Thanks to a biography of him by Valerius Probus, we are fortunate to know a good amount about Aulus Persius Flaccus. He was born 6 December 34 CE in Volterra, a city in Etruria, to an equestrian family. His father, also named Aulus, died when he was five, and he was raised by his mother, Fulvia Sisennia.
Persius was sent to Rome when he was 12 to study under the grammaticus Remmius Palaemon and later the rhetor Verginius Flavus. Still studying under Verginius, he befriended Annaeus Cornutus, from whom he developed a fascination with Stoic philosophy. Through Cornutus he also met Lucan and, it is recorded, immediately was enthralled with his younger contemporary’s poetry.
Unfortunately, Persius died from a stomach virus when he was only 29 years old, leaving his only poetry, his Satires, to be edited posthumously by Cornutus.
The Saturae, six in total, grew out of Persius acceptance of Stoic philosophy. These satires depart from Horace’s earlier models, which, like Lucilius’ before him, mocked individuals and their buffoonery. Persius’ satires instead take aim at the moral failings of Rome. He begins by attacking contemporary poetry, apparently primarily the neoteric and elegiac schools, which he sees as ultimately empty of any substance (book 1). He then pivots to those whose religious feelings are also empty, along with the selfish (book 2). Finally, he attacks slothfulness and intellectual laziness (books 3 and 4), and posits that critical self-examination and adherence to Stoic principles liberates the individual from the ills of the world (books 4-6).
The Satires thus take aim at the very audience who might be reading them, potentially alienating them. Similar strategies to Persius’ moralist denunciations show close affinities with the moral philosophy espoused by Seneca, who himself was close to both Cornutus and Lucan.
Despite this, the Satires must have been somewhat successful, since Juvenal, the next Roman satirist whose works we have, follows Persius instead of going back to Horace.
- Shadi Bartsch 2015. Persius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural. Chicago University Press.
- Michael Coffey 1989. Roman Satire. Bristol Classical Press.
- Kirk Freudenburg 2001. Satires of Rome: Threatening Poses from Lucilius to Juvenal. Cambridge University Press.