Juvenal and Persius/Life of Persius

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Life of Persius

We know from the Eusebian chronicle that the poet A. Persius Flaccus was born in the year a.d. 34, somewhat more than two years before the death of the Emperor Tiberius, and that he died in the year 62. He thus lived through the reigns of Caius and Claudius and the first eight years of Nero. For other information as to his life and circumstances our sole source of information is an ancient Biography prefixed to many of the manuscripts of Persius. This Biography many scholars attributed to Suetonius, the biographer of the first twelve Caesars, on the ground that the lexicographer Suidas says that that author wrote a book De Poetis, of which the ancient biographies of Terence and Horace are supposed to have formed a part. In the oldest MSS., however, the Biography of Persius is described as having been taken from a commentary of Probus Valerius, so that we may with some probability attribute this Biography either to the famous grammarian of that name, who lived in the reign of Nero, or to one or other of the grammarians who bore the same name. Such as it is, this authority is the best that we possess; and as it is evidently of ancient origin, and deals with simple facts with regard to which there could be no motive for falsification, we may with some confidence accept its statements as authentic.

We are told that the poet was born at Volaterrae on the 4th of December, a.d. 34, and that he died of an affection of the stomach on the 24th of November, a.d. 62. He was a Roman Eques, of good position, and became heir to a considerable fortune. His father died when he was only six years old; and though his mother married again, becoming a widow for the second time, she attended carefully to his education, first at Volaterrae, and then removing him in his twelfth year to Rome. There he went through the usual course of instruction for youths in his position, attending the lectures, first of the distinguished grammarian Remmius Palaemon, and afterwards those of the rhetorician Virginius Flavus. At the age of sixteen he was put under the charge of the Stoic philosopher L. Annaeus Cornutus, who became his guide, philosopher, and friend, and towards whom, in one of the most charming passages in his Satires, he pours forth his feelings in terms of the liveliest gratitude and affection (Sat. v. 30-51).

Though living in a small domestic circle, in terms of closest intimacy with his mother, his sister, and his aunt, he seems to have been admitted to the best literary society of the time, and especially of persons connected with the Stoic School. One of his earliest friends was the lyric poet Caesius Bassus; he was intimate with the famous Paetus Thrasea, whose wife, the heroic Arria, was a kinswoman of his own; he enjoyed the friendship of Lucan, who was a great admirer of his works, declaring haec vera poemata esse. He was also acquainted with Seneca, though, as might be expected, he is said not to have admired his character. He left his library, including his own Satires, with a sum of money, to Cornutus, who accepted the library and, after making a few corrections, handed over the editing of the Satires to his friend Caesius Bassus. We are told that he wrote slowly, as might easily be discovered from the style of the Satires themselves. He was of a pleasing appearance, had the most gentle manners, was pure and temperate in his life, and exemplary in his domestic relations. The Biography ends with some dubious assertions, probably added by a later hand, among which is the baseless idea which possessed his early commentators, that the main object of the First Satire was to ridicule the poetical productions of the Emperor Nero.

That Persius was born at Volaterrae in Etruria rests on the authority of the Biography, as also of the Eusebian chronicle; yet learned commentaries have been written to wrest the words of Sat. vi. 6-7 from their natural meaning in the endeavour to prove that the poet was born at the town of Luna on the Gulf of Spezzia, on the Genoese coast, near the famous marble quarries of Carrara. Having migrated to that delicious spot for the winter, Persius writes;

mihi nunc Ligus ora
Intepet, hibernatque meum mare.

But the words meum mare cannot be made to bear the meaning of a native shore; and, even if they did, the phrase might well be used of the sea that beats on the shores of Etruria, in which province the poet was born.

The period of the early years of Persius marks in a peculiar manner the change which had taken place in the general system of education as formerly pursued at Rome with a view to the needs of actual life. Tin's change was the direct result of the dowDfall of the old constitution, and the substitution of an all-pervading despotism for the free play of public life which had characterised and ennobled the fine days of the Republic. The change exercised a most baneful influence on the minds and tastes of the Roman people, and its blighting effects soon became all too conspicuous in the rapid decline of their literature.

It would be hard to imagine a system of education more practical and more stimulating for the youth of a great and free country, preparing itself for the task of civilising and dominating the world, than that which was pursued in Rome after the roughness and ignorance of the Latin warrior had been softened and enlightened by acquaintance with the art and literature of Greece. The Dialogus of Tacitus has left us a detailed account of that system as followed by those who looked forward to taking a part in the public life of the time. For such young men some excellence in public speaking was a matter of absolute necessity. Careful training at home would be followed by what we might call a course of secondary education, embracing Grammar, Rhetoric and Literature. To this would be added a course of Philosophy, for which the more eager spirits would repair to Athens, which had now become the Universitjr of the world. His preliminary education thus completed, the youth of fuil age would be put under the patronage of some leading statesman of the time. Taking his stand beside his patron when receiving in his atrium the visits of his friends, he would there hear discussions on all the current topics of the day. He would accompany his patron to the Law Courts, watch the cases that were being tried, and hear experienced comments upon them, as well as upon the speeches that had been delivered. After this initiation into public affairs, the young man would have to serve his time in the army—a period of 20 years in the infantry, or 10 years in the cavalry, seems to have been originally exacted—after which he was fully qualified to enter upon public life on his own account.

It is little to be wondered at that such a training, pursued in an atmosphere of political freedom, should have achieved great results; and we may say with some confidence, leaving moral considerations aside, that the number of great men who flourished in Rome during the last century of the Republic—the period during which the effects of the above system made themselves felt—whether as warriors, statesmen, orators, historians, or poets—scarcely finds a parallel in the history of the world.

But when Augustus had succeeded in crushing all his rivals, and establishing in place of a free Republic a system of pure though carefully-veiled autocracy, the results soon began to make themselves felt. Virgil and Horace, enamoured of the charms of peace after the horrors of civil war, and persuading themselves that Augustus was the natural successor, representative, and restorer of all that was best in ancient Rome, succeeded for a while in investing the personal government of Augustus with a poetic atmosphere which corresponded little with its real nature. But they had no successors. Reposing gladly under the paternal sway of Augustus during his later years, Rome lost her ideals. She was peaceful, prosperous, and contented; the fiery spirit of the old Republican days gradually died away, and the majority of the citizens, finding that servility was the surest road to advancement, "preferred the security of the present to the hazards of the past."[1] The patronage accorded by Augustus to men of letters may have done something to arrest the decay of literature; but with the close of the reign of Augustus and the accession of Tiberius the truth could no longer be concealed that the days of liberty were over, and the natural results followed in every department of human life and thought. Deprived of the inspiration of reality, literature and oratory descended from the public to the private stage, and lost alike their meaning and their manliness. Pursuits which could only be followed with danger soon ceased to be followed at all, and instead of being trained by public men among public concerns, the youth were now taught to exercise themselves in the schools of the rhetoricians, where they learnt to carry on subtle disputations on topics wholly remote from common life.

For the decline of literature, there is no more authentic testimony than that of Persius; and yet he seems to be quite unconscious of the true causes of that decline. His first Satire fills an important gap in the history of Roman literature. It contains an elaborate attack upon the poetry and the poetical methods of his own day, whose weaknesses he connects, in true Stoic fashion, not with the loss of public freedom, but with the decay of morality;—Rome has lost, he tells us, all sense of what is good or bad, what is manly or mawkish, in literature; she now loves the turgid and the grandiloquent; dandy poets, after careful preparation, inflame the passions of their audience with poems of a licentious cast. Others, with similar affectations of dress and manner, bring down the applause of the house with sentimental mythological ditties, and in their efforts for smoothness lose all manliness of tone. Many buy the coveted commendation by gifts of dainties or old clothes. Others again affect archaisms, or revel in bombastic mouthings which would make Virgil turn in his grave. No orator can defend a client accused of crime without using all the elaborate figures of rhetoric; all simple writing, all honest criticism have disappeared; "I at least must tell the truth, and I must write down Rome as an ass!" (Sat. i. 121.)

Such is the outspoken verdict of Persius on the poetry and oratory in his day; yet never for a moment does he hint at its true cause; never once does he heave a sigh—even a despairing sigh like that of Lucan[2]—over the loss of public liberty. And yet he had two admirable opportunities for suggesting the topic. The opening words of the 4th Satire (Rem populi tractas?) suggest a political discourse. "What are the qualifications," he asks, "with which the budding statesman should provide himself?" But the question is never answered; the Satire turns out to be a purely abstract disquisition on the subject of self-knowledge, dressed up with a pretended application to the case of Alcibiades.

Not less remarkable is the avoidance of all reference to public life in the 5th Satire. The main subject of that poem is that of human freedom, being an expansion of the doctrine of the Stoics that all men (Stoics of course excepted) are slaves. Here, if anywhere, was the opportunity for pointing, directly or indirectly, to the state of political servitude into which Rome had fallen. But no trace of such an idea is to be found. From first to last the subject is treated from the point of view of the schools, the sole question raised being that of the command by the individual of his own soul. Even when the poet touches on the subject of Roman citizenship, it is to dismiss with scorn the idea that it conferred any kind of freedom worth having;—

Heu steriles veri, quibus una Quiritem,
Vertigo facit!(v. 75.)

Not one word is there in Persius, from beginning to end, that recognises the change that had passed over public life in Rome, or of the results of that change on the morals and intellects of the time.


  1. Tac. Ann. I. ii.
  2. plus est quam vita salusque Quod perit (Pharsalia, vii. 640).