One of the most notable Roman poets of his time, Aulus Persius Flaccus wrote nothing but satires*. Because Persius believed that the form of a poem was as important as the message it conveyed, he labored long and hard over his work. Only 660 lines of his verse survive in his six Satires, but they are considered to be among the most brilliant poetry ever written in Latin. They are also among the most difficult to understand because they are extremely complex.
Born into a wealthy family, Persius was raised on an estate in the Italian countryside near present-day Florence. His father died when Persius was a small child, and he was sent to Rome at the age of 12 to study. Persius studied with the philosopher* Cornutus, who became a father figure and adviser to the young man, as well as his tutor. Persius died when he was only 28, and it was Cornutus who then published Persius’s poems.
Persius did not write about the social and political issues of his time. Instead, he focused on what he believed was the general moral corruption of humanity as a whole. Although Horace and other satirical poets addressed similar topics, Persius took a far more extreme, intolerant, and moralistic stand. He harshly criticized the corruption of his time and place, and he scorned the majority of people for not living up to the ideals of Stoicism*, which he greatly admired. Like other Stoics, Persius believed that people should lead rational, ordered lives and resist the temptations of the senses.
Unlike other Roman satirists, Persius did not attempt to soften his criticism in any way. He was more concerned with expressing his views honestly than in being popular with his readers. In fact, he hoped to offend the majority of his readers. Persius believed that the truth hurts, and he reasoned that the poetic techniques used to express the truth should “hurt” as well. Thus, he wrote harsh, abusive poems filled with ugly, disgusting, or obscene images. Although Persius himself was said to be gentle and modest by nature, many of his poems are hostile, unpleasant, and rude. He used offensive language to scandalize the audience with both its sound and its content.
* satire literary technique that uses wit and sarcasm to expose or ridicule vice and folly
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* Stoicism philosophy that emphasized control over one's thoughts and emotions
NEGATIVITY IN PERSIUS’S SATIRE
Although satire is negative by nature, Horace and other Roman satirists did not just criticize what they were satirizing but also suggested positive alternatives. Persius, in contrast, focused almost totally upon the negative in his writings. He left it up to the reader to figure out any positive alternatives. For example, in his first satire, Persius criticized the verse of other poets. From the negative comments, the reader was left to deduce what Persius considered to be good poetry.
In his poetry, Persius referred to many other works of literature, most of which are little known. While some scholars praise Persius’s writing for the intellectual brilliance reflected in his use of literary references, others criticize his work because the references render his work almost incomprehensible. (See also Juvenal; Poetry, Roman; Satire; Stoicism.)