Kinship and the Polity in Silius’ Punica:
The Conflict of Pacuvius and his Son

Neil W. Bernstein

Conflicts within the kingroup, often accompanied by a larger civil conflict, occur frequently in Roman epic of the first century AD.  Silius’ Punica, however, presents a narrative of familial solidarity and external conflict.  The major Roman characters of Silius’ epic derive cohesion, continuity, and mutual support from their kingroups.  Violent conflicts never arise between members of the same kingroup, nor do Silius’ Romans have difficulty in resolving conflicts between their obligations to the kingroup and to the Roman state (cf. Ripoll 1998: 48-63).  It is in the context of generally positive kingroup relationships that the epic’s examples of familial dissension become especially noticeable.  This paper examines the conflict between the Capuan politician Pacuvius, who allies his city with Carthage, and his son who remains loyal to Rome and proposes to assassinate Hannibal (Sil. 11.303-368).  In contrast to Livy’s account (Liv. 23.8.1-9.13), in which characters focus on the demands of the Capuan polity, Silius emphasizes kingroup concerns (cf. Burck 1984: 18-21). In this paper, I discuss the episode’s dialogue with other representations of the paternal relationship in contemporary epic, its function within the larger narrative of the Punica, and its commentary on the ideals of the Flavian dynasty.

As character types, Silius’ father and son resemble a frequently occurring pair of characters in Roman epic, the tyrant and his virtuous son.  Mezentius and Lausus are Vergilian examples of the type, and contemporary examples include figures such as Pelias and Acastus in Valerius’ Argonautica and Creon and Menoeceus in Statius’ Thebaid.  The brave sons in Statius and Valerius augment their fame by undertaking heroic exploits against their fathers’ explicit wishes.  In Silius, however, the son’s submission to Pacuvius’ wishes removes the greater part of his individual fame.  Reading the Pacuvius episode in the light of contemporary epic indicates that obedience to paternal wishes, challenged by Acastus’ search for fame and Menoeceus’ deuotio, can properly be limited when it interferes with the pursuit of virtue.

The argument between Pacuvius and his son reveals a deep division (for which there are few parallels in the Punica) in attitudes toward family and polity. The initial refusal of Pacuvius’ son to follow his father’s example contrasts with the pattern established by the epic’s other young menA similar conflict between virtue and filial obedience also motivates Fabius and his son in their argument over the use of Fabius’ troops (Sil. 7.536-566). In both episodes, fathers restrain their offspring by demanding obedience; yet the contrast between their rhetorical approaches emphasizes the senior Fabius’ submission to tradition as opposed to personal desire and the needs of the state as opposed to those of his individual kingroup.  While Pacuvius appeals to pity and concern for personal safety, Fabius buttresses his paternal auctoritas through the historical exemplum of Camillus.  Fabius’ argument justifies his exercise of paternal authority and removes its sense of arbitrariness.

Though quickly resolved, the conflict in the Pacuvius episode offers two reflections on the ideals of the Flavian dynasty.  Domitian performed the role of a national father; through the cult of the imperial family, he also represented his obligations to the kingroup and to the state as synonymous. The Pacuvius episode represents these obligations as potentially divergent and filial obedience as subordinate to the pursuit of virtue.  The contrasting example of Fabius’ resolution of conflict with his son offers a model of paternal authority that is justifiable through appeal to tradition rather than arbitrary and tyrannical. Through its few examples of conflict within the kingroup, the Punica offers a nuanced perspective on the Flavian moral renovation.

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