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Post-Augustan Poetry by H.E. Butler

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epigram of Cicero dedicated to his freedman Tiro. Shortly after, about
noon--for it was summer--I retired to take my siesta, and finding that I
could not sleep, I began to reflect how the very greatest orators have
taken delight in composing this style of verse, and have hoped to win
fame thereby. I set my mind to it, and, quite contrary to my
expectations after so long desuetude, produced in an extremely short
space of time the following verses on that very subject which had
provoked me to write.'

Thirteen hexameter verses follow of a mildly erotic character. They are
not peculiarly edifying, and are certainly very far from being poetry.
He continues:

'I then turned my attention to expressing the same thoughts in elegiac
verse; I rattled these off at equal speed, and wrote some additional
lines, being beguiled into doing so by the fluency with which I wrote
the metre. On my return to Rome I read the verses to my friends. They
approved. Then in my leisure moments, especially when travelling, I
attempted other metres. Finally, I resolved to follow the example of
many other writers and compose a whole separate volume in the
hendecasyllabic metre; nor do I regret having done so. For the book is
read, copied, and even sung; even Greeks chant my verses to the sound of
the _cithara_ or the lyre; their passion for the book has taught them to
use the Latin tongue.' It was this volume of hendecasyllables about
which Pliny displays such naive enthusiasm that led Augurinus to compare
Pliny to Calvus and Catullus. Pliny's success had come to him
comparatively late in life; but it emboldened him to the composition of
another volume of poems[453] in various metres, which he read to his
friends. He cites one specimen in elegiacs[454] which awakens no desire
for more, for it is fully as prosy as the hexameters to which we have
already referred. Of the hendecasyllables nothing survives, but Pliny
tells us something as to their themes and the manner of their
composition.[455] 'I amuse myself by writing them in my leisure moments
at the bath or in my carriage. I jest in them and make merry, I play the
lover, I weep, I make lamentation, I vent my anger, or describe
something or other now in a pedestrian, now in a loftier vein.' As this
little catalogue would suggest, these poems were not always too
respectable. The good Pliny, like Martial, thinks it necessary to
apologize[456] for his freedom in conforming to the fashionable licence
of his age by protesting that his muse may be wanton, but his life is
chaste. We can readily believe him, for he was a man of kindly heart and
high ideals, whose simple vanity cannot obscure his amiability. But it
is difficult to believe that the loss of his poetry is in any way a
serious loss to the world.[457] We have given Pliny the poet more space
than is his due; our excuse must be the interest of his engaging

In spite of Pliny's enthusiasm for his poet friends, there is no reason
to suppose that the reign of Trajan saw the production of any poetry,
save that of Juvenal, which even approached the first rank. With the
accession of Hadrian we enter on a fresh era, characterized by the rise
of a new prose style and the almost entire disappearance of poetry. Rome
had produced her last great poet. The _Pervigilium Veneris_ and a few
slight but beautiful fragments of Tiberianus are all that illumine the
darkness till we come upon the interesting but uninspired elegiacs of
Rutilius Namatianus, the curiously uneven and slipshod poetry of
Ausonius, and the graceful, but cold and lifeless perfection of the
heroic hexameters of Claudian.



Poetesses were not rare at Rome during the first century of our era; the
_scribendi cacoethes_ extended to the fair sex sufficiently, at any
rate, to evoke caustic comment both from Martial[458] and Juvenal.[459]
By a curious coincidence, the only poetesses of whose work we have any
record are both named Sulpicia. The elder Sulpicia belongs to an earlier
age; she formed one of the Augustan literary circle of which her uncle
Messala was the patron, and left a small collection of elegiac poems
addressed to her lover, and preserved in the same volume as the
posthumous poems of Tibullus, to whose authorship they were for long

The younger Sulpicia was a contemporary of the poet Martial, and, like
her predecessor, wrote erotic verse. Frank and outspoken as was the
earlier poetess, in this respect at least her namesake far surpassed
her. For the younger Sulpicia's plain-speaking, if we may judge from
the comments of ancient writers[461] and the one brief fragment of her
love-poems that has survived,[462] was of a very different character
and must at least have bordered on the obscene. But her work attracted
attention; her fame is associated with her love for Calenus, a love
that was long[463] and passionate. She continued to be read even in the
days of Ausonius and Sidonius Apollinaris. Martial compares her with
Sappho, and her songs of love seem to have rung true, even though their
frankness may have been of a kind generally associated with passions of
a looser character.[464] If, as a literal interpretation of
Martial[465] would lead us to infer, Calenus was her husband, the poems
of Sulpicia confront us with a spectacle unique in ancient
literature--a wife writing love-poems to her husband. Her language came
from the heart, not from book-learning; she was a poetess such as
Martial delighted to honour.

omnes Sulpiciam legant puellae,
uni quae cupiunt viro placere;
omnes Sulpiciam legant mariti,
uni qui cupiunt placere nuptae.
non haec Colchidos adserit furorem,
diri prandia nec refert Thyestae;
Scyllam, Byblida nec fuisse credit:
sed castos docet et probos amores,
lusus delicias facetiasque.
cuius carmina qui bene aestimarit,
nullam dixerit esse nequiorem,
nullam dixerit esse sanctiorem[466].

Read your Sulpicia, maidens all,
Whose husband shall your sole love be;
Read your Sulpicia, husbands all,
Whose wife shall reign, and none but she.
No theme for her Medea's fire,
Nor orgy of Thyestes dire;
Scylla and Byblis she'd deny,
Of love she sang and purity,
Of dalliance and frolic gay;
Who should have well appraised her lay
Had said none were more chaste than she,
Yet fuller none of amorous glee.

Although the thought of what _procacitas_[467] may have meant in a lady
of Domitian's reign raises something of a shudder, and although it is to
be feared that Martial, when he goes on to say (loc. cit.)

tales Egeriae iocos fuisse
udo crediderim Numae sub antro,

Such sport I ween Egeria gave
To Numa in his spring-drenched cave.

had that in his mind which would have scandalized the pious lawgiver of
Rome, we may yet regret the loss of poems which, if Martial's language
is not merely the language of flattery, may have breathed a fresher and
freer spirit than is often to be found in the poets of the age. Catullus
and Sappho would seem to have been Sulpicia's models, but her poems have
left so little trace behind them that it is impossible to speak with
certainty. As to their metre we are equally ill-informed. The fragment
of two lines quoted above is in iambic _senarii_. If we may believe the
evidence[468] of a satirical hexameter poem attributed to Sulpicia, she
also wrote in hendecasyllables and scazons. The genuineness of this poem
is, however, open to serious doubt. It consists of seventy hexameters
denouncing the expulsion of the philosophers by Domitian, and is known
by the title of _Sulpiciae satira_.[469] That it purports to be by the
poetess beloved of Calenus is clear from an allusion to their
passion.[470] Serious doubts have, however, been cast upon its
genuineness. It is urged that the work is ill-composed, insipid, and
tasteless, and that it contains not a few marked peculiarities in
diction and metre, together with more than one historical inaccuracy.
The inference suggested is that the poem is not by Sulpicia, but at
least two centuries later in date. It may readily be admitted that the
poem is almost entirely devoid of any real merit, that its diction is
obscure and slovenly, its metre lame and unimpressive. But the critics
of the poem are guilty of great exaggeration.[471] Many of its worst
defects are undoubtedly due to the exceedingly corrupt state of the
text; further, it is hard to see what interest a satire directed against
Domitian would possess centuries after his death, nor is it easy to
imagine what motive could have led the supposed forger to attribute his
work to Sulpicia. The balance of probability inclines, though very
slightly, in favour of the view that the work is genuine. This is
unfortunate; for the perusal of this curious satire on the hypothesis of
its genuineness appreciably lessens our regret for the loss of
Sulpicia's love poetry and arouses serious suspicion as to the veracity
of Martial. It must, however, in justice be remembered that it does not
follow that Sulpicia was necessarily a failure as a lyric writer because
she had not the peculiar gift necessary for satire. The absence of the
training of the rhetorical schools from a woman's education might well
account for such a failure. At the worst, Sulpicia stands as an
interesting example of the type of womanhood at which Juvenal levelled
some of his wildest and most ill-balanced invective.



The political tendency towards retrenchment and reform that marks the
reign of Vespasian finds its literary parallel in a reaction against the
rhetoric of display that culminated in Seneca and Lucan. This movement
is most strongly marked in the prose of Quintilian and the _Dialogus_ of
Tacitus, but finds a faint echo in the world of poets as well. The three
epic poets of the period--Valerius Flaccus, Statius, and Silius
Italicus--though they, too, have suffered much from their rhetorical
training, are all clear followers of Vergil. They, like their
predecessors, find it hard to say things naturally, but they do not to
the same extent go out of their way with the deliberate intention of
saying things unnaturally.[472] We may condemn them as phrase-makers,
though many a modern poet of greater reputation is equally open to the
charge. But their phrase-making has not the flamboyant quality of the
Neronian age. If it is no less wearisome, it is certainly less
offensive. They do not lack invention; their mere technical skill is
remarkable; they fail because they lack the supreme gifts of insight and

Valerius Flaccus chose a wiser course than Lucan and Silius Italicus. He
turned not to history, but to legend, for his theme; and the story of
the Argonauts, on which his choice lighted, possessed one inestimable
advantage. Well-worn and hackneyed as it was, it possessed the secret of
eternal youth. 'Age could not wither it nor custom stale its infinite
variety.' The poorest of imitative poetasters could never have made it
wholly dull, and Valerius Flaccus was more than a mere poetaster.

Of his life and position little is known. His name is given by the MSS.
as Gaius Valerius Flaccus Setinus Balbus.[473] The name Setinus suggests
that he may have been a native of Setia. As there were three Setias, one
in Italy and two in Spain, this clue gives us small help. It has been
suggested[474] that the peculiarities of his diction are due to his
being of Spanish origin. But we have no evidence as to the nature of
Spanish Latin, while the authors of known Spanish birth, who found fame
in the Silver Age--Seneca, Lucan, Martial, Quintilian, Columella--show
no traces of their provenance. No more helpful is the view that he is
one Flaccus of Patavium, the poet-friend to whom two of Martial's
epigrams are addressed.[475] For Martial's acquaintance was poor and is
exhorted to abandon poetry as unlucrative, whereas Valerius Flaccus had
some social standing and, not improbably, some wealth. From the opening
of the _Argonautica_ we learn that he held the post of _quindecimvir
sacris faciundis_.[476] But there our knowledge of the poet ends, save
for one solitary allusion in Quintilian, the sole reference to Valerius
in any ancient writer. In his survey of Latin literature[477] he says
_multum in Valerio Flacco nuper amisimus_. The work of Quintilian having
been published between the years 93 and 95 A.D., the death of Valerius
Flaccus may be placed about 90 A.D.

The poem seems to have been commenced shortly after the capture of
Jerusalem in 70 A.D. At the opening of the first book[478] Valerius
addresses Vespasian in the conventional language of courtly flattery
with appropriate reference to his voyages in northern seas during his
service in Britain, a reference doubly suitable in a poem which is
largely nautical and geographical. He excuses himself from taking the
obvious subject of the Jewish war on the ground that that theme is
reserved for the inspired pen of Domitian. It is for him to describe
Titus, his brother, dark with the dust of war, launching the fires of
doom and dealing destruction from tower to tower along the ramparts of
Jerusalem.[479] The progress of the work was slow. By the time the third
book is reached we find references to the eruption of Vesuvius that
buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D.,[480] while in the two
concluding books there seem to be allusions to Roman campaigns in the
Danube lands, perhaps those undertaken by Domitian in 89 A.D.[481] At
line 468 of the eighth book the poem breaks off suddenly. It is possible
that this is due to the ravages of time or to the circumstances of the
copyist of our archetype, but consideration of internal evidence points
strongly to the conclusion that Valerius died with his work uncompleted.

Not only do the words of Quintilian (l.c.) suggest a poet who left a
great work unfinished, but the poem itself is full of harshnesses and
inconsistencies of a kind which so slow and careful a craftsman would
assuredly have removed had the poem been completed and received its
final revision.[482] These blemishes leave us little room for doubt. The
poem that has come down to us is a fragment lacking the _limae labor_.
Like the _Thebais_ of Statius and the _Aeneid_ itself, the work was
probably planned to fill twelve books. The poem breaks off with the
marriage of Medea and Jason on the Isle of Peuce at the mouth of the
Danube, where they are overtaken by Medea's brother Absyrtus, who has
come in anger to reclaim his sister and take vengeance on the stranger
who has beguiled her. It is clear that the Argonauts[483] were, as in
Apollonius Rhodius, to escape up the Danube and reach another sea. In
Apollonius they descended from the head waters of the Danube by some
mythical river to the Adriatic; it is in the Adriatic that Absyrtus is
encountered and slain; it is in Phaeacia that Jason and Medea are
married. In Valerius both these incidents take place in the Isle of
Peuce, at the Danube's mouth. The inference is that Valerius
contemplated a different scheme for his conclusion. It has been pointed
out[484] that a mere 'reproduction of Apollonius' episodes could not
have occupied four books'; and it is suggested that Valerius definitely
brought his heroes into relation to the various Italian places[485]
connected with the Argonautic legend, while he may even, as a compliment
to Vespasian,[486] have brought them back 'by way of the North Sea past
Britain and Gaul'. This ingenious conjectural reconstruction has some
probability, slight as is the evidence on which it rests. Valerius was
almost bound to give his epic a Roman tinge. More convincing, however,
is the suggestion of the same critic[487] that the poem was designed to
exceed the scope of the epic of Apollonius and to have included the
death of Pelias, the malignant and usurping uncle, who, to get rid of
Jason, compels him to the search of the golden fleece. To the
retribution that came upon him there are two clear references[488] and
only the design to describe it could justify the introduction of the
suicide of Jason's parents at the outset of the first book, a suicide to
which they are driven to avoid death at the hands of Pelias.

The scope of the unwritten books is, however, of little importance in
comparison with the execution of the existing portion of the poem. The
Argonaut Saga has its weaknesses as a theme for epic. It is too
episodic, it lacks unity and proportion. Save for the struggle in
Colchis and the loves of Jason and Medea, there is little deep human
interest. These defects, however, find their compensation in the
variety and brilliance of colour, and, in a word, the romance that is
inseparable from the story. The scene is ever changing, each day brings
a new marvel, a new terror. Picturesqueness atones for lack of epic
grandeur. For that reason the theme was well suited to the Silver Age,
when picturesqueness and rich invention of detail predominated at the
expense of poetic dignity and kindling imagination. In many ways
Valerius does justice to his subject, in spite of the initial
difficulty with which he was confronted. Apollonius Rhodius had made
the story his own; Varro of Atax had translated Apollonius: both in its
Greek and Latin forms the story was familiar to Roman readers. It was
hard to be original.

Much as Valerius owes to his greater predecessor, he yet succeeds in
showing no little originality in his portrayal of character and
incident, and in a few cases in his treatment of plot.[489] In one
particular indeed he has markedly improved on his model; he has made
Jason, the hero of his epic, a real hero; conventional he may be, but he
still is a leader of men. In Apollonius, on the other hand, he plays a
curiously inconspicuous part; he is, in fact, the weakest feature of the
poem; he is in despair from the outset, and at no point shows genuine
heroic qualities; he is at best a peerless wooer and no more. Here,
however, he is exalted by the two great battles of Cyzicus and Colchis;
it is in part his prowess in the latter battle that wins Medea's heart.
In this connexion we may also notice a marked divergence from Apollonius
as regards the plot. Aeetes has promised Jason the fleece if he will aid
him against his brother Perses, who is in revolt against him with a host
of Scythians at his back. Jason aids him, does prodigies of valour, and
wins a glorious victory. Aeetes refuses the reward. This act of
treachery justifies Jason in having recourse to Medea's magic arts and
in employing her to avenge him on her father. In Apollonius we find a
very different story. The sons of Phrixus, who, to escape the wrath of
Aeetes, have thrown in their lot with the Argonauts, urge Jason to
approach Medea; they themselves work upon the feelings of their mother,
Chalciope, till she seeks her sister Medea--already in love with Jason
and only too ready to be persuaded--and induces her to save her nephews,
whose fate is bound up with that of the strangers. This incident is
wholly absent from Valerius Flaccus, with the result that the loves of
Jason and Medea assume a somewhat different character. Jason's conduct
becomes more natural and dignified. Medea, on the other hand, is shown
in a less favourable light. In the Greek poet she has for excuse the
desire to save her sister from the loss of her sons, which gives her
half a right to love Jason. In the Latin epic she is without excuse,
unless, indeed, the hackneyed supernatural machinery,[490] put in motion
to win her for Jason, can be called an excuse. This crude employment of
the supernatural leaves Valerius small room for the subtle psychological
analysis wherein the Greek excels, and this, coupled with the love of
the Silver Age for art magic, tends to make Medea--as in Seneca--a
sorceress first, a woman after. In Apollonius she is barbaric,
unsophisticated, a child of nature; in Valerius she is a figure of the
stage, not without beauty and pathos, but essentially melodramatic.

But Apollonius had concentrated all his powers upon Medea, and dwarfs
all his other characters, Jason not excepted. It is Medea alone that
holds our interests. The little company of heroes embarked on unsailed
seas and beset with strange peril are scarcely more than a string of
names, that drop in and out, as though the work were a ship's log rather
than an epic. In Valerius, though he attempts no detailed portraiture,
they are men who can at least fight and die. He has, in a word, a better
general conception as to how the story should be told; he is less
perfunctory, and strives to fill in his canvas more evenly, whereas
Apollonius, although by no means concise, leaves much of his canvas
covered by sketches of the slightest and most insignificant character.
In the Greek poem, though half the work is consumed in describing the
voyage to Colchis, the first two books contain scarcely anything of real
poetic interest, if we except the story of Phineus and the Harpies, a
few splendid similes, and two or three descriptive passages, as brief as
they are brilliant. In Valerius, on the contrary, there is abundance of
stirring scenes and rich descriptive passages before the Argonauts reach
their goal. His superiority is particularly noticeable at the outset of
the poem. Apollonius plunges _in medias res_ and fails to give an
adequate account of the preliminaries of the expedition. He has no
better method of introducing us to his heroes than by giving us a dreary
catalogue of their names. Valerius, too, has his catalogue, but later;
we are not choked with indigestible and unpalatable fare at the very
opening of the feast. And though both authors take five hundred lines to
get their heroes under way, Valerius tells us far more and in far better
language; Apollonius does not find his stride till the second book, and
forgets that it is necessary to interest the reader in his characters
from the very beginning.

But though in these respects Valerius has improved on his predecessor,
and though his work lacks the arid wastes of his model, he is yet an
author of an inferior class, and comes ill out of the comparison. For he
has little of the rich, almost oriental, colouring of Apollonius at his
best, lacks his fire and passion, and fails to cast the same glamour of
romance about his subject. While the Dido and Aeneas of Vergil are in
some respects but a pale reflection of the Medea and Jason of
Apollonius, the loves of Jason and Medea in Valerius are fainter still.
His heroine is not the tragic figure that stands out in lines of fire
from the pages of Apollonius. His lovers' speeches have a certain beauty
and tenderness of their own, but they lack the haunting melody and the
resistless passion that make the Rhodian's lines immortal. And while to
a great extent he lacks the peculiar merits of the Greek,[491] he
possesses his most serious blemish, the blemish that is so salient a
characteristic of both Alexandrian and Silver Latin literature, the
passion for obscure learning. A good example is the huge, though most
ingenious, catalogue of the tribes of Scythia at the opening of the
sixth book, with its detailed inventory of strange names and customs,
and its minute descriptions of barbaric armour. His love of learning
lands him, moreover, in strange anachronisms. We are told that the
Colchians are descended from Sesostris;[492] the town of Arsinoe is
spoken of as already in existence; Egypt is already connected with the
house of Lagus.[493]

In addition, Valerius possesses many of the faults from which Apollonius
is free, but with which the post-Augustan age abounds. The dangerous
influence of Seneca has, it is true, decayed; we are no longer flooded
with epigram or declamatory rhetoric. Rhetoric there is, and rhetoric
that is not always effective;[494] but it is rather a perversion of the
rhetoric of Vergil than the descendant of the brilliant rant of Lucan
and Seneca. From the gross lack of taste and humour that characterizes
so many of his contemporaries he is comparatively free, though his
description of the historic 'crab' caught by Hercules reaches the utmost
limit of absurdity:

laetus et ipse
Alcides: Quisnam hos vocat in certamina fluctus?
dixit, et, intortis adsurgens arduus undis,
percussit subito deceptum fragmine pectus,
atque in terga ruens Talaum fortemque Eribotem
et longe tantae securum Amphiona molis
obruit, inque tuo posuit caput, Iphite, transtro. (iii. 474-80.)

Alcides gladdened in his heart and cried: 'Who challenges these
waves to combat?' and as he rose against those buffeting waves,
sudden with broken oar he smote his baffled breast, and, falling
headlong back, o'erthrows Talaus and brave Eribotes and far-off
Amphion, that never feared so vast a bulk should fall on him, and
laid his head against thy thwart, O Iphitus.

This unheroic episode is a relic of the comic traditions associated
with Hercules, traditions which obtrude themselves from time to time in
serious and even tragic surroundings.[495] Apollonius describes the
same incident[496] with the quiet humour that so strangely tinges the
works of the pedants of Alexandria. Valerius, on the other hand, has
lost touch with the broad comedy of these traditions, and his attempt
to be humorous only succeeds in making him ridiculous.[497]

His worst fault, however, lies in his obscurity and preciosity of
diction. The error lies not so much in veiling simple facts under an
epigram, as in a vain attempt to imitate the 'golden phrases' of Vergil.
The strange conglomeration of words with which Valerius so often vexes
his readers resembles the 'chosen coin of fancy' only as the formless
designs of the coinage of Cunobelin resemble the exquisite staters of
Macedon from which they trace their descent. It requires more than a
casual glance to tell that (i. 411)

it quem fama genus non est decepta Lyaei
Phlias inmissus patrios de vertice crines

means that Phlias was 'truly reported the son of Bacchus with streaming
locks like to his sire's'; or that (vi. 553)

Argus utrumque ab equis ingenti porrigit arvo

signifies no more than that the victims of Argus covered a large space
of ground when they fell.[498] How miserable is such a phrase compared
with the [Greek: keito megas megal_osti] of Homer! And though there is
less serious obscurity, nothing can be more awkward than the not
infrequent inversion of the natural order of words that we find in
phrases such as _nec pereat quo scire malo_ (vii. 7).[499]

Of mere preciosity and phrase-making without any special obscurity
examples abound.[500] Pelion sinks below the horizon (ii. 6)--

iamque fretis summas aequatum Pelion ornos.

A fight at close quarters receives the following curious description
(ii. 524)--

iam brevis et telo volucri non utilis aer.

A spear flying through the air and missing its mark is a _volnus raptum
per auras_ (iii. 196). More startling than these is the picture of a
charge of trousered barbarians (vi. 702)--

improba barbaricae procurrunt tegmina plantae.

One more peculiarity remains to be noticed. Here and there in the
_Argonautica_ we meet with a strange brevity and compression resulting
not from the desire to produce phrases of curious and original texture,
but rather from a praiseworthy though misdirected endeavour to be
concise. The most remarkable example is found in the first book, where
Mopsus, the official prophet of the expedition, falls into a trance and
beholds a vision of the future (211):

heu quaenam aspicio! nostris modo concitus ausis
aequoreos vocat ecce deos Neptunus et ingens
concilium. fremere et legem defendere cuncti
hortantur. sic amplexu, sic pectora fratris,
Iuno, tene; tuque o puppem ne desere, Pallas:
nunc patrui nunc flecte minas. cessere ratemque
accepere mari. per quot discrimina rerum
expedior! subita cur pulcher harundine crines
velat Hylas? unde urna umeris niueosque per artus
caeruleae vestes? unde haec tibi volnera, Pollux?
quantus io tumidis taurorum e naribus ignis!
tollunt se galeae sulcisque ex omnibus hastae
et iam iamque umeri. quem circum vellera Martem
aspicio? quaenam aligeris secat anguibus auras
caede madens? quos ense ferit? miser eripe parvos,
Aesonide. cerno et thalamos ardere iugales.

Alas! what do I see! Even now, stirred by our daring, lo!
Neptune calls the gods to a vast conclave. They murmur, and
one and all urge him to defend his rights. Hold as thou
holdest now, Juno, hold thy brother in thine embrace: and
thou, Pallas, forsake not our ship: now, even now, appease
thy brother's threats. They have yielded: they give Argo
entrance to the sea. Through what perils am I whirled along!
Why does fair Hylas veil his locks with a sudden crown of
reeds? Whence comes the pitcher on his shoulder and the azure
raiment on his limbs of snow? Whence, Pollux, come these
wounds of thine? Ah! what a flame streams from the widespread
nostrils of the bulls. Helmets and spears rise from every
furrow, and now see! shoulders too! What warfare for the fleece
do I see? Who is it cleaves the air with winged snakes, reeking
with slaughter? Whom smites she with the sword? Ah! son of
Aeson, hapless man, save thy little ones. I see, too, the
bridal chamber all aflame.

These lines form a kind of abridgement or _precis_ of the whole
_Argonautica_, or even more, for we can hardly believe that the scheme
of it included the murder of Medea's children and her vengeance on the
house of Creon[501]. They are also far too obscure to be interesting to
any save a highly-trained literary audience, while their extreme
compression could only be justified by their having been primarily
designed for recitation in a dramatic and realistic manner with
suitable pauses between the different visions.[502] A yet worse and
less excusable example of this peculiar brevity is the jerky and
prosaic enumeration of Medea's achievements in the black art
(vi. 442)--

mutat agros fluviumque vias; suus alligat ingens
cuncta sopor, recoquit fessos aetate parentes,
datque alias sine lege colus.

She changes crops of fields and course of rivers. [At her
bidding] deep clinging slumber binds all things; fathers
outworn with age she seethes to youth again, and to others
she gives new span of life against fate's ordinance.

The attempt to be concise and full[503] at one and the same time fails,
and fails inevitably.

But for all these faults Valerius Flaccus offends less than any of the
Silver Latin writers of epic. He rants less and he exaggerates less;
above all, he has much genuine poetic merit. He has been strangely
neglected, both in ancient[504] and modern times, and unduly depreciated
in the latter. There has been a tendency to rank him with Silius
Italicus, whereas it would be truer criticism to place him close to
Statius, and not far below Lucan. He is more uneven than the former, has
a far less certain touch, and infinitely less command of his instrument.
He has less mastery of words, but a more kindling and penetrating
imagination. His outlines are less clear, but more suggestive. He has
less rhetoric; beneath an often obscure diction he reveals a greater
simplicity and directness of thought, and he has been infinitely more
happy in his theme. Only the greatest of poets could achieve a genuine
success with the Theban legend, only the worst of poets could reduce the
voyage of the Argonauts to real dullness. On the other hand, in an age
of _belles-lettres_ such as the Silver Age, and by the majority of
scholars, whose very calling leads them to set a perhaps abnormally high
value on technical skill, Statius is almost certain to be preferred to
Valerius. About the relative position of Lucan there is no doubt. He is
incomparably the superior of Valerius, both in genius and intellect. But
Valerius never sins against taste and reason to the same extent, and
though he has less fire, possesses a finer ear for music and rhythm, and
more poetic feeling as distinct from rhetoric. Vergil was his master; it
has been said with a little exaggeration that Valerius stands in the
same relation to Vergil as Persius to Horace. This statement conveys but
a half-truth. Valerius is as superior to Persius in technique as he is
inferior in moral force and intellectual power. He is, however, full of
echoes from Vergil,[505] and if his verse has neither the 'ocean roll'
of the greater poets, nor the same tenderness, he yet has something of
the true Vergilian glamour. But he has weakened his hexameter by
succumbing to the powerful influence of Ovid. His verse is polished and
neat to the verge of weakness. Like Ovid, he shows a preference for the
dactyl over the spondee, shrinks from elision, and does not understand
how to vary his pauses.[506] Too many lines close with a full-stop or
colon, and where the line is broken, the same pause often recurs again
and again with wearisome monotony. In this respect Valerius, though
never monotonously ponderous like Lucan, compares ill with Statius. As a
compensation, his individual lines have a force and beauty that is
comparatively rare in the _Thebais_. The poet who could describe a
sea-cave thus (iv. 179)--

non quae dona die, non quae trahat aetheris ignem;
infelix domus et sonitu tremibunda profundi,

That receiveth never daylight's gifts nor the light of the
heavenly fires, the home of gloom all a-tremble with the
sound of the deep.

is not to be despised as a master of metre. And whether for
picturesqueness of expression or for beauty of sound, lines such as
(iii. 596)

rursus Hylan et rursus Hylan per longa reclamat
avia; responsant silvae et vaga certat imago,

'Hylas', and again 'Hylas', he calls through the long wilderness;
the woods reply, and wandering echo mocks his voice.

or (i. 291)

quis tibi, Phrixe, dolor, rapido cum concitus aestu
respiceres miserae clamantia virginis ora
extremasque manus sparsosque per aequora crines!

Phrixus, what grief was thine when, swept along by the swirling
tide, thou lookedst back on the hapless maiden's face as she
cried for thine aid, her sinking hands, her hair streaming o'er
the deep.

are not easily surpassed outside the pages of Vergil. But it is above
all on his descriptive power that his claim to consideration rests.[507]
For it is there that he finds play for his most remarkable gifts, his
power of suggestion of mystery, and his keen sense of colour. These
gifts find their most striking manifestation in his description of the
Argonauts' first night upon the waters. They

were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

All is strange to them. Each sight and sound has its element of terror:

auxerat hora metus, iam se vertentis Olympi
ut faciem raptosque simul montesque locosque
ex oculis circumque graves videre tenebras.
ipsa quies rerum mundique silentia terrent
astraque et effusis stellatus crinibus aether.
ac velut ignota captus regione viarum
noctivagum qui carpit iter non aure quiescit,
non oculis, noctisque metus niger auget utrimque
campus et occurrens umbris maioribus arbor,
haud aliter trepidare viri (ii. 38).

The dark hour deepened their fears when they saw heaven's vault
wheel round, and the peaks and fields of earth snatched from
their view, and all about them the horror of darkness. The very
stillness of things and the deep silence of the world affright
them, the stars and heaven begemmed with streaming locks of gold.
And as one benighted in a strange place 'mid paths unknown pursues
his devious journey through the night and finds rest neither for
eye nor ear, but all about him the blackness of the plain, and
the trees that throng upon him seen greater through the gloom,
deepen his terror of the dark--even so the heroes trembled.

There are few more vivid pictures in Latin poetry than that of the
benighted wanderer lost on some wide plain studded with clumps of trees
that seem to throng upon him in the gloom, seen greater through the
darkness. Not less imaginative, though less clear cut and precise, is
his picture of the underworld in the third book:

est procul ad Stygiae devexa silentia noctis
Cimmerium domus et superis incognita tellus,
caeruleo tenebrosa situ, quo flammea numquam
Sol iuga sidereos nec mittit Iuppiter annos.
stant tacitae frondes inmotaque silva comanti
horret Averna iugo; specus umbrarumque meatus
subter et Oceani praeceps fragor arvaque nigro
vasta metu et subitae post longa silentia voces (iii. 398).

Far hence by the deep sunken silence of the Stygian night lies
the Cimmerians' home, a land unknown to denizens of upper air,
all dark with gloomy squalor. Thither the sun hath never driven
his flaming car nor Jupiter sent forth his starry seasons. Silent
are the leaves of its groves, and all along its leafy hill
bristles unmoved Avernus' wood: thereunder are caverns, and the
shades go to and fro; there Ocean plunges roaring to its fall,
there are plains with dark fear desolate, and after long silences
sudden voices thunder out.

It is a more theatrical underworld than that of Vergil, and the picture
is not clearly conceived, but its very vagueness is impressive. The poet
gives us, as it were, the scene for the enactment of some dim dream of
terror. He is equally at home in describing the happy calm of Elysium.
Though the picture lacks originality, it has no lack of beauty:

hic geminae infernum portae, quarum altera dura
semper lege patens populos regesque receptat;
ast aliam temptare nefas et tendere contra;
rara et sponte patet, siquando pectore ductor
volnera nota gerens, galeis praefixa rotisque
cui domus aut studium mortales pellere curas,
culta fides, longe metus atque ignota cupido;
seu venit in vittis castaque in veste sacerdos.
quos omnes lenis plantis et lampada quassans
progenies Atlantis agit. lucet via late
igne dei, donec silvas et amoena piorum
deveniant camposque, ubi sol totumque per annum
durat aprica dies thiasique chorique virorum
carminaque et quorum populis iam nulla cupido (i. 833).

Here lie the twin gates of Hell, whereof the one is ever open
by stern fate's decree, and through it march the peoples and
princes of the world. But the other may none essay nor beat
against its bars. Barely it opens and untouched by hand, if e'er
a chieftain comes with glorious wounds upon his breast, whose
halls were decked with helm and chariots, or who strove to cast
out the woes of mankind, who honoured truth and bade farewell to
fear and knew no base ambition. Then, too, it opens when some
priest comes wearing sacred wreath and spotless robe. All such
the child of Atlas leads along with gentle tread and waving torch.
Far shines the road with the fire of the god until they come to
the groves and plains, the pleasant mansions of the blest, where
the sun ceases not, nor the warm daylight all the year long, nor
dancing companies of heroes, nor song, nor all the innocent joys
that the peoples of the earth desire no more.

Many lines might be quoted that startle us with their unforeseen
vividness or some unexpected blaze of colour; when the fleece of gold is
taken from the tree where it had long since shone like a beacon through
the dark, the tree sinks back into the melancholy night,

tristesque super coiere tenebrae (viii. 120).

At their bridal on the desolate Isle of Peuce under the shadow of
approaching peril, Jason and Medea gleam star-like amid the company of
heroes (viii. 257):

ipsi inter medios rosea radiante iuventa
altius inque sui sternuntur velleris auro.

Themselves in their comrades' midst, bright with the rosy
glow of youth, above them all, lie on the fleece of gold
that they had made their own.

This characteristic is most evident in the similes over which Valerius,
like other poets of the age, would seem to have expended particular
labour. He scatters them over his pages with too prodigal a hand, and
they suffer at times from over-elaboration and ingenuity.[508] Desire
for originality has led him to such startling comparisons as that
between a warrior drawn from his horse and a bird snared by the limed
twig of the fowler,[509] surely as inappropriate a simile as was ever
framed. More distressing still is the maudlin pathos of the simile which
likens Medea to a dog on the verge of madness.[510] But such gross
aberrations are rare; against them may be set some of the freshest and
most beautiful similes in the whole range of Latin poetry. The silence
that follows on the wailing of the women of Cyzicus is like the silence
of Egypt when the birds that wintered there have flown to more temperate
lands. 'And now they had paid due honour to their ashes; with weary
feet, wives with their babes wandered away and the waves had rest, the
waves long torn by their wakeful lamentation, even as when the birds in
mid-spring have returned to the north that is their home, and Memphis
and their yearly haunt by sunny Nile are dumb once more'--

qualiter Arctos
ad patrias avibus medio iam vere revectis
Memphis et aprici statio silet annua Nili (iii. 358).

The beauty of Medea among her Scythian maidens is likened to that of
Proserpine leading her comrades over Hymettus' hill or wandering with
Pallas and Diana in the Sicilian mountains--

altior ac nulla comitum certante, prius quam
palluit et viso pulsus decor omnis Averno (v. 346).

Taller than all her comrades and fairer than them all or
ever she turned pale, and at the sight of Hell all beauty
was banished from her face.

The relief of the Argonauts, when at last they reach haven after their
fearful passage of the Symplegades, is like that of Theseus and
Hercules, when they have forced a way through the gates of hell to the
light of day once more.[511] Most remarkable of all is the strange
accumulation of similes that describe the meeting of Jason and Medea.
Medea is going through the silent night chanting a song of magic,
whereat all nature trembles. At last, when she has come 'to the shadowy
place of the triune goddess', Jason shines forth before her in the
gloom, 'as when in deepest night panic bursts on herd and herdsman, or
shades meet blind and voiceless in the deep of Chaos; even so, in the
darkness of the night and of the grove, the two met astonied, like
silent pines or motionless cypress, ere yet the whirling breath of the
south wind has caught and mingled their boughs'[512]--

obvius ut sera cum se sub nocte magistris
inpingit pecorique pavor, qualesve profundum
per chaos occurrunt caecae sine vocibus umbrae;
haut secus in mediis noctis nemorisque tenebris
inciderant ambo attoniti iuxtaque subibant,
abietibus tacitis aut immotis cyparissis
adsimiles, rapidus nondum quas miscuit Auster (vii. 400).

These similes suffer from sheer accumulation.[513] Taken individually
they are worthy of many a greater poet.

In his speeches Valerius is less successful, though rarely positively
bad. But with few exceptions they lack force and interest. At times,
however, his rhetoric is effective, as in the speech of Mopsus (iii.
377), where he sets forth the punishment of blood-guiltiness, or in the
fierce invective in which the Scythian, Gesander, taunts a Greek warrior
with the inferiority of the Greek race (vi. 323 sqq.). This latter
speech is closely modelled on Vergil (_A._ ix. 595 sqq.), and although
it is somewhat out of place in the midst of a battle, is not wholly
unworthy of its greater model. But it is to the speeches of Jason and
Medea that we naturally turn to form the estimate of the poet's mastery
of the language of passion. These speeches serve to show us how far he
falls below Vergil (_A._ iv) and Apollonius (bk. iii). They offer a
noble field for his powers, and it cannot be said that he rises to the
full height of the occasion. On the other hand, he does not actually
fail. There is a note of deep and moving appeal in all that Medea says
as she gradually yields to the power of her passion, and the thought of
her father and her home fades slowly from her mind.

quid, precor, in nostras venisti, Thessale, terras?
unde mei spes ulla tibi? tantosque petisti
cur non ipse tua fretus virtute labores?
nempe, ego si patriis timuissem excedere tectis,
occideras; nempe hanc animam sors saeva manebat
funeris. en ubi Iuno, ubi nunc Tritonia virgo,
sola tibi quoniam tantis in casibus adsum
externae regina domus? miraris et ipse,
credo, nec agnoscunt hae nunc Aeetida silvae.
sed fatis sum victa tuis; cape munera supplex
nunc mea; teque iterum Pelias si perdere quaeret,
inque alios casus alias si mittet ad urbes,
heu formae ne crede tuae.

'"Why,"' she cries (vii. 438), '"why, I beseech thee, Thessalian, camest
thou ever to this land of ours? Whence hadst thou any hope of me? And
why didst thou seek these toils with faith in aught save thine own
valour? Surely hadst thou perished, had I feared to leave my father's
halls--aye, and so surely had I shared thy cruel doom. Where now is thy
helper Juno, where now thy Tritonian maid, since I, the queen of an
alien house, have come to help thee in thy need? Aye, even thyself thou
marvellest, methinks, nor any more does this grove know me for Aeetes'
daughter. Nay, 'twas thy cruel fate overcame me; take now, poor
suppliant, these my gifts, and, if e'er again Pelias seek to destroy
thee and send thee forth to other cities, ah! put not too fond trust in
thy beauty!"' Yet again, before she puts the saving charms into his
hands, she appeals to him (452):

si tamen aut superis aliquam spem ponis in istis, aut tua praesenti
virtus educere leto si te forte potest, etiam nunc deprecor, hospes,
me sine, et insontem misero dimitte parenti. dixerat; extemploque
(etenim matura ruebant sidera, et extremum se flexerat axe Booten)
cum gemitu et multo iuveni medicamina fletu non secus ac patriam
pariter famamque decusque obicit. ille manu subit, et vim conripit
omnem. inde ubi facta nocens, et non revocabilis umquam cessit ab
ore pudor, ... ... ... ... ... ... ... pandentes Minyas iam vela
videbat se sine. tum vero extremo percussa dolore adripit Aesoniden
dextra ac submissa profatur: sis memor, oro, mei, contra memor ipsa
manebo, crede, tui. quando hinc aberis, die quaeso, profundi quod
caeli spectabo latus? sed te quoque tangat cura mei quocumque loco,
quoscumque per annos; atque hunc te meminisse velis, et nostra
fateri munera; servatum pudeat nec virginis arte. hei mihi, cur
nulli stringunt tua lumina fletus? an me mox merita morituram
patris ab ira dissimulas? te regna tuae felicia gentis, te coniunx
natique manent; ego prodita obibo.

'"If thou hast any hope of safety from these goddesses, that are thine
helpers, or if perchance thine own valour can snatch thee from the jaws
of death, even now, I pray thee, stranger, let me be, and send me back
guiltless to my unhappy sire." She spake, and straightway--for now the
stars outworn sank to their setting, and Bootes in the furthest height
of heaven had turned him towards his rest--straightway she gave the
charms to the young hero with wailing and with lamentation, as though
therewith she cast away her country and her own fair fame and honour.'
And then, 'when her guilt was accomplished and the blush of shame had
passed from her face for evermore,' she saw as in a vision (474) 'the
Minyae spreading their sails for flight without her. Then in truth
bitter anguish laid hold of her spirit, and she grasped the right hand
of the son of Aeson and humbly spake: "Remember me, I pray, for I,
believe me shall forget thee never. When thou art hence, where on all
the vault of heaven shall I bear to gaze? Ah! do thou too, where'er thou
art, through all the years ne'er let the thought of me slip from thy
heart. Remember how thou stood'st to-day, tell of the gifts I gave, and
feel no shame that thou wast saved by a maiden's guile. Alas! why stream
no tears from thine eyes? Knowest thou not that the death I have
deserved waits me at my father's hand? For thee there waits a happy
realm among thine own folk, for thee wife and child; but I must perish
deserted and betrayed."'[514]

All this lacks the force and passion of the corresponding scene in
Apollonius. This Medea could never have cried, 'I am no Greek princess,
gentle-souled,'[515] nor have prayed that a voice from far away or a
warning bird might reach him in Iolcus on the day when he forgot her, or
that the stormwind might bear her with reproaches in her eyes to stand
by his hearth-stone and chide him for his forgetfulness and ingratitude.
The Medea of Apollonius has been softened and sentimentalized by the
Roman poet. Valerius knows no device to clothe her with power, save by
the narration of her magic arts (vii. 463-71; viii. 68-91). Yet she has
a charm of her own; and it needed true poetic feeling to draw even the
Medea of Valerius Flaccus.

In no age would Valerius have been a great poet, but under happier
circumstances he would have produced work that would have ranked high
among literary epics. As it is, there is no immeasurable distance
between the _Argonautica_ and works such as the _Gerusalemme liberata_,
or much of _The Idylls of the King_. He is a genuine poet whose genius
was warped by the spirit of the age, stunted by the inherent
difficulties besetting the Roman writer of epic, overweighted by his
admiration of his two great predecessors, Ovid and Vergil. He is
obscure, he is full of echoes, he staggers beneath a burden of useless
learning, he overcrowds his canvas and strives in vain to put the breath
of life into bones long dry; in addition, his epic suffers from the lack
of the reviser's hand. And yet, in spite of all, his characters are
sometimes more than lay-figures, and his scenes more than mere
stage-painting. He has the divine fire, and it does not always burn dim.
Others have greater cunning of hand, greater force of intellect, and
have won a higher place in the hierarchy of poets. He--though, like
them, he lacks the 'fine madness that truly should possess a poet's
brain'--yet gives us much that they cannot give, and sees much that they
cannot see. With Quintilian, though with altered meaning, we too may say
_multum in Valerio Flacco amisimus_.



Our information as to the life of P. Papinius Statius is drawn almost
exclusively from his minor poems entitled the _Silvae_. He was born at
Naples, his father was a native of Velia, came of good family,[516] and
by profession was poet and schoolmaster. The father's school was at
Naples,[517] and, if we may trust his son, was thronged with pupils from
the whole of Southern Italy.[518] He had been victorious in many poetic
contests both in Naples and in Greece.[519] He had written a poem on the
burning of the Capitol in 69 A.D., had planned another on the eruption
of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., but apparently died with the work
unfinished.[520] It was to his father that our poet attributed all his
success as a poet. It was to him he owed both education and inspiration,
as the _Epicedion in patrem_ bears pathetic witness (v. 3. 213):

sed decus hoc quodcumque lyrae primusque dedisti
non volgare loqui et famam sperare sepulcro.

Thou wert the first to give this glory, whate'er it be,
that my lyre hath won; thine was the gift of noble speech
and the hope that my tomb should be famous.

The _Thebais_ was directly due to his prompting (loc. cit., 233):

te nostra magistro
Thebais urgebat priscorum exordia vatum;
tu cantus stimulare meos, tu pandere facta
heroum bellique modos positusque locorum

At thy instruction my Thebais trod the steps of elder
bards; thou taughtest me to fire my song, thou taughtest
me to set forth the deeds of heroes and the ways of war
and the position of places.

The poet-father lived long enough to witness his son well on the way to
established fame. He had won the prize for poetry awarded by his native
town, the crown fashioned of ears of corn, chief honour of the
Neapolitan Augustalia.[521] Early in the reign of Domitian he had
received a high price from the actor Paris for his libretto on the
subject of Agave,[522] and he had already won renown by his recitations
at Rome,[523] recitations in all probability of portions of the
_Thebais_[524] which he had commenced in 80 A.D.[525] But it was not
till after his father's death that he reached the height of his fame by
his victory in the annual contest instituted by Domitian at his Alban
palace,[526] and by the completion and final publication in 92 A.D. of
his masterpiece, the _Thebais_.[527] This poem was the outcome of twelve
years' patient labour, and it was on this that he based his claim to
immortality.[527] He had now made himself a secure position as the
foremost poet of his age. His failure to win the prize at the
quinquennial Agon Capitolinus in 94 A.D. caused him keen mortification,
but was in no way a set-back to his career.[528] By this time he had
already begun the publication of his _Silvae_. The first book was
published not earlier than 92 A.D.,[529] the second and third between
that date and 95 A.D. The fourth appeared in 95 A.D.,[530] the fifth is
unfinished. There is no allusion to any date later than 95 A.D., no
indication that the poet survived Domitian (d. 96 A.D.). These facts,
together with the fragmentary state of his ambitious _Achilleis_, begun
in 95 A.D.,[531] point to Statius having died in that year, or at least
early in 96 A.D. He left behind him, beside the works already mentioned,
a poem on the wars of Domitian in Germany,[532] and a letter to one
Maximus Vibius, which may have served as a preface to the
_Thebais_.[533] He had spent the greater portion of his life either at
Rome, Naples, or in the Alban villa given him by Domitian. In his latter
years he seems to have resided almost entirely at Rome, though he must
have paid not infrequent visits to the Bay of Naples.[534] But in 94
A.D., whether through failing health or through chagrin at his defeat in
the Capitoline contest, he retired to his native town.[535] He had
married a widow named Claudia,[536] but the union was childless; towards
the end of his life he adopted the infant son of one of his slaves,[537]
and the child's premature death affected him as bitterly as though it
had been his own son that died. Of his age we know little; but in the
_Silvae_ there are allusions to the approach of old age and the decline
of his physical powers.[538] He can scarcely have been born later than
45 A.D., and may well have been born considerably earlier. His life, as
far as we can judge, was placid and uneventful. The position of his
father seems to have saved him from a miserable struggle for his
livelihood, such as vexed the soul of Martial.[539] There is nothing
venal about his verse. If his flattery of the emperor is fulsome almost
beyond belief, he hardly overstepped the limits of the path dictated by
policy and the custom of the age; his conduct argues weakness rather
than any deep moral taint. In his flattery towards his friends and
patrons his tone is, at its worst, rather that of a social inferior than
of a mere dependent.[540] And underlying all the preciosity and
exaggeration of his praises and his consolations, there is a genuine
warmth of affection that argues an amiable character. And this warmth of
feeling becomes unmistakable in the _epicedia_ on his father and his
adopted son, and again in the poem addressed to his wife. The feeling is
genuine, in spite of the suggestion of insincerity created by the
artificiality of his language. No less noteworthy is his enthusiasm for
the beauties of his birthplace, which shines clear through all the
obscure legends beneath which he buries his topography.[541] These
qualities, if any, must be set against his lack of intellectual power;
his mind is nimble and active, but never strong either in thought or
emotion: of sentiment he has abundance, of passion none. Considering the
corruption of the society of which he constituted himself the poet, and
of which there are not a few glimpses in the _Silvae_, despite the
tinselled veil that is thrown over it, the impression of Statius the man
is not unpleasing: it is not necessary to claim that it is inspiring.

Of Statius the poet it is harder to form a clear judgement. His
masterpiece, the _Thebais_, from the day of its publication down to
comparatively recent times, possessed an immense reputation.[542] Dante
seems to regard him as second only to Vergil; and it was scarcely before
the nineteenth century that he was dethroned from his exalted position.
Before the verdict of so many ages one may well shrink from passing an
unfavourable criticism. That he had many of the qualifications of a
great poet is undeniable; his technical skill is extraordinary; his
variety of phrase is infinite; his colouring is often brilliant. And
even his positive faults, the faults of his age, the crowding of detail,
the rhetoric, the bombast, offend rather by their quantity than quality.
Alone of the epic[543] writers of his age he rarely raises a derisive
laugh from the irreverent modern. Again, his average level is high,
higher than that of any post-Ovidian poet. And yet that high level is
due to the fact that he rarely sinks rather than that he rises to
sublime heights. His brilliant metre, always vivacious and vigorous,
seldom gives us a line that haunts the memory; and therefore, though its
easy grace and facile charm may for a while attract us, we soon weary of
him. He lacks warmth of emotion and depth of colour. In this respect he
has been not inaptly compared to Ovid. Ovid said of Callimachus _quamvis
ingenio non valet, arte valet_.[544] Ovid's detractors apply the epigram
to Ovid himself. This is unjust, but so far as such a comprehensive
dictum can be true of any distinguished writer, it is true of Statius.

Scarcely inferior to Ovid in readiness and fertility, he ranks far below
the earlier writer in all poetic essentials. Ovid's gifts are similar
but more natural; his vision is clearer, his imagination more
penetrating. 'The paces of Statius are those of the _manege_, not of
nature';[545] he loses himself in the trammels of his art. He lacks, as
a rule, the large imagination of the poet; and though his detail may
often please, the whole is tedious and disappointing. Merivale sums him
up admirably:[546] 'Statius is a miniature painter employed on the
production of a great historic picture: every part, every line, every
shade is touched and retouched; approach the canvas and examine it with
glasses, every thread and hair has evidently received the utmost care
and taken the last polish; but step backwards and embrace the whole
composition in one gaze, and the general effect is confused from want of
breadth and largeness of treatment.'

He was further handicapped by his choice of a subject.[547] The Theban
legend is unsuitable for epic treatment for more reasons than one. In
the first place the story is unpleasant from beginning to end. Horror
accumulates on horror, crime on crime, and there are but three
characters which evoke our sympathy, Oedipus, Jocasta, and Antigone.
These characters play only subsidiary parts in the story of the
expedition of the Seven against Thebes, round which the Theban epic
turns. The central characters are almost of necessity the odious
brothers Eteocles and Polynices: Oedipus appears only to curse his sons.
Antigone and Jocasta come upon the scene only towards the close in a
brief and futile attempt to reconcile the brothers. The deeds and deaths
of the Argive chiefs may relieve the horror and at times excite our
sympathy, but we cannot get away from the fact that the story is
ultimately one of almost bestial fratricidal strife, darkened by the
awful shadow of the woes of the house of Labdacus. The old Greek epic
assigned great importance to the character of Amphiaraus[548] persuaded
by his false wife, Eriphyla, to go forth on the enterprise that should
be his doom; it has even been suggested that he formed the central
character of the poem. If this suggestion be true--and its truth is
exceedingly doubtful--we are confronted with what was in reality only a
false shift, the diversion of the interest from the main issues of the
story to a side issue. The _Iliad_ cannot be quoted in his defence;
there we have an episode of a ten years' siege, which in itself
possesses genuine unity and interest. But the Theban epic comprises the
whole story of the expedition of the seven chieftains, and it is idle to
make Amphiaraus the central figure. In any case the prominence given to
the fortunes of the house of Labdacus by the great Greek dramatists, and
the genius with which they brought out the genuinely dramatic issues of
the legend, had made it impossible for after-comers to take any save the
Labdacidae for the chief actors in their story. And so from Antimachus
onward Polynices and Eteocles are the tragic figures of the epic.

To give unity to this story all our attention must be concentrated on
Thebes. The enlistment of Adrastus in the cause of Polynices must be
described, and following this the gathering of the hosts of Argos. But
when once the Argive demands are rejected by Thebes, the poet's chief
aim must be to get his army to Thebes with all speed, and set it in
battle array against the enemy. Once at Thebes, there is plenty of room
for tragic power and stirring narrative. First comes the ineffectual
attempt of Jocasta to reconcile her scarce human sons; then comes the
battle, with the gradual overthrow of the chieftains of Argos, the
turning of the scale of battle in favour of Thebes by the sacrifice of
Menoeceus, and last the crowning combat between the brothers. There,
from the artistic standpoint, the story finds its ending. It could
never have been other than forbidding, but it need not have lacked
power. Unfortunately, precedent did not allow the story to end there.
The Thebans forbid burial to the Argive dead; Antigone transgresses the
edict by burying her brother Polynices, and finds death the reward of
her piety; Theseus and the Athenians come to Adrastus' aid, defeat the
Thebans, and bury the Argive dead, while as a sop to Argive feeling
they are promised their revenge in after years, when the children of
the dead have grown to man's estate. If it were felt that the deadly
struggle between the two brothers closed the epic on a note of
unrelieved gloom and horror, there was perhaps something to be said for
introducing the story of Antigone's self-sacrifice, and closing on a
note of tragic beauty. Unhappily, the story of Antigone involved the
introduction of material sufficient for one, if not two fresh epics in
the legend of the Athenian War and the triumphant return of Argos to
the conflict. Antimachus[549] fell into the snare. His vast _Thebais_
told the whole story from the arrival of Polynices at Argos to the
victory of the Epigoni. Nor was he content with this alone, but must
needs clog the action of his poem with long descriptions of the
gathering of the host at Argos, and of their adventures on the march to
Thebes. And so it came about that he consumed twenty-four books in
getting his heroes to Thebes!

The precedent of Antimachus proved fatal to Statius. He did not, it is
true, run to such prolixity as his Greek predecessor; he eliminated the
legend of the Epigoni altogether, only alluding to it once in vague and
general terms; he succeeded in getting the story, down to the burial of
the Argive dead, within the compass of twelve books of not inordinate
length. But it is possible to be prolix without being an Antimachus,
and the prolixity of Statius is quite sufficient. The Argives do not
reach Thebes till half-way through the seventh book,[550] the brothers
do not meet till half-way through the eleventh book. The result is that
the compression of events in the last 300 lines of the eleventh book
and in the last book is almost grotesque; for these 1,100 lines contain
the death of Jocasta, the banishment of Oedipus, the flight of the
Argives, the prohibition to bury the Argive dead, the arrival of the
wives of the vanquished, the devotion of Antigone and Argia, the wife
of Polynices, their detection and sentencing to death, the arrival of
the Athenians under Theseus, the defeat and death of Creon, and the
burial of the fallen. The effect is disastrous. As we have seen, this
appendix to the main story of the feud between the brothers cannot form
a satisfactory conclusion to the story. Treated with the perfunctory
compression of Statius, it becomes flat and ineffective; even the
reader who finds Statius at his best attractive is tempted to throw
down the _Thebais_ in disgust.

It is perhaps in his concluding scenes that we see Statius at his worst,
but his capacity for irrelevance and digression is an almost equally
serious defect. That he should use the conventional supernatural
machinery is natural and permissible, though tedious to the modern
reader, who finds it hard to sympathize with outworn literary
conventions. But there are few epics where divine intervention is
carried to a greater extent than in the _Thebais_.[551] And not content
with the intervention of the usual gods and furies, on two occasions
Statius brings down frigid abstractions from the skies in the shape of
Virtus[552] and Pietas.[553] Again, while auguries and prophecies play a
legitimate part in such a work, nothing can justify, and only the
passion of the Silver Age for the supernatural can explain, the
protraction of the scenes of augury at Thebes and Argos to 114 and 239
lines respectively. Equally disproportionate are the catalogues of the
Argive and the Theban armies, making between them close on 400
lines.[554] Nor is imitation of Vergil the slightest justification for
introducing a night-raid in which Hopleus and Dymas are but pale
reflections of Nisus and Euryalus,[555] for expending 921 lines over the
description of the funeral rites and games in honour of the infant
Opheltes,[556] or putting the irrelevant history of the heroism of
Coroebus in the mouth of Adrastus, merely that it may form a parallel to
the tale of Hercules and Cacus told by Evander.[557] Worst of all is the
enormous digression,[558] consuming no less than 481 lines, where
Hypsipyle narrates the story of the Lemnian massacre. And yet this is
hardly more than a digression in the midst of a digression. The Argive
army are marching on Thebes. Bacchus, desirous to save his native town,
causes a drought in the Peloponnese. The Argives, on the verge of death,
and maddened with thirst, come upon Hypsipyle, the nurse of Opheltes,
the son of Lycurgus, King of Nemea. Hypsipyle leaves her charge to show
them the stream of Langia, which alone has been unaffected by the
drought, and so saves the Argive host. She then at enormous length
narrates to Adrastus the story of her life, how she was daughter of
Thoas, King of Lemnos, and how, when the women of Lesbos slew their
mankind, she alone proved false to their hideous compact, and saved her
father. After describing the arrival of the Argonauts at Lemnos, and her
amour with Jason, to whom she bore two sons, she tells how she was
banished from Lesbos on the discovery that Thoas, her father, still
lived, how she was captured by pirates, and twenty long years since sold
into slavery to Lycurgus. This prodigious narration finished, it is
discovered that a serpent sacred to Jupiter has killed Opheltes.
Lycurgus, hearing the news, would have slain Hypsipyle, but she is
protected by the Argives whom she has saved. Then follows the burial of
Opheltes--henceforth known as Archemorus--and his funeral games.

Now it is not improbable that the story of Opheltes and Hypsipyle
occurred in the old cyclic poem.[559] But that scarcely justifies
Statius in devoting the whole of the fifth and sixth books and some 200
lines of the fourth to the description of an episode so alien to the
main interest of the poem. But if we cannot justify these copious
digressions and irrelevances we can explain them. The _Thebais_ was
written primarily for recitation; many of these episodes which are
hopelessly superfluous to the real story are admirably designed for the
purpose of recitation. The truth is that Statius had many qualifications
for the writing of _epyllia_, few for writing epic on a large scale. He
has therefore sacrificed the whole to its parts, and relies on
brilliance of description to catch the ear of an audience, rather than
on sustained epic dignity and ordered development of his story. But
although he cannot give real unity to his epic, he succeeds, by dint of
his astonishing fluency and his mastery over his instrument, in giving a
specious appearance of unity. The sutures of his story are well
disguised and his inconsistencies of no serious importance. He fails as
an epic writer, but he fails gracefully.

It is, however, possible for an epic to be structurally ineffective and
yet possess high poetic merit. Statius' episodes do not cohere; how far
have they any splendour in their isolation? The answer to the question
must be on the whole unfavourable. The reasons for this are diverse. In
the first place the characters for the most part fail to live. Statius
can give us a vivid impression of the outward semblance of a man; we see
Parthenopaeus and Atys, we see Jocasta and Antigone, we see the struggle
of Eteocles and Polynices vividly enough. But we see them as strangers,
standing out, it is true, from the crowd in which they move, but still
wholly unknown to us. We cannot differentiate Polynices and Eteocles
save that the latter, from the very situation in which he finds himself,
is necessarily the more odious of the two; Polynices would have shown
himself the same, had the fall of the lot given him the first year of
kingship. Jocasta and Antigone, Creon and Menoeceus, Hypsipyle and
Lycurgus, play their parts correctly enough, but they do not live, nor
people our brain with moving images. We are told that they behaved in
such and such a way under such and such circumstances; we are told, and
admit, that such conduct implies certain moral qualities, but Statius
does not make us feel that his characters possess such qualities. The
reason for this lies partly in the fact that they all speak the same
brilliant rhetoric,[560] partly in the fact that Statius lacks the
direct sincerity of diction that is required for the expression of
strong and poignant emotion. Anger he can depict; anger suffers less
than other emotions from rhetoric. Hence it is that he has succeeded in
drawing the character of Tydeus, whose brutality is redeemed from
hideousness by the fact that it is based on the most splendid physical
courage, and fired by strong loyalty to his comrade and sometime foe
Polynices. His accents ring true. When he has gone to Thebes to plead
Polynices' cause, and his demands have been angrily refused by Eteocles,
who concludes by saying (ii. 449),

nec ipsi,
si modo notus amor meritique est gratia, patres
reddere regna sinent,

Nor will the fathers of the city, if they but know the love
I bear them or if they have aught of gratitude, allow me to
give back the kingship.

Tydeus will hear no more, but breaks in with a cry of fury (ii. 452):

ingeminat 'reddes; non si te ferreus agger
ambiat aut triplices alio tibi carmine muros
Amphion auditus agat, nil tela nec ignes
obstiterint, quin ausa luas nostrisque sub armis
captivo moribundus humum diademate pulses.
tu merito; ast horum miseret, quos sanguine viles
coniugibus natisque infanda ad proelia raptos
proicis excidio, bone rex. o quanta Cithaeron
funera sanguineusque vadis, Ismene, rotabis!
haec pietas, haec magna fides! nec crimina gentis
mira equidem duco: sic primus sanguinis auctor
incestique patrum thalami; sed fallit origo:
Oedipodis tu solus eras, haec praemia morum
ac sceleris, violente, feres! nos poscimus annum;
sed moror.' haec audax etiamnum in limine retro
vociferans iam tunc impulsa per agmina praeceps

'Thou shalt give it back,' he cries, 'thou shalt give it back.
Though thou wert girdled with a wall of bronze, or Amphion's
voice be heard and with a new song raise triple bulwarks about
thee; fire and sword should not save thee from the doom of thy
daring, and, struck down by our swords, thy diadem should smite
the ground as thou fallest dying, our captive. Thus shouldst
_thou_ have thy desert; but _these_ I pity, whose blood thou
ratest lightly, and whom thou snatchest from their children and
their wives to give them over to death, thou virtuous king. What
vast slaughter, Cithaeron, and thou, Ismenus, shalt thou see
whirl down thy blood-stained shallows. This is thy piety, this
thy true faith! nor marvel I at the crimes of such a race: 'twas
for this that thou hadst such an author of thy being, for this
thy father's marriage-bed was stained with incest. But thou art
deceived as to thine own birth and thy brother's; thou alone
wast begotten of Oedipus, that shall be the reward for thy nature
and thy crime, fierce man. We ask but for a year! But I tarry over
long.' These words he shouted back at him while he still lingered
on the threshold; then headlong burst through the crowd of foemen
and sped away.

As he is here, so is he always, unwavering in decision, prompt of speech
and of action. Caught in ambush, ill-armed and solitary, by the
treacherous Thebans, as he returns from his futile embassy, he never
hesitates; he seizes the one point of vantage, crushes his foes, and
when he speaks, speaks briefly and to the point. He spares the last of
his fifty assailants and sends him back to Thebes with a message of
defiance, brief, natural, and manly (ii. 697):

quisquis es Aonidum, quem crastina munere nostro
manibus exemptum mediis Aurora videbit,
haec iubeo perferre duci: cinge aggere portas,
tela nova, fragiles aevo circum inspice muros,
praecipue stipare viros densasque memento
multiplicare acies! fumantem hunc aspice late
ense meo campum: tales in bella venimus.

Whoe'er thou art of the Aonides, whom to-morrow's dawn shall
see saved from the world of the dead by my boon, I bid thee
bear this message to thy chief: 'Raise mounds about the gates,
forge new weapons, look to your walls that crumble with years,
and above all be mindful to marshal thick and multiply thine
hosts! Behold this plain smoking with the work of my sword.
Such men are we when we enter the field of battle.'

On his return to Argos he bursts impetuously into the palace, crying
fiercely for war.[561] When Lycurgus would slay Hypsipyle for her
neglect of her nursling, he saves her.[562] She has preserved the Argive
army, and Tydeus, if he never forgives an enemy, never forgets a friend.
He alone defeats the entreaties of Jocasta[563] and launches the hosts
of Argos into battle; and when his own doom is come, he dies as he had
lived, _impiger, iracundus, inexorabilis_; he has no thought for
himself; he cares nought for due burial (viii. 736):

non ossa precor referantur ut Argos
Aetolumve larem; nec enim mihi cura supremi
funeris: odi artus fragilemque hunc corporis usum,
desertorem animi.

I ask not that my bones be borne home to Argos or Aetolia;
I care not for my last rites of funeral; I hate these limbs
and this frail tenement, my body, that fails my spirit in
its hour of need.

His one thought is for vengeance on the dead body of the man who has
slain him[564] and for the victory of his comrades in arms.

Only one other of the heroes has any real existence, the prophet
Amphiaraus. Statius does not give him the prominence that he held in the
original epic, and misses a noble opportunity by almost ignoring the
dramatic story of Eriphyla and the necklace that won her to persuade her
husband to go forth to certain death. But the heroic warrior priest of
Apollo, who knows his doom and yet faces it fearlessly, could not fail
to be a picturesque figure, and at least in the hour of his death
Statius has done him full justice. Apollo, disguised as a mortal, mounts
the chariot of Amphiaraus and drives him through the midst of the
battle, dealing destruction on this side and that (vii. 770):

tandem se famulo summum confessus Apollo
'utere luce tua longamque' ait, 'indue famam,
dum tibi me iunctum mors inrevocata veretur.
vincimur: immites scis nulla revolvere Parcas
stamina; vade, diu populis promissa voluptas
Elysiis, certe non perpessure Creontis
imperia aut vetito nudus iaciture sepulcro.'
ille refert contra, et paulum respirat ab armis:
'olim te, Cirrhaee pater, peritura sedentem
ad iuga (quis tantus miseris honor?) axe trementi
sensimus; instantes quonam usque morabere manes?
audio iam rapidae cursum Stygis atraque Ditis
flumina tergeminosque mali custodis hiatus.
accipe commissum capiti decus, accipe laurus,
quas Erebo deferre nefas. nunc voce suprema,
si qua recessuro debetur gratia vati,
deceptum tibi, Phoebe, larem poenasque nefandae
coniugis et pulchrum nati commendo furorem.'
desiluit maerens lacrimasque avertit Apollo.

At length Apollo revealed himself to his servant. 'Use,' he
said, 'the light of life that is left thee and win an age of
fame while thy doom still unrepealed shrinks back in awe of me.
The foemen conquer: thou knowest the cruel fates never unravel
the threads they weave: go forward, thou, the promised darling
of the peoples of Elysium; for surely thou shalt ne'er endure
the tyranny of Creon, or lie naked, denied a grave.' He answered,
pausing awhile from the fray: 'Long since, lord of Cirrha, the
trembling axle told me that 'twas thou sat'st by my doomed steeds.
Why honourest thou a wretched mortal thus? How long wilt thou
delay the advancing dead? Even now I hear the course of headlong
Styx, and the dark streams of death, and the triple barking of
the accursed guard of hell. Take now thine honours bound about my
brow, take now the laurel crown I may not bear down unto Erebus:
now with my last utterance, if aught of thanks thou owest thy
seer that now must pass away, to thee I trust my wronged hearth,
the doom of my accursed wife, and the noble madness of my son
(Alcmaeon).' Apollo leapt from the car in grief and strove to
hide his tears.

An earthquake shakes the plain; the warriors shrink from
battle in terror at the thunder from under-ground; when

ecce alte praeceps humus ore profundo
dissilit, inque vicem timuerunt sidera et umbrae.
illum ingens haurit specus et transire parantes
mergit equos; non arma manu, non frena remisit:
sicut erat, rectos defert in Tartara currus
respexitque cadens caelum campumque coire
ingemuit, donec levior distantia rursus
miscuit arva tremor lucemque exclusit Averno.

Lo! the earth gaped sheer and deep with vast abyss, and the stars
of heaven and the shades of the dead trembled with one accord: a
vast chasm drew him down and swallowed his steeds as they made
ready to leap the gulf: he loosed not the grip on rein or spear,
but, as he was, carried his car steadfast to Tartarus, and, as he
fell, gazed up to heaven and groaned to see the plain close above
him, till a lighter shock once more united the gaping fields and
shut out the light from hell.

Here we see Statius at his highest level, whether in point of metre,
diction, or poetic imagination.

Of the other characters there is little to be said. For all the wealth
of detail that Statius has lavished on them, they are featureless.
Adrastus is a colourless and respectable old king, strongly reminiscent
of Latinus. Capaneus and Hippomedon are terrific warriors of gigantic
stature and truculent speech, but they are wholly uninteresting. Argia
and Jocasta are too rhetorical, Antigone too slight a figure to be
really pathetic; Oedipus can do little save curse, which he does with
some rhetorical vigour; but the gift of cursing hardly makes a
character. Parthenopaeus, however, is a pathetic figure; he is an
Arcadian, the son of Atalanta, a mere boy whom a romantic ambition has
hurried into war ere his years were ripe for it. His dying speech is
touching, though it errs on the side of triviality and mere prettiness
(ix. 877):

at puer infusus sociis in devia campi
tollitur (heu simplex aetas!) moriensque iacentem
flebat equum; cecidit laxata casside vultus,
aegraque per trepidos exspirat gratia visus,
* * * * *
ibat purpureus niveo de pectore sanguis.
tandem haec singultu verba incidente profatur:
'labimur, i, miseram, Dorceu, solare parentem.
illa quidem, si vera ferunt praesagia curae,
aut somno iam triste nefas aut omine vidit.
tu tamen arte pia trepidam suspende diuque
decipito; neu tu subitus neve arma tenenti
veneris, et tandem, cum iam cogere fateri,
dic: "Merui, genetrix, poenas invita capesse;
arma puer rapui, nec te retinente quievi,
nec tibi sollicitae tandem inter bella peperci.
vive igitur potiusque animis irascere nostris,
et iam pone metus. frustra de colle Lycaei
anxia prospectas, si quis per nubila longe
aut sonus aut nostro sublatus ab agmine pulvis:
frigidus et nuda iaceo tellure, nec usquam
tu prope, quae vultus efflantiaque ora teneres.
hunc tamen, orba parens, crinem"--dextraque secandum
praebuit--"hunc toto capies pro corpore crinem,
comere quem frustra me dedignante solebas.
huic dabis exsequias, atque inter iusta memento,
ne quis inexpertis hebetet mea tela lacertis
dilectosque canes ullis agat amplius antris.
haec autem primis arma infelicia castris
ure, vel ingratae crimen suspende Dianae."'

But the boy fell into his comrades' arms and they bore him
to a place apart. Alas for his tender years! As he died, he
wept for his fallen horse: his face drooped as they unbound
his helmet, and a fading grace passed faintly o'er his
quivering visage....

The purple blood flowed from his breast of snow. At length he
spake these words through sobs that checked his utterance: 'My
life is falling from me; go, Dorceus, comfort my unhappy mother:
she indeed, if care and sorrow can give foreknowledge, has seen
my woeful fate in dreams or through some omen; yet do thou with
loving art keep her terrors in suspense and long hold back the
truth; and come not upon her suddenly, nor when she hath a weapon
in her hands; but when at last the truth must out, say: "Mother,
I deserved my doom; I am punished, though my punishment break thy
heart. I rushed to arms too young, and abode not at home when
thou wouldst restrain me: nor had I any pity for thine anguish in
the day of battle. Live on then, and keep thine anger for my
headstrong courage and fear no more for me. In vain thou gazest
from the Lycaean height, if any sound perchance may be borne from
far to thine ear through the clouds, or thine eye have sight of
the dust raised by our homeward march. I lie cold upon the bare
earth, and thou art nowhere nigh to hold my head as my lips
breathe farewell. Yet, childless mother, take this lock of hair"--
and in his right hand he stretched it out to be cut away--"take
this poor lock in place of my whole body, this lock of that hair
which thou didst tire in my despite. To it shalt thou give due
burial and remember this also as my due; let no man blunt my
spears with unskilful cast, nor any more drive the hounds I loved
through any caverned glen. But this mine armour, whose first
battle hath brought disaster, burn thou, or hang it to be a
reproach to Dian's ingratitude."'

When we have said that Parthenopaeus is almost too young to have been
accepted as a leader, or have performed the feats of war assigned to
him, we have said all that can be said against this beautiful speech.
Parthenopaeus is for the _Thebais_ what Camilla is for the _Aeneid_,
though he presents at times hints both of Pallas and Euryalus. But he
is little more than a child, and fails to carry the conviction or
awaken the deep emotion excited by the Amazon of Vergil.[565]

Statius then, with a few striking exceptions, fails in his portrayal
of life and character. On the whole--one says it with reluctance in
view of his brilliant variety, his boundless invention, his wealth of
imagery--the same is true of his descriptions. The picture is too
crowded; he has not the unerring eye for the relevant or salient
points of a scene. Skilful and faithful touches abound, but, as in the
case of certain pre-Raphaelite pictures, extreme attention to detail
causes him to miss the full scenic effect. He is not sufficiently the
impressionist; he cannot suggest--a point in which he presents a strong
contrast to Valerius Flaccus. And too many of his incidents, in spite
of ingenious variation of detail, are but echoes of Vergil. The
foot-race and the archery contest at the funeral games of Archemorus,
together with the episode of Dymas and Hopleus,[566] to which we have
already referred, are perhaps the most marked examples of this
unfortunate characteristic. We are continually saying to ourselves as
we read the _Thebais_, 'All this has been before!' We weary at times
of the echoes of Homer in Vergil, and the combats that stirred us in
the _Iliad_ make us drowsy in the _Aeneid_. Homer knew what fighting
was from personal experience, or at least from being in touch with
warriors who had killed their man. Vergil had come no nearer these
things than 'in the pages of a book '. Statius is yet one remove
further from the truth than Vergil. He is tied hand and foot by his
intimate acquaintance with previous poetic literature. If he is less
the victim of the schools of rhetoric than many post-Augustan writers,
he is more than most the victim of the poetic training of the schools.
But with all these faults there are passages which surprise us by their
effectiveness. It would be hard to imagine anything more vigorous and
exciting than the fight of Tydeus ambushed by his fifty foes. The
opening passage is splendidly successful in creating the requisite
atmosphere (ii. 527):

coeperat umenti Phoebum subtexere palla
Nox et caeruleam terris infuderat umbram.
ille propinquabat silvis et ab aggere celso
scuta virum galeasque videt rutilare comantes,
qua laxant rami nemus adversaque sub umbra
flammeus aeratis lunae tremor errat in armis.
obstipuit visis, ibat tamen, horrida tantum
spicula et inclusum capulo tenus admovet ensem.
ac prior unde, viri, quidve occultatis in armis?'
non humili terrore rogat. nec reddita contra
vox, fidamque negant suspecta silentia pacem.

Night began to shroud Phoebus with her humid pall and shed
her blue darkness o'er the earth. He drew nigh the forest,
and from a high knoll espied the gleam of warriors' shields
and plumed helmets, where the boughs of the wood left a space,
and in the shadow before him the quivering fire of the moonbeam
played o'er their brazen armour. Dumbstruck at what he saw, he
yet pursued his way, only he made ready for the fight his
bristling javelins and the sword sheathed to its hilt. He was
the first to speak: 'Whence come ye?' he asked, in fear, yet
haughty still. 'And why hide ye thus armoured for the fray?'
There came no answer, and their ominous silence told him no
peace nor loyalty was there.

The fight that follows, though it occupies more than 160 lines, is
intensely rapid and vigorous; indeed it is the one genuinely exciting
combat in Latin epic, and forms a refreshing contrast to the
pseudo-Homeric or pseudo-Vergilian combats before the walls of Thebes.
In no other portion of the _Thebais_ does Statius attain to such
success, with the exception of the passage already quoted descriptive of
the death of Amphiaraus. But there are other passages of sustained
merit, such as the vigorous description of the struggle of Hippomedon
with the waters of Ismenus and Asopus.[5671] While it is not
particularly interesting to those acquainted with the corresponding
passage in the _Iliad_, it would be unjust to deny the gifts of vigour
and invention to the Latin poet's imitation.

It is, however, rather in smaller and more minute pictures that Statius
as a rule excels. The picture of the baby Opheltes left by his nurse is
pretty enough (iv. 787):

at puer in gremio vernae telluris et alto
gramine nunc faciles sternit procursibus herbas
in vultum nitens, caram modo lactis egeno
nutricem plangore ciens iterumque renidens
et teneris meditans verba inluctantia labris
miratur nemorum strepitus aut obvia carpit
aut patulo trahit ore diem nemorisque malorum
inscius et vitae multum securus inerrat.

But the child, lying face downward in the bosom of the vernal
earth, now as he crawls in the deep herbage lays low the
yielding grass; now cries for his loved nurse athirst for milk,
and then, all smiles again, with infant lips frames words in
stumbling speech, marvels at the sounds of the woods, gathers
what lies before him, or open-mouthed drinks in the day; and
knowing naught of the dangers of the woods, with ne'er a care
in life, roams here and there.

Fine, too, in a different way is the sinister picture of Eteocles left
sole king in Thebes (i. 165):

quis tunc tibi, saeve,
quis fuit ille dies, vacua cum solus in aula
respiceres ius omne tuum cunctosque minores
et nusquam par stare caput?

Ah! what a day was that for thee, fierce heart, when, sitting
alone amid thy courtiers, thy brother gone from thee, thou
sawest thyself enthroned above all men, with all things in thy
power, without a peer.

Less poetical, but scarcely less effective, is the description of the
compact between the brothers (i. 138):

alterni placuit sub legibus anni
exsilio mutare ducem. sic iure maligno
fortunam transire iubent, ut sceptra tenentem
foedere praecipiti semper novus angeret heres.
haec inter fratres pietas erat, haec mora pugnae
sola nec in regem perduratura secundum.

It was resolved that in alternate years the king should quit
his throne for exile. Thus with baneful ordinance they bade
fortune pass from one to the other, that he who held the
sceptre on these brief terms should ever be vexed by the
thought of his successor's coming. Such was the brothers'
love, such the sole bond that kept them from conflict, a bond
that should not last till the kingship changed.

But far beyond all other portraits in Statius is the description of
Jocasta as she approaches the Argive camp on her mission of
reconciliation (vii. 474):

ecce truces oculos sordentibus obsita canis
exsangues Iocasta genas et bracchia planctu
nigra ferens ramumque oleae cum velleris atri
nexibus, Eumenidum velut antiquissima, portis
egreditur magna cum maiestate malorum.

Lo! Jocasta, her white hair streaming unkempt over her wild
eyes, her cheeks all pale, her arms bruised by the beating
of her anguished hands, bearing an olive-branch hung with
black wool, came forth from the gates in semblance like to
the eldest of the Eumenides, in all the majesty of her many

In this last line we have one of the very few lines in Statius that
attain to real grandeur. In the lack of such lines, and in the lack of
real breadth of treatment lies Statius' chief defect as a narrator. All
that dexterity can do he does; but he lacks the supreme gifts, the
selective eye and the penetrating imagination of the great poet.

Of his actual diction and ornament little need be said. Without being
precisely straightforward, he is not, as a rule, obscure. But his
language gradually produces a feeling of oppression. He can be read in
short passages without this feeling; the moment, however, the reader
takes his verse in considerable quantities, the continued, though only
slight, over-elaboration of the work produces a feeling of strain.
Throughout there runs a vein of artificiality which ultimately gives the
impression of insincerity. He can turn out phrases of the utmost nicety.
Nothing can be more neatly turned than the description of the feelings
of Antigone and Ismene on the outbreak of the war (viii. 614):

nutat utroque timor, quemnam hoc certamine victum,
quem vicisse velint: tacite praeponderat exsul;

Their fears incline this way and that: whom would they have the
conqueror in the strife, whom the vanquished? All unconfessed
the exile has their prayers.

or than the line describing the parting of the Lemnian women from the
Argonauts, their second husbands (v. 478):

heu iterum gemitus, iterumque novissima nox est.

Alas! once more the hour of lamentation is near, once more is
come the last night of wedded sleep.

But this neatness often degenerates into preciosity, _bellator campus_
means a field suitable for battle (viii. 377). Nisus, the king of
Megara, with the talismanic purple lock, becomes a _senex purpureus_ (i.
334); an embrace is described by the words _alterna pectora mutant_ (v.
722); a woman nearing her time is one _iustos cuius pulsantia menses
vota tument_ (v. 115). We have already noted a similar tendency in
Valerius Flaccus; such phrase-making is not a badge of any one poet, it
is a sign of the times. In the case of Statius there is perhaps less
obscurity and less positive extravagance than in any of his
contemporaries, but whether as regards description or phrase-making,
there is always a suspicion of his work being pitched--if the phrase is
permissible--a tone too high. This is, perhaps, particularly noticeable
in his similes. They are very numerous, and he has obviously expended
great trouble over them. But, with very few exceptions, they are
failures. The cause lies mainly in their lack of variety. There are, for
instance, no less than sixteen similes drawn from bulls, twelve from
lions, six from tigers.[568] None of these similes show any close
observance of nature, and in any case the poetic interest of bulls,
lions, and tigers is far from inexhaustible. It is less reprehensible
that twenty similes should be drawn from storms, which have a more
cogent interest and greater picturesque value. But even here Statius has
overshot the mark. This lack of variety testifies to a real dearth of
poetic imagination, and this failing is noticeable also in the
execution. There is rarely a simile containing anything that awakens
either imagination, emotion, or thought. Still, to give Statius his due,
there _are_ exceptions, such as the simile comparing Parthenopaeus, seen
in all his beauty among his comrades, to the reflections of the evening
star outshining the reflections of the lesser stars in the waveless sea
(vi. 578):

sic ubi tranquillo perlucent sidera ponto
vibraturque fretis caeli stellantis imago,
omnia clara nitent, sed clarior omnia supra
Hesperus exsertat radios, quantusque per altum
aethera, caeruleis tantus monstratur in undis.

So when the stars are glassed in the tranquil deep and the
reflection of the starry sky quivers in the waves, all the
stars shine clear, but clearer than all doth Hesperus send
forth his rays; and as he gleams in the high heavens, even
so bright do the blue waters show him forth.

The comparison is. a little strained and far-fetched. The reflection of
stars in the sea is not quite so noticeable or impressive as Statius
would have us believe. But there is real beauty both in the conception
and the execution of the simile. Of more indisputable excellence is the
comparison in the eleventh book (443), where Adrastus, flying from
Thebes in humiliation and defeat, is likened to Pluto, when he first
entered on his kingdom of the underworld, his lordship over the
strengthless dead--

demissus curru laevae post praemia sortis
umbrarum custos mundique novissimus heres
palluit, amisso veniens in Tartara caelo.

Even as the warden of the shades, the third heir of the world,
when he entered on the realm that the unkind lot had given him,
leapt from his car and turned pale, for heaven was lost and he
was at the gate of hell.

The picture is Miltonic, and Pluto is for a brief moment almost an
anticipation of the Satan of _Paradise Lost_.

The metre, like that of Valerius Flaccus, draws its primary
inspiration from Vergil, but has been strongly influenced by the
_Metamorphoses_ of Ovid. There are fewer elisions in Statius than in
Vergil, and more dactyls.[569] He is, however, less dactylic than
Valerius Flaccus and Ovid. In his management of pauses he is far more
successful than any epic writer, with the exception of Vergil. As a
result, he is far less monotonous than Ovid, Lucan, or Valerius. The
one criticism that can be levelled against him is that his verse,
while possessing rapidity and vigour, is not sufficiently adapted to
the varying emotions that his story demands, and that it shows a
consequent lack of nobility and stateliness. For the _Silvae_ his
metre is admirably adapted. It is light and almost sprightly, and the
poet can let himself go. He was not blind to the requirements of the
epic metre even if he did not satisfy them, and in his lighter verse
there is a notable increase of fluency and ease.

The _Thebais_ is a work whose value it is difficult to estimate. Its
undeniable merits are never quite such that we can accord it
whole-hearted praise; its cleverness commands our wonder, while its
defects are not such as to justify a sweeping condemnation. But it must
be remembered that epic must be very good if it is to avoid failure, and
it is probable that there are few works on which such skill and labour
have been expended without any proportionate success. An attempt has
been made in the preceding pages to indicate the main reasons for the
failure of the _Thebais_. One more reason may perhaps be added here.
Over and above the poet's lack of originality and the highest poetic
imagination, over and above his distracting echoes and his
artificiality, there is a lack of moral fire and insight about the poem.
Statius gives us but a surface view of life. He had never plumbed the
depths of human passion nor realized anything of the mystery of the
world. His reader never derives from him the consciousness, that he so
often derives from Vergil, of a 'deep beyond the deep, and a height
beyond the height'. He has neither the virtues of the mystic nor of the
realist. Ultimately, life is for him a pageant with intervals for
sentimental threnodies and rhetorical declamation.

The same qualities characterize the _Achilleis_ and still more the
_Silvae_. The _Achilleis_ was to have comprised the whole life of
Achilles. Only the first book and 167 lines of the second were composed.
They tell how Thetis endeavoured to withhold Achilles from the Trojan
War by disguising him as a girl and sending him to Scyros, how he became
the lover of Deidamia, the king's daughter, was discovered by the wiles
of Ulysses, and set forth on the expedition to Troy. The fragment is not
unpleasant reading, but contains little that is noteworthy.[570] The
style is simpler, less precious, and less rhetorical than that of the
_Thebais_. But it lacks the vigour as well as many of the faults of the
earlier poem. There is nothing to make us regret that the poet died
before its completion; there is something to be thankful for in the fact
that he did not live to challenge direct comparison with Homer.

The _Silvae_, on the other hand, is a work of considerable interest.
The meaning of the word _silva_, in the literary sense, is 'raw
material' or 'rough draft'. It then came to be used to mean a work
composed at high speed on the spur of the moment, differing in fact but
little from an improvisation.[571] That these poems correspond to this
definition will be seen from Statius' preface to book i: 'hos libellos,
qui mihi subito calore et quadam festinandi voluptate fluxerunt....
Nullum ex illis biduo longius tractum, quaedam et in singulis diebus
effusa.' There are thirty-two poems in all, divided into five books.
The fifth is incomplete; and, if we may judge from the unfinished state
of its preface, was published after the author's death. The poems are
extremely varied in subject, and to a lesser degree in metre,
hendecasyllables, alcaics, and sapphics being found as well as
hexameters. They comprise poems in praise of the appearance and the
achievements of Domitian,[572] consolations to friends and patrons for
the loss of relatives or favourite slaves,[573] lamentations of the
poet or his friends for the death of dear ones,[574] letters on various
subjects,[575] thanksgivings for the safety of friends,[576] and
farewells to them on their departure,[577] descriptions of villas and
the like built by his acquaintances,[578] an epithalamium,[579] an ode
commemorating the birthday of Lucan,[580] the description of a
statuette of Hercules,[581] poems on the deaths of a parrot and a
lion,[582] and a remarkable invocation to Sleep.[583] One and all,
these poems show abnormal cleverness. These slighter subjects were far
better suited to the poet's powers. His miniature painting was in
place, his sprightly and dexterous handling of the hexameter and the
hendecasyllable could be more profitably employed. Yet here, too, his
artificiality is a serious blemish, his lamentations for the loss of
the _pueri delicati_ of friends do not, and can hardly be expected to,
ring true, and the same blemish affects even the poems where he laments
his own loss. Further, the poems addressed to Domitian are fulsome to
the verge of nausea;[584] the beauty of the emperor is such that all
the great artists of the past would have vied with one another in
depicting his features; his eyes are like stars; his equestrian statue
is so glorious that at night (i. 1. 95)

cum superis terrena placent, tua turba relicto
labetur caelo miscebitque oscula iuxta.
ibit in amplexus natus fraterque paterque
et soror: una locum cervix dabit omnibus astris.

When heaven takes its joy of earth, thy kin shall leave
heaven and glide down to earth and kiss thee face to face.
Thy son and sister, thy brother and thy sire, shall come to
thy embrace; and about thy sole neck shall all the stars of
heaven find a place.

The poem on the emperor's sexless favourite, Earinus, can scarcely be
quoted here. Without being definitely coarse, it succeeds in being one
of the most disgusting productions in the whole range of literature.
The emperor who can accept flattery of such a kind has certainly
qualified for assassination. The lighter poems are almost distressingly
trivial, and it is but a poor excuse to plead that such triviality was
imposed by the artificial social life of the day and the jealous
tyranny of Domitian. Moreover, the tendency to preciosity, which was
kept in check in the _Thebais_ by the requirements of epic, here has
full play. The death of a boy in his fifteenth year is described as
follows (ii. 6, 70):

vitae modo cardine adultae
nectere temptabat iuvenum pulcherrimus ille
cum tribus Eleis unam trieterida lustris.

Come now to the turning-point where boyhood becomes manhood,
he, the fairest of youths, was on the point of linking three
olympiads (twelve years) with a space of three years.

Writers of elegiac verse are addressed as (i. 2. 250)

'qui nobile gressu
extremo fraudatis opus'.

Ye that cheat the noble march of your verse of its last stride.

A new dawn is expressed by an astounding periphrasis (iv. 6. 15):

ab Elysiis prospexit sedibus alter
Castor et hesternas risit Tithonia mensas.

Castor in turn looked forth from the halls of Elysium and
Tithonus' bride made merry over yesterday's feasts. [Castor
and Pollux lived on alternate days.]

There is, in fact, no limit in these poems to Statius' luxuriance in
far-fetched and often obscure mythological allusions. In spite, however,
of such cardinal defects as these, the _Silvae_ present a brilliant
though superficial picture of the cultured society of the day and
contain much that is pretty, and something that is poetic.[585] Take,
for instance, the poem in which the poet writes to console Atedius
Melior for the death of his favourite Glaucias, a _puer delicatus_. The
work is hopelessly clever and hopelessly insincere. Statius exaggerates
at once the charms of the dead boy and the grief of Atedius and himself.
But at the conclusion he works up an old commonplace into a very pretty
piece of verse. He has been describing the reception of Glaucias in the
underworld (ii. 1. 208):

hic finis rapto! quin tu iam vulnera sedas
et tollis mersum luctu caput? omnia functa
aut moritura vides: obeunt noctesque diesque
astraque, nee solidis prodest sua machina terris.
nam populos, mortale genus, plebisque caducae
quis fleat interitus? hos bella, hos aequora poscunt;
his amor exitio, furor his et saeva cupido,
ut sileam morbos; hos ora rigentia Brumae,
illos implacido letalis Sirius igni,
hos manet imbrifero pallens Autumnus hiatu.
quicquid init ortus, finem timet. ibimus omnes,
ibimus: immensis urnam quatit Aeacus ulnis.
ast hic quem gemimus, felix hominesque deosque
et dubios casus et caecae lubrica vitae
effugit, immunis fatis. non ille rogavit,
non timuit meruitve mori: nos anxia plebes,
nos miseri, quibus unde dies suprema, quis aevi
exitus incertum, quibus instet fulmen ab astris,
quae nubes fatale sonet.

Such is the rest thy lost darling has won. Come, soothe thine
anguish and lift up thy head that droops with woe. Thou seest
all things dead or soon to die. Day and night and stars all
pass away, nor shall its massive fabric save the world from
destruction. As for the tribes of earth, this mortal race, and
the death of multitudes all doomed to pass away, why bewail them?
Some war, some ocean, demands for its prey: some die of love,
others of madness, others of fierce desire, to say naught of
pestilence: some winter's freezing breath, others the baleful
Sirius' cruel fire, others again pale autumn, gaping with rainy
maw, awaits for doom: all that hath birth must tremble before
death: we all must go, must go: Aeacus shakes the urn of fate in
his vast arms. But this child, whom we bewail, is happy, and has
escaped the power of men and gods, the strokes of chance, and the
slippery paths of our dark life: fate cannot touch him: he did not
ask, nor fear, nor deserve to die. But we poor anxious rabble, we
miserable men, know not whence our last day shall come, what shall
be the end of life, for whom the thunderbolt shall bring death from
the starry sky, nor what cloud shall roar forth our doom.

There is nothing great about such work, but it is a neat and elegant
treatment of a familiar theme, while the phrase _non ille rogavit, non
timuit meruitve mori_ has a pathos worthy of a better cause.[586] Far
more suited, however, to the genius of Statius, with its lack of
inspiration, its marvellous polish, and its love of minutiae, are the
descriptions of villas, temples, baths, and works of art in which he so
frequently indulges. The poem on the statuette of Hercules (ii. 6) is a
wonder of cunning craftsmanship, the poems on the baths of Etruscus,
the villa of Vopiscus at Tibur, and of Pollius at Surrentum, for all
their exaggeration and affectation, reveal a genuine love for the
beauties of art and nature. It is true that he shows a preference for
nature trimmed by the hand of man, but his pleasure is genuine and its
expression often delicate. Who would not delight to live in a house
such as Pollius had built at Sorrento (ii. 2. 45)?--

haec domus ortus
aspicit et Phoebi tenerum iubar; illa cadentem
detinet exactamque negat dimittere lucem,
cum iam fessa dies et in aequora montis opaci
umbra cadit vitreoque natant praetoria ponto.
haec pelagi clamore fremunt, haec tecta sonoros
ignorant fluctus terraeque silentia malunt.
* * * * *
quid mille revolvam
culmina visendique vices? sua cuique voluptas
atque omni proprium thalamo mare, transque iacentem
Nerea diversis servit sua terra fenestris.

One chamber looks to the east and the young beam of Phoebus;
one stays him as he falls and will not part with the expiring
light, when the day is outworn and the shadow of the dark mount
falls athwart the deep, and the great castle swims reflected in
the glassy sea. These chambers are full of the sound of ocean,
those know not the roaring waves, but rather love the silence of
the land.... Why should I recount thy thousand roofs and every
varied view? Each has a joy that is its own: each chamber has
its own sea, and each several window its own tract of land seen
across the sea beneath.

We cannot, perhaps, share his enthusiasm in the minute description that
follows of the coloured marbles used in the decoration of the house, and
his panegyric of Pollius leaves us cold, but we quit the poem with a
pleasant impression of the Bay of Naples and of the poet who loved it so
well. It recalls in its way the charming, if over-elaborate and
exaggerated, landscapes of the younger Pliny in his letters on the
source of the Clitumnus and on his Tuscan and Laurentine villas.[587]
But it is in two poems of a very different kind that the _Silvae_ reach
their high-water mark. The _Genethliacon_ _Lucani_, despite its
artificial form and the literary conventions with which it is
overloaded, reveals a genuine enthusiasm for the dead poet, and is
couched in language of the utmost grace and verse of extraordinary
melody; the hendecasyllables of Statius lack the poignant vigour of the
Catullan hendecasyllables, but they have a music of their own which is
scarcely less remarkable.[588] The lament of Calliope for her lost
nursling will hold its own with anything of a similar kind produced by
the Silver Age (ii 7. 88):

'o saevae nimium gravesque Parcae!
o numquam data longa fata summis!
cur plus, ardua, casibus patetis?
cur saeva vice magna non senescunt?
sic natum Nasamonii Tonantis
post ortus obitusque fulminatos
angusto Babylon premit sepulcro.
sic fixum Paridis manu trementis
Peliden Thetis horruit cadentem.
sic ripis ego murmurantis Hebri
non mutum caput Orpheos sequebar
sic et tu (rabidi nefas tyranni!)
iussus praecipitem subire Lethen,
dum pugnas canis arduaque voce
das solatia grandibus sepulcris,
(o dirum scelus! o scelus!) tacebis.'
sic fata est leviterque decidentes
abrasit lacrimas nitente plectro.

'Ah! fates severe and all too cruel! O life that for our
noblest ne'er is long! Why are earth's loftiest most prone to
fall? Why by hard fate do her great ones ne'er grow old? Even
so the Nasamonian Thunderer's son like lightning rose, like
lightning passed away, and now is laid in a narrow tomb at
Babylon. So Thetis shuddered, when the son of Peleus fell
transfixed by Paris' coward hand. So I, too, by the banks of
murmuring Hebrus followed the head of Orpheus that could not
cease from song. So now must thou--out on the mad tyrant's
crime!--go down untimely to the wave of Lethe, and while thou
singest of war and with lofty strain givest comfort to the
sepulchres of the mighty,--O infamy, O monstrous infamy!--art
doomed to sudden silence.' So spake she, and with gleaming
quill wiped away the tears that gently fell.

But more beautiful as pure poetry, and indeed unique in Latin, is the
well-known invocation to Sleep (v. 4):

crimine quo merui iuvenis,[589] placidissime divum,
quove errore miser, donis ut solus egerem,
Somne, tuis? tacet omne pecus volucresque feraeque
et simulant fessos curvata cacumina somnos,

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