Poem written for the dedication of Domitian’s equestrian statue (91 CE)
This text is the peroration of Statius’s imperial praise, which celebrates the equestrian statue of Domitian erected in 91 CE on the Roman Forum (see Statius, Silvae I.1.22-55). This passage offers a laudatory description of the Flavian family and it enables to catch a glimpse of the anxiety of the poet regarding its political future.
Statius mentions that the great senate and the People (populus romanus) dedicated this statue to the emperor (v. 99-100). This statue appears both as an expression of the devotion of the Senate and the Roman People to the emperor and as an instrument of negotiation so as to obtain some political favours. However this imperial statue had such exceptional dimensions that people were obliged to stay far from it (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 71). The issue of the proximity between the emperor and the people appears also in the last verses of the poem when Statius speaks on the behalf of the statue’s dedicants and asks the Emperor to stay on Earth, to reside in person in shrines consecrated to him and to avoid remaining too long in “heaven’s halls,” caeli aula, an expression which may refer to the imperial palatial complex (domus Flavia and Augustana) built by Domitian on the Palatine (v. 105-107). The first request can be explained by the fact that it was very difficult for a panegyrist to write too much about the deification of a living emperor, because it could be understood as a wish to hurry his death (Geyssen, Imperial Panegyric, p. 131). Nevertheless, through the other requests Statius succeeds to send a more or less implicit warning against an excessive isolation of the emperor, who seemed to distance himself from the augustean principle according to which the emperor was first and foremost the princeps, the first citizen. The poet may thus warn against a drift of Domitian’s imperial ideology, especially regarding the cult of the living emperor, towards a model which was closer to the Hellenistic one (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 22-23).
Statius continues to use an hyperbolic speech when he writes that the statue was indestructible as it did not suffer from the effects of nature and time (v. 91-93). The verses stabit, dum terra polusque, dum Romana dies represent the acme of the praise: the statue will last as long as Rome exists. In addition, the juxtaposition suggests that Rome is an absolute entity whose temporality is as essential and boundless as that of earth and heaven. As in the poem dealing with the via Domitiana (see Statius, Silvae IV.3.160-163) Statius uses the topos of Rome’s permanence to praise the durability of Domitian’s actions and reign, but the verses 100-104 tend to nuance this claim. The references to Apelle and Phidias’s regrets are clearly laudatory but the claim that the city of Tarentum and Rhodes are said to be ready to abandon their statues of Zeus and Apollo for adopting that of Domitian is clearly ambiguous. It shows that every statue could be subject to decline (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 70).
Another important aspect of this peroration is that Statius summons every deified members of the Flavian family, tua turba, to come down around the neck of Domitian’s statue during a sort of nocturnal epiphany (v. 94-98). With such a scene, Statius reminds that Domitian was part of the Flavian dynasty and even one of its main element since he decided the deification of his son (natus, v. 97), his brother Titus (frater), his father Vespasian (pater) and his sister Flavia Domitilla (soror). The fact that Domitian was the centre of this divine meeting underlines the majesty of the living emperor and it foreshadows his own deification. Nevertheless, Statius’s description also gives the impression that Domitian was a very isolated emperor. As in the Cancelleria reliefs, Domitian is represented among gods but separated from the human world. This situation contrasts a lot with the reliefs of the Ara Pacis, which represent on distinct panels imperial family and gods (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 16, 67-68; see Ara Pacis (13-9 BCE)). The isolation of Domitian is confirmed and accentuated by the dynastic situation of the Flavians in 91 CE. The presence of the only son of Domitian in the divine crowd reminds that the ruling emperor had no legitimate heir since his premature death which occurred perhaps between 80 and 83 (Southern, Domitian, p. 28; see Denarius depicting the head of Domitian and his infant son as young Jupiter (88-96 CE). This reality is confirmed by the last verse of the poem: Statius hopes that Domitian’s nepotes will soon bring incense to honour the statue, a wish which shows his anxiety about the dynastic situation in 91 CE.
Considering the future of this imperial statue and speaking about the deification of members of the Flavian family – which leads to consider the future deification of the living emperor – Statius chose to confront himself to uncomfortable and even dangerous themes. In this unstable situation, the poet continues to praise the emperor for the longevity of his reign and his proximity with the deified members of the Flavian family, but he also implicitly alludes to the fact that Domitian was still confronted with a dynastic problem which had to be resolved.
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