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On the Similes of Virgil, Lucan, and Statius.

The Roman epicists bestowed great elaboration on their similes, and as a rule imitated them from a certain limited number of Greek originals. In Virgil but a few are original, i.e., taken from things he had himself witnessed, or feelings he had known. Lucan is less imitative in form, and he first used with any frequency the simile founded on a recollection of some well-known passage of Greek literature or conception of Greek art. In this Statius follows him; the simile of the infant Apollo noticed in this chapter is a good instance.

We give a few examples of the treatment of a similar subject by the three poets. We first take the simile of a storm, described by Virgil in the first Aeneid, and alluded to by the other two poets (Lucan i. 493):

                 “Qualis cum turbidus auster 
  Repulit e Libycis immensum syrtibus aequor 
  Fractaque veliferi sonuerunt pondera mali, 
  Desilit in fluctus deserta puppe magister 
  Navitaque, et nondum sparsa compage carinae 
  Naufragium sibi quisque facit.”

Here we have no great elaboration, but a good point at the finish. Statius (Theb. i. 370) is more subtle but more commonplace:

  “Ac velut hiberno deprensus navita ponto, 
  Cui neque Temo piger, nec amico sidere monstrat 
  Luna vias, medio caeli pelagique tumultu 
  Stat rationis inops; iam iamque aut saxa maliguis 
  Expectat submersa vadis, aut vertice acuto 
  Spumantes scopulos erectae incurrere prorae.”

The next simile is that of a shepherd robbing a nest of wild bees. It occurs in Virgil and Statius. Virgil's description is (Aen. xii. 587)—

  “Inclusas ut cum latebroso in pumice pastor 
  Vestigavit apes, fumoque implevit amaro; 
  Illae intus trepidae rerum per cerea castra 
  Discurrunt, magnisque acuunt stridoribus iras; 
  Volvitur ater odor tectis; tum murmure caeco 
  Intus saxe sonant: vaeuas it fumus ad auras.”

That of Statius (Th. x. 574) presents some characteristic refinements on its original:

  “Sic ubi pumiceo pastor rapturas ab antro 
  Armatas erexit apes, fremit aspera nubes: 
  Inque vicem sese stridere hortantur et omnes 
  Hostis in ora volant; mox deficientibus alis 
  Amplexae flavamque domum captivaque plangunt 
  Mella, laboratasque premunt ad pectora ceras.”

The smoke which is the agent of destruction is described by Virgil: obscurely hinted at in Statius by the single epithet “deficientibus.”

The next example is the description of a landslip by the same two. Virg. Aen. xii. 682.

  “Ac velati montis saxum de vertice praeceps 
  Quum ruit avolsum vento, seu turbidus imber 
  Proluit, aut annis solvit sublapsa vetustas, 
  Fertur in abruptum vasto mons improbus actu, 
  Exsultatque solo, silvas armenta virosque 
  Involvens secum.”

The copy is found Stat. Theb. vii. 744:

  “Sic ubi nubiferum montis latus aut nova ventis 
  Solvit hiems aut victa situ non pertulit aetas; 
  Desilit horrendus campo timor, arma virosque 
  Limite, non uno longaevaque robora secum 
  Praecipitans, tandemque exhaustus turbine fesso 
  Aut vallum cavat, aut medios intercipit amnes.”

The additions are here either exaggerations, trivialities, or ingenious adaptations of other passages of Virgil.

The next is a thunderstorm from Virgil and Lucan, (Aen. xii. 451):

  “Qualis ubi ad terras abrupto sidere nimbus 
  It mare per medium; miseris, heu, praescia longe 
  Horrescunt corda agricolis; dabit ille ruinas 
  Arboribus stragemque satis, ruet omnia late; 
  Antevolant somtumque ferunt ad litora venti.”

The simile of Lucan, which describes one disastrous flash rather than a storm (Phars. i. 150) refers to Caesar:

  “Qualiter expressum ventis per nubila fulmen 
  Aetheris impulsi sonitu mundi que fragore. 
  Emicuit, rupitque diem, populosque paventes 
  Terruit, obliqua praestringens lumina flamma: 
  In sua templa furit, nullaque exire vetante 
  Materia, magnamque cadens, magnamque revertens 
  Dat stragem late, sparsosque recolligitignes.”

No comparison is more common in Latin poetry than that of a warrior to a bull. All the three poets have introduced this, some of them several times. The instances we select will be Virg. Aen. xii. 714:

  “Ac velut ingenti Sila summove Taburno 
  Cum duo conversis inimica in proelia tauri 
  Frontibus incurrunt, pavidi cessere magistri, 
  Stat pecus omne metu mutum mussantque iuvencae, 
  Quis nemori imperitet, quem tota armenta sequantur.”

Lucan's simile is borrowed largely from the Georgics. It is, however, a fine one (Phars. ii. 601):

  “Pulsus ut armentis primo cerramine taurus 
  Silvarum secreta petit, vacuosque per agros 
  Exul in adversis explorat cornua truncis; 
  Nec redit in pastus nisi quum cervice recepta 
  Excussi placuere tori; mox reddita victor 
  Quoslibet in saltus comitantibus agmina tauris 
  Invito pastore trahit.”

That of Statius is in a similar strain (Theb. xi. 251):

  “Sic ubi regnator post exulis otia tauri 
  Mugitum hostilem summa tulit aure iuvencus, 
  Agnovitque minas, magna stat fervidus ira 
  Ante gregem, spumisque animos ardentibus effert, 
  Nunc pede torvus humum nunc cornibus aera lindens, 
  Horret ager, trepidaeque expectant proelia valles.”

How immeasurably does Virgil's description in its unambitious truth exceed these two fine but bombastic imitations!

These examples will suffice to show that each poet kept his predecessors in his eye, and tried to vie with them in drawing a similar picture. But the similes are not always taken from the common-place book. Virgil, who reserves nearly all his similes for the last six books, occasionally strikes an original key. Such are (or appear) the similes of the sedition quelled by an orator (i. 148), the top (vii. 378), the labyrinth (v, 588), the housewife (viii. 407), and the fall of the pier at Baiae (ix. 707); perhaps also of the swallow (xii. 473); mythological similes are common in him, but not so much, so as in Lucan and Statius. We have those of the Amazons (xi. 659), of Mars' shield in Thrace (xii. 331), condensed by Statius (Theb. vi. 665), of Orestes (iv. 471), copied by Lucan (Ph. vii. 777).

The lion, as may be supposed, furnishes many. We subjoin a further list which may be useful to the reader.

The Lion—Aen. xii. 4; x. 722; ix. 548(?). Phars. i. 206. Theb. ii. 675; iv. 494; v. 598; vii. 670; viii. 124; ix. 739, and perhaps v. 231.

The Serpent, dragon, &c.—Aen. xi, 751; v. 273. Theb. v. 599; xi. 310.

Mythological—Phars. ii. 715; iv. 549; vii. 144. Theb. ii. 81; iv. 140; xii. 224, 270.

The Sea—Aen. xi. 624; vii. 586 (?). Theb. i. 370; iii. 255; vi. 777; vii. 864.

The Winds—Aen. x. 856. Phars. i. 498. Theb. i. 194; iii. 432; v. 704.

The Boar—Aen. x. 707. Theb. viii. 533.

Trees—Aen. ix. 675. Phars. i. 136. Theb. viii. 545.

Birds—Aen. v. 213; xii. 473; xi. 721; vii. 699. Theb. ix. 858; xii. 15.

We may note detached similes like that of the light reflected in water, Aen. viii. 15, imitated in Theb. vi. 578; that of the horse from Homer, Aen. xi. 491, which Statius has not dared to imitate; and others not referable to any of the above groups may easily be found. It is clear that Virgil and Statius attached more importance to this ornament than Lucan. Their verbal elaboration was greater, and thus they both excel him. A careful study of all the similes in Latin poetry would bring to light some interesting facts of literary criticism. That descriptive power in which all the Romans excelled is nowhere more striking than in these short and pleasing cameos.