A highlight of a challenging term has been teaching, with Barney Taylor, a new course on late first/early second-century Roman literature–Martial and Statius so far, with Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Juvenal to come next term. One text this brought me back to is the fourth book of Statius’ “occasional” (i.e. lighter, officially non-epic) poetry, Silvae. I’ve a personal soft spot for the Silvae, and Silvae 4 especially, because it was while, in 1997 in Dublin, I was listening to a talk on Silvae 4.3, Statius’ celebration of the new Via Domitiana that the emperor had built, a quick road connection to Naples, that I had an idea from which, a decade later, this book finally emerged. The idea of Musa Pedestris was to encourage readers of Roman poetry to pay more attention to the metrical form that it adopted, which (I argued) potentially contributed as much meaning to its poetry as any other element of the composition. The various metrical forms that Roman poetry adopted had their own independent character, established by usage (and theory about usage) over time, and this could shape in interesting ways the poetry they carried.
Well, in a fit of nostalgia, here’s a blog that illustrates the thesis, or tries to, that if you ignore the metre of a Roman poem, you potentially miss something fundamental. The subject is three interrelated poems about a statue of Hercules, by Statius (Silvae 4.6) and Martial (9.43 and 44), but first a couple of general rules about metrical character or ethos by way of introduction; with a warning that what I’m ultimately going to argue here is that the poets want us to see their manipulation of metrical structures as in some sense equivalent to the sculpting of a bronze statuette.
Statius’ poem is in a metre that we call the dactylic hexameter, and which the ancients as often referred to as the “heroic verse”. This was by convention the most elevated poetic form, a metre fit to tell the tales of heroic figures of epic poetry like Achilles or Aeneas. (The notion that combinations of long and short syllables could have a perceived character might seem odd, but here and here are striking illustrations of how well-established it was; and here a less striking one.) In any case the hexameter is Statius’ favourite metre in the Silvae, and among other things allows this supposedly occasional poetry to rise at times to the level of epic. Another metre, meanwhile, the hendecasyllable, had been much used by Catullus, and is both Statius’ choice for a number of the Silvae and the second-most common metre in Martial’s epigrams. When used by both Martial and Statius it can evoke a Catullan atmosphere (it lends a sense of Catullan spontaneity, freedom and youthful energy to Domitian’s new road in Silvae 4.3, for instance), but it was also considered a kind of polar opposite of the grand hexameter, a vehicle for trivialities, not heroes. The choice of metre for 4.3, essentially a panegyric of the emperor, was thus also arrestingly unexpected. Elsewhere the hendecasyllable is used by Statius for festive or Saturnalian poems.
The three poems I’m concerned with here all address a single topic, a miniature statue of Hercules (less than Roman foot high, according to Statius, 4.6.39) that served as a table ornament and was owned by a man with the excellent name Novius Vindex. The poems are in hexameters (Statius, Silvae 4.6), hendecasyllables (Martial 9.44), and in the case of Martial 9.43 elegiac couplets. A final word on that last metrical system. The elegiac couplet combines a hexameter line with a shorter dactylic length known as a pentameter, and one consequence is that it can carry with it a sense of being closely related to the heroic hexameter, since that provides its first line, yet also inferior, since a pentameter, a shorter length, always follows the hexameter. But note that this kinship with the hexameter securely establishes elegiacs as higher in the metrical pecking order than hendecasyllables.
Here is one example from elsewhere in the Silvae of the kind of subtle play with metrical associations that these poets are capable of.
Silvae 1.2 is an epithalamion, a marriage poem, for L. Arruntius Stella, a patron of poets such as Statius and Martial and a poet in his own right, the author of love elegies in the tradition of Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid. These had their trademark metre, the elegiac couplet that we’ve mentioned, a combination of a dactylic hexameter and pentameter often said to fall short of the epic hexameter by one foot (pente < hex). Statius’ poem (playfully) presents Stella’s marriage to his new bride Violentilla as an abandonment of his elegiac life of dissolute love (his formerly solutus amor must now obey the laws of marriage, 28-9), and the metre of Statius’ own poem, hexameter, is made to express in its own right Stella’s new status as a respectable married man. Elegy herself, embodiment of the metrical form of elegiac poetry, and of the kind of poetry for which that metre was the vehicle, attends their wedding. In Ovid’s love elegies Elegy had been portrayed as limping (deficient in one foot, geddit?) and all the more attractive for it (Amores 3.1.7-10). Statius’ Silvae have survived by a whisker, and the text is often difficult to reconstruct. But at Silvae 1.2.7-10 Elegy tries to slip herself unnoticed among the nine Muses who are hymning the happy couple, and she does something with her foot (the critical word is unclear, but it may suggest a built-up shoe) to conceal her tell-tale elegiac limp. It’s a brilliant conceit, even if we can’t quite see exactly how it works: if Elegy loses her limp, we have the heroic hexameter, and the hexameter here means marital respectability.
But back to Novius Vindex’s statue of Hercules. It was a representation of the the hero is a relaxed state that had both miniature and full-size (and larger than full-size) versions in antiquity (on this ambiguously titled “Hercules Epitrapezios” see M. Beard and J. Henderson, Classical Art from Greece to Rome, 197-8). The originals, big and small, of this image were attributed to Lysippus (on whose remarkable influence as a sculptor of Heracles see here), and numerous copies survive to this day. But Vindex’s statue is claimed by the poets to be an original, the work of Lysippus’ own hand, and furthermore to boast an illustrious history of ownership, having passed from Alexander to Hannibal and on to the Roman dictator L. Sulla. This seems unlikely, although all three of these men did display particular respect for Heracles/Melqart/Hercules, it is fair to say.
A key theme in the poems on Vindex’s statue is the tension inherent in a statue of a great hero (and a statue that had allegedly belonged to some of the most famous figures in history) which is diminutive in size and function, and in the possession of a private citizen. Statius develops this play between big and small, heroic and domestic, public and private at some length, but Martial does similar things in his first epigram (9.43), which can illustrate the theme:
Hic qui dura sedens porrecto saxa leone
mitigat, exiguo magnus in aere deus,
quaeque tulit spectat resupino sidera uultu,
cuius laeua calet robore, dextra mero:
non est fama recens nec nostri gloria caeli; 5
nobile Lysippi munus opusque uides.
hoc habuit numen Pellaei mensa tyranni,
qui cito perdomito uictor in orbe iacet;
hunc puer ad Libycas iurauerat Hannibal aras;
iusserat hic Sullam ponere regna trucem. 10
offensus uariae tumidis terroribus aulae
priuatos gaudet nunc habitare lares,
utque fuit quondam placidi conuiua Molorchi,
sic uoluit docti Vindicis esse deus.
“This one that sits and softens the hard rocks with outspread/ lionskin, a mighty god in a miniscule bronze,/ and gazes at the stars he once bore with upturned face,/ whose left hand is busy with a club, his right with wine–/ he is no recent object of fame nor the glory of a Roman chisel;/ it is the noble work and gift of Lysippus that you see./ This deity the table of the tyrant of Pella possessed,/ who lies at rest a victor in a world he swiftly subdued;/ by him the young Hannibal swore an oath at a Libyan altar;/ it was he that bade pitiless Sulla lay down his kingship./ Discomfited by the inflamed terrors of diverse courts,/ he rejoices now to dwell in a private house,/ and as once he dined with peaceful Molorchus,/ so the god wished to be the guest of learned Vindex.”
Martial wrote two poems on the same subject, as mentioned. In other words Vindex’s statue provokes in Martial a metrical game he occasionally plays, presenting alternative accounts of a circumstance in different metres, elegiacs and hendecasyllables, the metres seemingly shaping each treatment according to their traditional character. The phenomenon is investigated by Patricia Watson, “Contextualising Martial’s metres”, in R.R. Nauta, H.-J. Van Dam & J.J.L. Smolenaars (eds.), Flavian Poetry (2006), 285-98.
Martial 9.44’s approach to the subject, in hendecasyllables, is strikingly different from his preceding poem. Whereas the elegiacs we have just seen are overtly poetic and formal in expression, 9.44 is colloquial, realistic, and humorous:
Alciden modo Vindicis rogabam
esset cuius opus laborque felix.
risit, nam solet hoc, leuique nutu
‘Graece numquid’ ait ‘poeta nescis?
inscripta est basis indicatque nomen.’ 5
Lysippum lego, Phidiae putavi.
“I recently asked Vindex’s Hercules/ whose work and happy creation he was./ He laughed, as is his way, and with a light nod/ “Poet”, he said, “don’t you know Greek?/ My base is inscribed and shows the name.” I read Lysippus. I thought it was Phidias’s.”
This is a controversial poem. Change the text of the first line a bit and it’s Vindex being questioned, not the god himself; and the point of the last line is elusive, too. But what matters for my purposes is the metrical self-awareness that Martial sees fit to flaunt in his book of epigrams, largely for its own sake. I’d merely make a provisional further point at this stage that Martial’s poetic reception of Vindex’s bijou statue of Hercules shares with that statue a mastery of high and low, the capacity to capture it in the elevated, aestheticised terms of dactylic elegy, and also in the colloquial mode of the hendecasyllable.
Statius also seems determined to create a poetic artefact that shares characteristics with the statue it celebrates, and again his approach has a metrical dimension, I think.
Silvae 4.6 addresses Vindex’s statue in terms so close to Martial’s as to make us suspect the guiding hand of Vindex in each–intriguingly, the two leading Flavian poets never explicitly acknowledge each other’s existence. Again, a key conceit in Statius’ poem is the grandeur of the figure of Hercules paradoxically captured in a tiny figure, finesque inclusa per artos/ maiestas (35-6), “small to the sight, huge in impression” (37-8, paruusque uideri/ sentirique ingens). And like Martial again, Statius’ celebration of this diminutive masterpiece ranges between poetic styles. In this case Silvae 4.6 traverses the full spectrum of poetic registers from satire to epic before settling in an intermediary position that the “occasional” Silvae find congenial.
Let me explain what I mean, and what the implications for metre are. Verse satire was a genre pursued by Horace, Persius and Juvenal (and C. Lucilius before them) and was considered Rome’s only poetic innovation–everything else they borrowed from the Greeks. Satire was a genre of criticism, and more generally a poetry that concerned itself with the lowest, meanest aspects of human life. Satire is never entirely convinced that it’s really poetry at all, so unedifying is its content. (It’s a melancholy fact that the one genre of poetry Romans could call their own isn’t certain it is poetry.) A development that crystallized satire’s character was C. Lucilius’ decision to adopt the dactylic hexameter as the signature metre of this anti-genre–an outrageous choice, since it matched the most elevated metre to the tawdry topics of satire. This reinforced satire’s status as a response, or antidote, to the artificiality of epic poetry. Every subsequent satirical hexameter, one might say, advertised the mismatch of content and vehicle.
Statius in 4.6 frames his encounter with Vindex as a dinner to which Vindex has invited him, and he starts his poem with extensive reminiscence of Horace’s Satires, when he insists the joy of the dinner was not a matter of luxurious food, for instance (Kathy Coleman’s commentary to Silvae 4 cites parallels in Horace), but most obviously at the very start, where Statius wandering idly in Rome, described in a conversational tone, strongly evokes Horace doing the same in Satire 1.9 (Statius’ first line alludes to the first and last line of Horace’s poem). But the dinner-by-invitation, cena, and the sermo, “conversation”, that was conventionally the essence of a good cena (the quality of the sermo chez Vindex is singled out by Statius), were the bread and butter (so to speak) of satirical poetry.
Soon enough, though, Statius’ poem rises to a higher register, as Amphitryoniades enters the poem, “Hercules son of Amphitryon” (33), a grandiose epic patronymic filling half the line, and especially when Statius starts enumerating his eminent previous owners. Here is Hannibal’s spectacular introduction by way of illustration (75-8):
Mox Nasamoniaco decus admirabile regi
possessum; fortique deo libauit honores
semper atrox dextra periuroque ense superbus
“Presently the marvellous treasure came to belong to the Nasamonian king: the valiant god he, Hannibal, honoured by libation, ever savage with his right hand and arrogant with treacherous sword.”
Statius’ poem will ultimately find its way to an accommodation of these divergent registers, the god Hercules still epically mighty, but relaxed and at peace (and pint-sized, of course) in Vindex’s private home, and this compromise typifies the intermediary poetics to which the Silvae aspire. The interplay of large and small, high and low, in Statius’ poem and Martial’s epigrams has been well investigated by Charles McNelis, “Ut sculptura poesis: Statius, Martial, and the Hercules Epitrapezios of Novius Vindex,” AJPh 129 (2008), 255-76, with an emphasis on Callimachus as a model (Molorchus in particular points in his direction), and McNelis draws out the emulative impulse of Martial’s and Statius’s response to the statue–poetic achievements comparable in artistic dexterity to the statuette itself are the only adequate way to celebrate it.
All I’d like to add is a proper recognition of the role of satire in Statius’ poem, and an observation about metre that links both poets. Martial and Statius react to Vindex’s statue with poetry that seeks to match the quality of a valuable artefact, and that matches it in one particular respect: both poets advertise a control of the high and the low parallel to that of the sculptor Lysippus, a mastery of the spectrum of registers from the mundane to the magnificent. In Martial’s case this is conveyed by two poems in contrasting metres and concomitant styles; but Statius also exploits the scope available to him within the Roman history of a single metre, the dactylic hexameter, shifting between the hexametrical poles of satire and epic with as much deftness as Martial flips from elegiacs to hendecasyllables.
When I was writing about metre many years ago I came to feel that the Romans regarded the metrical forms of their poetry as closely akin to physical structures. Michael Roberts considers Statius a harbinger of the style of late-antique Latin poetry, and in The Jeweled Style (1989), p.21 has this to say of the latter:
“Words are viewed as possessing a physical presence of their own, distinct from any considerations of sense or syntax. They may be moved like building blocks or pieces in a puzzle to create ever new formal constructs. It is this sense of the physical existence of words and of meter as their structural matrix that underlies the ingenious verbal patterns of Optatianus Porfyrius and the Technopaegnion of Ausonius.”
Not the least important respect in which Statius and Martial craft an adequate response to Lysippus’ miniature god, creating poetic artefacts comparable to an exquisite sculpture, is in their absolute mastery of the poetic structures we call metres.