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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Persius (34–62 A.D.)

THE FAME of Persius (Aulus Persius Flaccus) is perhaps more difficult to account for than that of any other equally eminent author. His brief life was chiefly spent under the crushing tyranny of the worst among the early Cæsars. Real freedom of speech was impossible. Persius, as he himself confesses, was not a true singer. He had not the poet’s joyous creative imagination. Even the claim of originality, in style or in substance, is denied him. His voice—thinner, shriller, less articulate than his master’s—is still the voice of Horace; and he lashes essentially the same foibles, though with a far more savage swing of the whip. Had Lucilius’s satires survived, they would probably have reduced to still smaller space the claims of Persius to originality. The work of the latter is immature and fragmentary, consisting of six satires, only six hundred and fifty hexameters in all, to which should be added the fourteen “limping iambics” of the modest, but perhaps spurious, Epilogue.

Yet the fact remains, that Persius has held firmly his position as third in rank among Latin satirists. This, moreover, is the one field wherein the Romans acknowledged no Hellenic models or masters. Hardly any ancient poet survives in better or more numerous manuscripts. Few have a more brilliant line of modern editors, from Casaubon to Conington and Gildersleeve. This can be no mere accident, still less the favoritism shown to a popular young aristocrat. Something of vitality the little book must have had.

Our first impression is of extreme incoherence and obscurity. Yet in this there is nothing of pedantic willfulness. The note of sincerity, the strident intolerant sincerity of youth, pierces our ear quickly, despite all the inarticulate verbiage. Even in this brief career too we seem to trace a line of progress toward calmer, clearer, more genial self-utterance. Especially the tender lines to his old tutor Cornutus leave us “wishing for more”; which is perhaps the rarest triumph of the satirist, in particular. Professor Conington declares that as Lucretius represents Epicureanism in poetry, so Persius stands no less completely for Roman Stoicism. The concession is at once added, however, that Divine Philosophy, in that unhappy age, could teach little more than manly endurance of the inevitable.

Altogether,—unless we confess that obscurity itself may draw the thronging commentators till they darken the very air above it,—we must consider that Persius offers us one more illustration that the fearless frank word of the austere moralist is never hopelessly out of season, but may re-echo for evermore. Or, to change the figure:—

  • “How far that little candle throws its beams!
  • So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”
  • The edition of Persius by Professor Gildersleeve (Harper, 1875) is especially valuable for its linguistic and stylistic comment; the more as Persius, like Plautus and Catullus, used more largely than the other poets that lingua volgare from which the Romance languages take their direct descent. The more indolent student, however, will find his way to Conington’s edition, more recently revised by Nettleship, which includes a capital prose translation on parallel pages. To this graceful version the present translator confesses his heavy indebtedness.