Statius, Silvae III.3.43-58

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Excursus in a poem of consolation on the limits of every power due to the law of obedience
Name of the author: 
93 CE
1st CE
Literary genre: 
Eulogy / Panegyric and Poetry
Title of work: 
Poem of consolation on the death of Claudius Etruscus’s father

Silvae III.3 is the first of three poems addressed to or dealing with men engaged in the imperial service. Through this poem of consolation addressed to his friend Claudius Etruscus, Statius recounts the official career of the addressee’s father, who died in 92 CE when he was about ninety (Martial, Epigr. VII.40.6). Concerning his career, he first took part in Tiberius’s service and was freed by him (v. 66-69). Then, under Claudius and Nero, he rose in the administrative hierarchy and was finally put in charge of the imperial treasury under Vespasian, who elevated him to equestrian status (v. 85-105). He was then banished from Rome by Domitian in 82 or 83 CE, for seven years (v. 155-166).

At the beginning of the poem, Statius laments the death of the courtier according to the traditional rules of the consolatio. Nevertheless, due to the humble origins of the deceased, the poet was obliged to mention his origins in a very direct and concise way: v. 43-46. Actually, he was a slave from Smyrna (v. 60). To counterbalance his humble origins, Statius insists on his official career and on the fact that he became powerful thanks to his fortuna (v. 45), which can be interpreted as a mix of good fate and resourcefulness. Then, Statius tries to justify the deceased’s personal success despite his humble origins thanks to a general reflection on the notions of dominion and obedience. In verses 46-47, the poet recalls that Claudius Etruscus’s father served domini, masters who were not common, since they were the rulers of the world. The word dominus reflects the humble social condition of the deceased and his career in the various imperial courts (Lotito, “Il tipo etico,” p. 303). The use of the word dominus in this passage raises again the question of whether Domitian used the epithet dominus in the official imperial nomenclature, a choice which would depart from the Augustean practice. Using narrative sources hostile to Domitian and the inscription CIL X, 444, many historians defend the idea that Domitian was the first emperor who inserted the epithet dominus in the imperial nomenclature of official inscriptions (Noreña, Imperial Ideals, p. 284). Nevertheless, Alain Martin has shown that this idea was not well-founded. He argues that authors like Statius or Martial, speaking about the emperor, could use the word dominus in a poetic sense, without implying that this word was part of his official title. Secondly, he has proved that epigraphic sources mentioning the epithet dominus do not prove that it was part of Domitian’s official title, since they were dedicated by slaves or freemen of the emperor (Martin, La titulature épigraphique, p. 194-195; see also Witschel, “Der Kaiser,” p. 99-100). The reference to the domini in verses 46-47 has to be interpreted with caution. First and foremost, it fits in with the discourse about domination and servitude developed in verses 46-58.

Next, in order to justify this serving relationship and its positive impacts on the status of Claudius Etruscus’s father, Statius imagines it in relation to “Stoic cosmology” (Nauta, Poetry for Patrons, p. 303). In verses 48-49, the poet exposes the general principle: quid enim terrisque poloque parendi sine lege manet? (“For what in earth or heaven remains outside the law of obedience?”). Statius states that the entire universe is governed by a lex parendi, a law of obedience (v. 49, lex is repeated in v. 53) which makes everything on earth and even in heaven dominant and, conversely, ruled by something else. Statius illustrates this principle by saying that foreign peoples (omnis terra, v. 50-51) serve kings (regibus, v. 50), kings (diademata regum, v. 51) serve Fortunate Rome (Felix Roma, v. 51), Rome (hanc, v. 52) serves the emperors (ducibus, v. 52), the emperors (illos, v. 52) serve the gods (superis, v. 53) and finally the gods (numina, v. 53) serve a law (lex, v. 53), which can be interpreted as Fate. In this passage, Statius uses a rhetorical figure, more precisely an anadiplosis or gradatio, to prove that this law of obedience holds up the universe, and to underline “the ordered universality of the principle” (Laguna-Mariscal, “Philosophical Topics,” p. 249). Statius was clearly inspired by Stoic principles when he wrote these verses (Lotito, “Il tipo etico,” p. 308-309; Laguna-Mariscal, “Philosophical Topics,” p. 248-249). Actually, he builds his global understanding of the functioning of the whole universe on a unique and universal principle: the lex parendi orders everything, the human society and the cosmos. This law of obedience appears as a “universal necessitas” (Lotito, “Il tipo etico,” p. 309) which explains the domination of the imperial Roman power over its subjects – this enables him to legitimise the career of Claudius Etruscus’s father –, as well as on every people on earth. Finally, this excursus on the universal nature of the lex parendi has to be understood in the narrower context of this poem of consolation and of the personal situation of the person honoured. Actually, Claudius Etruscus’s father was banished from Rome by Domitian from 82 or 83 to about 90 CE. Even if the reasons for this exile remain unknown, we can understand that this discussion about the ineluctability of the law of obedience was also connected to his former trials and tribulations.

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Bibliographical references: 
Witschel, Christian, “Der Kaiser und die Inschriften”, in Zwischen Strukturgeschichte und Biographie: Probleme und Perspektiven einer neuen römischen Kaisergeschichte 31 v. Chr.-192 n. Chr. (ed. Aloys Winterling; München: R. Oldenbourg, 2011), 45-112
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Statius, Silvae III.3.43-58
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Mon, 02/06/2017 - 18:09
Visited: Thu, 08/22/2019 - 01:24

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