Punica (poem)

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The Punica is a Latin epic poem in seventeen books in dactylic hexameter written by Silius Italicus (c. 28 – c. 103 AD) comprising some twelve thousand lines (12,202, to be exact, if one includes a probably spurious passage in book 8). It is the longest surviving Latin poem from antiquity. Its theme is the Second Punic War and the conflict between the two great generals Hannibal and Scipio Africanus.

A depiction of Hannibal crossing the Alps, a significant scene in the Punica.


The dates of the Punica's composition are not entirely clear. There is external evidence for composition dates from some of the epigrams of Martial. Martial 4.14, a poem dated to 88 AD, describes Silius' work on the Punica, mentioning Scipio and Hannibal as the subjects of the poem. 7.63, dated to 92 AD also describes his work on the poem. Two passages of internal evidence also help date the Punica. At 3.600ff. during Jupiter's prophecy about the future of Rome, describes significant events from the Flavian dynasty and the life of Domitian, such as the death of Vespasian, Titus' destruction of Jerusalem, Domitian's adoption of the title Germanicus (83 AD), and the burning of the Capitoline temple in 69 AD. Thus the passage puts a terminus post quem for Book 3 at 83 AD. At 14.685-88, the mention of a contemporary vir who has brought peace to the world and put a stop to illegal theft has been interpreted as referring to the accession of Nerva in 96 AD,[1] although this reference to Nerva has been disputed.[2] Thus, composition dates for the poem must be set at c. 83 to c. 96 AD, although since those dates do not include the first two or final three books, they must remain approximate. The poem is a work of Silius' old age, and thus his time spent at his Campanian villas collecting antiques and giving recitations, presumably of the Punica.[3] According to the epigrams of Martial cited above, the poem met with some success and was compared with the Aeneid.

Poetic models and historical sources[edit]

A 3rd century AD depiction of Virgil on a mosaic from Hadrumetum. Virgil was Silius' most important model, and he was personally devoted to Virgil.

Silius, as a poet of historical epic, had to make use of both historical sources and poetic models. Livy is considered his single most important historical source, however, Silius differs his work from Livy's by often embellishing themes which are only briefly treated in Livy and altering the focus of his narrative.[4] It is known that Silius also used other historians as sources.[5] Silius should not be viewed as a simple transmitter of his historical sources, as "Livy in verse",[6] but should be viewed as a poet who, while making use of historians, is not bound by the rules of historiography but rather of poetry.

In choosing a historical subject, the Second Punic War, Silius had many poetic predecessors. From the time of Naevius onwards every great military struggle in which the Romans had been engaged had found its poet. Naevius' influence cannot be gauged because of the almost total loss of his poem on the First Punic War. Silius specifically names Virgil, Homer, and Ennius as his epic inspiration. Homer is mentioned at 13.778-797, where Silius has Scipio meet his shade in the underworld. Of Homer Silius' sybil praises Homer as the preeminent, universal, and divine poet who made Troy, (i.e. Rome) famous in song, saying "his [Homer's] poetry embraced the earth, sea, stars, and shades and he rivaled the Muses in song and Phoebus in glory," to which Scipio replies "If Fate would allow this poet to sing of Roman deeds, for all the world to hear, how much deeper an impression the same deeds would make upon posterity if Homer sang of them." Ennius is a character in Book 12 of the Punica (12.387-414) where he participates in a battle in Sardinia. Silius says that his account of Ennius' fight is his attempt to "hand down to long ages noble deeds, too little known, of a great man." He describes Ennius' birth, his prowess in war, and has Apollo prophesy his future, saying "he [Ennius] shall be the first to sing of Roman wars in noble verse, exalting their commanders to the skies; he shall teach Helicon[disambiguation needed] to repeat the sound of Roman poetry..."

Virgil is mentioned at 8.593-594, where Silius says of Virgil's hometown Mantua that it was "home of the Muses, raised to the sky by immortal verse, and a match for the lyre of Homer." Indeed, Virgil is considered Silius' most pervasive influence. His contemporaries Pliny and Martial discuss his almost crazed devotion to the spirit of Virgil (whom Silius is known to have worshipped as a god and whose tomb he bought and repaired)[3] and often compare his poetry to the works of Virgil.[7] Silius employs constantly Virgilian images, similes, tropes, and elements (such as his nekyia or the historically-themed shield of Hannibal) in the Punica,[8] and hardly a page goes by without some significant allusion to the Aeneid. Finally, Lucan is a significant model for Silius, although Silius differs dramatically from Lucan's historical epic by his use of the divine machinery. Frederick Ahl posits that Silius construed his epic as occupying the historical and poetic midpoint between the Aeneid and the Bellum Civile, forming a trilogy of poems on Roman history.[9] Silius is closest to Lucan in his treatment of historical description, especially geography and battlefields, his focus on the macabre and violence, and his stoic tone.[10]


Book 1 The poem opens with phrase ordior arma "I set in order the arms" and tells how the poet's theme is the Second Punic War, setting up the conflict as the struggle between the Roman and Carthaginian nations for supremacy. The betrayal of Dido, familiar from the Aeneid and Juno's anger stir the goddess to prophesy the course of the war and choose Hannibal as her instrument of revenge. The childhood oath of Hannibal to his father Hamilcar at the Dido temple in Carthage is narrated, and his character is described as vicious, cunning, and daring. The priestess of the temple prophesies the war. Hasdrubal is slaughtered by Spanish Gauls in revenge for his crucifixion of their king. Hannibal succeeds him by the army's acclaim and attacks Saguntum the situation and Rutulian/Zacynthian history of which are described. The siege begins and Hannibal fights a duel with the Saguntine champion Murrus, who is slain. The Saguntine senate meets and requests that Rome send envoys to stop the siege.

Book 2 In Book 2, Hannibal dismisses the Roman envoys from Saguntum and addresses his troops with a threat to Rome. The siege of the city continues and the warrior princess Asbyte is killed by Theron, who is killed by Hannibal and mutilated. At Carthage, Hanno gives a speech calling Hannibal insolent, while Gestar gives a response that suggests Hanno is a Roman sympathizer. While campaigning against Spanish tribes, Hannibal receives a shield as a gift from the Galicians that shows Carthaginian history up to the siege of Saguntum. The Saguntines begin to suffer, and a saddened Hercules sends Fides to strengthen and ennoble the Saguntines. Juno sends Tisiphone, who whips the people into a madness that causes them to burn themselves alive. The poet addresses the Saguntines and ensures their immortality.

Book 3 Bostar is sent to consult Jupiter Ammon about the war. Hannibal visits the shrine of Hercules at Gades, where he admires the doors painted with the god's deeds and the unusual tides of the Atlantic Ocean. He tearfully sends his wife, the brave Imilce, back to Carthage, despite her wish to remain in the camp. Jupiter sends a dream to Hannibal in which he is led by Mercury into Italy with a destructive snake which symbolizes Hannibal. The poet offers a catalogue of Carthaginian troops. As Hannibal crosses the Pyrenees, their Herculean aetiology is explained. Hannibal crosses the Alps amid hardship while Venus asks Jupiter whether he plans on destroying Rome. Jupiter says his plan is to test Roman virtus and set the foundations of the Roman empire. He describes the future of Rome, which culminates in the reign of Domitian and a praise of the emperor's poetry. The response from Jupiter Ammon promises glory to Carthage.

Book 4 Fama incites fear and preparation in the Romans who ready themselves for Hannibal and his vengeance-seeking Gallic troops. Scipio encourages his troops and leads them to the Ticinus river where a bird omen promises that the Carthaginians can rout the Romans for 8 years, but will be overcome eventually by Rome. The Gauls and their hero Crixus stand out in the battle of Ticinus. Jupiter calls Mars to help the young Scipio after his father is killed, and he withdraws the troops to the river Trebia, where there is a large battle in which the Carthaginians prevail and the river attacks Scipio until it is burned up by Vulcan. Juno appears as the god of Lake Trasimene and tells Hannibal to march there. Hannibal refuses to allow his son to be sacrificed by lot to the gods and asks him ever to be an enemy of Rome.

Book 5 The history and mythical aetiology of Lake Trasimene is presented. Hannibal lays a trap for the Romans in a ravine while an enraged Flamininus goes on a rant against augury and refuses to heed the terrible sacrificial omens. The poet shudders to describe the battle from which the gods turn their faces away in obedience to fate except for a gleeful Juno. Bellona stirs the Carthaginian lines, while Appius distinguishes himself before dying. Mago[disambiguation needed] is wounded but healed by the snake charmer/physician Synhalus. The Carthaginian hero Sychaeus is slain. The Romans seek refuge in the trees where they are slaughtered and there is an earthquake. Ducarius slays Flamininus who is buried by a heap of Roman dead.

Book 6 The book opens with a description of Bruttius' burial of the legionary eagle to save it from Hannibal. Serranus, a son of Marcus Atilius Regulus, escapes the battle and comes to the humble house of Marus at Perusia. There he is treated by Marus, who tells him the story of Regulus' battle with the Libyan snake at the river Bagradas (Medjerda) which leads the Naiads to demand suffering from Regulus in the future. Marus then tells Serranus about the Spartan Xanthippus in the First Punic War and the use of Regulus as an envoy for Carthage. Marcia, Serranus' mother, asks Regulus not to return, but he, respecting his oath, leaves her and is tortured to death by the Carthaginians. A bloodied Fama reports the battle at Rome, after which Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator, whose family history is described, is elected consul. Hannibal sees at Liternum temple doors portraying scenes from the First Punic War; in a rage he orders the temple burnt.

Book 7 Book 7 opens with an exploration of Fabius' tactics of delay. Hannibal learns from a prisoner the family history of the Fabii and then attempts to incite Fabius to battle as he ravages Campania and the Falernian countryside. The poet, as he says, cannot resist telling the story of Falernus' theoxenia of Bacchus and the gods gift of wine. Hannibal, by sparing Fabius' lands tries to make the dictator suspect but becomes trapped in a defile. By setting a herd of cattle on fire, a diversion is created so the Carthaginians can escape. Fabius called to Rome hands over command to the magister equitum Marcus Minucius Rufus. The Carthaginians land at Cumae, where they frighten the Nereids who go to Phorcys for prophecy. Phorkys tells the story of the Judgment of Paris and the reason for the war. Minucius, given equal powers with Fabius, attacks the Carthaginians and is barely saved by Fabius' force; the armies are reunited at the conclusion.

Book 8 Juno sends the spirit of Anna, the sister of Dido and now the nymph of the river Numicius, to Hannibal who is upset about his forced retreat. Anna tells Juno of Dido's suicide, her flight to Cyrene after Iarbas' invasion, her escape to Italy and Aeneas from Pygmalion's fleet, and her transformation into a river from fear of Lavinia, then hastens to Hannibal and encourages him by prophesying the Battle of Cannae. Varro is elected consul and gives a haughty speech criticizing Fabius, his colleague, Paulus, reluctantly decides to go to battle. There is a catalogue of Italian soldiers and allies. The book ends with an account of bad omens and an anonymous soldier's grim prophecy.

Critical responses to the Punica[edit]

In a well-known passage, Petronius pointedly describes the difficulties of the historic theme. A poet, he said, who should take upon him the vast subject of the civil wars would break down beneath the burden unless he were full of learning, since he would have not merely to record facts, which the historians did much better, but must possess an unshackled genius, to which full course must be given. by the use of digressions, by bringing divine beings on to the stage, and by giving generally a mythologic tinge to the subject. The Latin laws of the historic epic were fixed by Ennius, and were still binding when Claudian wrote. They were never seriously infringed, except by Lucan, who substituted for the dei ex machina of his predecessors the vast, dim and imposing Stoic conception of destiny.

By protracted application, and being full of learning, Silius had acquired excellent recipes for every ingredient that went to the making of the conventional historic epic. Though he is not named by Quintilian, he is probably hinted at in the mention of a class of poets who, as the writer says, write to show their learning. To seize the moments in the history, however unimportant, which were capable of picturesque treatment; to pass over all events, however important, which could not readily be rendered into heroics; to stuff out the somewhat modern heroes to something like Homeric proportions; to subject all their movements to the passions and caprices of the Olympians; to ransack the poetry of the past for incidents and similes on which a slightly new face might be put; to foist in by well-worn artifices episodes, however strange to the subject, taken from the mythologic or historic glories of Rome and Greece, all this Silius knew how to do. He did it all with the languid grace of the inveterate connoisseur, and with a simplicity foreign to his time, which sprang in part from cultivated taste and horror of the venturesome word, and in part from the subdued tone of a life which had come unscathed through the reigns of Caligula, Nero and Domitian.

The more threadbare the theme, and the more worn the machinery, the greater the need of genius. Two of the most rigid requirements of the ancient epic were abundant similes and abundant single combats. But all the obvious resemblances between the actions of heroic man and external nature had long been worked out, while for the renovation of the single combat little could be done till the hero of the Homeric type was replaced by the medieval knight. Silius, however, had perfect poetic appreciation, with scarce a trace of poetic creativeness. No writer has ever been more correctly and more uniformly judged by contemporaries and by posterity alike. Only the shameless flatterer, Martial, ventured to call his friend a poet as great as Virgil. But the younger Pliny gently says that he wrote poems with greater diligence than talent, and that, when, according to the fashion of the time, he recited them to his friends, he sometimes found out what men really thought of them. It is indeed strange that the poem lived on. Silius is never mentioned by ancient writers after Pliny except Sidonius, who, under different conditions and at a much lower level, was such another as he.

Since the discovery of Silius by Poggio, no modern enthusiast has arisen to sing his praises. His poem has been rarely edited since the 18th century. Yet, by the purity of his taste and his Latin in an age when taste was fast becoming vicious and Latin corrupt, by his presentation to us of a type of a thousand vanished Latin epics, and by the historic aspects of his subject, Silius merits better treatment from scholars than he has received. The general reader he can hardly interest again. He is indeed of imitation all compact, and usually dilutes what he borrows; he may add a new beauty, but new strength he never gives. Hardly a dozen lines anywhere are without an echo of Virgil, and there are frequent admixtures of Lucretius, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Homer, Hesiod and many other poets still extant. If we could reconstitute the library of Silius we should probably find that scarcely an idea or a phrase in his entire work was wholly his own.

The raw material of the Punica was supplied in the main by the third decade of Livy, though Silius may have consulted other historians of the Hannibalic war. Such facts as are used are generally presented with their actual circumstances unchanged, and in their historic sequence. The spirit of the Punic times is but rarely misconceived—as when to secret voting is attributed the election of men like Gaius Flaminius and Gaius Terentius Varro, and distinguished Romans are depicted as contending in a gladiatorial exhibition. Silius clearly intended the poem to consist of twenty-four books, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, but after the twelfth he hurries in visible weariness to the end, and concludes with seventeen.

The general plan of the epic follows that of the Iliad and the Aeneid. Its theme is conceived as a duel between two mighty nations, with parallel dissensions among the gods. Scipio Africanus and Hannibal are the two great heroes who take the place of Achilles and Hector on the one hand and of Aeneas and Turnus on the other, while the minor figures are all painted with Virgilian or Homeric pigments. In the delineation. of character our poet is neither very powerful nor very consistent. His imagination was too weak to realize the actors with distinctness and individuality. His Hannibal is evidently at the outset meant for an incarnation of cruelty and treachery, the embodiment of all that the vulgar Roman attached to the name Punic. But in the course of the poem the greatness of Hannibal is borne in upon the poet, and his feeling of it betrays itself in many touches. Thus he names Scipio the great Hannibal of Ausonia[disambiguation needed]; he makes Juno assure the Carthaginian leader that if fortune had only permitted him to be born a Roman he would have been admitted to a place among the gods; and, when the ungenerous monster of the first book accords in the fifteenth a splendid burial to Marcellus, the poet cries, 'You would fancy it was a Sidonian chief who had fallen.' Silius deserves little pity for the failure of his attempt to make Scipio an equipoise to Hannibal and the counterpart in personal prowess and prestige of Achilles. He becomes in the process almost as mythical a figure as the medieval Alexander. The best drawn of the minor characters are Fabius Cunctator, an evident copy of Lucan's Cato[disambiguation needed], and Paullus, the consul killed at Cannae, who fights, hates and dies like a genuine man.

Clearly it was a matter of religion with Silius to repeat and adapt all the striking episodes of Homer and Virgil. Hannibal must have a shield of marvellous workmanship like Achilles and Aeneas; because Aeneas descended into Hades and had a vision of the future history of Rome, so must Scipio have his revelation from heaven; Trebia, choked with bodies, must rise in ire like Xanthus, and be put to flight by Vulcan; for Virgil's Camilla there must be an Asbyte, heroine of Saguntum; the beautiful speech of Euryalus when Nisus[disambiguation needed] seeks to leave him is too good to be thrown away—furbished up a little, it will serve as a parting address from Imilce to her husband Hannibal. The descriptions of the numerous battles are made up in the main, according to epic rule, of single combats—wearisome sometimes in Homer, wearisome oftener in Virgil, painfully wearisome in Silius. The different component parts of the poem are on the whole fairly well knit together, and the transitions are not often needlessly abrupt; yet occasionally incidents and episodes are introduced with all the irrelevancy of the modern novel. The interposition of the gods is, however, usually managed with dignity and appropriateness.

As to diction and detail, we miss, in general, power rather than taste. The metre runs on with correct smooth monotony, with something always of the Virgilian sweetness, though attenuated, but nothing of the Virgilian variety and strength. The dead level of literary execution is seldom broken by a rise into the region of genuine pathos and beauty, or by a descent into the ludicrous or the repellent. There are few absurdities, but the restraining force is trained perception and not a native sense of humour, which, ever present in Homer, not entirely absent in Virgil, and sometimes finding grim expression in Lucan, fails Silius entirely. The address of Anna, Dido's sister, to Juno compels a smile. Though deified on her sister's death, and for a good many centuries already an inhabitant of heaven, Anna meets Juno for the first time on the outbreak of the Second Punic War, and deprecates the anger of the queen of heaven for having deserted the Carthaginians and attached herself to the Roman cause. Hannibal's parting address to his child is also comical: he recognizes in the heavy wailing of the year-old babe the seeds of rages like his own. But Silius might have been forgiven for a thousand more weaknesses than he has if in but a few things he had shown strength. The grandest scenes in the history before him fail to lift him up; his treatment, for example, of Hannibal's Alpine passage falls immensely below Lucan's vigorous delineation of Cato's far less stirring march across the African deserts.

But in the very weaknesses of Silius we may discern merit. He at least does not try to conceal defects of substance by contorted rhetorical conceits and feebly forcible exaggerations. In his ideal of what Latin expression should be he comes near to his contemporary Quintilian, and resolutely holds aloof from the tenor of his age. Perhaps his want of success with the men of his time was not wholly due to his faults. His self-control rarely fails him; it stands the test of the horrors of war, and of Venus working her will on Hannibal at Capua. Only a few passages here and there betray the true silver Latin extravagance. In the avoidance of rhetorical artifice and epigrammatic antithesis Silius stands in marked contrast to Lucan, yet at times he can write with point. Regarded merely as a poet he may not deserve high praise; but, as he is a unique specimen and probably the best of a once numerous class, the preservation of his poem among the remains of Latin Literature is a fortunate accident.

The poem was discovered in a manuscript, possibly at Constance, by Poggio, in 1416 or 1417; from this now lost manuscript all existing manuscripts, which belong entirely to the 15th century, are derived.


A valuable manuscript of the 8th or 9th century, found at Cologne by L. Carrion in the latter part of the 16th century, disappeared soon after its discovery. Two editiones principes appeared at Rome in 1471; the principal editions since have been those of Heinsius (1600), Drakenborch (1717), Ernesti (Leipzig, 1791) and L. Bauer (1890). The Punica is included in the second edition of the Corpus poetarum Latinorum. A useful variorum edition is that of Lemaître (Paris, 1823).

Recent writing on Silius is generally in the form of separate articles or small pamphlets; but see H. E. Butler, Post-Augustan Poetry (1909), chap. x.

In 1934 the Punica was edited, translated, and published in Loeb Classical Editions.


Peter Marso (1442–1512) wrote a commentary on the Punica 6 May 1483.[11]


  1. ^ E. Wistrand, Die Chronologie der Punica des Silius Italicus Goeteborg, 1956.
  2. ^ W. MacDermott and A. Orentzel "Silius and Domitian" in AJPh 1977 pp. 24-34
  3. ^ a b Pliny 3.7
  4. ^ Steele, R. B. "The Method of Silius Italicus", Classical Philology Vol. 17, No. 4 (Oct. 1922), pp. 319-333
  5. ^ von Albrecht, M. "Roman Epic: an interpretive guide" p. 293.
  6. ^ von Albrecht, p. 293.
  7. ^ Martial 7.63
  8. ^ M. von Albrecht, A History of Latin Literature vol. 2, p. 962 for a list of some Virgilian references.
  9. ^ Ahl, F. "Silius Italicus" ANRW p. 2501.
  10. ^ von Albrecht, History, p. 984.
  11. ^ "SILIUS ITALICUS, Caius (25-101). Punica. Commentary by Petrus Marsus (1442-1512). Venice: Baptista de Tortis, 6 May 1483. | Books & Manuscripts Auction | Books & Manuscripts, history | Christie's". Christies.com. 2008-06-04. Retrieved 2013-12-24. 

External links[edit]

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.