Publilius Syrus Analysis


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Publilius (puh-BLIHL-ee-uhs) Syrus was a slave from Syria, as his name suggests, apparently from Antioch. He came to Italy, where he was freed because of his quick wit. After being educated at the expense of his former master, now his patron, he composed and performed in mimes (a type of imitative dramatic performance with male and female performers) throughout the Italian countryside before he made his debut at Rome. None of Publilius’s mimes has survived, but two titles are known, Putatores (“the pruners”) and Mumurco (probably “the mumbler”), as opposed to some forty-four titles of Decimus Laberius, a discredited Roman knight and Publilius’s main rival. In 46 b.c.e., at games celebrating Julius Caesar’s victory in the Battle of Thapsus, Publilius challenged his rivals to a literary contest in which they would compose and perform in scenes on a set theme. Cicero suffered through the performance, but Caesar declared Publilius the winner over Laberius. A century later, Publilius was regarded as “the founder of the mimic stage.”


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Seneca the Elder thought Publilius expressed moral ideas better than serious dramatists, and the only extant work under Publilius’s name is a collection of moral maxims, originally compiled in the early empire as a booklet for the classroom. Subsequently, the collection was contaminated and enlarged. There are 734 surviving lines, amounting to a compendium of sometimes contradictory folk wisdom on various ethical topics, from which it is difficult to separate out the later additions and sayings that have been altered in various ways. The collection already had been modified by the time it reached the young Saint Jerome.

Additional Resources

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Duff, J. Wight, and A. M. Duff, eds. Minor Latin Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Lust, Annette. From the Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2000.