Scipio and Domitian in Silius’ Punica

Raymond D. Marks

For years scholars were reluctant to read the Punica in any significant relation to the Flavian context in which it was composed.  The epic, so it was thought, is the work of an escapist and reveals itself as such through infrequent allusions to contemporary figures and events, its heroization of Rome’s distant past, and plaintive references to subsequent moral decline.  In recent years, however, there is a growing awareness of the epic’s potential to speak to its times, and many have begun to offer political readings of the text. Although considerable disagreement has already emerged among these readings – pro- and anti-Flavian camps seem to be forming –, it is, nevertheless, becoming clear that Scipio Africanus is a key figure within the debate. McGuire (Acts of Silence, 1997), for example, argues that Scipio’s accumulation of personal power anticipates, if not contributes to, the conditions that would bring about the end of the Republic and would give rise to the Principate.  Ripoll (La morale héroïque, 1998) shows that Silius’ portrait of Scipio is deeply shaped by a value-system that is distinctly imperial and as such is far from being a faithful or unadulterated representation of this otherwise republican figure.

Scipio’s connection to Rome’s imperial or Flavian future, however, may be more direct and specific than is generally acknowledged; for he is drawn not only as a kind of (proto-)imperial figure, but in the likeness of the emperor Domitian himself.  His youthfulness, concern for marital fidelity, devotion to his family, divine paternity, heroic/leadership models (e.g., Hercules and Alexander), status as world-conqueror, role as Jupiter’s vicegerent, and “kingship” all give shape to a portrait that closely resembles Domitian as he is represented through the literature (Martial, Statius) and the material culture of the period (coins, portraiture, sculpture, etc.).  Indeed, Silius’ audience might have more readily identified his Scipio with the present-day emperor than with the historical Scipio himself.  This observation has two important consequences for our understanding of the Punica’s relation to the context of its composition.  For one, it gives further impetus to the present, “historicizing” trend in Silian studies.  Second, it brings back into focus an often neglected, yet important articulation of Silius’ “Flavian” view of history, Jupiter’s speech in Punica 3; for although Silius there links the past of the Second Punic War to Rome’s Flavian future and, especially, Scipio to Domitian himself, this teleology has often been ignored because of the panegyrical tone of its Flavian section.  Scipio’s intimate likeness to Domitian, evidenced throughout the epic, suggests, however, that the teleology cannot be so easily dismissed, regardless of whether Silius’ praise of Domitian is believed to be sincere or insincere.

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