Tiberius Catius Asconius Silius Italicus (the name Asconius is uncertain) was born in the middle of the first half of the first century CE. His place of birth or early life is unknown (he is generally assumed from his cognomen to be of Italian origin, perhaps the Po valley region where the Asconii were prominent), but he was of noble origin and therefore likely had an excellent education.
He was by trade a lawyer, and was thought to have been a prosecutor for Nero, who subsequently made him consul in 68. Despite the violent assassination of Nero that year followed by turmoil surrounding the imperial succession in 69, he survived several purges and was made proconsul of Asia in 77.
He retired from politics, and must have been innocuous enough to be left alone after the end of the Flavian dynasty. He seemed to enjoy Stoic philosophy with good company, and prominent figures like Cornutus, who dedicated his commentary on Vergil to him, and Epictetus, who praised his philosophical mind as best among the Romans, were guests at his villa.
He was said to have died of self-starvation in 101 after battling an incurable illness.
His sole work was the Punica, an epic in seventeen books composed and published from the late 80s until the late 90s. The poem chronicles the Second Punic War from Hannibal’s attack on Saguntum in 219 (though he indicates that the origins of this war go back to Juno’s wrath for Aeneas’ treatment of Dido and the Carthaginians) until Scipio’s victory over the battle of Zama in 202 BCE.
Silius was an ardent admirer of Vergil and Livy, the former for the style, the latter for content. However, whereas his two predecessors contained subversive or pessimistic undertones, the Punica is wholeheartedly pro-Roman. Unlike the passivity of Aeneas in the Aeneid or the political motivations of religious acts of Scipio in the Ab Urbe Condita, Silius heaped praise on the Flavians and questionable Roman actions without irony.
He appears to not have known Ennius’ Annales directly, but probably drew from commentators on the work. He likely did not know Naevius at all, but the evidence is too scant to be certain.
His verse is clean, but the action in the Punica feels overwrought and out of place. For a historical epic of the Roman Republic, that Silius Italicus included Homeric tropes more appropriate for a mythological age—hand-to-hand combat, dei ex machina, and even a trip to the underworld by Scipio Africanus—gives the epic a rather silly feel to it.
Silius Italicus seems well-liked by his peers, and was praised for his learning, but he was not all that respected as a poet. Even Pliny the Younger, who quoted with enthusiasm his uncle’s proverb “No book is so bad that some good cannot be had of it”, himself only said about Silius that he had “more diligence than talent” (maiore cura quam ingenio, Plin. Ep. 3.7.5). The great scholar Jacoby expressed the same opinion, and Silius’ reputation has never recovered.
- Antony Augoustakis (ed.) 2010. Brill’s Companion to Silius Italicus. Leiden: Brill.
- John Nicol 1936. The Historical and Geographical Sources Used by Silius Italicus. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Benjamin Tipping 2010. Exemplary Epic: Silius Italicus’ Punica. Oxford: Oxford University Press.