, the Sibyl’s speech at the end of the poem (124-63) alludes to Vergil’s Eclogue 4, hence activating not only that poem’s praise discourse, but also the pastoral and hence ecological components of its Golden Age rhetoric.
Finally, Statius characterizes the natural world, and human modification of it, in terms not just ethical but also aesthetic. The language of beauty and ugliness pervade the poem, and is applied both to nature and human activity. Hence nature is in many instances “dirty” (sordidus and cognates: 8, 29, 53, 86) or “foul” and “rotten” (126). On the other hand, the road construction repairs these aesthetic faults (87, 92-4, 127). Like nature writing in later periods, it is the preservation and augmentation of the beauty of the natural world that constitutes a kind of ecological ideal (Rigby 2002: 159-61).
Thus, rather than interpreting Silvae 4.3 as a decadent celebration of the degradation of nature, we may understand it, through an ecocritical perspective, as a rigorous examination of a sustainable world.
- Cancik, Hubert. 1965. Untersuchen zur lyrischen Kunst des P. Papinius Statius. Hildesheim: Olms.
- Geysson, John W. 1996. Imperial panegyric in Statius: a literary commentary on Silvae 1.1. New York: Lang.
- Newlands, Carole E. 2002. Statius’ Silvae and the poetics of empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Smolenaars, Johannes J. L. 2006. “Ideology and politics along the Via Domitiana: Statius Silv. 4.3.” In R. R. Nauta, H.-J. Van Dam, J. J. L. Smolenaars (eds.) Flavian poetry. Leiden: Brill, 223-44.
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