1902 Encyclopedia > Persius (Aules Persius Flaccus)

(Aules Persius Flaccus)
Roman poet and satirist
(32-62 AD)

PERSIUS (A. PERSIUS FLACCUS) stands third in order of time of those recognized by the Romans as their four greatest satirists. These represent four distinct periods of the national development—the revolutionary era of the Gracchi, the years immediately preceding the establishment of the monarchy, the first years of the reign of Nero, the age of Domitian and the dawning of the better era which followed on the accession of Nerva. Their relative value consists in the truth, freedom, and power with which they expressed the better spirit of their time, commented on its vices and follies, and described the actual personages, the prevailing types of character, and the fashions and pur-suits—the " quicquid agunt homines "—by which it was marked. Of these four representatives of the most dis-tinctly national branch of Roman literature—Lucilius, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal—Persius is the least im-portant. He is indeed inferior to none of them in the purity and sincerity with which he expresses the best spirit of his age ; but he was inferior in literary originality and vigour to Lucilius, in literary art to Horace and Juvenal,—less powerful in his denunciation of evil than Lucilius and Juvenal, less searching in his criticism than Horace,—less true to life in his delineation of men and manners than the two earlier satirists, less powerful in his effects than the latest among them. This inferior-ity is to be ascribed partly to the circumstances of his age. Its literature was more artificial, and also more opposed to the true principles of art, than that of any other stage in the development of Roman letters. The generation which succeeded the Augustan age—the generation which lived under Tiberius, Gaius, and Claudius—had not the genius to originate a literature of its own nor the sense of security which would enable it to perpetuate the literary accomplish-ment of the preceding age. No period between the Cicer-onian era and the reign of Hadrian was so unproductive. The accession of the young emperor, in whom were ulti-mately realized the worst vices of the tyrant along with the most despicable weaknesses of the litterateur and artiste— "scenicus ille" is the term of contempt applied to him in Tacitus—gave a fresh impulse to that fashion of verse-making which Horace remarked as almost universal among his educated contemporaries, and which was stimulated by the rhetorical education of the day. But the writers of the Neronian age had neither the genius nor the true sense of art which distinguished the Ciceronian and Augustan ages, nor had they acquired the cultivated appreciation and good taste of the later Flavian era, nor were they animated by that sense of recovered freedom of speech and thought which gave to Roman literature its two last great repre-sentatives. The writing of the Neronian age was, for the most part, a crude and ambitious effort to produce sensa-tional effects by rhetorical emphasis. Of its representatives four can still be read with a certain though by no means an unmixed pleasure,—Seneca, Lucan, Petronius, and Persius. Of these Persius had least of the true literary gift. He had neither the smooth and fluent elegance of - Seneca, the " ingenium amcenum et auribus illius temporis accom-modatum " attributed to him by Tacitus, nor the rhetorical passion of Lucan, nor the cynical realism and power of representation which enabled Petronius to originate a new form of literature. Persius could not have become a satirist of the type of Petronius or of Martial: he could not have treated human degradation in a spirit of cynical sympathy or of amused tolerance. On the other hand earnest satire directed against its legitimate objects, the emperor and his favourites, could not at such a time express itself openly. " Pone Tigellinum" is an expressive reminder that it was safer to write sickly sentimentalism about " Phyllis and Hypsipyle " than to assume the role of Lucilius.

But apart from the influence of his time and the natural limitations of his genius, the personal circumstances of Persius were unfavourable to success in the branch of literature to which he devoted himself. The shortness of his life and the retirement in which it was spent, his studious tastes, his delicate health, and that which is most admirable in him, his exceptional moral purity, all con-tributed to keep him ignorant of that world which it is the business of a satirist to know. Lucilius, Horace, Petronius, Martial, Juvenal, were all men of the world, who knew the life of their day by close personal contact with it, and had no need to imagine it through the medium of impressions received from literature, or situations in-vented as themes for rhetorical exercises. Some aspects of his time, such as the outward signs of literary affectation and effeminacy, did come within the range of Persius's observation, and these he describes with no want of the pungency, "Italum acetum," characteristic of his race. But from any intimate knowledge, even through the medium of conversation, of the vices and vulgarities from which Petronius lifts the curtain he was debarred by the purity alike of his moral instincts and of his taste. Thus his satire, while able to lash " the sickly morals " of his time ("pallentes radere mores") in fervid generalities, cannot perform the more important function of probing them through living examples.

But Roman satire had another function besides the re-presentation and criticism of men and manners. More than any other branch of literature it was the expression of the writer's own nature and convictions. The frank sincerity with which these were expressed was a great cause of the personal hold which Lucilius had on his readers ; it is still one of the secrets of the personal charm of Horace. The sympathy with which Persius was read in the early days of Christianity and the enthusiasm which many readers have felt for him in modern times are mainly due to the impression of character which he produces. But he is to be regarded further, not as an isolated specimen of purity in an impure age, but as an important witness of that undercurrent of moral and spiritual sentiment which gathered force as a protest against the corruption and tyranny of the first century of the empire. The conscious-ness of moral evil which became intensified during that period is very apparent when we compare the spirit of Cicero and Horace, men in their own day seriously con-cerned with questions of conduct, with that of Tacitus and Juvenal. This great inward change was stimulated and directed by the teaching of Stoicism ; and it was in the reign of Nero that Stoicism gained its chief ascendency over educated men, and supplanted among the adherents of the republic the fashionable Epicureanism of the days of Lucretius and Horace. Of the Stoical spirit of that time, represented also by Seneca and Lucan, Persius is the purest representative. His chief claim to consideration is, not that he is a great poet, satirist, or humorist, or even an agreeable writer, but that he is one of the earliest, and, amongst classical writers, one of the most sincere preachers of a pure personal morality based on a spiritual conception of religion.

The impression of him produced by his writings is confirmed by the accounts transmitted of his life, for which we are indebted to the contemporary grammarian, Valerius Probus of Berytus. Written when the impression left by him was fresh on the memory of his friends, it may be accepted as trustworthy in regard both of outward facts and of the sentiments which he inspired.

Well born and well connected, and the inheritor of a good estate, Persius lived the uneventful life of a student, and was chiefly remarkable for his affection for his friends, his teachers, and his family. He was a native of Etruria, a district which contributed less than any other in Italy to the literary distinction of Rome. And it is noticeable that, while Persius has all the characteristic moral fervour of the more serious Roman writers, he shows less, compared with those who have an important place in the national litera-ture, of that sensuous vivacity and susceptibility to beauty in art and nature with which the purely Italian race was pre-eminently endowed. He was born at Volaterrae in the year 34 A.D., and received his early education there. His father died when he was six years of age, and his mother, Fulvia Sisennia, whose latter name by its termination is indicative of an Etruscan stock, married a second time and was soon again left a widow. In one of the satires he speaks of the eagerness with which his father used to bring his friends to listen to his recitation of the dying speech of Cato. It is not likely that at the age of six he could have been so far advanced in his rhetorical education, and perhaps, though he uses the word "pater," this reminiscence, which is told not without satirical colouring, may be a testi-mony to the interest which his stepfather took in watching his progress. The nature of the lesson—" morituri verba Catonis"—is suggestive of an early direction towards Stoicism given in his teaching ; but by what he tells us of his way of shirking his lessons and of his healthy pre-ference of play to work, he seems to have done what he could to escape the doom of becoming a precocious prodigy. He was taken at the age of twelve to Rome, and continued his education under the two most famous grammarians and rhetoricians of the day, Remmius Palsemon and Virginius Flavus. The decisive influence of his life was his friend-ship with the Stoic philosopher, Anneeus Cornutuss whose pttpil lie became on assuming the " toga virilis " at the age of sixteen. To the charm of this man's conversation and teaching Persius attributes his escape from the temptations to a life of pleasure, to which youths of good position and fortune were exposed at Rome. Besides his friendship with Cornutus, he enjoyed during ten years of his life the inti-mate friendship of Thrasea Pastus, the noblest specimen of Stoicism which the Roman world produced in the first century of the empire. This intimacy was probably due, in the first place, to the relationship of Persius to the younger Arria, the wife of Thrasea. Though a much younger man, he gained so completely the affection of Thrasea that he often went with him as the companion of his travels. The knowledge that he was an intimate mem-ber of the circle of Thrasea and Helvidius gives an addi-tional interest to the opinions of Persius on literature and conduct, and also to the indications of his attitude towards the reigning power. He was introduced also to Seneca, but was not much attracted by his genius. The influence of Thrasea may have had something to do with this want of sympathy. The true Stoic, who " kept as holidays the birthdays of the two Brutuses and of Cassius," was not likely to have been among the admirers of the apologist for parricide.

He was also intimate with some of the younger poets of the time, especially with Cassius Bassus, to whom he addresses his sixth satire. He was acquainted with his younger and more famous contemporary, Lucan, who is said, with the generous impulses which seemed to have been mixed with the fatal weaknesses of his character, to have been carried away by great enthusiasm when he first heard Persius reciting some of his verses. His biographer tells us that the impulse to writing satire was derived from reading a book of Lucilius. He was evidently a diligent student both of him and of Horace. He himself justifies his adoption of this mode of writing by his natural tendency to satiric criticism,—" sum petulanti splene cachinno." But his satire shows as little of the humorous amusement in contemplating the comedy of life, which is one of the motives of the satire of Horace, as of the fierce indigna-tion which the tragic spectacle of its crimes produced in Juvenal. We should rather be inclined to conclude that, as his Stoicism was a protest against the vices and tyranny of the time, so his adoption of that masculine national form of literature which took its subjects from the actual expe-rience of Roman life was a protest against the effeminate style and exotic themes which were then fashionable with the social class to which he belonged.

There is no trace in his writings of any participation in the active interests of public or professional life. More than any other Roman writer, except perhaps Lucretius, he chose the " secretum iter et fallen tis semita vitae " (the flowery path that winds by stealth). But his life, if apparently much happier, was not enriched by the fulness of contemplative interest and of delight in nature which lightened up the gloom of the older poet. His latest satire, addressed to his friend Cassius Bassus, is written from the port of Luna on the Gulf of Genoa; but, while celebrating the mildness of its winter climate, grateful to him as an invalid, he is silent about the charm of its natural beauty. He died at the age of twenty-eight, on one of his own estates on the Via Appia, within eight miles of Rome. His satires were revised by Cornutus, and edited at his own request by Csesius Bassus. The former is said to have altered into a vague generality an expression re-flecting on the poetical gifts of Nero, a subject as danger-ous to deal with as his vices and tyranny. Dying in the year 62 A.D., Persius did not witness the worst crimes of that reign, and escaped the fate which awaited Seneca, Lucan, and Thrasea.

His character is thus summed up by his biographer. "He was of a most gentle disposition, of maidenly modesty, handsome in person, and marked by exemplary affection towards his mother, sister, and aunt. He lived soberly and chastely." The characteristic of "virginalis pudicitia" it is natural to associate with the pure family atmosphere in which he lived; and the existence of cultivated women who could exercise such an influence is a warning not to judge Roman society, even in its worst time, altogether from the representation of Juvenal. The letters of Pliny amply confirm the belief that the world was not all so bad as it appears in that representation. The tone of the biographer as well as his explicit statements attest the warm affection which Persius inspired in his lifetime. Mere asceticism unaccompanied by other graces of character cannot account for this sentiment of affection; and the Roman world had a keen eye to detect insincere professions of austerity. But, while there are many signs of inexperi-ence of life and much forced and artificial writing in Persius, there is in the expression of his deepest convictions an unmistakable ring of genuineness. He seems to love virtue without effort, because his nature finds in the love and practice of virtue the secret of happiness. There is also in the personal addresses to his friends, as in that to Macrinus, a tone of genial sympathy with the innocent enjoyments of life. In the expression of affection for those whom he loved no ancient writer is so cordial and single-minded, except one, as much separated from him by the licence of his life as by the force of his genius, who also died in early youth, the ardent true-hearted poet of Verona.

Persius is said to have written slowly and seldom, and, though he seems to have composed, probably.before he devoted himself to satire, a tragedy on a Roman subject, an account in verse of some of his travels, and some lines on the elder Arria (none of which were ever given to the world), the only result of his literary activity is the short book of six satires which we now possess. The contrast between the small amount of his contributions to literature and the reputation which he enjoyed is noticed by two ancient writers, who indicate their appreciation of his value, Quintilian and Martial. The satires are not only fewer in number than those of Horace and Juvenal, but they are for the most part shorter. Only one of them, the first, fulfils the proper function of satire by representing any phase of the life of the time and pointing its moral. It exposes by personal sketches and representative imitations the fashionable taste in poetry, and marks its connexion with the luxury and effeminacy of the age. The satire was believed in ancient times to be aimed at the emperor ; and this is confirmed, not only by the tradition of the substitution by Cornutus of the vague generality " quis non " for the pointed "Mida rex," but also by the parody "Torva Mimal-loneis implerunt cornua bombis," &c, which is in keeping with the account we have in Tacitus and other writers of the style of the emperor's compositions. In an age abounding in informers it would have been dangerous to have published or even to have read before a circle of friends a more direct comment; but the attitude of Persius towards the absolute ruler of the day may be inferred from other references in the satires, as from the passage iii. 35, be-ginning " Magne pater divum " ; and again at iv. 20, in the words, "Ast ego Dinomaehes," we may suspect a protest against the de-gradation of the Roman world in submitting to be governed by the son of Agrippina. Even in the abstinence from one single word of compliment to the ruling power we enjoy an agreeable contrast to the time-serving of Seneca and the adulation of Lucan.

While the first satire is, like most of those of Lucilius, Horace, and Juvenal, essentially representative, and has its motive in the desire to paint in satiric colours a prevailing fashion and some of the actual personages or types of character of the day, all the rest are essentially didactic and have their motive in the desire to enforce and illustrate some lesson of morality or tenet of Stoicism. The second is an admirable sermon on prayer, and illustrates by ex-amples that union of worldliness and covetousness with religious faith and practice which has not been absolutely confined to Pagan-ism. The third is aimed at the exposure and correction of the weakness of character which, in spite of good resolutions, succumbs to the attacks of sloth and pleasure. The fourth, suggested by the first AlciUndes of Plato, though perhaps also written with covert reference to one whose "Greek levity " juay have prompted him to pose as a Roman Alcibiades, is directed against the arrogant claims of a sensual youth to deal, on the ground of his hereditary distinc-tion, with affairs of state and to govern men. The fifth, the most elaborate of all, illustrates the Stoical doctrine of the difference between true and false freedom, and shows the power of avarice, luxury, the passion of love, ambition, and superstition to make men slaves. It is the same subject as that which Horace treats in the third satire of the second book ; but it is treated with neither the irony nor the direct knowledge of life which Horace applies to it. The last satire is chiefly devoted to a subject which played a large part in the satire of Horace and Lucilius,—the proper use of money. In all these latter pieces the subjects are the common-places of satire and moral disquisition, illustrated rather by new versions of old characters than by pictures of the living men and women of the day. Though he expresses admiration for the spirit of Lucilius and the old comedy, he seems to keep clear of all personality and detraction. He professes "ingenuo culpam defigere ludo," and, whatever may bo thought of his humour, he at least always writes in the spirit of a gentleman. So far as there is real contact with life in his satires, it is with the vanity and weakness of the class to wdiich he himself belonged that he shows familiarity. Other sketches, however, show original observation, as that of the pro-vincial sedile, of the brawny centurion who laughs at all philosophers, and, the most elaborate of all, that of the man torn asunder by his avarice and his love of luxury, wdro shrinks from the hard roughing of a sea-voyage, to which lie is prompted by his cupidity (i. 129, ii. 76-87, v. 141-150).

In point of form he aims at reproducing the dialogue of the old "satura," to which Horace finally adhered. But for the dramatic vivacity of ordinary speech he substitutes the curt questions and answers of Stoical disquisition. This is a great source of the obscurity of his writing. Some of his satires take the form of a familiar epistle, but in them also there is a large intermixture of dialogue. In style, wdiile he protests against other modes of affectation, he can-not escape the perverse fashion of forced and exaggerated expression. While disclaiming imaginative inspiration and avoiding poetical ornament, he falls into the opposite extreme of excessive realism, and disguises his plain meaning under contortions of metaphor, taken from the forge, the potter's wheel, the carpenter's rule, the baker's oven, &c. He is fond, too, of the realism of physical ex-pression to denote states of mind and feeling, such as "fibra," "pulpa," "gluto," &c.; and this tendency, combined perhaps with the wish to imitate Lucilius, has led him occasionally to disfigure the purity of his pages with unnecessary coarseness. It is only rarely, and when he is at his best, that we are not conscious of a constant strain to express his meaning with unnecessary emphasis. Though single phrases of forcible condensation can be quoted from him, yet almost every period and paragraph seems to have been made harsh and obscure with the purpose of arresting attention. In the pictures which he draws from life, as in that of the reciting poet in the first satire, he strives by minuteness and exaggeration of detail to produce a strong sensational impression ; and this is still more observable in those numerous cases where he distorts and cari-catures the temperate and truthful effects of Horace's sketches. No Latin writer is less natural. His works have engaged the industry of many commentators both in ancient and modern times. None could claim less the praise which Martial claims for his own, of " pleasing grammarians without needing the aid of their interpretation."

It is not, accordingly, among writers but among moralists that he holds a high place. Among the professors of Stoicism some were better writers, others were greater men ; no one was purer in all his instincts, more sincere in all his nature, or inspired with a more genuine enthusiasm for virtue. It is when he gives expression to this enthusiasm and to his single-hearted affection for his friends that he is able for a few lines to write with simple force and with impassioned earnestness. Such lines as these—

" Composition ius fasque animEe, sanctosque recessus Mentis, et incoctum generoso pectus honesto " (ii. 73, 74);

" Quid suinus et quidnam victuri gignimur . . .

. . . quem te deus esse Jussit et humana qua parte locatus es in re " (iii. 66-72), <fcc.;

are in a strain more in accordance with the best modern ideas of man's highest duty and his true position in the world than anything to be found in the other satirists of Rome. The aim of Lucilius was to make men good citizens. He judged their life by the standard of public virtue and utility. The aim of Horace's satire was to make men happier in themselves and more agreeable in their intercourse with one another. He judged them by the standard of good sense, good feeling, and good manners. The aim of Juvenal—so far as it was sincere—was to raise human life from the degradation into which it had fallen. The standard by which he judged the men of his day was that of the manliness and dignity realized in the best ages of the republic. The aim of Persius was to make men live in accordance with the dictates of a pure conscience. His standard was that ideal of human conduct wdiich has arisen out of the aspirations arid convictions of an en-lightened theism;

The best recent editions of Persius are those of O. Jahn and of Professor Conington. The edition of Mr Pretor is also to be named. All of these contain, in their introductions, important contributions to the critical estimate of Persius. An excellent account of his life, character, and writings is to be found in Martha's Les Moralistes Romains, and an interesting, though somewhat disparaging, criticism of him as a writer is contained in Nisard's Poètes Latins de la Decadence. (W. Y. S.)


663-1 Cf. "Ergo non iam Nero, cuius immanitas omnium questus anteibat, sed Seneca adverso rumore erat, quod oratione tali confessionem scrip-sisset" (Tac, Ann., xiv. 11),

The above article was written by: Prof. W. Y. Sellar.

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