Juvenal and Persius/The Supposed Obscurity of Persius

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The Supposed Obscurity of Persius

It has been the fashion to characterise Persius as obscure, but the epithet is hardly deserved. He is undoubtedly difficult; his mode of expressing himself is often peculiar and fantastic. There is a certain preciosity in his choice of phrases; he is sometimes crabbed and tortuous, and in his desire for compression he occasionally, especially in his many repetitions of Horatian ideas, seeks to obtain extra force by blending two ideas into one without giving full expression to either. He is often elliptical; his dialogue is abrupt and hard to follow. He is certainly difficult as a whole, and his style is one which needs to be wrestled with; but with a little careful attention the sequence of his thought can always be discovered, and, though individual passages may cause embarrassment, he cannot as a whole be justly charged with obscurity. His contemporaries did not find him obscure. The Biography tells us that no sooner was the book published than it became the rage (editum librum continuo mirari homines et diripere coeperunt). Martial vouches for its popularity;—

Saepius in libro memoratur Persius uno
Quam levis in tota Marsus Amazonide.

iv. xxix. 7-8.

And the careful critic Quintilian, tells us;

Multum et verae gloriae, quamvis uno libro, Persius meruit (Inst. Or. x. i. 94).

If, then, the obscurity of Persius was unknown to his contemporaries, we must look to some other cause for its discovery; and this seems to be provided by what is evidently a spurious addition to the Biography, to the effect that the first Satire of Persius was intended as an attack upon Nero and his poetical efforts. The original text of i. 121, we are told, ran thus;—

Auricilas asini Mida rex habet;

but alarmed by the boldness of these lines, which seemed to point too plainly to Nero, Cornutus emended the line, making it read (as in the now received text)

Auricilas asini quis non habet?

a reading which, as we have already seen, gives point and meaning to the whole Satire.

But the idea that Nero was the object of attack in the 1st Satire could not be allowed to drop; it was soon developed by the commentators, and became parent of the idea that Persius was obscure. Supposed references to Nero were found to lurk in every line of Sat. i.; and it was even discovered that Nero was also the covert object of attack in the 4th Satire—an idea which has not even yet departed from the pages of some of our modern commentators. The height of absurdity was reached by the Scholiast who, when commenting on the four lines ridiculed in Sat. i. 99-103, informs us verba Neronis sunt; to which a more recent annotator added that the lines are taken from a tragedy, supposed to be written by Nero, called the Bacchantes. No such play has ever been heard of; no tragic play that was ever written would contain passages in dactylic hexameters; yet we are actually asked to believe that a critic like Cornutus, so anxious to score out a harmless reference to King Midas for fear that Nero might take it to himself, allowed four whole lines, known by everybody to have formed part of a play of Nero's, to stand uncorrected! Thus the original idea on which the charge of obscurity mainly rested falls to the ground, and we may apply his own motto to the interpreting of his difficulties—nec te quaesiveris extra.