Silius Italicus, Punica III.594-629

While Hannibal is about to conquer Italy, Jupiter comforts Venus by foretelling Rome’s future splendour under the Flavians.

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Silius Italicus
83 CE
1st CE
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Silius Italicus’s Punica is a very long poem composed in seventeen books, describing, in epic style, the progress of the second Punic War. In Book III, Silius Italicus describes how after his victory at Saguntum, Hannibal succeeded to cross the Pyrenees, the Rhone and progressed in the Alps. While Hannibal was ready to attack Italy, Silius Italicus gives voice to Venus who expresses her fears about Rome’s future. Jupiter comforts her by foretelling Rome’s future splendour under the Flavians, the period in which Silius Italicus lived.

Jupiter successively mentions the exploits of three Flavian emperors: Vespasian, the pater (v. 597-602); Titus, the iuvenis (v. 603-606), and Domitian, Germanicus (v. 607-624). This conversation between Venus and Jupiter recalls the conversation with the same two gods in the first book of the Aeneid when Jupiter calms Venus, angry at the suffering of Aeneas (Virgil, Aeneid I.257-296). Jupiter’s speech reaches its culmination when he predicts the achievements of the Julian family with Augustus’s advent. Thus, the role played by Augustus in Jupiter’s predication in the Aeneid is similar to that of Domitian in the Punica (Tipping, Exemplary Epic, p. 45). Silius Italicus may have “updated” the Virgilian dialogue between Venus and Jupiter for the Flavian age, so that this new dynasty may have appeared as “a prolongation, and an overcoming, of the dynasty initiated by Augustus” (Bessone, “Critical interactions,” p. 89). Another comparison could be done between Silius Italicus’s dialogue between Venus and Jupiter and another one between the same two gods about the deification of Julius Caesar in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Ovid, Metamorphoses XV.745-851). In this passage Venus is comforted by Jupiter on the death of Julius Caesar, and promised that her offspring will be raised to great heights, leaving a great legacy behind in the form of his descendants (Augustus).

In the beginning of his speech, Jupiter presents the Flavians as a bellatrix gens (v. 596), a “warmongering race,” which he compares with the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The Flavians not only assure the continuity of the Julio-Claudian’s actions, they even surpass them (v. 595). Summarising Vespasian’s main actions, Jupiter mentions his service on the Rhine in 42 CE (v. 599), the military operations led in Britain from 43 to 47 CE (v. 597-599), his proconsulship of Africa in 62-63 CE (v. 599) and the military campaigns led in Judea from 66 CE (v. 600). With the expression palmiferam Idymen, “palm-bearing Idume,” Silius Italicus uses the term Idymen which frequently refers to Judea and not only to Idumea (Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica I. 12; Statius, Silvae V.2.138-139), and also the common association between Idumea or Judea and palm-trees (Virgil, Georgic III.10-48; Horace, Epistulae II.2.183-189; Pliny the Elder, Natural History XIII, 26; Statius, Silvae III.3.140; various pieces of numismatic evidence, such as Sestertius depicting Vespasian and a couple of Jews mourning under a palm tree, 71 CE). Then, Jupiter briefly mentions Titus’s actions and presents him as the upholder of his father’s policy, especially in Judea (v. 603-606). It is interesting to note that Silius Italicus uses the unofficial name of Palaestina – the province of Syria-Palaestina appeared only in 132 CE – and mentions that Titus successfully fought the gens Palaestina, an expression which is an hapax in all the Latin sources dealing with the Judean War.

Despite his young age, Domitian is explicitly presented by Jupiter as transcending his father and his brother (v. 607). Jupiter praises Domitian’s involvement in the Batavian war in 70 CE and the title Germanicus recalls his victory over the Chatti in 83 CE. Such a presentation of Domitian is quite similar to Domitian’s presentation in Martial, Epigrams II.2. Silius’s Jupiter mentions also imaginary campaigns. Claiming that Domitian will submit Bactra and the people from the Ganges, Silius Italicus refers to commonplaces of Augustan propaganda which identifies the emperor as a “second Alexander” (Horace, Odes I.12.53-57; Statius, Silvae IV.1.17-47). The claim that Domitian would surpass Bacchus during this triumph over the East clearly recalls Augustus’s example (Virgil, Aeneid VI.756-853; Horace, Odes III.3.13; Tipping, Exemplary Epic, p. 45). Domitian is thus considered as superior to the other Flavians because of his real or imaginary exploits as military commander, but he even surpasses them because of his literary skills (v. 618-621). Actually, some sources mention that Domitian was engaged in writing poetry, and among his works there may have been an epic about Titus’s siege of Jerusalem (Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica I.12-14; Coleman, “The Emperor,” p. 3090-3091). Finally, Jupiter prophesises and justifies Domitian’s superiority over all previous emperors because of the special relationship existing between them. Jupiter recalls that Domitian was saved from death during Vitellius’s revolt because he took refuge in the Capitoline Temple (v. 609-610). That moment was the starting point of a close and long partnership, longa consortia (v. 611), between them. The main event symbolising this association was the fourth restoration of the Capitoline Temple achieved by Domitian in 82 CE. In verses 622 to 624, Jupiter announces this restoration in hyperbolic terms: the temple will be a “golden Capitol” – an expression which could refer to Domitian’s restorations of the roof tiles’ gilded bronze and of the doors (Zosimus V.38.5), or to Virgil (Virgil, Aeneid VIII.347) – and it will have a supernatural height.

Jupiter ends his speech by promising divinity to Domitian so than he may join his father and brother (v. 625-629). As every prophecy about the apotheosis of a ruling emperor, this one is full of precautions and clearly hyperbolic. Jupiter predicts that Quirinus, who could be deified Romulus or Augustus (Spaltenstein, Commentaire, p. 253), will leave his throne so that Domitian could sit in the middle of a sort of “new Capitoline Triad” (Penwill, “Imperial encomia,” p. 48). Jupiter ends with an allusion to Domitian’s offspring by claiming that the ruling emperor is a “maker of god” (v. 625) and by mentioning his prematurely dead son, natus (v. 629). With such an end, Jupiter reaffirms that Domitian will have to perpetuate the Flavian dynasty.

For François Ripoll, this praise of the Flavians in Book III of the Punica adapts the imperial laudatio with such common epic themes as: the culmination of the virtus during the apotheosis, the continuity of generations, the importance of early successes during one’s youth, the role of the Capitoline Temple, and the triumph of Roman emperors over foreign peoples (Ripoll, La morale héroïque, p. 515). This convergence between the classical themes of the Flavian ideology and the traditional epic themes appears however as quite unique, since itis the only explicit Flavian panegyric in the Punica. In addition, it should be mentioned that it is the only passage of the whole Punica dealing with Jews, described as gens Palaestina.

Bibliographical references: 

“The Emperor Domitian and Literature,”

Coleman, Kathleen M.article-in-a-bookAufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt Wolfgang Haase3087-3115“The Emperor Domitian and Literature,”Part 2, Principat, 32.5BerlinDe Gruyter1986

Exemplary Epic

Tipping, BenbookExemplary EpicOxfordOxford University Press2010

“The Flavian Punica?”

Wilson, Marcusarticle-in-a-bookFlavian Epic InteractionsGesine Manuwald, Astrid Voigt13-27“The Flavian Punica?”BerlinDe Gruyter2013
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