Publius Papinius Statius is the sort of Latin writer who is known only to devout classical scholars and students of Dante. Born in Naples Statius (45?-96 A.D.) was one of the principle epic and lyric poets of the Silver Age of Latin literature during the reign of the Emperor Domitian. His reputation was high during both his lifetime and through the Middle Ages, and he was actually considered to be second only to Virgil among Latin writer (although later critics dismissed him as a imitator of Virgil). His main works are the "Silvae," thirty-two occasional poems (circa 89-96 A.D.), the incomplete "Achilleid," a charming account of the life of the Greek hero Achilles, and his masterpiece, "Thebaid."
This Loeb Classical Library volume, the first of three devoted to Statius, presents the "Silvae" edited and translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey. Unlike the "Thebaid," which was read throughout the Middle Ages, the "Silvae" were lost until the 15th century, when a copy was found, lost again, and rediscovered in 1879 in the National Library in Madrid at which point it served as the basis for various copies and translations. What this means is that Bailey is working with a corrupted manuscript and guesswork by the translator plays an important part in reconstructing Statius' verse. Bailey documents the translation in the footnotes throughout the book and there is an overview of recent scholarship provided by Kathleen Coleman in the introduction.
Bailey describes these poems as being "extempore poems," which raises the question of whether Statius was being disingenuous when he claimed these were impromptu efforts. Each book begins with a dedication written in prose to one of Statius' friends or patrons (apparently what we know of the life of Statius comes from these dedications). The subjects of the these 32 poems, which were believed to have been written between 89 and 96 A.D., range from a parrot and a tame lion to the poet's father and son, and actually the former pair are two of the more interesting efforts in the volume. There are also several poems that console mourners on the loss of a love one. Others do no more than express admiration of a monument or describe a scene Statius found memorable. This is light verse, and the idea that these are snapshots of Domitian's Rome adds to their value for those studying that period of Roman history.
There are no pretenses by the author or the translator that this is epic poetry, but it is still of interest as such simple things often are when it comes to providing insights into what it was like to live in a particular time and place in the past. The style of Statius is certainly more self-conscious that either Homer or Virgil, employing many of the same poetic devices associated with Homer (e.g., using epithets and describing works of art) but without working them in as naturally as those poets who are considered to be masters of the form. To be fair, Silver Age writers were preoccupied with the conventions of literary form, but it does require some effort to follow the narrative. As always, the Loeb Classical Library provides both the original (Latin) text and Bailey's translation side-by-side, which, along with the footnotes, allows Latin scholars to quibble with Bailey's choices and attempt their own improvements.