Statius was born in Naples to a schoolteacher sometime between 40 and 50 CE (so let's assume 45 is accurate). In Rome, he became a favorite because of his success at certamina, poetry competitions, and through public recitations of his own poems. Statius thrived under the Flavian emperors, most notably Domitian, during whose reign he became the most celebrated court poet. Success didn't last forever, however, and loss to a twelve year old at the Capitoline competition, the Ludi Capitolini, in 94 gave him reason to return to Naples. He died shortly thereafter.
Statius has three main works that have survived. The Silvae (although the name means "forests", it's likely to mean something more like "sketches") are a collection of shorter poems in various meters (many in hexameter). These poems give us a good look at the life of an elite Roman during the rule of Domitian. There are also several poems written in praise of Domitian, giving us an idea of how emperors were worshipped and glorified by the court. This is poetry for the sake of beauty and artistic ideals, and it makes sure to paint its characters and actions in a positive and glorious light. The Silvae are refined and reflective poems (Statius brags about his improvisation, celeritas, but that likely is just bragging), even if they show the fingerprints of extreme flattery. It is these poems that most likely were Statius' entries in the poetic certamina.
Statius' main epic, written in hexameter, was his Thebaid, a retelling of the myth of the seven against Thebes. He begins right before the expulsion of Oedipus from Thebes, as his sons Eteocles and Polynices struggle for rule of Thebes. They agree to a power sharing structure where each brother would rule in alternating years, beginning with Eteocles. This doesn't work as planned, when Eteocles breaks the pact. Polynices collects an army at Argos, under the old king Adrastus, with six great heroes joining his cause (hence, the seven): Polynices, Adrastus, Tydeus (the father of the Trojan war hero Diomedes), Capaneus, Parthenopaeus, Hippomedon, and Amphiarus. The battle ensues, with six of the heroes, all but Adrastus, dying cruel deaths (Tydeus even forsakes his god-given immortality by eating the brains of his enemy). Theseus, king of Athens, arrives in the final book to put things together again, after Eteocles and Polynices kill each other in single combat.
Statius had also begun an epic on the life of Achilles, the Achilleid, which he did not finish before his death. Only the first book and 167 lines of the second were written and have survived to our day.
Statius' Thebaid is modeled after the Aeneid of Vergil in many ways. Both are divided into twelve books, both have funeral games, and both consist of two halves, the first being about travels (the Odyssean half) while the second is about war (the Iliadic half). Still, Statius' Thebaid is much more brutal and stark in its conflict. Good and evil are grimly drawn, and its characters are more one-dimensional than the Aeneid's. The violence in the Thebaid could possibly reflect the inherent violence during Domitian's rule. The Flavian Amphitheater (Colosseum) had opened just a year before Domitian assumed control of Rome, and Domitian also exerted a reign of terror among the elites.
Despite the obvious connection to Vergil (expressed by Statius in the Thebaid at 12.816f.), Statius also shows some influence of Ovid in his meter, and sits in some middle ground between the two.
- Statius has an almost even mixture of dactyls and spondees (49.4% and 50.6%, respectively), not as light as Ovid (54.83% dactyls), and not as heavy as Vergil (56.47% spondees).
- Statius' metrical pattern and use of specific meters fits Vergil's style somewhat, while preferring to begin his line more with a dactyl (69.96% of his lines), in between Ovid (79.97%) and Vergil (61.13%).
- Statius' elision rate, 0.3766, is not as high as Vergil's (0.5485), but also not as low as Ovid's (0.2482).
Despite his obvious poetic model for his Thebaid, there are traces of Ovid's influence and development of the use of hexameter in his work.
Conte, Gian Biagio. 1994. Latin Literature: A History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.
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