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
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.