Other Literary Forms
Persius is remembered only for his satires.
Modern critics slight Persius for lacking the felicitas of Horace and the indignatio of Juvenal; ancients were apparently satisfied to allow him to occupy his own space. The Life of Persius reports that Lucan, upon hearing a reading of the satires, cried that these were true poetry while he himself was composing trifles. Persius clearly influenced Juvenal, although Juvenal chooses not to mention him by name. Martial and Quintilian, however, single him out for praise, emphasizing that Persius wrote only one book. Quintilian also cites him often for lexical or grammatical illustrations.
That the satires are preserved in several manuscripts is evidence of their continuing popularity in the Middle Ages. Persius’s luster began to tarnish when modern critics decided that the difficulties of his language did not repay their efforts, but interest in his work is currently being revived by new studies and commentaries, and he should regain some measure of his former status. He is, indeed, not Horace or Juvenal. Persius has his own distinct style and persona. He is worth reading not only for his place in the tradition of Roman satire but also for the use to which he put the genre: an exhortation to moral goodness.
Most of the information about Aulus Persius Flaccus comes from the anonymous Life of Persius attached to various manuscripts. Persius belonged to the equestrian order; he was of distinguished Etruscan lineage and prosperous circumstances. His father died when he was six, and a stepfather died within a few years of marriage to his mother. At twelve, Persius went to Rome to study with the grammarian Remmius Palaemon and the rhetorician Verginius Flavus. When he was sixteen, he attached himself to Lucius Annaeus Cornutus, author, teacher, and freedman from the house of the Annaei, to which the Senecas and Lucan belonged. In satire 5, Persius describes Cornutus’s acceptance of him in terms which properly refer to a father’s acknowledging a child; Cornutus, however, was more mentor than parent. Persius credits Cornutus with “sowing his ears with Cleanthean fruit”—that is, with inculcating in him the Stoic way of life. He was a relative of the famed Arriae, the elder of whom showed her condemned husband how to die by stabbing herself. The younger Arria was the wife of the Stoic, Thrasea Paetus, himself condemned by Nero in 66 c.e. Persius was cherished by Thrasea, sharing with him an earnest adherence to Stoicism.
Very little biographical material can be gleaned from Persius’s satires apart from the relationship with Cornutus and his friendship with a certain Macrinus and the poet Caesius Bassus, addressed in satires 2 and 6, respectively. In satire 3, someone tells an anecdote of his school days when he put oil on his eyes to appear ill and so to avoid a recitation to be attended by his father and his father’s friends. Persius is sometimes assumed to be the speaker. If so, the anecdote is a fiction, because Persius’s father, and probably also his stepfather, would have been dead. The passage more naturally belongs to the primary voice of the satire, one of Persius’s companions who is urging him to virtue. The Life of Persius calls him temperate and chaste, a man of the gentlest character, of maidenly modesty, fine reputation, and exemplary devotion to his mother, sister, and aunt. This description has prejudiced many against him and has influenced the interpretation of the satires, especially of the obscenity present in satires 1 and 4. Persius makes few references to women and no specific ones to his female relatives. Unbiased reading of the satires themselves provides no justification for the labels “priggish” and “cloistered,” which are often associated with him.
Persius died from some kind of stomach ailment before he turned twenty-eight. His very early poetic attempts and some verses about the elder Arria were suppressed by Cornutus, who also shortened the last poem to make it appear finished. The Life of Persius says he wrote “both rarely and slowly.” Six hundred fifty lines in six satires and fourteen lines of prologue are left. These were published by Bassus and were popular immediately and for several hundred years after Persius’s death.
Any evaluation of Persius’s poetry must begin with satire 5, which presents Cornutus’s supposed judgment of Persius’s proper manner and goals of composition:
You follow the words of the toga, skillful at striking juxtaposition . . . expert at scraping pale morals and at pinning down fault with the humor worthy of a gentleman.
Like the rest of Persius’s language, these words involve controversy and present problems of interpretation; nevertheless, they clearly assert the place of Persius within the satiric tradition. His role is to criticize moral failings with humor. Again, at the end of the programmatic first satire, when he associates himself with Lucilius, inventor of satire, and with Horace, his great predecessor in the genre, the terms of the association are criticism and humor.
Wit, Humor, and Visual Images
While Stoicism and the Stoic sage provide the standard against which others are criticized, Persius’s claim to humor is usually denied. His humor is most apparent when seen against a Ciceronian background. The ingenuo ludo (humor worthy of a free man) can be traced back to Cicero. In the Orator and De Oratore, Cicero treats sources of laughter for the orator, divided into wit and humor. Wit is based on words and is suitable for attacking or responding to attack; humor is based on substance of thought or facts and is displayed in sustained narration and caricature. Although examples from all the Ciceronian categories can be found in Persius’s satires, various kinds of verbal ambiguities and vivid scene painting in narration are the most important for appreciating his wit and humor. When Persius describes a scene, it requires visualization, because the picture is more humorous than the words themselves.
The visual aspect of Persius’s art is pertinent also to his use of other poets, especially Horace. In Lines of Enquiry: Studies in Latin Poetry, Niall Rudd shows that Persius knew Horace by heart and that association of visual images accounts for the pattern of his imitation of Horace. This imitation—or rather, the extensive use of Horatian vocabulary—has obfuscated modern interpretation and commentary. The language of Persius is Horatian but the thought is not, and a case can be made that Persius considered that he was, if not outstripping, at least challenging Horace with his own words.
Apart from his Horatian language, Persius presented other difficulties caused to a large degree by frequent neologisms, use of metaphor, and “striking juxtapositions.” Horace had named his satires Sermones (conversations) and had affected an easy conversational manner, frequently expressed in dialogue. Persius’s conversational style and dialogues are of another sort. The conversation follows its own flow, almost in a stream of consciousness; respondents or adversaries appear and disappear with disconcerting abruptness; nevertheless, the satires are coherent and their meanings are clear.
All except satire 1 are primarily explications of...