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Text #632

Italicus. Punica. Series: Punica. Vol. 1
[Bk. 8 Verse 625 pp. 439--443]

When the Romans reached Cannae, built on the site of a former city, they planted their doomed standards on a rampart of evil omen. Nor, when such destruction was hanging over their unhappy heads, did the gods fail to reveal the coming disaster. Javelins blazed up suddenly in the hands of astounded soldiers; high battlements fell down along the length of the ramparts; Mount Garganus, collapsing with tottering summit, overset its forests; the Aufidus rumbled in its lowest depths and roared1; and far away across the sea seamen were scared by fire burning on the Ceraunian mountains.2 Light was suddenly withdrawn, and the Alabrian mariners, plunged in darkness, looked in vain for the shore and land of Sipus; and many a screech-owl beset the gates of the camp. Thick swarms of bees constantly twined themselves about the terrified standards, and the bright hair of more than one comet, the portent that dethrones monarchs, showed its baleful glare. Wild beasts also in the silence of night burst through the rampart into the camp, snatched up a sentry before the eyes of his frightened comrades, and scattered his limbs over the adjacent fields.

Sleep also was mocked by terrible images: men dreamt that the ghosts of the Gauls were breaking forth from their graves. Again and again the Tarpeian rock was shaken and wrenched from its very base; a dark stream of blood flowed in the temples of Jupiter ; and the ancient image of Father Quirinus shed floods of tears. The Allia rose high above its fatal banks.

The Alps did not keep their place, and the Apennines were never still day or night among their vast gorges. In the southern sky, bright meteors shot against Italy from the direction of Africa ; and the heavens burst open with a fearful crash, and the countenance of the Thunderer was revealed. Vesuvius also thundered, hurling flames worthy of Etna from her cliffs; and the fiery crest, throwing rocks up to the clouds, reached to the trembling stars.

But lo! in the midst of the army a soldier foretells the battle. With distraction in his aspect and his brain, he fills the camp with his wild shouting, and gasps as he reveals coming disaster: “Spare us, ye cruel gods! The heaps of dead are more than the fields can contain; I see Hannibal speeding through the serried ranks and driving his furious chariot over armour and human limbs and standards. The wind rages in wild gusts, and drives the dust of battle in our faces and eyes. Servilius, careless of his life, is down; his absence from the field of Rasimene does not help him now. Whither is Varro fleeing “Ye gods! Paulus, the last hope of despairing men, is struck down by a stone. Trebia cannot rival this destruction. See ! the bodies of the slain form a bridge, and reeking Aufidus belches forth corpses, and the huge beast treads the plain victorious.

The Carthaginian copies us and carries the consul’s axes, and his lictors bear blood-stained rods. The triumphal procession of the Roman passes from Rome to Libya. And, O grief!—do the gods force us to witness this also? — victorious Carthage measures the downfall of Rome by all the heap of gold that was torn from the left hands of the slain.

  1. The Ofanto, known in ancient times as Aufidus, is a 170-kilometre (110 mi) river in southern Italy that flows through the regions of Campania, Basilicata, and Apulia, into the Gulf of Manfredonia near Barletta.

  2. The Ceraunian Mountains is a coastal mountain range in southwestern Albania. The name is derived from Ancient Greek Κεραύνια ὄρη, meaning “thunder-split peaks”.

Text #9189

Editorial comment by Laura Knight-Jadczyk

While searching for any possible confirmation that the items that Silius Italicus included in his poetic account of the Punic war might be drawn from other historical accounts, I found in Livy, just following the account of the defeat of Cannae:

They were terrified not only by the great disasters they had suffered, but also by a number of prodigies, and in particular because two Vestals, Opimia and Floronia, had in that year been convicted of unchastity. Of these one had been buried alive, as the custom is, near the Colline Gate, and the other had killed herself. … Since in the midst of so many misfortunes this pollution was, as happens at such time, converted into a portent, the decemvirs were commanded to consult the Books, and Quintus Fabius Pictor was dispatched to Delphi, to enquire of the oracle with what prayers and supplications they might propitiate the gods, and what would be the end of all their calamities. In the meantime, by the direction of the Books of Fate, some unusual sacrifices were offered; amongst others a Gaulish man and woman and a Greek man and woman were buried alive in the Cattle Market, in a place walled in with stone, which even before this time had been defiled with human victims, a sacrifice wholly alien to the Roman spirit.

Deeming that the gods had now been sufficiently appeased… (Livy, History of Rome, Loeb, 22.57.2-6, pp. 385, 387)

The extreme nature of the propitiation can certainly be explained by the series of military disasters, but the mention of a “number of prodigies” is curious. One can also recall that Livy gave short shrift to the dreadful earthquake that occurred during the Battle of Lake Trasimene and in general, he downplays extraordinary environmental events that often gave rise to superstitious behaviors. This is evident even in the above. However, while searching for any evidence of an eruption of Vesuvius in 215 BC specifically, I found the following comment online:

Vesuvius makes lots of stone, but it can sleep for centuries. Hannibal saw Vesuvius erupt in 215 BC, but it was snoozing in 73 BC when Spartacus and his band of rebellious slaves hid on its summit. A century later the Greek historian Strabo realized that Vesuvius was a volcano like Etna because their rocks were much alike, but that information was largely forgotten until August 24, 79 AD, when Vesuvius reawoke. (

Which prompted further searching.

Stothers, R.B., and M.R. Rampino, 1983: Volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean before A.D. 630 from written and archaeological sources. J. Geophys. Res., 88, no. B8, 6357-6371, doi:10.1029/JB088iB08p06357.

Written and archaeological sources from the Mediterranean region have been exhaustively searched for evidence of historical volcanism before the year A.D. 630. Volcanic eruptions are identified here by two methods: direct observations, which give information about Mediterranean volcanoes, and indirect, atmospheric observations, which give at least the dates of very large explosive eruptions that occurred somewhere in the northern hemisphere. Seven or more very large explosive eruptions have been detected by these methods. Direct observations indicate great eruptions of Thera (fifteenth century B.C.), Etna (44 B.C.), and Vesuvius (217 B.C., A.D. 79, A.D. 472). Indirect observations imply great eruptions of northern hemisphere volcanoes in the years 217 B.C., 44 B.C.,A.D. 472 A.D. 536, and A.D. 626. Some of the correlations with known Mediterranean eruptions may be accidental. It is found that atmospheric veiling and cooling were quite marked for about a year after the eruptions of 44 B.C., A.D. 472, A.D. 536, and A.D. 626 (relevant data are lacking for the other eruptions). If the A.D. 536 eruption was a very distant one (Rabaul, New Britain?), it may have been the most explosive in recorded history. There is independent evidence of the sizes of the eruptions that took place in these years: at least five of them coincide with the strongest acidity signals in Greenland ice for this period. In the case of the smaller eruptions, reliable (though necessarily incomplete) chronologies are presented for Etna, Vesuvius, and the other active Mediterranean volcanoes. Full documentation from the original sources is provided throughout.

The paper tells us:

We present next the literary evidence for another major volcanic eruption, one that occurred in 217 BC. In that year the Roman pontiffs apparently recorded a dry fog, as “the sun’s disk seemed to be diminished” (Livy 22.1.9)

It was also noted in 217 BC that a shower of glowing stones,” suddenly appearing from the south (Silius Italicus 8.650-651) had fallen at the town of Praeneste, near Rome (Livy 22.1.9; Plutarch, Fabius Maximus 2.3), while at Capua, 30 km north of Naples, there had been “the appearance of a sky on fire” (Livy 22.1.12). Round glows in the sky and a sudden darkening of the sun seem also to have been observed from the east coast of Italy near Mount Gargano (Lifvy 22.1.9); Silius Italicus 8.632-633). A record number of violent earthquakes, too, had been felt throughout Italy in that year (Coelius Antipater in Cicero, On Divination 1.78; Livy 22.5.8; Pliny the Elder 2.200; Silius Italicus 5.611-633, 8.627-649; Plutarch, Fabius Maximus 3.2; Florus, Epitome 1.22.14). But most significantly of all, Mount Vesuvius is said by the first century AD epic poet Silius Italicus (Punica 8.653-655) to have erupted. …

Although Silius included this information in a long list of prodigies for the year 216, some of these prodigies appear also in Livy’s (22.1.8-13) list for the year 217, which should be preferred as the correct date. The simile with Mount Etna is of course derived from Vergil and at first sight makes this prodigy suspect. But a later passage (Silius Italicus 12.152-154) details the aspect of the Campanian mountain in 215 BC:

Hannibal is shown Mt. Vesuvius, where fire has eaten away the rocks at its summit, and the wreckage of the mountian lies all around, and the discharge of stones seeks to rival the death dealt by Etna.

The passage is conspicuously free of the mythological associations that Silius attaches in his poem to other volcanoes.

In the Augustan age, Diodorus Siculus, Vitruvius, and Strabo, while recognizing Vesuvius’s volcanic character, thought that the mountain had been extinct since prehistoric times. But Strabo (1.2.18, 5.4.8) does inform us that the summit in his day was barren and ash-colored, and Diodorus Siculus (4.21.) and Vitruvius (2.6.2-3) agree that the mountain still displayed in their day the signs of earlier fire. These facts suggest that the last eruption had occurred in the not too distant past, which would support Silius’ testimony. There is also the more general argument that according to modern critics, Silius’ historical and geographical facts, whenever they can be checked, usually hold up [Nicol, 1936]. Furthermore, the independently reported distant effects of the eruption closely resemble the ones observed after the more famous eruption of AD 79.

Thus, these events will be re-dated to 217 BC with an error range of 1 yr.

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