Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.01.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.01.02

Shadi Bartsch, Persius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural.   Chicago; London:  University of Chicago Press, 2015.  Pp. vii, 260.  ISBN 9780226241845.  $50.00 (hb).  

Reviewed by Dan Hooley, University of Missouri (


Satire feeds. Feeds on vice and foible, on weakness, indiscretion, excess, need, greed, sex, ambition, pomp, display, politics, snobbery, vanity, and malice. And most obviously, it feeds on food. From Lucilius on, the satiric tradition has recognized the stuff we eat and the ways we eat it as being central to any diagnosis of what we are, how we behave, how we (fail to) set limits. Dining is a social act, and the table is where social distinctions get sorted; manners and food are inextricably linked. The table is also a personal place, where self and ostensible self meet, where regimen (askesis, diatetics) is demonstrated or abandoned. Satire feeds us, its readers, too. It compels us to take in and digest these satiric stuffings, satura being etymologically just that, stuffed or piled on, reprocessing what it has already digested. Satire’s not infrequent mentions of excrement, thus, are programmatic—and just about then we want to say, ‘enough!’ But satis, what is enough, is satire’s most self-conscious pun, and the satirist knows he has us looped back in, ordering up another helping of what we don’t want. Not surprisingly, critics have made much of the food that stuffs satire, its portrayal and imagery; Emily Gowers most explicitly and ingeniously in recent years.1 And now there is Shadi Bartsch’s new treatment of Persius, which begins and ends, in a surprising turn, with food.

But whereas Gowers’ investigation was broad of scope (Plautus, Catullus, Horace, Persius, Juvenal, Martial, Pliny…), Bartsch uses images and tropes of food to get at one oddly intractable Roman satirist. Persius—for all the excellent studies that have discussed him—remains a puzzle. Making sense of his Latin can be difficult; the logic of his metaphors is often quite obscure; the sharp juxtapositions of his registers of language disorient; even who is saying what is, not infrequently, unclear. Scholarly exposition of all this has helped, but the (historically documented) appeal of Persius, a clear sense of why his satire is so rewarding to read and ponder, eludes most modern readers. Even the Stoicism his Vita tells us so much about, picked up by Casaubon and later Dryden as the keystone of his satiric thought, runs aground when one notices that Persius neither writes in accord with Stoic stylistics nor espouses more than the most common Stoic platitudes (not without, as Bartsch points out, Platonic influences). Moderns can’t thus dismiss the poetry as just an obsolete coterie’s sensation du jour. But is precisely here that Bartsch steps in to link Persius’ self-evident Stoic concerns with his curious metaphoricity and imagery (chiefly of food).

It is in fact not necessarily an easy link to make, and the logic of her argument through her book’s chapters has to be attended to closely, owing in part to the abundance of distractingly fascinating contextual detail she gathers here. But the primary goals of her study are clear. Persius’ characteristic imagery (bad and good food, the diseased body, corruption, decay, degrading sexuality, and malformation) has been historically considered separate from his philosophical disposition: that is, Persius seen as philosopher manqué or fashioner of eccentric poetics and strange imagery. Appreciation of one side or the other has lately favored the latter. But in that, Bartsch contends, we lose sight of the reason for and logic of his experiment; hence that sense of elusiveness and opacity that always seems to dog our readings of the satirist. As she puts it in her introduction (7), “[U]nholy combinations of eyeballs and orgasms, pork products and people, statecraft and sodomy punctuate [his] rebukes of folly. What sense are we to make of the author’s fondness for these metaphors that are strained, sometimes disgusting, and in flagrant violation of the norms for poetic propriety and utility?” “Sense,” the the underpinning logic of it all, is the objective, and toward it Bartsch draws the two poles of earlier readings together, showing how the imagery can be seen to inform the Stoic cast of the satires. She admits that this is not a self-evidently plausible notion: Stoic aesthetics in general do not have much time for outrageous metaphor. But taking Lucretius’ honeyed cup as an informing counterpoint, Bartsch offers us Persius’ ‘bittered’ cup, imagery crafted to revolt us, not simply in visceral and general ways, but in terms that can be placed in Stoic discourse and hence turned to Stoic ends.

The road to those ends in this book is a winding one, with detours and byways exploring the sources and contexts of Persius’ figures. And as in the best travel, the most enriching aspects of this study are the details and implications Bartsch discovers along the way. Chapter 1, “The Cannibal Poets,” for instance, considers “the poem made flesh” (15) and Persius’ radical turning of traditional, text-as-body enfiguration together with the related alimentary troping of words and ideas nourishing the mind, to the startling notion of literary cannibalism: texts seen as corrupt bodies fed to the reader. The point alone is good, but the real value of Bartsch’s take is its demonstration of how Persius extracts the body/text metaphor from Horace, chiefly from the composite monster opening the Ars Poetica offered as analogy for a poorly composed poem, through pointed references to the Thyestes tale in both Horace and Persius, the cannibalistic feeds seen so often in the ‘wrong’ genre, epic, through again traditional notions of literary imitation and influence troped as ‘digestion,’ to Persius’ own association of bad versification with indigestion. Persius has contemporary poetasters almost literally serving up themselves in their poetry, cooked up for popular consumption (1.5-13 and elsewhere); the resultant nausea and sickness is pervasive in the satire’s world glutted on tastelessness, grimmaced in dis(/)gust.

If certain foods and literatures are bad for one, others can be good, and among the good, beyond merely nourishing the body and mind, a subset is good enough to work as medicine, medicamentum. This is the general subject of Chapter 2, “Alternative Diets,” where Bartsch discusses the component elements of Persius’ ostensibly curative satire, wherein properties of diet recommended for the Stoic, vegetarian, raw, abrasive, cleansing, are seen to map onto properties of the satirist’s verse. Abundant informing detail here validates and enriches what might have seemed a fairly evident point. Bartsch’s discussion of decoctius, for instance, that singularly identifiable word Persius employs to describe his own satire (1.125), builds on the work of Gowers, Bramble, Anderson, Cucchiarelli, Keane, Reckford, and Freudenburg to take its semantic implications well into new ground: “Decoctus is above all a medical term, referring most often to the ubiquitous Roman practice of of boiling things down to medical strength: that is, making medicine out of food” (71). This leads to fun stuff and a real insights into how Romans thought of their food and medicine. (If you want to know what decoctions (taken orally, aurally, or anally) Pliny and Celsus recommended for what maladies, the 21 page appendix, constructed by Diana Moser, will tell you.) Medicinal decoctions are not unrelated to salubrious food and specific remedies (hellebore) for madness, frequent motifs in Persius’ satire, and Bartsch bundles them all into a neat package. Most interesting is the hint here that this framing of conceptions available to a Stoic might not find perfect fulfillment in Persius’ verse itself—it is a point Bartsch will pick up later.

As her argument develops in Chapter 3, “The Philosopher’s Love,” the body, rather than the food inside it, takes the (political, philosophical) stage again in her treatment of Persius’ spicy fourth satire. The bizarre logic of that poem is infamously difficult to pin down, and Bartsch does as much as anyone has to sort it out. She begins by noting Persius’ pointed rejection, in this free, satiric fantasy on the ps.-Platonic Alcibiades I, of the Platonic association eros and sophia, an attitude shared with much Roman thought. The pedagogic model Persius seems to endorse, that involving Cornutus and evident from the cluster of Satires 3-5, is apolitical and introspective and Bartsch adumbrates it lucidly. But the next two chapters are the ‘meat’ of this book. The first (4), “The Scrape of Metaphor,” treats the functionality of Persius’ strange metaphors via the satirist’s own metapoetic treatment of figure, his metaphors of metaphor. The pivot of this treatment is the pointed contrast of carmina molli / nunc demum numero fluere at 1.63-4, verse today finally runs smoothly, and ‘Cornutus’ praise of Persius’ verse at 5.14, Uerba togae sequeris iunctura callidus acri, you use everyday language, [albeit] cannily, with harsh juxtaposition. Bartsch fleshes (sorry) this out with a detailed discussion of traditional appeals of classical metaphor and the particulars of poetic compositio, hiatus, ellipsis, collocatio generally. Persius’ overtly valorized acris iunctura surprisingly does not manifest itself in the composition of Persius’ verse, which is roughly on a par with Horace in respect to ellipsis and other features. In what sense can acer apply legitimately to Persius? The answer Bartsch provides is in the nature and use of metaphor, figures that are indeed “sharp,” even abrasive, and in this not unlike the unappealing Stoic diet of uncooked root vegetables. Bartsch persuasively sketches out Persius’ radical anti-poetics, or rather an almost entirely novel Stoic poetics (and its role in pedagogy) that inverts the traditional functionality of metaphor.

That that functionality—or the Stoic metaphorical inflection the Satires have contrived—is not stable is the unsettling turn of Bartsch’s final chapter, “The Self-Consuming Satirist.” So too, the very substantial contextual evidence Bartsch has mustered in support of a Stoic reading of the poet’s metaphoricity is powerfully qualified by further digging into the evidence, where we learn, for instance, that the repulsive images of (literary) cannibalism seen earlier might not be so repulsive to a Stoic who could imagine, as Zeno and Chrysippus were said to, circumstances in which anthropophagy might be sanctioned. Meat again, and now on the Stoic’s plate. Other ostensibly positive presentations of Stoics (Cornutus, Persius himself) are rife with the same carnal and repellant imagery that characterizes the poet’s satire of others. Persius is profoundly inconsistent in his use of figure, then, and just as elusive as ever. Or is he? Bartsch’s concluding pages (perhaps only) sketch out a kind of solution, one that is surely arguable but I think convincing.

In the end, Bartsch shows just how hard Persius’ “rasp of warped words”2 can be on us, even while, with hospitable and frequently witty prose, she doctors her medicinal cup with a taste of Lucretian honey. If a reviewer must quibble, a few unobtrusive typos escaped the editing, and there were a few moments when I thought the abundant contextual data brought to bear obscured the book’s argument. Bartsch is generous in acknowledging previous work almost to a fault, and that too obscures what is original and exciting in this book—and that is substantial. I found it the best thing I’ve read on Persius in years, and it will surely remain an essential resource for a good long time. 3


1.   The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature. Oxford, 1993.
2.   John Henderson, “Persius’ Didactic Satire: The Pupil as Teacher.” Ramus 20, 137, quoted on p. 189, n. 23.
3.   Bartsch thanks me among many others in her acknowledgements, and I did see an early prospectus for the book. In the event the study turned out much differently than the prospectus indicated, and I have not seen any part of its subsequent development until the occasion of writing this review.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010