Satires by Persius (trans. A. S. Kline)

Satire was a genre with many practitioners in Ancient Rome. Persius, who wrote during the early empire, wasn’t a very prolific writer, managing to compose just six satires. Whereas Juvenal, another writer known for his satires, managed to compose sixteen!

Satire I criticizes the state of literature in Rome, while other satires deal with laziness and lack of ambition in life. I particularly liked this description of a hangover.

‘What are you up to?’ cries a voice. ‘The Dog-Star’s

Been scorching the crops, madly, for hours already,

And all the cows are sheltering under the spreading elm.’

– Really? Truly? Here, quickly, you. No one there?

The green bile’s flowing, my head’s bursting, you’d

Think all the donkey-herds in Arcadia were braying.

As evidenced above many of these satires are structured as a back-and-forth dialogue, with a speaker condemning some vice (in this case, laziness) exhibited by his listener. After the dash comes the lazy man’s reply, the final lines describing his headache/hangover in metaphorical terms, and a powerful metaphor it is: a hangover = a pack of animals running through his head!

Some of these satires also pack a philosophical punch, even if never quite profound, and fairly straightforward. Probably the most philosophical of the satires argues that being free isn’t merely a matter of possessing legal freedom, but requires a deeper mental fortitude to escape the bondage of our passions and vices. While still other satires tackle the proper use of money and explore the correct way to pray and worship the gods. Persius warns about procrastination and waiting too long to make important changes in the way we live our lives.

From now on, lads, and you old ones too, set a sure

Goal for your mind, provide for your sad white-haired old age.

‘Tomorrow, I will.’ Tomorrow, you’ll be the same. ‘What does

A day matter!’ But when the next day’s come and gone, we’ve

Already lost yesterday’s tomorrow: behold, another tomorrow

Forever out of reach, pours out our years.

Persius’s satires are different from Juvenal’s in the way they explicitly incorporate Stoicism. In criticizing a certain behavior, Persius will then turn to Stoicism as a remedy, or in the case of his satire about freedom, he will use Stoic ideas to show that political freedom is not enough to be truly free since you would still be a slave to your passions.

Edit: 9/16: I wanted to increase the discussion a little bit and elaborate on a few points.


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