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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Cranston Lawton (1853–1941)

By Statius (c. 45–c. 96 A.D.)

PUBLIUS PAPINIUS STATIUS, epic, lyric, and dramatic poet, was born at Naples about the middle, and died there about the end, of the first century A.D. Neither date can be fixed. His last volume of verse was published at Naples in 95. He flourished especially however at Rome, under the capricious and cruel emperor Domitian. He and Martial testify eloquently to their mutual jealousy by making no mention each of the other. Juvenal marks him as a thriftless adventurer; saying he might well have starved had not Paris, the popular actor, bought his farce. Of these things we know no more. Statius himself launched his hopes of eternal fame with his long-wrought epic on the tragical story of Thebes.

The four ponderous epics still extant, dating from the first century of our era, give us little reason to regret the loss of the numberless heavy galleons besides that have sunk into utter forgetfulness. Whether patriotically Roman in subject, like the ventures of Lucan and Silius Italicus, or rebuilt from Greek materials like Valerius Flaccus’s ‘Argonautica’ and Statius’s ‘Thebaid,’ the four survivors plainly follow the track of the stately flagship, the ‘Æneid’—but far and far astern!

For several reasons there is perhaps no passage in the poem more pleasing than the closing lines of the ‘Thebaid’:—

  • After the long sea-journey my vessel hath won her the harbor.
  • Shalt thou afar survive to be read, outliving thy master,
  • O my ‘Thebaid,’ watched for twice six years without ceasing?
  • Verily Fame already has smoothed thy favoring pathway;
  • Cæsar, the noble-spirited, deigns already to know thee,
  • Eager is now the Italian youth to read and proclaim thee!
  • Live, I pray: nor yet draw nigh to the sacred ‘Æneid’:
  • Follow thou, rather, afar, and always worship her footprints.
  • This same repellent subject, the tale of Thebes, like “Pelops’s line, and the tale of Troy divine,” had been constantly reworked since the earliest dawn of Greek poetry. Hardly one prominent incident indeed in these twelve long books—nearly ten thousand hexameter verses—can have brought a sense of pleased surprise to the jaded listener. Nor has the story of Œdipus’s misfortunes, and the strife of his sons, as here set forth, any fitness or helpful application either for the Roman audience or for us. No stately or pathetic figure dominates the scene as in Sophoclean tragedy. It is simply a complicated series of harrowing mythical events, retold with much vigor of language and versification, with measureless learned digression, with much heaping-up of elaborate simile and many-sided allusive epithet,—“a tale full of sound and fury,” but as for all larger ethical or artistic purport, “signifying nothing.” Statius seems to have been a professional composer of epic, brought up to the art by his father,—himself a successful versifier at least, if not the great poet filial affection would make him.

    Once again at least, Statius, with indomitable energy, attempted to exhaust a great cycle of Hellenic myth: to trace the whole life of Achilles, from Chiron’s forest school to the lonely barrow by Sigeion. We can hardly regret that this time only eleven hundred lines have been completed, and that the young hero never even reaches Troy! It is not for these things, if at all, that Statius is now remembered; though in his own day the ‘Thebaid,’ at least, was straightway read book by book to admiring throngs, and became at once a text which schoolboys committed to memory.

    “Statius is great,” says Niebuhr, “in his little poems. These are real poetry indeed, and have the true local color. They are read with especial enjoyment if one reads them in Italy.” This praise, and quite as warm words of Goethe, applied to the ‘Silvæ,’ or occasional pieces. There are altogether thirty-two of these. Statius boasts of the facility with which even the longest, of almost three hundred verses, was dashed off within two days. But indeed the haste has often left its marks. He was, in fact, a popular and hard-worked court poet,—and of what a court! The savage emperor Domitian, the all-powerful freedmen and other adventurers about him, even the wretched boy pets and pages, could demand the services of this ever-ready and vigorous quill. He shall sing of a curious tree, a fine statue, or a luxurious villa. An elegy is wanted for the death of a page, of a talking parrot, of a pet lion. Statius shall be ready.

    The pity of it all is that we really discern poetic instinct, masculine force, earnest feeling, in the man. He must have felt such service as degradation indeed,—this busy singer of an ignoble day. When the favorite eunuch of the tyrant requires a dedicatory poem for his own curly locks, sent as an offering to an Oriental shrine, even Statius grows weary at last; and the next poem is a plaintive and sincere appeal to his wife to join him in his return to his native city, Naples, there to spend a peaceful and quiet old age. This poem to his wife, another written for the recurrence of Lucan’s birthday, and especially the lyric appeal to Somnus, the god of sleep, are full of natural feeling and poetic grace.

    Statius’s relations with his Roman wife Claudia, and his stepdaughter, seem to have been most harmonious. He himself was childless. He was probably of good social rank, and a land-owner. He was apparently cut off rather prematurely, soon after his return to Naples, while engaged on the ‘Achilleis.’

    The epic poems of Statius were popular throughout later antiquity, and were preserved in numerous MSS. The Renaissance caused their eclipse, by bringing to light the nobler Hellenic masterpieces. Shortly before that time, however, the genius of a far greater Italian poet gave him an immortality of fame which his own works would not have assured him.

    In the LXVth canto of the ‘Commedia,’ the living Dante and his ghostly guide, Virgil, already nearing the summit of the Purgatorial mountain, are joined by another shade, a heavenward pilgrim. In answer to Virgil’s inquiries he tells them:—

  • “Statius the people name me still on earth.
  • I sang of Thebes, and then of great Achilles;
  • But on the way fell with my second burden.”
  • At once he adds his indebtedness for all his inspiration to the ‘Æneid’:—

  • “And to have lived upon the earth what time
  • Virgilius lived, I would accept one sun
  • More than I must ere issuing from my ban.”
  • That is, not to have known his master in the flesh is the deepest regret even of the disembodied soul, and worse than a year of the grievous purifying agony just escaped. There are few more entrancing scenes in all the shining leaves of the ‘Commedia’ than the Imaginary Conversation that ensues among these three poets, who could never have met in our world. Dante shows, through Virgil’s lips, real knowledge and admiration of the ‘Thebaid.’

    Most readers of the ‘Commedia’ will doubtless agree that there is much of chance, and sometimes of afterthought, in the fate and abode assigned by Dante to various departed spirits. He had by this time been engaged long upon the poem that was still to make him meager for so many a year. Something had now called Statius especially to his attention, and he realized that the courtly singer had been omitted—when less prominent poets were named—from Homer’s company of sinless pagans in Limbo. But now, in the Purgatorio, only Christians could be met.

    Then arose in Dante’s imagination—for there appears to be no such hint in Statius’s works, nor in tradition elsewhere—the fancy that in his last days the poet of the ‘Thebaid’ was converted to the new faith. In magnificent verses Statius assures Virgil that it was through the famous fourth Eclogue that his soul was first aroused to its earnest and successful quest for highest truth. Hence his double gratitude to Virgil, his guide to poetry and also to salvation.

  • “Thou first directedst me
  • Towards Parnassus, in its grots to drink,
  • And first concerning God didst me enlighten.
  • Thou didst as he who walketh in the night,
  • Who bears his light behind, which helps him not,
  • But wary makes the persons after him,
  • When thou didst say: ‘The age renews itself,
  • Justice returns, and man’s primeval time,
  • And a new progeny descends from heaven.’
  • Through thee I Poet was, through thee a Christian.”
  • Statius’s ‘Thebaid’ has been several times translated into English verse. Pope’s version of Book i. was, to say the least, a surprising exploit for a boy of twelve; and we can well believe that the mature poet “retouched” it a little. The ‘Silvæ’ have been undeservedly neglected. The entire Teubner text of Statius, in excellent print, makes a single rather stout volume, and should be somewhat better known. Popular none of the courtly epic poets of the Empire can or should ever be.