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c. AD 45|
c. AD 96|
Publius Papinius Statius (//; c. 45 – c. 96 AD) was a Roman poet of the 1st century AD (Silver Age of Latin literature). His surviving Latin poetry includes an epic in twelve books, the Thebaid; a collection of occasional poetry, the Silvae; and an unfinished epic, the Achilleid. He is also known for his appearance as a guide in the Purgatory section of Dante's epic poem, the Divine Comedy.
Information about Statius' life is almost entirely drawn from his Silvae and a mention by the satirist Juvenal. He was born to a family of Graeco-Campanian origin; his Roman cognomen suggests that at some time an ancestor of his was freed and adopted the name of his former master, although neither Statius nor his father were slaves. The poet's father (whose name is unknown) was a native of Velia but later moved to Naples and spent time in Rome where he taught with marked success. From boyhood to adulthood, Statius' father proved himself a champion in the poetic contests at Naples in the Augustalia and in the Nemean, Pythian, and Isthmian games, which served as important events to display poetic skill during the early empire. Statius declares in his lament for his father (Silv. 5.3) that his father was in his time equal to any literary task, whether in prose or verse. He mentioned Mevania, and may have spent time there, or been impressed by the confrontation of Vitellius and Vespasian in 69. Statius' father was a Roman eques, but may have lost his status because of money troubles. At Naples, he was a teacher of Greek and Roman literature who attracted many pupils who were destined for religious offices in Rome. He died in 79 AD. From Pliny the Younger's Letters, it has recently been deduced that Statius also wrote under the pseudonym of Propertius.
Less is known of the events of Statius' life. He was born c. 45 AD. From his boyhood he was victorious in poetic contests many times at his native Naples and three times at the Alban Festival, where he received the golden crown from the hand of the emperor Domitian who had instituted the contest. For the Alban Festival, Statius composed a poem on the German and Dacian campaigns of Domitian which Juvenal lampoons in his seventh satire. Statius is thought to have moved to Rome c. 90 after his father's death where he published his acclaimed epic poem the Thebaid c. 92. In the capital, Statius seems to have made many connections among the Roman aristocracy and court, and he was probably supported through their patronage. Statius produced the first three books of occasional poetry, his Silvae, which were published in 93, which sketch his patrons and acquaintances of this period and mention his attendance at one of Domitian's Saturnalia banquets. He competed in the great Capitoline competition, although it is not known in what year, although 94 has been suggested. Statius failed to win the coveted prize, a loss he took very hard. The disappointment may have prompted his return to Naples around 94, the home of his youth. In existence is a poem he addressed to his wife, Claudia, the widow of a famous singer who had a musically talented daughter by her first husband, on this occasion (Silv. 3.5).
Statius' first three books of the Silvae seem to have received some criticism, and in response he composed a fourth book' at Naples, which was published in 95. During this period at Naples, Statius maintained his relations with the court and his patrons, earning himself another invitation to a palace banquet (Silv. 4.2). He seems to have taken an interest in the marriage and career of his stepdaughter and he also took a young slave boy under his wing, as he was childless, who died c. 95. In that same year Statius embarked on a new epic, the Achilleid, giving popular recitations of his work (Juv. 7.83) only to complete a book and a half before dying in 95, leaving the poem unfinished. His fifth book of Silvae were published after his death c. 96.
As a poet, Statius was versatile in his abilities and contrived to represent his work as otium. Taught by his educated father, Statius was familiar with the breadth of classical literature and displayed his learning in his poetry which is densely allusive and has been described as elaborate and mannerist. He was able to compose in hexameter, hendecasyllable, Alcaic and Sapphic meters, to produce deeply researched and highly refined epic and polished impromptu pieces, and to treat a variety of themes with the dazzling rhetorical and poetic skill that inspired the support of his patrons and the emperor. Some of Statius' works, such as his poems for his competitions, have been lost; he is recorded as having written an Agave mime, and a four line fragment remains of his poem on Domitian's military campaigns, the De Bello Germanico composed for the Alban Games in the scholia to Juvenal 4.94.
Based on Statius' own testimony, the Thebaid was written c. 80 – c. 92 AD, beginning when the poet was around 35, and the work is thought to have been published in 91 or 92. The poem is divided into twelve books in imitation of Virgil's Aeneid and is composed in dactylic hexameter. In the Silvae, Statius speaks of his extensive work in polishing and revising the Thebaid and his public recitations of the poem. From the epilogue it seems clear that Statius considered the Thebaid to be his magnum opus and believed that it would secure him fame for the future. In the poem, Statius follows Virgil closely as a model (in the epilogue he acknowledges his debt to Virgil), but he also refers to a wide range of sources in his handling of meter and episodes.
The poem's theme is the myth of the Seven Against Thebes, the story of the battle between the sons of Oedipus for the throne of Thebes. The poem opens (Book 1) with the disgraced Oedipus' curse on his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, who have decided to hold the throne of Thebes in alternate years, one ruling, the other in exile. Jupiter plans a war between Thebes and Argos, although Juno begs him not to incite it. Polyneices in exile fights with Tydeus, another exile at Adrastus' palace; the two are entertained and marry Adrastus' daughters. In Book 2, Tydeus goes to Eteocles to ask him to lay down the throne and yield power, but he refuses and tries to kill Tydeus with an ambush. Tydeus slaughters the Thebans and escapes to Argos, causing Adrastus and Polyneices to declare war on Thebes (Book 3). In the fourth book the Argive forces gather, commanded by the seven champions Adrastus, Polyneices, Amphiaraus, Capaneus, Parthenopaeus, Hippomedon, and Tydeus and march to Thebes, but at Nemea, Bacchus causes a drought. The army meets Hypsipyle who shows them a spring then tells them the story of the Women of Lemnos (Book 5). While she is speaking, her ward, Opheltes, is killed by a snake; in Book 6, the Argives perform games for the dead child, instituting the Nemean Games. In 7, Jupiter urges the Argives to march on Thebes where battle breaks out during which Amphiaraus is swallowed in the earth. In 8, Tydeus, wounded and dying, kills Melanippus and eats his head; a battle over his body leads to the death of Hippomedon and Parthenopaeus (Book 9). In 10, Juno causes sleep to overcome the Thebans and the Argives slaughter many in the camp; Menoeceus sacrifices himself to save Thebes and Jupiter kills the wicked Capaneus with a thunderbolt. In 11, Polyneices and Eteocles join in single combat and kill each other; Jocasta kills herself and Creon assumes power, forbidding burial of the Argive dead. In the final book, the Argive widows go to Athens to ask Theseus to force Creon to allow their husbands' burial while Argia, Polyneices' wife, burns him illicitly. Theseus musters an army and kills Creon. The Thebaid ends with an epilogue in which the poet prays that his poem will be successful, cautions it not to rival the Aeneid, and hopes that his fame will outlive him.
Modern critics of the Thebaid have been divided over interpretations of the epic's tone. Earlier critics in the 19th and 20th century considered the poem a piece of elaborate flattery that vindicated the regime of Domitian; however, more recent scholars have viewed the poem as a subversive work that criticizes the authoritarianism and violence of the Flavians by focusing on extreme violence and social chaos. Statius' use of allegory in the Thebaid and his abstract treatment of the gods has been seen as an important innovation in the tradition of classical poetry which ushered in Medieval conventions. Finally, although earlier scholars criticized the style of the poem as episodic, current scholars have noted the subtlety and skill with which Statius organizes and controls his narrative and description.
The Silvae were probably composed by Statius between 89–96 AD. The first three books seem to have been published together after 93 AD, Book 4 was probably released in 95 AD, and Book 5 is thought to have been released posthumously c. 96. The title of the collection, (silvae meaning "forest" or "raw material") was used to describe the draft of a poet's work which was composed impromptu in a moment of strong inspiration and which was then revised into a polished, metrical poem. This suggests that the Silvae are revised, impromptu pieces of occasional poetry which were composed in the space of a few days' time. There are thirty-two poems in the collection (almost all with a dedicatee), divided into five books, each with a dedicatory epistle. Of nearly four thousand lines which the books contain, more than five-sixths are hexameters. Four of the pieces are written in the hendecasyllabic metre, and there is one Alcaic and one Sapphic ode.
The subjects of the Silvae vary widely. Five poems are devoted to the emperor and his favorites, including a description of Domitian's equestrian statue in the Forum (1.1), praise for his construction of the Via Domitiana (4.3), and a poem on the dedication of the hair of Earinus, a eunuch favorite of Domitian's, to a shrine of Aesculapius (3.4). Six are lamentations for deaths or consolations to survivors, including the highly personal poems on the death of Statius' father and his foster-son (5.3,5). The poems on loss are particularly notable in the collection and range from consolations on the death of wives (3.3) to pieces on the death of a favorite parrot (2.4) and a lion in the arena (2.5). Another group of the Silvae give picturesque descriptions of the villas, gardens, and artworks of the poet's friends. In these we have a more vivid representation than elsewhere of the surroundings Roman aristocrats of the empire lived in the country. Important examples include a piece on Pollius' temple to Hercules (3.1), the aetiology of the tree at Atedius' villa (2.3), an antique statue of Lysippus' Heracles (4.6) and a description of Pollius' villa at Surrentum (2.2). The rest of the Silvae consist of congratulatory addresses to friends, and poems for special occasions such as the wedding poem for Stella and Violentilla (2.2), the poem commemorating the poet Lucan's birthday (2.7), and a joking piece to Plotius Grypus on a Saturnalia gift (4.9).
As with the Thebaid, Statius' relationship to Domitian and his court caused him to fall out of favor with critics and readers, but in recent times, the Silvae have been rehabilitated by scholars. Domitian is an important presence in the Silvae, and many of the poems appear to flatter the emperor and court. The content of the Silvae is primarily dictated by the needs of Statius' patrons, and many of the addressees come from the wealthy, privileged class of landowners and politicians. Statius' flattery of these elites has been interpreted in two ways by scholars; some maintain that the collection is highly subversive and is a subtle criticism of Domitian and the Roman aristocracy. Others urge a reading of the Silvae as individual pieces that respond to specific circumstances with their own unique viewpoints.
A fragment of his epic poem on the life of Achilles—the Achilleid—is also extant, consisting of one book and a few hundred lines of a second. What was completed of this poem was composed between 94–95 AD based on Silvae 4.7.21ff. Statius records that there were recitations of the poem. It is thought that Statius' death in 95 is the reason that the poem remains unfinished. In the first book, Thetis, having foreknowledge of her son's death in the Trojan War, attempts to hide Achilles on the island of Scyros by dressing him up as a girl. On the island, Achilles falls in love with Deidamia and forces her to have sex with him. Ulysses arrives to recruit Achilles for the war effort and reveals his identity. In the second book, Ulysses and Achilles depart and Achilles gives an account of his early life and tutelage by the centaur Chiron. The poem breaks off at the end of his speech. In general, scholars have remarked on the markedly different tone of the Achilleid in comparison with the Thebaid, equating it more to the style of Ovid than Virgil. Some have also noted the predominance of feminine themes and feminine power in the fragment and focus on the poem's perspectives on gender relations.
Statius' poetry was very popular in his lifetime, although he was not without his critics who apparently had problems with his ex tempore style. Juvenal is thought to extensively lampoon Statius' type of court poetry in his fourth satire on the turbot of Domitian, but he also mentions the immense popularity of Statius' recitations in Satire 7.82ff. In late antiquity, the Thebaid which was by then a classic received a commentary by a Lactantius Placidus.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Thebaid remained a popular text, inspiring a 12th-century French romance and works by Boccaccio and Chaucer. Statius' development of allegory helped establish the importance of that technique in Medieval poetry. In the Renaissance, the Silvae, thanks to Poliziano, helped inspire an entire genre of collections of miscellaneous, occasional poetry called Sylvae which remained popular throughout the period, inspiring works by Hugo Grotius and John Dryden. Dante mentions Statius in De vulgari eloquentia along with Ovid, Virgil, and Lucan as one of the four regulati poetae (ii, vi, 7). In Divina Commedia, Dante and Virgil are caught up with Statius as they leave the Fifth Terrace (reserved for the avaricious and the prodigal) and enter the Sixth (reserved for the gluttonous). Statius' redemption is heard in Canto XX (the mountain trembles and the penitent souls cry out "Gloria in excelsis Deo") and he joins Dante and Virgil in Canto XXI. He then ascends Mount Purgatory with them and stays with Dante in the Earthly Paradise at the mountain's summit, after Virgil has returned to Limbo. He is last mentioned in Canto XXXIII, making him one of the longest recurring characters in the comedy, fourth to Dante, Virgil and Beatrice. He is not mentioned in Paradise, though he presumably ascends like Dante. Dante appears to claim that Statius was a secret convert to Christianity as a result of his reading of Virgil, although his conversion is not attested in any historical source. A 2012 study dedicated to Dante's writing of Statius's relation to Christianity has shown the significance of the fact that Dante does not state that Statius ever converted to Christianity, but that his Neapolitan predecessor let himself be "baptized" by Christians.
In Restoration England, John Dryden wrote a poem entitled "To Sir Robert Howard" that refers to Statius' Achilleid; Dryden criticizes Statius' unfinished epic, calling it "too bold."
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