The Evil of Mother Africa and Her Monsters in Flavian Epic: Reading Regulus’ Fight against the Serpent in the Punica

Paolo Asso

Ex Africa aliquid noui semper: “There’s always something new coming out of Africa” (cf. Feinberg/Solodow, “Out of Africa,” Journal of African History 43 [2002] 255-61).  Yet for the Roman poets, Neronian and Flavian epicists in particular, Africa evokes old myths of remote antiquity: the primal fear of the Female, the Earth Mother of the Giants, who rebelled against the cosmic male order.  At the same time mythical and geo-political, Africa breeds Rome’s archenemy, Carthage.  Africa is therefore seen as Rome hating and even man hating in Roman poetry (Fantham 1992 on Lucan 2.93).  In Silius, African Carthage is the Evil enemy, and so are her emissaries. The threat of Africa as an evil breeder of monsters resonates throughout the whole poem, and is particularly vivid in the first half, where the black hero Hannibal holds center stage. 

Attuned to the literary taste of his time, Silius interrupts the chronological line of his narrative in various ways.  Most conspicuous is the long excursus on the First Punic War (264-41 BCE) in Book 6, featuring the episode of Atilius Regulus, engaged in the killing of a huge African snake.  As we know from other sources, the snake is real, and the episode is historical (Tubero frg. 8 Peter from Gell. 7.3; cf. Plin. NH 8.37).  One source claims that the spoils of the creature were shipped to Rome for public display: always something new out of Africa, indeed.

With its allusions to previous literature (investigated by Bassett in CP 1955) and its hyperbolic metaphors, the Regulus episode uses of the vocabulary of evil to promote military aggression.  The snake is an African creature, and therefore is seen as an embodiment of evil for Rome.  It is an Earth-born monster, and as such a genealogical analogue of a mythical creature we encounter in Lucan, the giant Antaeus.

Antaeus and the serpent are children of the Earth.  They inhabit their mother, personified by inhospitably dry Africa; and it is precisely the dryness of Africa that allows the reader to detect the relationship between the two texts: Silius 6.140-1 turbidus arentes lento pede sulcat arenas / Bagrada closely resembles Lucan 4.588 Bagrada lentus agit siccae sulcator arenae.  Clearly, the arentes or siccae arenae denote Africa as an embodiment of the elemental forces of nature.  The influence of Lucan’s intertext on Silius aggravates the threat of Africa’s enmity to Rome in the Punica by alluding to the Gigantomachy topos (cf. P. Asso, “The Function of the Fight: Hercules and Antaeus in Lucan,” Vichiana  [2002] 57-72; M. Leigh, “Lucan and the Libyan Tale,” JRS 90 [2000] 95-109).  But there is an important difference in how the two texts exploit the topos: Lucan’s tale about Antaeus is mythical and fictional, whereas Silius’ story of Regulus and the Serpent is historical.

To grant mythical proportions to his narrative, Silius resorts to Lucan’s evocation of the Gigantomachy myth.  This myth animates visions of war throughout Roman epic (Hardie, Virgil’s Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium, [Oxford, 1986]; The Epic Successors of Virgil [Cambridge, 1993]).  Silius exploits the hyperbole to describe Africa and her creatures as evil. 

This vocabulary of evil, as I show, is consistently deployed in the Romans’ rhetoric of empire.  Roman imperialism fosters the ideology of victory through violence.  Violence is as instrumental to victory as the conviction that the enemy is evil: Africa is evil, she breeds monsters dangerous to Rome and civilization like Antaeus, Hannibal, and the snake killed by Regulus.  The extinction of all these monsters is necessary for the creation of the empire.

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