“The Battle of Cannae in the Roman Poetic Imagination” (Dr. Neil Bernstein, Ohio University)

Cannae was the greatest battle of the ancient Greco-Roman world. In The Allure of Battle, the military historian Cathal Nolan has written of the dangerous illusion cast by Cannae, from antiquity right up through the Schlieffen plan of World War One. This paper examines how the Roman poet Silius Italicus represents Cannae in his epic Punica, written at end of the first century AD. As part of my forthcoming Oxford commentary on Punica 9, I examine Cannae in the tradition of epic accounts of other decisive battles such as Virgil’s Actium and Lucan’s Pharsalus.
Cannae provides the hinge point of a story of defeat and recovery. Yet the Punica is not providential because the Romans eventually win the war, nor does Cannae fit neatly into a simplistic narrative of Roman morality. The paper focuses on three elements that align Silius’ Cannae with civil war themes: the familiar Roman metaphor of the state as a family; the role of the gods; and the anachronistic use of characters’ names. Silius addresses an audience of recent survivors of the Flavian civil war, and guides them to interpret the Cannae episode in this contemporary context.