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LIFE AND WRITINGS OF PERSIUS.
Delivered at Oxford, January 24, 1855.
It is my intention for the present to deliver general lectures from time to time on the characteristics of some of the authors whom I as subjects for my terminal courses. To those who propose to attend my classes they will serve as prolegomena, grouping together various matters which will meet us afterwards as they lie scattered up and down the course of our expository readings, and giving the point of view from which they are to be regarded: to others I trust they may not be without their use as Sketches Historical and Literary, complete in themselves, in which an attempt will be made to bring out the various features and circumstances of each author into a broad general light, and exhibit the interest which they possess when considered independently of critical minutiae.
The writer of whom I am to speak to-day is one who, as it seems to me, supplies ample materials both for detailed study and for a more transient survey. It is a very superficial criticism which would pretend that the reputation of Persius is owing simply to the labour which has been spent upon him: still, where the excellence of an author is undoubted, the difficulties of his thought or his language are only so many additional reasons why the patient and prolonged study of him is sure to be profitable. The difficulties of Persius, too, have the advantage of being definite and unmistakable-like those of Aeschylus, not like those of Sophocles--difficulties which do not elude the grasp, but close with it fairly, and even if they should be still unvanquished, are at any rate palpably felt and appreciated. At the same time he presents many salient points to the general student of literature; his individual characteristics as a writer are sufficiently prominent to strike the most careless eye; his philosophical creed, ardently embraced and realized with more or less distinctness, is that which proved itself most congenial to the best parts of the Roman mind, the Stoicism of the empire; while his profession of authorship, as avowed by himself, associates him not only with Horace, but with the less known name of Lucilius, and the original conception of Roman satire.
The information which we possess concerning the personal history of Persius is more copious than might have been expected in the case of one whose life was so short and so uneventful. His writings, indeed, cannot be compared with the votive tablets' on which his two great predecessors delighted to inscribe their own memoirs : on the contrary, except in one famous passage, the autobiographical element is scarcely brought forward at all. We see his character written legibly enough in every line, and there are various minute traces of experience with which the facts of his life, when ascertained, are perceived to accord; but no one could have attempted to construct his biography from his Satires without passing even those extended limits within which modern criticism is pleased to expatiate. But there is a memoir, much more full than most of the biographical notices of that period, and apparently quite authentic, the authorship of which, after being variously assigned to his instructor and literary executor Cornutus, and to Suetonius, is now generally fixed, agreeably to the testimony of the best MSS., on Valerius Probus, the celebrated contemporary grammarian, from whose commentary, doubtless an exposition of the Satires, it is stated to have been extracted. Something has still been left to the ingenuity or research of later times to supply, in the way of conjectural correction or illustration, and in this work no one has been more diligent than Otto Jahn, to whom Persius is probably more indebted than to any other editor, with the single exception of Casaubon. I have, myself, found his commentary quite invaluable while preparing my own notes, and I shall have to draw frequently upon his Prolegomena in the course of the present lecture.
Aulus Persius Flaccus was born on the 4th of December, A.D. 34, little more than two years before the death of Tiberius, at Volaterrae in Etruria, a country where antiquity of descent was most carefully cherished, and which had recently produced two men well known in the annals of the empire, Maecenas and Sejanus. His father was of equestrian rank, and his relatives included some of the first men of his time. The connection of the family with his birth-place is substantiated by inscriptions which have been discovered there, as its memory was long preserved by a tradition professing to point out his residence, and by the practice of a noble house which was in the habit of using his
That name was already not unfamiliar at Rome, having been borne by a contemporary of Lucilius, whose critical judgment the old poet dreaded as that of the most learned man of the age, as well as by *a successful officer in the time of the Second Punic War. Persius' early life was passed in his native town, a time to which he seems to allude when he speaks of himself in his third satire as evading the lessons in which he was expected to distinguish himself by his admiring father, and ambitious only of eminence among his playmates. When he was six years old his father died, and his mother, Fulvia Sisennia, a genuine Etruscan name, found a second husband, also of equestrian rank, called Fusius, who within a few years left her a second time a widow. At twelve years of age Persius was removed to Rome, where he studied under Remmius Palaemon the grammarian, and Verginius Flavius the rhetorician. Of the latter, we only know that he had the honour of being banished by Nero--on account, so Tacitus says, of the splendour of his reputation in the burst of jealous fury which followed the conspiracy of Piso; that he wrote the treatise on rhetoric, to which Quintilian so repeatedly refers as authoritative, and that he made a joke on a tedious rival, asking him how many miles long his speech had been. Of the former an odious character is given by Suetonius, who says that his extraordinary memory and facility of expression made him the most popular teacher in Rome, but represents him as a man of inordinate vanity and arrogance, and so infamous for his vices that both Tiberius and Claudius openly declared him to be the last man who ought to be trusted with the instruction of youth. The silence with which Persius passes over this part of his experience may perhaps be regarded as significant when we contrast it with the language in which he speaks of the next stage in his education. It was, he tells us, when he first laid aside the emblems of boyhood and assumed the toga—just at the time when the sense of freedom begins, and life is seen to diverge into different paths—that he placed himself under another guide. This was Annaeus Cornutus, a Stoic philosopher of great name, who was himself afterwards banished by Nero for an uncourtly speech,-a man who, like Probus, has become a sort of mythical critic, to whom mistake or forgery has ascribed writings really belonging to a much later period. The connection thus formed was never afterwards broken, and from that time Persius seems to have declared himself a disciple of Stoicism. The creed was one to which his antecedents naturally pointed, as he was related to Arria, daughter of that “true wife' who taught her husband