The Satires of Persius belong to a rich tradition in Roman literature. According to an ancient biography attached to the manuscripts of the Satires, Persius was born into an affluent family associated with Rome. His short life spanned the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, a time characterized by increasing constraints on literary and personal freedom. Although Persius preferred a quiet domestic life to the busyness of urban literary and intellectual circles, he nevertheless shared friendships with many influential writers of his day, including the epic poet Lucan, the lyric poet Caesius Bassus, and, to some degree, the philosopher and politician Seneca.
It is impossible to understand Persius’s intent in composing the Satires without a proper understanding of the philosophy of Stoicism, which so influenced his opinions. When sixteen years of age, Persius became the student of Lucius Annaeus Cornutus, an important Stoic philosopher and a freedman of Seneca’s family. Stoicism was the preeminent philosophy among Roman writers and intellectuals, and its proponents were often at odds with the mechanisms of the imperial political regime. The basic tenet of Stoicism is that one should live a virtuous life with the soul in accord with the principle of divine reason; denial of passions that disrupt the soul and living free from extremes are of fundamental importance. Thus Persius, combining a philosophical conviction with poetic skills in satire, sought to expose and criticize those vices rampant in his own society.
In the first satire, Persius diagnoses the decay of Roman literary tastes concurrent with a decline in morality. He presents this satire as a dialogue between himself and a friend. The argument ensues after Persius recites a line of “superior” poetry, probably from Gaius Lucilius (a founder of Roman satire), and his friend remarks that too few people in Rome would spend time reading such fine literature. Persius responds that he is not concerned with the tastes of most Romans and initiates his critique along Stoic lines.
To his friend’s argument that one should be recognized for one’s learning, Persius promptly suggests that the real benefit of knowledge is private, by which he implies that improvement of the soul is the goal. Persius notes that praise is most often mere remembrance in gossip. The friend accuses Persius of being prudish, but Persius responds that he is desirous of honest praise only, not that secured by favor or bribery.
Persius then sharpens his criticism of the writing produced in his own time. He complains that it is artificial and obsessed with rhetoric as a justified end, and that grandiose heroic acts are composed by writers who could not muster the attention to describe a mere grove in fine detail. The criticism of rhetoric—which succeeds only when passions are inflamed and people are dragged along—is especially important, because rhetorical precision was of fundamental importance for public life under the emperors. Although Persius does not—and could not—criticize the increasing constraints on freedom of speech, he does manage to criticize their outcome.
Persius argues against other literary habits in vogue at that time, which he believed threatened direct and honest writing. Eventually he agrees to keep quiet, but only after he recalls Gaius Lucilius’s observation that humanity has a great propensity for foolishness. This satire concludes with a petition from Persius for his readers to join him in celebration of superior writers and abandon the poor tastes of their society. The first satire is thus marked by the nostalgia common when a person attempts to distinguish good literature from inane competition, but it further carries the serious conviction of Stoic philosophy.
The second satire is critical of the hidden intentions behind most prayers. Persius wrote it to commemorate the birthday of a friend, Plotius Macrinus, and immediately names Macrinus as one who offers genuine prayers. Most men, Persius argues, offer the most selfless prayers in public and in private wish for the opposite: A man may publicly petition for his uncle’s good health while he privately waits for the uncle’s death and the inheritance. Persius insists that Jupiter (the king of the gods in the Roman pantheon) finds no pleasure in these petitions or in the scant offerings traditionally made to secure the god’s favor.
Persius turns his criticism from this depravity of saying one thing and intending another to human inconsistencies. He strikes quickly at superstitious beliefs and, in a superbly constructed point,...
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