C. Si'lius Ita'licus
the most voluminous among the Roman writers of heroic verse, was born about A. D. 25. From his early years he devoted himself to oratory and poetry, taking Cicero as his model in the former, and Virgil in the latter.
He acquired great reputation as a pleader at the bar, and acted for some time as a member of that body of judicial umpires who were known as the Centumvirs. His life, in so far as we can trace it, presents a course of unbroken prosperity.
He was elevated to the consulship in A. D. 68, the year in which Nero perished; he was admitted to familiar intercourse with Vitellius, and subsequently discharged the duties of proconsul of Asia with high renown.
After enjoying for a lengthened period the dignities of political and literary fame without incurring the envy which is for the most part the lot of distinguished statesmen and authors, he determined to retire from the busy world, and to pass his old age among his numerous villas, which were abundantly furnished with books and works of art. His two favourite residences were a mansion near Puteoli, formerly the Academy of Cicero. and the house in the vicinity of Naples once occupied by Virgil; and so enamoutred did he become of seclusion, that upon the accession of Trajan he refused to repair to Rome, and pay homage to the new prince.
In these happy retreats he passed his time in tranquillity until he had completed his 75th year, when, in consequence of the pain caused by an incurable tubercle (insanabilis clavus
) of some kind, he starved himself to death; and it was remarked that as he was the last consul nominated by Nero, so he survived all those who had held that office in the same reign.
The only stain upon his character arises from the imputation that lie pandered to the cruelties of the tyrant, by acting as a voluntary accuser; but if this charge was true, his guilt was in a great measure expiated by the blamelessness of his subsequent career.
He had two sons, one of whom died when young; the other attained to the consulship before his father's death.
Much discussion has taken place with regard to the import of the word Italicus,
which no one has as yet explained in a satisfactory manner.
According to the opinion most generally adopted, it was derived from the place of his birth which is imagined to have been either Italica near Hispalis in Baetica, or Corfinium, in the country of the Peligni. Neither of these suppositions will Bear investigation.
It is extremely improbable that he was a Spaniard, for Martial, who repeatedly celebrates his praises, nowhere claims him as a countryman, although he frequently alludes with pride to the men of genius whom his native province had produced. On the other hand, although there is no doubt that the allies in the Social War gave the name of Italica to Cortinium, because they intended to make it the metropolis of their league, there is no reason to believe that it retained this title after the conclusion of the struggle.
There is also a grammatical objection of some weight; for according both to analogy and to the authority of inscriptions, the local adjective derived from Italica
near Hispalis would not be Italicus,
(See also Gel. 16.13
This however in itself would not be conclusive. (Hispanus, Hispanensis.)
It has been erroneously inferred from a line in Martial (8.66
Felix purpura tertiusque consul,
that Silius had been thrice consul, but the words imply merely that there had been three consuls in the family - Silius himself, his son, to celebrate whose accession to office the epigram was written, and a third person, perhaps that C. Silius who was consul A. D. 13 (Sueton. Octav. 101
), and who may have been the father of the poet : but this is a mere conjecture. Our authorities for this biography are sundry epigrams in Martial (especially 7.62, 8.66, 11.51), and an epistle of the younger Pliny (3.7
, or 3.5, ed. Titze).
See also Tac. Hist. 3.65
The great work of Silius Italicus was an heroic poem in seventeen books, entitled Punica,
which has descended to us entire.
It contains a narrative of the events of the second Punic War, from the capture of Saguntum to the triumph of Scipio Africanus, together with various episodes relating to the more remarkable achievements in the first contest with Carthage, and to the exploits of champions in still earlier ages, such as Scaevola, Camillus. and the three hundred Fabii. Just as Virgil did not think that he degraded the majesty of the epic by making it a vehicle for flattering the Julian line, so his imitator has interwoven with his verses a panegyric upon the Flavian dynasty.
The materials are derived almost entirely from Livy and Polybius.
With regard to the merits of the piece, those few persons who have perused it from beginning to end will scarcely think the criticism too severe which pronounces it to be the least attractive poem within the range of classical antiquity; and this judgment is by no means incompatible with the praises awarded by Cellarius. We may freely admit that many passages may be adduced which throw light upon the historical events of that remarkable epoch, upon the origin, fortunes, and geographical position of different nations in Italy, Sicily, Spain, and Africa, and upon various points connected with mythology and ancient usages.
But these are not the commendations we bestow on a great poet; the information which, after all, might be compressed within a very limited compass is certainly not destitute of value, but it is conveyed through the medium of the coldest. heaviest, and most lifeless composition that ever was misnamed an heroic poem. Notwithstanding the eulogistic apostrophe of Martial (Sili, Castalidum decus sororum
), dictated perhaps by personal friendship, or more probably by the desire of fawning upon one who possessed so much power at court, the merits of Silius seem to have been fairly appreciated by his contemporaries, as we perceive from the words of Pliny " Scribebat carmina, majori cura quam industria ;"
and soon after death he appears to have fallen into complete oblivion, for he is neither quoted nor named by any writer, not even by the grammarians, until the time of Apollinaris. (Excusator. ad Felic. 260.
The work of Silius Italicus was first brought to light after the revival of letters by Poggio the Florentine, having been discovered by him while attending the council of Constance.
The Editio Princeps was printed at Rome by Sweynheym and Pannartz under the inspection of Andrew, bishop of Aleria, fol. 1471, and again at the same place, fol. 1471, 1474, 1480
. The best editions are those of Cellarius, 8vo. Lips. 1695
, and Drakenborch, 4to. Traj. ad Rhen. 1717
, especially the latter.
That by Ruperti, 2 vols. 8vo. Goetting. 1795
, contains a considerable quantity of useful matter, but displays little scholarship or judgment.
There is a complete translation into English verse, bearing the title The Second Punik War between Hannibal and the Romanes : the whole xvii. books Englished from the Latine of Silius Italicus, with a continuation from the triumphe of Scipio to the death of Hannibal, by Tho. Ross. Fol. London, 1661; and reprinted fol. Lond. 1672.
The commencement was translated into French verse by Mich. de Marolles, and was appended to his " Considérations sur une Critique de l'Eneide," 4to. Paris (no date)
, and to his translation of the Achilleis of Statius, 4to. Paris, 1678
. Select passages have been rendered into German by K. P. Kretschmann, to be found in the collection called " Meissner's Apollo," 1797, Heft. 5
There is also a version into Italian by Buzio, which is contained in the Raccolta di tutti gli antichi poeti Latini, 4to. Milan 1765, vol. 34-35