Statius, Silvae IV.3.123-163

Sibyl’s speech ending a poem commemorating the via Domitiana 

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95 CE
1st CE
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Inauguration of the via Domitiana, 95 CE


This poem was written during the summer of the year 95 CE to commemorate the opening of the via Domitiana. At the end of the poem, Statius gives voice to the Cumaean Sibyl, that is the priestess who presided over the Apollonian oracle at Cumae, near Naples, who had been identified to the old woman who, according to the legend, had sold three books, later called Sibylline books, to the last king of Rome, Tarquinus Superbus. This collection of oracular utterances, written in Greek verses, was then housed in the temple of Capitoline Jupiter until its burning in 83 BCE, and was then moved by Augustus to the Temple of Palatine Apollo. The Cumaean Sibyl often appears in Augustan poetry, especially in Virgil’s works, when, for instance, Aeneas consults her before his descent to the lower world (Virgil, Aeneid VI.10) or when she prophesises the opening of a new age with the birth of a baby boy (Virgil, Eclogue IV.1-63). Thus, in this poem, through Cumaean Sibyl’s voice, Statius praises Domitian and foretells the greatness of the empire under his command.

In verses 128-129, she presents Domitian as a companion of Jupiter. The expression dux hominum et parens deorum, “leader of men and father of deities” (v. 139) fits in with this Jovian ideology. This sentence is an adaptation of Ennius’s formula for Jupiter: divum pater atque hominum rex, “father of the gods and king of men” (Ennius, Annales 203; Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 313-314), but in Statius’s verses, Domitian plays the role of Ennius’s Jupiter. As Jupiter’s counterpart on Earth, Domitian was the leader of humans, and he was also akin to deities due to the deification of members of the Flavian family (see Statius, Silvae I.1.91-107).

The imperial supremacy is symbolized by an imaginary situation: Domitian shall drive the sun’s chariot and he shall transform extreme climates of various regions of the world and improve them (v. 135-138). Carole Newlands points out that this positive image hides some critical ideas: Domitian’s power could be dangerous for his subjects since it could become authoritarian. Actually, Phaeton is the only mythological figure who usurps the sun’s chariot; an episode which had a tragic end. In addition, Nero was the only emperor who had been previously compared to the god Sol (see Lucan, De Bello Civili I.48-50 and the Colossus of Nero located nearby the Coliseum and representing Nero with the attributes of Sol, the Roman sun god). For a post-Neronian reader, even an implicit association of the emperor with Phaeton could be seen as a warning against the “transgressive power” of the imperial authority (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 315).

The verse 134 “He is a friend to peace and formidable in arms,” expresses the idea that the emperor is both an outstanding peacemaker and a dreadful leader. But in this passage, Statius insists on the fact that Domitian’s reign will be more a period of conquests and expansion than an age of peace. Statius lists some remote and mythical regions delimiting the bounds of the world (v. 153-155) and implies that roman conquests will go as far as these bounds of the known world. To emphasize on the huge dimensions of this emerging empire, the poet claims that Domitian’s empire will extend beyond the stars (v. 156). Such a prophecy is clearly inspired by Alexander the Great’s conquests and also refers to Anchises’s prophetic praise to Aeneas, presented in Book VI of the Aeneid. In verses 791-805, Anchises prophesied the conquests of Augustus. The expressions used by Virgil and the regions which are said to be conquered by Augustus are very similar to Statius’s. Despite this analogy with Virgil’s text, Statius’s statement concerning the future campaigns of Domitian is exaggerated. Actually, Domitian’s military operations had been defensive ones and limited to Germany and Dacia (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 320).

This passage ends with a commonplace: the Sibyl wishes that Domitian shall live long (v. 145-152). With the expression magnus te manet ordo saeculorum, “a great cycle of ages awaits you” (v. 147), the Sibyl claims that Domitian’s reign opens a new age. This expression is similar to one found in verse 5 of Virgil’s fourth Eclogue: magnus ab integro saeculorum nascitur ordo; “the great line of the centuries begins anew.” In Virgil’s poem, the Sibyl prophesises the birth of a miraculous child who will restore peace and prosperity on Earth. The similarities between the two texts are obvious and they may incite the reader to consider Domitian as the founder of a new age. Despite this laudatory comparison, Statius’s text is totally different from the Virgilian tradition on one point: in 95 CE Domitian had no heir, the destiny of the Empire depended only on his long life (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 316-317). The isolation of Domitian and the fragility of the Flavian dynasty are indirectly mentioned: natis longior abnepotibusque / annos perpetua geres iuventa...; “outliving your children you will enjoy in eternal youth...” (v. 148-149). Domitian is presented as perturbing the natural succession of generations. Statius’s allusion to his nepotes reminds that the ruling emperor had no legitimate heir since the premature death of his son (Statius, Silvae I.1.91-107). As in Silvae I.6.85-102, Statius ends both the call to imperial longevity and the poem with a reference to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus: renatae / Tarpeius pater intonabit aulae; “the Tarpeian god thunders in his resurrected palace” (v. 160-161). The restoration of this temple, achieved by Domitian in 82 CE was presented as a symbol of his powers and his capacity to found a new era dominated by the Flavians under the protection of Jupiter. Nevertheless, the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus was not only a symbol of permanence, but it was also “an emblem of temporality and change” (Newlands, Statius’ Silvae, p. 250) since it had been recently destroyed twice.

Bibliographical references: 

Statius Silvae IV

Coleman, Kathleen M.bookStatius Silvae IVedition, translation and commentary by Kathleen M. ColemanLondonBristol Classical Press1998
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