Statius, Silvae I.6.28-50

Poem describing the Saturnalia, probably in December 89 CE
Name of the author: 
89 CE Dec
1st CE
Literary genre: 
Eulogy / Panegyric and Poetry
Title of work: 
Poem written for the Saturnalia (December 89 CE ?)

In this poem, Statius describes the Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn celebrated in Rome in December, probably in 89 CE, one year after the celebration of the Secular Games. In the preceding verses (9-27), the poet describes the deluge of exotic and precious food brought by the emperor who is presented as an imitator of Jupiter in his role of weather god sending gift from the sky with the help of Eurus, the Hyades and the Pleiades. All this food was poured all over the plebs settled in the “Latin terraces” (v. 23) of the spectacle building, probably the Coliseum (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 228). Then, Statius describes that another crowd, plebes altera (v. 30), arrived and brought a new big amount of food. The crowd in the amphitheatre is clearly represented as a reduced model of the populus romanus, even of the whole Empire since the food which was provided came from the most remote regions of the Roman Empire (v. 12-20). Actually, with the verse orbem, qua melior severiorque est, “the circle, that is the better and sterner class”(v. 35), Statius refers to the equestrian order as knights were allowed to seat on the first fourteen rows of seats of the theatres. Then he refers to the gentes togatae, the other members of the public who were not senators or knights. Following a reform of Domitian, spectators were obliged to wear gowns during public representations. The impression that every ordines of the Roman people were present in the amphitheatre during this festival is confirmed by the enumeration in verses 43-44.

Despite the important crowd gathered, Statius mentions that the emperor, addressed as beate (v. 37), was able to nourish everyone. As it was the case for the description of Domitian’s equestrian statue (see Statius, Silvae I.1.22-55 and Statius, Silvae I.1.91-107), the poet uses hyperbolic terms to show that the powers of the emperor were so exceptional that they disrupted the normal course of events. Here it is the Annona, the allotment of free corn, which became irrelevant because of the amount of food provided. Then, in the verses 39-42, Statius appeals to a “semi-divine incarnation of the past” (Coleman, Martial, p. 67), Vetustas in order to compare past and present and to prove the superiority of present time. The comparison is clearly hyperbolic since Statius declares that Domitian’s time is better than “the era of ancient Jupiter and the times of gold,” an expression which refers to the first Golden Age of Saturn, the god who had brought agriculture to Italy. With such a comparison, Statius wanted to show that the exceptional abundance of food provided by Domitian was something new that had never been seen before, insofar as the Roman Empire had never been so expanded. Domitian is thus compared to a second Jupiter who was founding a new era under the auspices of the Flavian dynasty. However, as in many passages of the Silvae, the hyperbolic tone of the passage can give the impression that Statius amplifies the scene and gives a sort of “comic version of the Golden Age” (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 245).

This description of the Saturnalia festival is also particular because it is the first time in the Silvae that Statius mentions that the emperor was present in person in a public place and interacted with the Roman people (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 229). Despite this public appearance of the emperor and the fact that he accepted to share the feast with the people, the description of the exceptional actions of Domitian or the association of his person with gods clearly make him appear as a supernatural person. Actually, in verses 47-48, Statius implicitly compares Domitian with gods and says that he is superior to them because he accepted to join in the banquet. As Carole Newlands remarks, even if Domitian is present in the amphitheatre to take part in the festivities, his presence does not imply that he was a guest like the others; on the contrary, it “reinforces hierarchical divisions” (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 240-241). This impression is confirmed by the fact that Statius presents him as the dux, the leader of the festivities (v. 50). It is also proved by the fact that Domitian is compared to Jupiter. In verses 25-27, Statius compares Jupiter, who had the power to create a devastating storm on the Italian fields, and “our Jupiter” (noster Jupiter), that is Domitian, who is asked by Statius to order a lavish shower of fruits and cakes. This echoes the verses in which the poet concluded that the Golden Age of the first Jupiter was less prosperous than the age of Domitian. As John Fears writes, “it was only with Domitian that this Jovian theology of power fully emerged as a central element in official imperial ideology” (Fears, “Jupiter and Roman,” p. 77). The Jovian image enabled Domitian to suggest that he could be the most generous ruler, but also the most brutal one if it was necessary (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 252). Thus, the description of the Saturnalia celebrated in the Coliseum reflects the same ideology as the one which was conveyed through coins during Domitian’s entire reign: the emperor is represented as “the vice-regent of Jupiter” on earth (Fears, “Jupiter and Roman,” p. 79). With the protection of Jupiter, Domitian could gather the whole populus romanus around a supernatural amount of food provided from the most remote conquered regions of the Empire.
Bibliographical references: 

“Jupiter and Roman Imperial Ideology”

Fears, Jesse R.article-in-a-bookAufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt Wolfgang Haase3-141“Jupiter and Roman Imperial Ideology,”Part 2, Principat, 17.1 Berlinde Gruyter1981
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