The life of Publius Papinius Statius primarily comes from his own works. He tells us he was born at Naples, which he describes as a “meeting-place of Greek and Roman culture”. His father was a well-regarded teacher who taught those preparing to become priests.
He must have been born sometime before 45 CE, and as a youth he already was active in poetry. Early on he was victorious at the Augustalia (a festival for Augustus), and during Domitian’s reign he received the golden crown from the emperor himself (perhaps for his De Bello Germanico; see below).
The only surviving works of Statius are the Silvae and two epics, the Thebaid and the unfinished Achilleid.
The Thebeid is a retelling of the Theban legend from the beginning of the Theban War to the death of Antigone and Theseus’ subsequent war on Thebes. The Achilleid was intended to be a complete epic surrounding the life of Achilles, from his birth and bath in the river Styx to his death at Troy.
The epics are a marked departure from the high style of Vergil, and critics have long lambasted his uninteresting verse. The Achilleid in particular violated a longstanding proscription (at least as old as Aristotle) against trying to include too much of a hero’s life into one epic, rather than building a compelling story around a single, important event (Heracles was often the subject of these all-encompassing Greek epics, though none survive to the present).
The Silvae are a collection of various poems in five books. The collection is not unlike Catullus’ Libella and contains love poems, laments, and musings on daily life. One notable aspect is its concern for upper class patrons, which is often seen with disdain by many critics.
Two other works of his are known but lost. The De Bello Germanico (“On the German War”), a panegyric epyllion celebrating Domitian’s campaigns in Germania and Dacia against the Chatti in 89 CE, was probably written for Domitian’s Alban games the next year, which would make it the poem for which he won the golden crown. The other lost work was the Agave, a pantomime.
Statius quickly fell out of favor. Upon the assassination and damnatio memoriae (erasure of all memory) of Domitian in 96, Rome, including the Senate, the new emperor Nerva, and many Roman writers (e.g. Tacitus and Juvenal) turned against many who were high up in his administration. Flattery of the reviled emperor was seen as especially heinous, and nothing more about Statius was heard.
Statius’ epics, though, were immensely popular in the Middle Ages, and Statius himself is a guide in Dante’s Purgatorio.
- Hardie, A. 1983. Statius and the Silvae. Liverpool.
- Newlands, C. 2002. Statius’ Silvae and the Poetics of Empire. Cambridge.
- Shackleton Bailey, D. R. 2003. Statius Silvae. Cambridge, Mass.