Statius’ Silvae

Statius, Musée des Augustins

Statius’ Silvae

Specifics regarding the life of Publius Papinius Statius (c.45 AD-96 AD) are for the most part derived from material in the Silvae. Scholars believe that Statius’ biography is recoverable. Perhaps, but most scholarly conclusions are of the speculative kind. The questions surrounding his date of birth and death have not resulted in secure answers. The birth dates vary widely over a decade long period. All statements that allege that ‘he probably did this or probably did that’ reveal little more than an author’s agreement or disagreement with certain passages or with a historian’s ingenuity with details: only in rare cases do the learned judgments bring us closer to the truth.

Indeed, the bare bones facts are these: he was born of Italian stock, educated well in Greek and Latin, won a number of prizes for his poetry, even married a widow with children, although he himself remained childless. Much else is debatable. His present fame now is attended by specific volumes of poetry yet extant: Thebaid, an epic poem based on the classic Seven against Thebes, another unfinished epic entitled Achilleid, and his Silvae, a five book series of verse compositions.

There is a an assortment of material in the Silvae: e.g., Book I: The Statue of Domitian, The Villa of Manilius Vopiscus, The Baths of Claudius Etruscus and The Kalends of December; Book II: The Tree of Atedius Melior, To Pollo on Lucan’s birthday; Book III: The Hercules at Surrentum, The Hair of Flavius Earinus; Book IV: Ode to Vibius Maximus, Jesting to Plotius Gryphus; Book V: On the Death of Prisicilla. The titles mentioned do not represent a comprehensive listing; each of these compositions is excellent in its own way.

No one knows how or when poems and proverbs originated. As for the former, the earliest written records contain them. The transmission of poetry within popular oral lore is definite. The literary remains of cuneiform tablets, hieroglyphic, ancient Hebrew and archaic Greek, just to name a few, prove that poetry comes in a number of different forms and genres. Finding meaning in a set of verses often involves the usage of a variety of critical tools. The meanings of poetic inscriptions, by nature, tend to be as elusive in their concealment of fact, as they are allusive in their use of indirect references. Despite the obstacles a reader may face, the thrill of completion is reward in itself.

Readers of ancient poetry should search for covert and overt lexical meanings. A strict analysis of ancient Greek or Roman poetry along the 19thcentury German philological lines of investigation is avoided herein. That mode of study was often austere in its approach to texts, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) and Johann W. von Goethe (1749-1832) being the 18thcentury anti-types. Shunning the eloquence of which thousands would have wanted to learn – as British classicists did learn – dry metrical evaluations supplanted much appreciation of literary qualities and, for no less than two generations, misdirected many imitators of German scholarly conventions.

The story is sadder still after a century of New Criticism: things have gone in reverse as forms of theoretical critiques have displaced both classical literary studies and philological analyses in numerous journals and publications. To compose or interpret extempore poetry requires tools of another kind: wit and imagination. Quintilian (10.3.17) gave a description of what he believed Silvae to be: “a quickly sketched draft written in an impromptu fashion, following the heat and impulse of the moment.”

Poetry can be composed in that way. It is likely that ancient comedy and tragedy included much impromptu material. The texts of Statius’ Silvae now in our possession do not strike one, however, as ad lib. Neither side can prove their case beyond a doubt. Philologically, one may attempt to deconstruct each and every line of verse, showing various hands or timeframes in its creation. But to what end? – to the creation of a painfully unedifying construal? By all accounts impressionistic painting draws from the resources of heart, mind and soul. The canvas, no less, becomes the medium of presentation. But in the end, the picture—with all its varied imagery and corresponding meanings—is no more than a manifestation of thought and sight and sound. A poem is design of images, all related by verbal arrangements. It is difficult to explain it otherwise, absent of acknowledgment of that one idea.

How did Statius imbue his writings with a kind of eloquence that caused his poems to be repeatedly copied? He wrote his poems in accordance with the first century semantic range of the word, silvae: defined as ‘wood’ or ‘forest.’ His jottings consist of literary timber and are constructed to be a place where the reader can become lost—in a forest of literary enjoyments—while at the same time, he or she wanders about pushing back artistic limbs and branches. It’s a world of culture that many neglect. The process is pedantic. And it is fortuitous that anyone should find the time to read extracts of poetry which derived much inspiration from the likes of Virgil, Ovid, and a host of other writers; but proving the inter-texuality of Statius’ Silvae and similar ancient passages demands much more time than is allotted here.

Statius makes a good companion. I recall travelling by bus from San Francisco to Santa Rosa. North-Central California, with its rustic hills and wide open spaces that face a vast body of water, has much in common with the landscape of Statius’ Italy. The latter is beautiful country and is the source of great bodies of literature: see Gilbert Highet’s (1906-1978) superbly written volume, Poets in a Landscape, Random House 1957, reissued with new introduction by M.C.J. Putnam, NYRB Classics 2010)

At least I had my trusty standby edition of Statius’ Silvae.  Reading my way through the Latin texts, I arrived at II.4 and came upon his eulogy on a Parrot (Psittacus Eiusdem). This brief lament was written to mark the death of the parrot of Atedius Melior. On that day, as the wheels of time turned slowly and I made my way through Statius’ writings, I even found time to scrawl a few impromptu verses.

THAT DAY: An Extempore Poem
There were lowering clouds that day.
Outside was a thick mist and fog which seemed to
brood over troubled hearts. Onward pressed the lad though,
Roaming pages from beginning to end,
searching his texts for a new place to start.


Statius often meditated on “death’ in his Silvae. Several of his compositions remind readers of someone who has died. Hades and his helper, Thanatos, worked in tandem and ensured their presence was felt throughout numerous stories of ancient myth. Statius employed these specters while likewise finding it suitable to praise and memorialize friends and wealthy patrons in print. As my vehicle rolled across the famed Golden Gate Bridge, I thought of the many sad persons who had leaped to their death.

At certain times, writers have compared ‘freedom’ to the flight of birds. John Keats (1795-1821) composed the poem ‘Stay, Ruby Breasted Warbler, Stay’ in first person speech and as a monologue because he knew that his winged friend at any time would take flight. In his petition, Keats pleaded ‘Stay…, and let me see thy sparkling eye… nor bow thy pretty head to fly…’. As had other ancient writers, Statius’ pen spilled forth ink on avine freedom, but its conception in these passages is embedded in the verse-structure of a bird’s demise. He wrote of other creatures, once of a predatory cat. Leo, the tame lion had been a famed animal-gladiator, free to kill, now free to let live. In an earlier day, crowds greeted his appearance, but Leo died a conquered soul vanquished by a fleeing beast—sed victus fugiente fera (II 5.11), one that must remain unknown to readers.

Also within book two are compositions similar to epigrams in Martial’s corpus of writings. Martial was witty, scathing, and if you add a mixture of satire, his fiery vocabulary was severe at times. There is little need to say much of Statius’ Latin syntax. Most of our antique literature is confined to remnant pieces written for the educated classes. All theories to the contrary can be disputed on the grounds that writers from Late Antiquity well into the Early and Later Renaissance eras sought to preserve in their own way those they deemed to be the very best Greek and Latin writers. If imitation is the best form of flattery, Cicero would have been pleased.

Privately – in monasteries and private libraries perhaps, individuals spent time trying to unravel knotty poetic lines of ages past. And yes, Statius did obfuscate from time to time, like Persius (c.AD34-62) did, when he wanted to—but that was the manner of several ancient poets. Some of Statius’ terms have stumped readers until now, keeping them from hurrying through his work at more than a snail’s pace.

Statius had a broad vocabulary. He points readers to a multitude of historical signs known throughout the world of antiquity. The best poets dare to accomplish the unique, see the unusual, and compose an original opus, thereby securing its status as a normative text.

There was hardly room for poetic regulation in the expansive minds of our maverick authors of yesteryear. Homer wrote with two hearts, two hands and two minds. His twin volumes, Iliad and Odyssey, are not identical but yet bear all the marks of a literary invention generated from the same seed. No comparable literature has been found among the archaic cultures that come before the persons commonly held to have initiated “the Greek miracle”. Poets treated a wide variety of subjects. Why animals are often referred to in ancient passages I have no idea. Undoubtedly Statius would have found a friend or two among modern-day animal lovers. Pets were domesticated for millennia prior to Statius’ birth. And parrots in particular, were tamed easily and caged in homes, surely by the time Christ was born. Pliny (Nat. Hist. 10.58) thought that if you hit one upside the head with an iron rod they would speak.

Regarding Statius’ eulogy on the virtues of a deceased parrot, every ornithologist would like to own a bird as humane as the one Statius described. Read Statius’ words in which he depicted his fowl-friend in SilvaeII.4.1 asPsittace, dux volucrum/the parrot, the foremost of birds. The statement seems ironic. Why ascribe such a position of power to a brightly colored tropical bird? Can this species truly produce a leader or chief of the winged fowl of the air? At first glance, the statement appears doubtful. Birds have many qualities. Rank and structure is prominent within several genera. This epitaph of 37 verses is forceful, brilliant if you can believe that gods and goddesses have not created another hook-billed bird equal to this one that can mimic human speech. A winged-creature with striking features, its dappled beauty embellishes the skyline when in flight. A clever imitator of human speech (II.4.2 humanae sollers imitator… linguae), the bird died and was quietly sent to an unending oblivion (II.4.8 aeterna silentia Lethes).

Statius knows all these things and more. Toward the end, he did enlist the raven and partridge in contrast to the noted merits of his guide-bird. This portrayal set the stage for a fresh caricature of Statius’ parrot, his companion. He was presented to us in as humane a way as possible. The poem’s parrot is eloquent, he attends meals and he dwells in some sort of a house. Statius is writing as though he lost a good friend, one, with whom he once carried on dinner conversations. The poor thing now has passed from this life.

At II.4.11-14 (at tibi quanta domus rutila testudine fulgens…), one might imagine that Statius told of a lifeless cadaver that formerly housed a screeching inhabitant: a resident of a feathery domain who possessed a red crested plume, striped with bright vibrant colors. Alas, the squawking has ceased. The beaked-aviary is empty. In its place, (II.4.16 doctae, ‘learned’) birds of noble voice – the parrot’s kith and kin – are beckoned to behold the loss and to cry aloud on account of it, informing creatures nearby and afar. Circling in the skies above, the heavens are filled with their cries, mournful elegies of those who yearn to see a relative revived; but it is not to be.

The use of and loss of animal life of all kinds was viewed variously in the classical world. Much can be learned about elephants form Aristotle and Aretaeus. Some farm animals lived and died in harness (capistrum); dogs were both a blessing and curse to owners: Greek poets used them in similes at times. An owl could mimic sounds, but an owl was no parrot. Affection and disdain for animals of certain types was well known. All living thing eventually die. Therefore a great deal can be learned from classical writers. Back then, even a few people dreamed of and constructed theories of mammalian rebirth.

It remains to be asked, ‘what does one make of all Statius’ talk of the parrot’s eventual resurrection from the dead like an ancient phoenix?’ This idea was widespread. The ancient Church fathers (cf. First Clement 25) wrote of the phoenix bird of myth. Legends of it reached faraway lands. Several Greek Fathers of the early church were conversant with Hellenistic period literature, Egyptian saga and other writings of the ancient near east. Their early apologetic material was composed to fight off the encroaching slander of adversaries who sought to withstand the insights of Christianity. Concerning supposedly “self-created” birds like the Beñu and the Phoenix, Professor Nanno Marinatos of the Department of Classics and Mediterranean Studies at UIC, related these data:

“The Benu  bird is  an Egyptian mythical concept with a corresponding image. It dates to the pharaonic period. There are images on funerary papyri from Dynsasty 21, for example.  The etymology of Benu is related to Egyptian weben ‘to rise’ and it refers to a bird with solar connections rising from the earth at sunrise. It was considered immortal because it followed the sun. Herodotus says [he] assumed that it built a nest of aromatic boughs”.

During its career in mimicry, Statius’ parrot is said to have greeted several strong personalities. It is the picture of a bird that knew important people (29-30). Using little more than 220 words, Statius objectified avian behavior. In addition, he interspersed near eastern ideas into the tribute, using powerful imagery to draw up comparisons to his esteemed bird. Statius neither deems its departure to death’s lair to have been vain-glorious (II.433-34 at non inglorious umbris mittitur), nor does he look for the bird to be ‘raised again’ from the shades-umbris. However, Statius does summon readers to lament the demise of a creature he suspected was greater in glory than other creatures of repute. In any case, this green-feathered fowl conversed with the elite and sought no earthly rewards.

2018 is designated by select organizations ‘The Year of the Bird’. The above is a brief contribution for people who reflect fondly on the peculiar ways of Parrots.

Representation of the Benno, 1878

Darrell Sutton lives and writes in Red Cloud, Nebraska (USA)

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