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An ancient Vita Persii, of uncertain authorship, of evident authenticity, gives all that it is needful for us to know about our poet-much more than is vouchsafed to us for the rich individuality of Lucilius, much more than we can divine for the unsubstantial character of Juvenal.
Aulus Persius Flaccus was born on the day before the nones of December, A.U.C. 787, A.D. 34, at Volaterrae, in Etruria. That Luna in Liguria was his birthplace is a false inference of some scholars from the words meum mare in a passage of the sixth satire, where he describes his favorite resort on the Riviera.
The family of Persius belonged to the old Etruscan nobility, and more than one Persius appears in inscriptions found at Volaterrae. Other circumstances make for his Etruscan origin : the Etruscan form of his name, Aules, so written in most MSS. of his Life; the Etruscan name of his mother, Sisennia ; the familiar spitefulness of his mention of Arretium, the allusions to the Tuscan haruspex, to the Tuscan pedigree; the sneering mention of the Umbrians-fat-witted folk, who lived across the Tuscan border. Most of these, it is true, are minute points, and would be of little weight in the case of an author of wider vision, but well-nigh conclusive in a writer like Persius, who tried to make up for the narrowness of his personal experience by a microscopic attention to details.
Persius belonged to the same sphere of society as Maecenas. Like Maecenas an Etruscan, he was, like Maecenas, an eques Romanus. The social class of which he was a member did much for Roman literature; Etruria's contributions were far less valuable, and Mommsen is right when he recognizes in both these men, so unlike in life and in principle—the one a callous wordling, the other a callow philosopher—the stamp of their strange race, a race which is a puzzle rather than a mystery. Indeed, the would-be mysterious is one of the most salient points in the style of Persius as in the religion of the Etruscans, and Persius's elaborate involution of the commonplace is parallel with the secret wisdom of his countrymen. The minute. detail of the Etruscan ritual has its counterpart in the minute detail of Persius's style, and the want of a due sense of proportion and a certain coarseness of language in our author remind us of the defects of Etruscan art and the harshness of the Etruscan tongue.
Persius was born, if not to great wealth, at least to an ample competence. His father died when the poet was but six years old, and his education was conducted at Volaterrae under the superintendence of his mother and her second husband, Fusius. For the proper appreciation of the career of Persius, it is a fact of great significance that he seems to have been very much under the influence of the women of his household. To this influence he owed the purity of his habits; but feminine training is not without its disadvantages for the conduct of life. For social refinement there is no better school, but the pet of the home circle is apt to make the grossest blunders when he ventures into the larger world of no manners, and attempts to use the language of outside sinners. And so, when Persius undertakes to rebuke the effeminacy
of his time, he outbids the worst passages of Horace and rivals the most lurid indecencies of Juvenal.
When Persius was twelve years old he went to Rome, as Horace and Ovid bad done before him, for the purpose of a wider and higher education, and was put to school with Verginius Flaccus, the rhetorician, and Remmius Palaemon, the grammarian. Verginius Flaccus was exiled from Rome by Nero, with Musonius Rufus, on account of the prominence which he had achieved as a teacher, and Quintilian quotes him as an authority in his profession. Remmius Palaemon, the other teacher of Persius, a man of high attainments and low principles, was one of the most illustrious grammarians of a time when grammarians could be illustrious. A freedman, with a freedman's character, he was arrogant and vain, grasping and prodigal-in short, a Sir Epicure Mammon of a professor. But his prodigious memory, his ready flow of words, his power of improvising poetry, attracted many pupils during his prolonged life, and after his death he was cited with respect by other grammarians-a rare apotheosis among that captious tribe. The first satirical efforts of ingenuous youth are usually aimed at their preceptors, and the verses which Persius quotes in the First Satire are quite as likely to be from the school of Palaemon as from the poems of Nero.
But the true teacher of Persius, the man to whom he himself attributed whatever progress he made in that divine philosophy' which deals at once with the constitution of the universe and the conduct of life—his 'spiritual director,' to use the language of Christian ascetics
was Cornutus. Persius is one of those literary celebrities whose title to fame is not beyond dispute; and while some maintain his right to high distinction the ground of intrinsic merit, others seek with perhaps too much avidity for the accidents to which he is supposed to owe his renown. If it is necessary to excuse, as it were, his reputation, the relation of Persius to Cornutus might go far to explain the care which schoolmasters have taken of the memory of the poet. No matter how crabbed the teacher may be, how austere the critic, the opening of the Fifth Satire, with its warm tribute to the guide of his life and the friend of his heart, calls up the image of the ideal pupil, and touches into kindred the brazen bowels of Didymus.
Lucius Annaeus Cornutus, of Leptis in Africa, was a philosopher, grammarian, and rhetorician. It has been conjectured that he was a freedman of the literary family of the Annaei; and this is rendered probable by the fact that Annaeus Lucanus, the nephew of Annaeus Seneca, was his pupil. The year of his life and the year of his death are alike unknown. He was banished from Rome by Nero because he had ventured to suggest that Nero's projected epic on Roman history would be too long if drawn out to four hundred books, and that the imperial poem wonld find no readers. When one of Nero's flatterers rejoined that Chrysippus was a still more voluminous author, Cornutus had the bad taste to point out the practical importance of the writings of Chrysippus in contrast with Nero's unpractical project; and Nero, who had a poet's temper, if not a poet's gifts, sent him to an island, there to revise his literary judgment. Cornutus was not only a man of various learning in philosophy, rhetoric, and grammar, but a tragic poet of some note, and perhaps a satirist. Whether the jumble that bear's the name of Cornutus or Phurnutus, De Natura Deorum, is in any measure traceable to our Cornutus, is not pertinent to our subject. Of more importance to us than his varied attainments is his pure and lofty character, which made him worthy of the ardent affection with which Persius clung to his Socratic bosom.' It is recorded to his honor that Persius having bequeathed to him his library and a considerable sum of money, he accepted the books only, and relinquished the money to the family of Persius. Nor did he cease his loving care for his friend after his ashes, but revised his satires, and suppressed the less mature performances of the young poet.
The social circle in which Persius moved was not wide. The mark of the beast called Coterie, which is upon the foreheads of the most plentifully belaurelled Roman poets, is on his brow also. But it must be said that the men whom he associated with belonged to the chosen few of a corrupt time, albeit they would have been of more seryice to their country if they had not recognized themselves so conspicuously as the elect. The Stoic salon in which Persius lived and moved and had his being reminds M. Martha of a Puritan household ; it reminds us of the sequestered Legitimist opposition to the France of yesterday. We are so apt to see parallels when we are well acquainted with but one of the lines—or with neither.
Let us pass in review some of the associates and acquaintances of Persius.
Among his early friends was Caesius Bassus, to whom the Sixth Satire is addressed: an older contemporary, who had studied with the same master, next to Horace, hy a long remove, among the Roman lyrists. To his fellowpupils belong Calpurnius, who is more than doubtfully identified with the author of the Bucolics; and Lucan (Annaeus Lucanus), the poet of the Pharsalia, who shared with him the instructions of Cornutus, and is said to have shown the most fervent admiration of the genius of his school-fellow. We are told that when the First Satire was recited, Lucan exclaimed that these were true poems. Whether he accompanied this encomium with a disparagement of his own performances, or simply had reference to the modest disclaimer of Persius's Prologne, as Jahn is