(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.”