1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Statius, Publius Papinius
STATIUS, PUBLIUS PAPINIUS (c. A.D. 45-96), Latin poet, was born at Naples. He was, to a great extent, devoted by birth and training to the profession of a poet. The Statii were of Graeco-Campanian origin, and were of gentle extraction, though impoverished, and the family records were not without political distinctions. The poet's father taught with marked success at Naples and Rome, and from boyhood to age he proved himself a champion in the poetic tournaments which formed an important part of the amusements of the early empire. The younger Statius declares that his father was in his time equal to any literary task, whether in prose or verse. Probably the poet inherited a modest competence and was not under the necessity of begging his bread from wealthy patrons. He certainly wrote poems to order (as Silvae, i. 1, 2, ii. 7, and iii. 4), but there is no indication that the material return for them was important to him, in spite of an allusion in Juvenal's seventh satire. Of events in the life of Statius we know little. From his boyhood he was victorious in poetic contests,—many times at his native city Naples, thrice at Alba, where he received the golden crown from the hand of the emperor Domitian. But at the great Capitoline competition (probably on its third celebration in 94 a.d.) Statius failed to win the coveted chaplet of oak leaves. No doubt the extraordinary popularity of his Thebais had led him to regard himself as the supreme poet of the age, and when he could not sustain this reputation in the face of rivals from all parts of the empire he accepted the judges' verdict as a sign that his day was past, and retired to Naples, the home of his ancestors and of his own young years. We still possess the poem he addressed to his wife on this occasion (Silv. iii. 5). There are hints in this poem which naturally lead to the surmise that Statius was suffering from a loss of the emperor's favour; he may have felt that a word from Domitian would have won for him the envied garland, and that the word ought to have been given. In the preface to book iv. of the Silvae there is mention of detractors who hated our poet's style, and these may have succeeded in inducing a new fashion in poetry at court. Such an eclipse, if it happened, must have cut Statius to the heart. He appears to have relished thoroughly the role of court-poet. The statement sometimes made that the elder Statius had been the emperor's teacher, and had received many favours from him, so that the son inherited a debt of gratitude, seems to have no solid foundation. Statius lauds the emperor, not to discharge a debt, but rather to create an obligation. His flattery is as far removed from the gentle propitiatory tone of Quintilian as it is from the coarse and crawling humiliation of Martial. It is in the large extravagant style of a nature in itself healthy and generous, which has accepted the theme and left scruples behind. In one of his prefatory epistles Statius declares that he never allowed any work of his to go forth without invoking the godhead of the divine emperor. Statius had taken the full measure of Domitian's gross taste, and, presenting him with the rodomontade which he loved, puts conscience and sincerity out of view, lest some uneasy twinge should mar his master's enjoyment. But in one poem, that in which the poet pays his due for an invitation to the Imperial table, we have sincerity enough. Statius clearly feels all the raptures he expresses. He longs for the power of him who told the tale of Dido's banquet, and for the voice of him who sang the feast of Alcinous, that he may give forth utterance worthy of the lofty theme. The poet seemed, he says, to dine with great Jove himself and to receive nectar from Ganymede the cup- bearer (an odious reference to the imperial favourite Earinus). All his life hitherto has been barren and profitless. Now only has he begun to live in truth. The palace struck on the poet's fancy like the very hall of heaven; nay, Jove himself marvels at its beauty, but is glad that the emperor should possess such an earthly habitation; he will thus feel less desire to seek his destined abode among the immortals in the skies. Yet even so gorgeous a palace is all too mean for his greatness and too small for his vast presence. "But it is himself, himself, that my eager eye has alone time to scan. He is like a resting Mars or Bacchus or Alcides." Martial too swore that, were Jove and Domitian both to invite him to dinner for the same day, he would prefer to dine with the greater potentate on the earth. Martial and Statius were no doubt supreme among the imperial flatterers. Each was the other's only serious rival. It is therefore not surprising that neither should breathe the other's name. Even if we could by any stretch excuse the bearing of Statius towards Domitian, he could never be forgiven the poem entitled "The Hair of Flavius Earinus," Domitian's Ganymede (Silv. iii. 4), a poem than which it would be hard to find a more repulsive example of real poetical talent defiled for personal ends. Every- thing points to the conclusion that Statius did not survive his emperor—that he died, in fact, a short time after leaving Rome to settle in Naples. Apart from the emperor and his minions, the friendships of Statius with men of high station seem to have been maintained on fairly equal terms. He was clearly the poet of society in his day as well as the poet of the court.
decembres" we have a striking description of the gifts and amusements provided by the emperor for the Roman population on the occasion of the Saturnalia. In his attempt at an epithalamium (Silt. i. 2) Statius is forced and unhappy. But his birthday ode in Lucan's honour (Silv. ii. 7) has, along with the accustomed exaggeration, many powerful lines, and shows high appreciation of preceding Latin poets. Some phrases, such as "the untaught muse of high-souled Ennius" and "the lofty passion of sage Lucretius," are familiar words with all scholars. The ode ends with a great picture of Lucan's spirit rising after death on wings of fame to regions whither only powerful souls can ascend, scornfully surveying earth and smiling at the tomb, or reclining in Elysium and singing a noble strain to the Pompeys and the Catos and all the " Pharsalian host, " or with proud tread exploring Tartarus and listening to the waitings of the guilty, and gazing at Nero, pale with agony as his mother's avenging torch glitters before his eyes. It is singular to observe how thoroughly Nero had been struck out of the imperial succession as recognized at court, so that the " bald Nero " took no umbrage when his flatterer-in-chief profanely dealt with his predecessor's name.
The epic poems of Statius are less interesting because cast in a conrmoner mould, but they deserve study in many respects. They are the product of long elaboration. The Thebais, which the poet says took twelve years to compose, is in twelve books,_ and has for its theme the old " tale" of Thebes " â€” the deadly strife of the Theban brothers. There is also preserved a fragment of an Achilleis, consisting of one book and part of another. In the weary length of these epics there are many flowers of pathos and many little finished gem-pictures, but the trammels of tradition, the fashionable taste and the narrow bars of education check continually the poet's flight. Not merely were the materials for his epics prescribed to him by rigid custom, but also to a great extent the method by which they were to be treated. All he could do was to sound the old notes with a distinctive timbre of his own. The gods must needs wage their wonted epic strife, and the men, their puppets, must dance at their nod; there must needs be heavenly messengers, portents, dreams, miracles, single combats, similes, Homeric and Virgilian echoes, and all the other paraphernalia. of the conventional epic. But Statius treats his subjects with a boldness and freedom which contrast pleasingly with the timid traditionalism of Silius Italicus and the stiff scholasticism of Valerius Flaccus. The vocabulary' of Statius is conspicuously rich, and he shows audacity, often successful, in the use of words and metaphors. At the same time he carried certain literary tricks to an aggravating pitch, in particular the excessive use of alliteration, and the misuse of mythoogical allusion. The most well-known persons and places are described by epithets or periphrases derived from some very remote connexion with mythology, so that many passages are as dark as Heraclitus. The Tfiebais is badly constructed. The action of the epic is hindered and stopped by enormous episodes, one of which fills one-sixth of the poem. Nor had Statius a firm grasp or clear imagination of character. So trying are the late ancient epics to a modern reader that he who has read any one of the three—Statius, Silius and Valerius Flaccus (Lucan stands apart)—will with difficulty be persuaded to enter on. the other two. Yet, if he honestly reads them all, he can hardly fail to rank Statius the highest of the three by a whole sphere.
The editio princeps of the epics is dated 1470, of the Silvae 1472. Notable editions since have been those of Bernartius (Antwerp, 1595), Gronovius (1653) and Barth (1664). Recent texts are the Teubner (the Achilleis and Thebais by Kohlmann, the Silvae by Baehrens) and that contained in the new edition of the Corpus poetarum latinorum; and of the Silvae only, texts by Klotz (1899), and Vollmer (1898), the last with an explanatory commentary. Among editions of portions of Statius's works, that of the Silvae by Jeremiah Markland, fellow of Peterhouse in Cambridge (1728),deserves special attention. A translation of the Silvae with introduction and notes was published by D. A. Slater in 1908 (Oxford Library of Translations). A critical edition of the Thebais and Achilleis was begun by O. Miiller (1870) but not completed. The condition of the text of the Silvae is one of the most curious facts in the history of ancient literature. Poggio discovered a MS. at St Gallen and brought it into Italy. This MS. has disappeared, but from it are derived all our existing MSS., except one of the birthday ode to Lucan, now at Florence, and of the 10th century. Politian collated Poggio's MS. with the editio princeps, and the collation has come down to us, and is the principal basis of the text. The MSS. of the epics are numerous, as was to be expected from their great popularity in the middle ages, to which Dante is witness (see Purg. xxi., where an interview with the shade of Statius is described at some length).
(J. S. R.)