Little is known of the events in his life. From his boyhood he was victorious in poetic contests many times at his native Naples, three times at Alba, where he received the golden crown from the hand of the emperor Domitian.
At the great Capitoline competition, probably on its third celebration in 94, Statius failed to win the coveted chaplet of oak leaves. No doubt the extraordinary popularity of his Thebaid had led him to regard himself as the supreme poet of the age, and when he could not sustain this reputation in the face of rivals from all parts of the empire he accepted the judges' verdict as a sign that his day was past, and retired to Naples, the home of his ancestors and of his own young years. We still possess the poem he addressed to his wife on this occasion (Silv. iii.5). There are hints in this poem which naturally lead to the surmise that Statius was suffering from a loss of the emperor's favour. In the preface to book iv of the Silvae there is mention of detractors who hated his style, and these may have succeeded in inducing a new fashion in poetry at court. Such an eclipse, if it happened, must have cut Statius to the heart.
He appears to have relished thoroughly the role of court-poet. Statius lauds the emperor, not to discharge a debt, but to create an obligation. His flattery is as far removed from the gentle propitiatory tone of Quintilian as it is from the coarse and crawling humiliation of Martial. It is in the large extravagant style of a nature in itself healthy and generous, which has accepted the theme and left scruples behind.
In one of his prefatory epistles Statius declares that he never allowed any work of his to go forth without invoking the godhead of the divine emperor. Statius had taken the full measure of Domitian's gross taste, and, presenting him with the rodomontade which he loved, puts conscience and sincerity out of view, lest some uneasy twinge should mar his master's enjoyment. But in one poem, that in which the poet pays his due for an invitation to the Imperial table, we have sincerity enough. Statius clearly feels all the raptures he expresses. He longs for the power of him who told the tale of Dido's banquet, and for the voice of him who sang the feast of Alcinous, that he may give forth utterance worthy of the lofty theme. The poet seemed, he says, to dine with great Jove himself and to receive nectar from Ganymede the cupbearer (an odious reference to the imperial favourite Earinus).
All his life hitherto has been barren and profitless. Now only has he begun to live in truth. The palace struck on the poet's fancy like the very hall of heaven; nay, Jove himself marvels at its beauty, but is glad that the emperor should possess such an earthly habitation; he will thus feel less desire to seek his destined abode among the immortals in the skies. Yet even so gorgeous a palace is all too mean for his greatness and too small for his vast presence. "But it is himself, himself, that my eager eye has alone time to scan. He is like a resting Mars or Bacchus or Alcides."
Martial and Statius were no doubt supreme among the imperial flatterers. Each was the other's only serious rival. It is therefore not surprising that neither should breathe the other's name. Even if we could by any stretch excuse the bearing of Statius towards Domitian, he could never be forgiven the poem entitled "The Hair of Flavius Earinus," Domitian's Ganymede (Silv. 3.4), a poem than which it would be hard to find a more repulsive example of real poetical talent defiled for personal ends. Everything points to the conclusion that Statius did not survive his emperor — that he died, in fact, a short time after leaving Rome to settle in Naples. Apart from the emperor and his minions, the friendships of Statius with men of high station seem to have been maintained on fairly equal terms. He was clearly the poet of society in his day as well as the poet of the court.
Statius prided himself on his powers of improvisation, and he seems to have been quite equal to the feat, which Horace describes, of dictating two hundred lines in an hour while standing on one leg. The improvisatore was in high honour among the later Greeks, as Cicero's speech for the poet Archias indicates; and the poetic contests common in the early empire did much to stimulate ability of the kind. It is to their velocity that the poems owe their comparative freshness and freedom, along with their loose texture and their inequality. There are thirty-two poems, divided into five books, each with a dedicatory epistle. Of nearly four thousand lines which the books contain, more than five-sixths are hexameters. Four of the pieces (containing about 450 lines) are written in the hendecasyllabic metre, the "tiny metre of Catullus," and there is one Alcaic and one Sapphic ode.
There are often traits of an almost modern domesticity in these verses, and Statius, the childless, has here and there touched on the charm of childhood in lines for a parallel to which, among the ancients, we must go, strange to say, to his rival Martial. One of the epicedia, that on Priscilla the wife of Abascantus, Domitian's freedman, is full of interest for the picture it presents of the official activity of a high officer of state.
Another group of the Silvae give picturesque descriptions of the villas and gardens of the poet's friends. In these we have a more vivid representation than elsewhere of the surroundings amid which the grandees of the early empire lived when they took up their abode in the country.
As to the rest of the Silvae, the congratulatory addresses to friends are graceful but commonplace, nor do the jocose pieces call for special mention.
In the Kalendae decembres we have a striking description of the gifts and amusements provided by the emperor for the Roman population on the occasion of the Saturnalia. In his failed attempt at an epithalamium (Silv. i.2) Statius is forced and unhappy.
His birthday ode in Lucan's honour has, along with the accustomed exaggeration, many powerful lines, and shows, high appreciation of preceding Latin poets. Some phrases, such as "the untaught muse of high-souled Ennius" and "the lofty passion of sage Lucretius," are familiar words with all scholars. The ode ends with a great picture of Lucan's spirit rising after death on wings of fame to regions whither only powerful souls can ascend, scornfully surveying earth and smiling at the tomb, or reclining in Elysium and singing a noble strain to the Pompeys and the Catos and all the "Pharsalian host," or with proud tread exploring Tartarus and listening to the wailings of the guilty, and gazing at Nero, pale with agony as his mother's avenging torch glitters before his eyes. It is singular to observe how thoroughly Nero had been struck out of the imperial succession as recognized at court, so that the "bald Nero" took no umbrage when his flatterer-in‑chief profanely dealt with his predecessor's name.
The Thebaid, which the poet says took twelve years to compose, is in twelve books, and has for its theme the old "tale of Thebes" — the deadly strife of the Theban brothers. There is also preserved a fragment of an Achilleis— the Achilleid— consisting of one book and part of another, "a more varied and charming work than readers of the Thebaid could ever have imagined and is perhaps the most attractive approach to the imitative and professional poet. The best text is provided by the ninth-century Codex Puteaneus, from the Abbey of Corbie, a manuscript in the Bibliothèque National (BN 8051) that was once the property of the humanist Claude Dupuy.
In the weary length of these epics there are many flowers of pathos and many little finished gem-pictures, but the trammels of tradition, the fashionable taste and the narrow bars of education check continually the poet's flight. Not merely were the materials for his epics prescribed to him by rigid custom, but also to a great extent the method by which they were to be treated. All he could do was to sound the old notes with a distinctive timbre of his own. The gods must needs wage their wonted epic strife, and the men, their puppets, must dance at their nod; there most needs be heavenly messengers, portents, dreams, miracles, single combats, similes, Homeric and Virgilian echoes, and all the other paraphernalia of the conventional epic.
But Statius treats his subjects with a boldness and freedom which contrast pleasingly with the timid traditionalism of Silius Italicus and the stiff scholasticism of Gaius Valerius Flaccus. The vocabulary of Statius is conspicuously rich, and he shows audacity, often successful, in the use of words and metaphors. At the same time he carried certain literary tricks to an aggravating pitch, in particular the excessive use of alliteration, and the misuse of mythological allusion. The best-known persons and places are described by epithets or periphrases derived from some very remote connection with mythology, so that many passages are as dark as Heraclitus.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante and Virgil meet Statius in Purgatory, on the level reserved for the avaricious and the prodigal, where his spirit, having completed his atonement for the sin of prodigality, accompanies the poets through the remainder of Purgatory proper up to the Earthly Paradise at the summit of the holy mountain. Dante claims that Statius was a secret convert to Christianity as a result of his reading of Virgil, although his conversion is not attested in any historical source.