Saturae, first century (Satires, 1616)
Aulus Persius Flaccus, known as Persius (PUR-shee-uhs), was born in Volaterrae, Etruria (now Volterra, Italy), in 34
After his father’s death, when Persius was not yet six, the boy was sent to Rome to be educated, where he was tutored and his artistic and moral character shaped by a number of influential individuals, including Lucius Annaeus Cornutus, who was also a teacher of the epic poet Lucan, and Thrasea Paetus, a notable public figure who served as consul and was the core of the aristocratic resistance to the tyranny of the emperor Nero. Thrasea was forced to commit suicide in 66
Although Persius was certainly connected with the political and literary elite of his society, he seems to have led a somewhat reserved, even reclusive life. Although ill health may have been a large cause for this, some writers have speculated that Persius’s Stoic beliefs caused him to shun the Neroian court. The result, whatever the cause, is that his satires address generic, rather than specific, faults, and are addressed largely to types rather than individuals. His writings are also scathing in their survey of faults endemic to his–or any other–period.
Persius’s only extant work, his Satires, consists of a preface and six separate poems. In his preface he mocks the poetic pretensions of his time. Satire 1 attacks the bad taste which has infected Roman poetry and states Persius’s belief, which Mark Morford and other critics have noted, that literary style itself is an indication of moral value.
Satires 2 through 6 address specifically Stoic concerns as to how life should be lived and the faults that must be avoided by a wise man. In satire 2, for example, hypocrisy in religion is attacked, whereas in satire 3, a slothful young man is urged to turn to the rigorous mental discipline of Stoic philosophy. Satire 4 explores the well-known Stoic tenet that those who wish to command others must first rule themselves, specifically by controlling their baser passions and emotions. Cornutus, Persius’s influential teacher during his early days in Rome, is addressed in satire 5, which expounds and explains Cornutus’s doctrines, especially those which distinguish between true and false freedom. Finally, in satire 6, Persius attacks greed (in the widest possible sense) and advocates a lifestyle of Stoic moderation in all things.
Persius has always been most noted for his style, which has been described as difficult, convoluted, and obscure. This reputation for obscurity was earned early in the poet’s career, and his satires were being analyzed and explained by critics soon after their posthumous publication. Actually, as several writers have noted, Persius’s seeming obscurity stems largely from his extremely careful choice of vocabulary, which frequently forces him to use an unusual but technically correct word, and from his rapid accumulation of images which shift rapidly before the reader. Persius is a writer who demands, but who richly rewards, close and careful reading.
Persius was often quoted approvingly by the early church fathers, especially Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome, who saw in his attacks on the false pretensions and hypocrisy of Roman life a vindication of their own assaults on a pagan society. Partially from this early attention from the church, Persius remained a known writer throughout the Dark and Middle Ages, and he did not have to wait for a chance discovery of manuscripts or a retranslation from the Arabic to bring him back to the attention of Western European literature.
Although perhaps minor, his place in Latin literature is significant. It is generally accepted that Persius, who died before he was thirty, prepared the way for later satirical writers, especially Juvenal, who took the literary form to its ultimate expression in Roman writing. In a sense Persius served as an essential bridge between Horace and the other writers of the Augustan golden age and those who followed.