Persius, in full Aulus Persius Flaccus (34 – 62 C.E.), was an ancient Roman poet and satirist of Etruscan origin. His six short satires, published after his death by his friend and mentor, the Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Cornutus, were greeted with delight and appreciation and became an instant success in Rome. Considered to be one of the best of the Roman satirists, Persius used humor and exaggeration to expose and criticize the degradation of Roman society, and, in the process, to uphold the high moral ideals of Stoicism. His works were widely read by scholars during the Middle Ages.
A detailed biography attached to the manuscripts of Persius’ satires is attributed either to Suetonius, or to Valerius Probus, possibly a grammarian who lived during the time of Nero. Many details of the biography coincide with events mentioned in the satires, and the biography is thought to have been compiled shortly after the death of Persius, so that the details are considered to be reasonably accurate.
Aulus Persius Flaccus was born at the small Etruscan city of Volaterrae on December 4, 34 C.E., into a noble family. He was a Roman Eques (knight) and heir to a considerable fortune. His father, Flaccus, died when Persius was six, and his mother, Fulvia Sisenna, married a second husband, Fusius, who also died while Persius was still a youth. His mother arranged for him to receive a typical Roman education; after beginning his studies at Volaterrae, in his twelfth year he was taken to Rome where he attended the lectures of the grammarian Remmius Palaemon and the rhetorician Verginius Flaccus. When he was sixteen, the Stoic philosopher L. Annaeus Cornutus became his teacher, guide, and friend. A passage in his satires attests to the gratitude and affection he felt towards Cornutus.
Persius lived for most of his life in a small household with his mother, sister, and aunt, but he seems to have been acquainted with literary society and with several well-known Stoics. An early friend was the lyric poet Caesius Bassus and he enjoyed the friendship of the poet Lucan. He studied under Cornutus with two learned friends, a physician named Claudius Agaternus, and Petronius Aristocrates. He was a relative of the heroic Arria and a close friend of her husband Paetus Thrasea for ten years, during which they often traveled together. He was also acquainted with Seneca but was said not to admire his character. Persius was described as a handsome youth with gentle manners, who lived a life of purity and temperance and showed exemplary filial piety.
Persius died of a stomach ailment on November 24, 62 C.E., at his estate at the eighth milestone on the Appian Way. He was 28 years old. He bequeathed a sum of money and his library, containing his satires, to his friend Cornutus. Cornutus made a few changes to the manuscript and, at the request of Caesius Bassus, handed it over to him to be edited. The satires became an immediate success among his Roman intellectual contemporaries; the poet Lucan is said to have shouted with delight upon them read aloud. The satires continued to be admired and referenced by scholars from the time they were published through the Middle Ages, until the revival of classical literature which heralded the Renaissance. Three early Christians, St. Augustine, Lactantius, and Jerome, frequently quoted phrases from Persius.
Persius wrote six short satires, amounting to 650 lines. A tragedy and some verse written during his youth were destroyed by Persius’ mother on the advice of Cornutus. The satires criticized the degradation of Roman society while expounding Stoic values. The first satire mocks the literature of the day, deriding the false taste in poetry, exposing the follies of fashionable writers, and parodying many popular works. Each of the other five is devoted to the exposition of one of the Stoic doctrines: (1) the question as to what we may justly ask of the gods (cf. Plato's second Alcibiades); (2) the importance of having a definite aim in life; (3) the necessity of self-knowledge for public men (cf. Plato's first Alcibiades); (4) the Stoic doctrine of liberty (introduced by generous allusions to Cornutus' teaching); and (5) the proper use of money. Some outstanding passages in the fifth satire (on the subject of human freedom) describe how Persius’ own moral faculties were first awakened and expanded. Many scholars have attempted to show that Persius was making critical allusions to Nero, who was emperor at the time of his death, but there is no evidence that this is true.
Both his satires and the attached biography give the impression that Persius lived a sheltered life close to his family, and experienced the world mostly through literature and through his cultured acquaintances. Nevertheless, he observed everything around him very keenly. After reading the tenth book of Gaius Lucilius, Persius was inspired to write satire of his own, using the beginning of that book as his model. He wrote slowly and seldom. Many of his characters’ names, as well as certain thoughts and situations, were drawn from the works of Horace. His peculiar literary phrases, intended to evoke certain impressions, and his use of popular words and expressions make his verses interesting but difficult to read. Persius' satires are composed in hexameters, except for the scazens of the short prologue to the third satire, in which he half-ironically asserts that he writes to earn his bread, not because he is inspired.
Persius lived through the reigns of Caligula and Claudius and the first eight years of Nero, under the authoritarian government of Augustan Rome. In his satires, Persius attributes the decline of Roman literature to moral decay, but governmental restriction of literary freedom also contributed to the lack of inspiration and substantial subject matter. Persius never mentions politics in his works, nor did he participate in public life like many of his Stoic contemporaries. He may never have intended for his work to be read publicly.
Persius strikes the highest note reached by Roman satire; his earnestness and moral purpose rises far superior to the political rancor or good-natured persiflage of his predecessors, Horace and Juvenal. From him, we learn how philosophy could work on minds that still preserved the depth and purity of the old Roman gravitas. Some parallel passages in the works of Persius and Seneca are very close, and cannot be explained by assuming the use of a common source. Like Seneca, Persius censures the style of the day, and imitates it.
The Life tells us that the Satires were not left complete; some lines were taken (presumably by Cornutus or Bassus) from the end of the work so that it might be quasi finitus. This perhaps means that a sentence in which Persius had left a line imperfect, or a paragraph which he had not completed, had to be omitted.
The manuscripts of Persius fall into two groups, one represented by two of the best of them, the other by that of Petrus Pithoeus, so important for the text of Juvenal. Since the publication of J. Bieger's de Persii cod. pith. recte aestimando (Berlin, 1890) the tendency has been to prefer the tradition of the latter. The first important editions were, with explanatory notes: Isaac Casaubon (Paris, 1605, enlarged edition by Johann Friedrich Dübner, Leipzig, 1833); Otto Jahn (with the scholia and valuable prolegomena, Leipzig, 1843); John Conington (with translation; 3rd ed., Oxford, 1893); but there are several modern editions.
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