Statius, Silvae 1.6 lines 1-50

commentary by Will Wasta-Werner

Statius was the court poet to Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 CE). The Silvae were written toward the end of Statius’ life in the late 80s and mid 90s. Poem 1.6 celebrates Domitian’s commemoration of the Roman holiday of Saturnalia with a public feast (likely) set in the Colosseum. Saturnalia was a celebration of the winter solstice and was characterized by a temporary inversion of social order and a celebration of popular freedom. This theme of social inversion and disorder is key to the poem.

The Kalends falls on the first day of every month, yet Saturnalia, the celebration of the winter solstice, was traditionally celebrated on the 17th of December. If Statius’ dating is faithful, Domitian seems to have moved the date of the Saturnalia.1  The occasion of the poem is the Kalends, but Statius does not actually say the event he is describing took place on the Kalends. He could be celebrating the arrival of December by recalling a previous Saturnalia event. It is  The implications are vast: for the emperor to reschedule a celebration of popular libertas is a declaration of power. Romans became beholden to the emperor to celebrate their freedom. Domitian is further empowered in the poem by Statius’ conflation of him and divine Jupiter. Domitian does not just host a feast: he, “our Jove” (line 27), rains down the desserts in a gentle hail (24) like a weather god. He even outdoes the gods (46-47) and does everyone the favor of attending his feast.2   For further discussion on Statius’ portrayal of Domitian as divine, see poem 4.2. The emperor inverts the order of things: whereas the typical Saturnalian inversion involves giving plebs the power, Domitian subtly inverts the inversion and seizes power.

The poem is written in hendecasyllabic meter which is customarily used for witty and acerbic poems. The quickness of the meter implies a certain informality and jocularity in Catullus and is seemingly at odds with the awestruck tone of this poem (Newlands 228). But the customary inversion and breakdown of the strict class structure on Saturnalia provides a sufficient informality that is only reinforced when all social groups dine together (44) in jovial group celebration. Statius is amazed at Domitian’s presence at such a socias (communal) celebration (48), one where any deference to class rank is disregarded (45). Far from a Virgilian or Homeric detached observer of epic events, Statius is present in the crowd in the Colosseum and is caught up in the excitement. In a sense, a custom of meter is thus inverted as the classes dine together.

This commentary covers the first half of the poem. The rest of the poem describes the intentionally farcical gladiatorial games that followed the feast. These games entailed having women and dwarves fight, two groups who normally would not be allowed in the arena. But in the spirit of the inversion of order on Saturnalia, they are the main entertainment. The poem concludes with Statius too tired to attend the night performances that followed.

(Line 1) Phoebus…Pallas:These Greek terms referring to Helios (Apollo) and Minerva (Athena) are not surprising to find in Statius’ text given the author’s inclination to incorporate Greek vocabulary (see also the note on ln. 8). The Greek is present for several reasons. Statius reveals in Silvae 5.2 that his father was a Greek grammatikos, a teacher of grammar, who specialized in Greek poetry. Statius himself was Greek too, and the education provided by his father, by which he was certainly influenced in some capacity,  was geared toward the production of elite poets (Fantham 175-6).  Furthermore, Greek held a special status among Roman elites as a signifier of rank and a social currency (McNelis 71). As the court poet of Emperor Domitian, Statius was in the highest echelons of society where Greek was expected.

(4) Saturnus mihi compede exsoluta (Saturn, with his shackles unloosened): The image of a freed Saturn was a symbol for popular freedom (Newlands 239). Here it signifies the temporary liberation the lower classes enjoyed on Saturnalia. Its early presence in the poem signals the audience to remain attentive for the theme to recur.

(8) ~parcen~: A corruption exists in this line. Most likely, the intended word (which has been omitted in this translation) was ἀπαρχήν (aparchen), a Greek term for the very first part of a sacrificial offering but which can also refer to a banquet held on the event of a religious sacrifice. With its inclusion, lines 7-8 read: “…while I recall the beautiful day of our joyous Caesar and the drunken sacrificial banquet.” Yet there is no mention of a sacrifice in the poem: Statius is not recalling a sacrifice of any kind and instead proceeds to recall the feast of Saturnalia. He is exaggerating the scale and luxury of Domitian’s Saturnalia by conflating it with another feast. There are in a sense two feasts in one. This motif will recur.

(10) linea (the awning): A linea is literally a line of string. In the poem desserts rain down from this line which is moved by the easterly wind. Statius is likely referring to the velarium above the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum, which had been finished in 80 CE just before the reign of Domitian. He does little to describe the actual setting of the event, which leaves room for doubt, but given that the theatre was recently completed, Domitian likely wanted to co-opt its magnificence into his reign by using it as much as possible. The awning does not survive, but architectural evidence survives in the form of projecting stone corbels that have sockets meant to support wooden pillars which would hold up the awning (Goldman 60). Goldman points out that Pliny the Elder offers evidence that these awnings were likely made of carbasina, the same cloth used for ship sails. There is widespread consensus that the general function of these awnings, which were present in other Roman amphitheatres, was to shade the audience from sunlight.

A view of the sets of three corbels with matching holes in the cornice above each. Image from Goldman 1982.
Cross section of the Colosseum with the velarium extended. Reconstruction by Carlo Fontana, from Goldman 1982.

(15) ~aebosia~ There is a corruption in this line. The manuscript is uncertain, but the word (not included in this translation) likely refers to the town of Ebusos (Shackleton Bailey 373). With its inclusion, one reading of the line is: “…and which the Caunos of Ebusos ripens.” Given the corruption, it is also possible to read: “and Ebusan figs which Caunos ripens.” Both areas were famous for their figs (Caunos for its heat as well: the Latin verb here is percoquere, literally meaning ‘to cook thoroughly’). Statius’ mention of both places stresses the peculiarity of these figs that are raining down.

(17) gaioli (little Gaiuses): Literally, these were likely small pastries or cookies made in the shape of a man. At marriage parties, it was customary to refer to the newly married as Gaius and Gaia (Lewis and Short). As with aparchen, Statius may be synthesizing another celebratory occasion with this one to exaggerate the festivities: Domitian’s feast is so amazing it is like a combination of a marriage feast, a sacrificial feast, and a Saturnalia feast too. However, it is also possible that the pastries, in the shape of a man with the name Gaius, could allude by name to Gaius Julius Caesar or Augustus (born Gaius Octavius). It would not be a stretch to consider that, on a day celebrating freedom, Romans considered Julius Caesar and Augustus to be liberators–the plebes received far more attention from the emperors under the Principate than they did from the Senate under the Republic. Augustus in particular billed his reign as a return to tradition and a guaranteed end to the endless destructive civil wars. If that is the case, more inversions are going on. These divine figures, whom the Romans considered gods in heaven, are raining down from the sky and heaven in an ironic inversion of both power and space. Furthermore, these ferocious rulers and generals are made benign by their new form as a cookie, even subjugated to the power of any hungry Roman.

(20) caryotides (Caryotid dates): These kinds of dates were in the shape of nuts and were common presents given by clients to their patrons and friends (Lewis and Short). Note the inversion of order again: the clients are the ones giving the gifts on Saturnalia, not the patrons.

(23) cuneos (wedges): Refers to the blocks of seats in the Colosseum. See the second image above for the wedge-shaped blocks divided by aisles.

(33) marcida vina largiuntur (…generously distribute withered wine): Given that the servers are carrying dishes of food that are lautiores (rather fancy), its reasonable to assume that the servers pouring the wine generously also have some flashy materials as well. The image below is of a Roman glass oinochoe (vessel for pouring wine) that might resemble some of the implements with which the servers carried out their task. It roughly dates to the Augustan or Julio-Claudian period (first century), a few decades before Domitian’s ascension.

Glass oinochoe, 1st cent. BCE – 1st cent. CE. Metropolitan Museum of Art 17.194.170, on display at Gallery 166.

(35) orbem (section): The orbem is literally a circle. It likely refers to a section of the theatre reserved (under the Lex Julia Theatralis of Augustus) for the equites class (lesser nobles, loosely comparable to knights). Shackleton Bailey believes the orbem was a reservation of seats under the Lex Roscia, a modification of the Augustan law, meant for those strictly labeled in the equites class by the census (373-4). In that case, the idea that men here are better and more severe (melior severiorque est) simply refers to the idea that noblemen were more virtuous than plebs by nature. It is possible however that this specific orbem here is for the decoctores equites, equites who went bankrupt, since the same law specifies certain seating for them (Rawson 102). In that case, Statius’ remark that this section is where men are better and more severe has more possibilities beyond a marker of equites’ seating reservations. In the Latin, est (literally “is”) is used, but it could have an idea of growth and development: this section is where men are made better and more severe (i.e. more austere with regard to money).

(38) AnnonaThe Annona was the system that provided grain to the city of Rome. It grew in importance during the Principate to the extent that an office to oversee it was created. In the context of the line, Statius likely means that the praefectus Annonae was off work on this day of feasting because all the foodstuffs were so plentiful and luxurious that no one had to worry about the transportation infrastructure of grain.


Fantham, Elaine. Roman Literary Culture: From Cicero to Apuleius. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. 175-6.

Goldman, Norma. “Reconstructing the Roman Colosseum Awning.” Archaeology 35, no. 2 (1982): 60.

Lewis, Charleton T. and Charles Short [1879], A Latin Dictionary;

McNelis, Charles. “Greek Grammarians and Roman Society during the Early Empire: Statius’ Father and His Contemporaries.” Classical Antiquity 21, no. 1 (2002): 71.

Newlands, Carole. Statius’ Silvae and the Poetics of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 228.

Rawson, Elizabeth. “Discrimina Ordinum: The Lex Julia Theatralis.” Papers of the British School at Rome 55 (1987): 102.

Statius. Silvae. Translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey. Edited by Christopher A. Parrott. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. 373.


Notes   [ + ]

1.   The occasion of the poem is the Kalends, but Statius does not actually say the event he is describing took place on the Kalends. He could be celebrating the arrival of December by recalling a previous Saturnalia event
2.    For further discussion on Statius’ portrayal of Domitian as divine, see poem 4.2.