Persius Essay - Critical Essays

Aulus Persius Flaccus



Persius 34-62

(Aulus Persius Flaccus) Roman poet.

Persius was one of the four greatest Roman satirists, the others being Lucilius and Horace, who preceded him, and Juvenal, who followed. His sole work, Saturae (c. 58-9; Satires), is original, pointed, and notoriously difficult and obscure. Persius appears to have influenced some of the church fathers, notably Augustine and Jerome. During the ninth and tenth centuries, monks copied Persius's work to such an extant that hundreds of manuscripts of Satires exist today.

Biographical Information

Persius was born in 34 at Volaterra in northwest Etruria. Most of what is known about him comes from an ancient biography by Valerius Probus, who describes Persius as being of aristocratic descent and equestrian rank. Persius's father died when the boy was six years old. His mother, Fulvia Sisennia, remarried but soon became a widow again. After receiving some education in Volaterra, Persius, at the age of twelve, moved to Rome. There he attended lectures by two of the finest teachers of the time: Verginius Flavus, who taught Persius rhetoric, and Remmius Palaemon, a notable grammarian. At the age of sixteen, Persius became a devotee of Lucius Annaeus Cornutus, a famous Stoic philosopher. He also kept company with a number of other important Stoics, including Lucan, a poet; Seneca, a philosopher; and Thrasea Paetus, who opposed Nero in the Senate. While Persius was inspired to compose satire upon reading Lucilius's work, it was Horace who most influenced his work, although more in technique than in subject matter. Persius died of a stomach disease just short of reaching his twenty-eighth birthday. He left two million sesterces to his mother and sister, and his library of some seven hundred volumes on Stoicism to Cornutus.

Major Works

Persius's works written in his youth are no longer extant, for they were burned after his death on the advice of Cornutus. These juvenile works included a tragedy and a number of poems. Satires was not yet in polished form when Persius died. Cornutus accepted the task of initial preparatory editing and Caesius Bassus served as the work's final editor. Satires was immediately successful. It consists of six satires written in hexameters, six hundred and fifty lines in all, and a prologue written in choliambics. The first satire is an attack on the Roman poetry of the time, which Persius regarded as expressing sentiments that signified a decline in public morals. The remaining satires focus on Stoic philosophy as a remedy for what Persius regarded as pervasive moral corruption in Roman life.

Critical Reception

Persius's Satires were praised by his contemporaries, notably by the poet Lucan. This reception has indicated to scholars that the Satires were not always regarded as obscure in their form and references—a reputation they later acquired. Modern Persius studies focus on the difficulty of his style and the importance of his Stoicism. Jonathan Tate believes that through the formal qualities of his writing, Persius deliberately dissociated himself from his fellow poets. “His choice of style,” Tate contends, “was really an insistence on the fact that it was not his primary aim to give pleasure to his audience, still less to give that almost purely physical pleasure which seemed to him to be the sole purpose of contemporary verse-writers.” Tate also notes that the sense of many of the allusions in the Satires is now lost, as well as the meaning of colloquial expressions. William S. Anderson observes “how carefully each word has been chosen; the verbs carry special force; the adjectives have nothing trite about them, often serving metaphorically; where he can, the poet omits unessential words, especially the verb ‘to be’; if obscenity can help, he willingly adopts it. In short, Persius' language is among the most vigorous in Latin literature.” R. G. M. Nisbet discusses Persius's high literary standing in ancient times and defends him from modern detractors. “Persius is conventionally accused of unoriginality, but his idiom is individual and has not been imitated. He is called obscure, but a reader familiar with the abruptness of diatribe would have found him less disconcerting. In any case obscurity is not the greatest fault of poets: insipidity is worse, and Persius is never that.” Edwin S. Ramage, David L. Sigsbee, and Sigmund C. Fredericks (see Further Reading) grant that Persius is difficult reading but insist there is “nothing vague and obscure about the organization” he employs. Ulrich Knoche concludes that “Persius apparently considered the obscurity and sparseness of expression as itself being the language of masculine bitterness which alone is suitable for the Stoic censor.” Adopting a critical view, Knoche feels that “certainly reading him can give the modern reader no real satisfaction and pleasure.” He believes that Persius has lapses in taste and that “there is no depth of conception or concretization of the imagination that can hide the great defects in the formal structure on which their originator worked so diligently.” Michael Coffey discusses Persius's use of recurring imagery. He believes that it is the “subtle juxtaposition of words” that gives Persius's style “its unique distinction and also a reputation in modern times for obscurity.” In another stylistic study, J. R. Jenkinson finds that Persius favors abrupt, peculiar, and bizarre combinations of elements. Mark Morford also analyzes Persius's style and insists that it “is worth the effort to become one of the few for whom Persius was writing.” Regarding the Stoic philosophy underlying Persius's satires, John Conington states, “It is not often that a poet has been so completely identified with a system of philosophy as Persius.” Frank Frost Abbott discovers a somewhat conflicted individual behind the Satires: “The Stoic Persius finds literature and literary art vanity and vexation of spirit; but the poet Persius escapes at times from the domination of his other self and gives us a touch of real life or a bit of imaginative writing. Now and then the philosopher, or rather the moralist, and the poet are in harmony.”

Principal Works

Saturae [Satires] (satires) c. 58–9

The Satires of Persius (translated by W. S. Merwin) 1961

Horace: Satires and Epistles; Persius: Satires (translated by Niall Rudd) 1979

The Satires of Persius (translated by Guy Lee) 1987


John Conington (lecture date 1855)

SOURCE: Conington, John. “Lecture on the Life and Writings of Persius.” In The Satires of A. Persius Flaccus, translated by John Conington, pp. xv-xxxv. Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon Press, 1893.

[In the following lecture, originally delivered at Oxford University in 1855, Conington discusses Persius's life, influences, writings, and philosophy.]

It is my intention for the present to deliver general lectures from time to time on the characteristics of some of the authors whom I may select as subjects for my terminal courses. To those who propose to attend my classes they will serve as prolegomena, grouping together various matters which will meet us afterwards as they...

(The entire section is 9681 words.)

Frank Frost Abbott (essay date 1909)

SOURCE: Abbott, Frank Frost. “A Roman Puritan.” In Society and Politics in Ancient Rome: Essays and Sketches, pp. 131-44. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1963.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1909, Abbott finds similarities between the ideas of Persius and those inherent in New England Puritanism.]

One ventures with some diffidence upon the task of discussing the work of an author like the Roman poet Persius, whose writings are not widely known and are not highly esteemed by many who know them. But the obscurity in which Persius languishes is, it seems to me, undeserved; for his poetry has an intrinsic value; he speaks for a class of men who have made...

(The entire section is 2763 words.)

Jonathan Tate (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: Tate, Jonathan. “The Life and Writings of Persius.” In The Satires of A. Persius Flaccus, translated by Jonathan Tate, pp. 4-12. Oxford, Eng.: Basil Blackwell, 1930.

[In the following excerpt, Tate contends that Persius's purpose in writing was to explain Stoic doctrine and that he consciously created a style that eschews pleasure.]

There is little need for me to repeat in detail the oft-repeated story of Persius' life; and the need is less because the story has of late been admirably re-told by Professor Wight Duff (Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age) whose account of Persius' life and writings could, I think, be improved in only two...

(The entire section is 2234 words.)

William S. Anderson (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Anderson, William S. Introduction to The Satires of Persius, translated by W. S. Merwin, pp. 7-50. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961.

[In the following essay, Anderson notes that Persius rejected verbiage that appealed to the senses rather than to the mind, that he never wasted a word, and that his style was harsh, shocking, and effective.]

The poet who dies young after a brief life of dedication to his craft has always been a congenial figure to our imaginations, for we naturally tend to conjecture what might have become of him had he survived to the age of a Sophocles or his modern counterpart, Robert Frost. Aules Persius Flaccus died at 28, long...

(The entire section is 12692 words.)

R. G. M. Nisbet (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Nisbet, R. G. M. “Persius.” In Critical Essays on Roman Literature, edited by J. P. Sullivan, pp. 39-71. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

[In the following essay, Nisbet provides an overview of Persius's writings.]

Aules Persius died nineteen hundred years ago, on 24 November, a.d. 62: birthplace Volterra (Tuscany), rank equestrian, cause of death ‘stomachi vitium’, age 27. He left behind him six satires,1 less than 700 lines in all, which were published by his friends and won immediate acclaim. Lucan testified that they were true poems, and whatever his faults, Lucan was a true poet. A less gifted but longer-lived contemporary,...

(The entire section is 11771 words.)

Ulrich Knoche (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Knoche, Ulrich. “Aules Persius Flaccus.” In Roman Satire, translated by Edwin S. Ramage, pp. 127-39. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Knoche discusses Persius's life, surveys his satires, and analyzes his style.]

Aules Persius Flaccus was born on December 4, 34 after Christ at Volaterrae (modern Volterra) in the northwest part of Etruria. He was the son of respected and very wealthy parents of equestrian rank. The family, which clearly made much of the Etruscan tradition in its history, was related directly and by marriage to the Roman aristocracy. When he was about six years old, Persius lost his father, and soon after...

(The entire section is 5761 words.)

Michael Coffey (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Coffey, Michael. “Persius.” In Roman Satire, pp. 98-118. London: Methuen and Co, 1976.

[In the following essay, Coffey argues that Persius did not include many autobiographical elements in his satires and that he had no interest in criticizing his contemporaries by name for their shortcomings.]

Horace the satirist had no known successor until the time of Nero, the better part of a century later.1 The consolidation of imperial dictatorship by Augustus and his successors ended political liberty and also freedom of speech. Augustus ignored lampoons against himself but had vituperative attacks on other contemporaries burned in public.2...

(The entire section is 12788 words.)

J. R. Jenkinson (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Jenkinson, J. R. Introduction to The Satires, translated by J. R. Jenkinson, pp. 1-8. Wiltshire, Eng.: Aris & Phillips, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Jenkinson explains that Persius was shaped by Stoicism and that his satires are imbued with moral concerns and “continual surprise.”]

The full name of the author whose work is translated below was Aules1 Persius Flaccus. He has left us (not counting a brief introductory piece) six Latin poems of moderate length in the hexameter metre. Their title, Saturae, is usually translated Satires which, as we shall see, is technically correct. But, influenced as we are by modern...

(The entire section is 5615 words.)

Mark Morford (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Morford, Mark. “The Style of Persius.” In Persius, pp. 73-96. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Morford praises Persius's style for its memorable metaphors, wide vocabulary, and colorful language.]


Style is inseparable from moral values. This is the theme of Persius's first satire, and it is the foundation of the fifth. For the satirist how he expresses himself is integral with what he says. The foregoing survey of the six satires has therefore involved many observations on Persius's style in passing; we may now turn our attention to it both for its own sake and as an instrument for...

(The entire section is 10314 words.)

Further Reading


Barr, William. Introduction to The Satires of Persius, translated by Guy Lee, pp. 1-7. Liverpool, Eng.: Francis Cairns, 1987.

Overview that includes discussion of Persius's reputation, influences, and the intended effect of his satires.

Bramble, J. C. Persius and the Programmatic Satire: A Study in Form and Imagery. London: Cambridge University Press, 1974, 224 p.

Analyzes the major motifs in Persius's satires.

Braund, Susan H. “Persius.” In Roman Verse Satire, pp. 33-9. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Examines Persius's literary devices and...

(The entire section is 524 words.)