BMCR 1998.10.10

The Knotted Thong: Structures of Mimesis in Persius


Cautious people, to adapt a comment of Housman’s, do not write about Persius. Only six satires (plus a fourteen-line prologue) survive — probably all that he wrote before his early death — but they are among the most difficult pieces of Latin that we have, bristling with obscurity of language, so dense in expression as to be, at times, nearly (or perhaps totally) incomprehensible, and so oblique in presentation and development that it is frequently unclear who is speaking — not to mention what is being said. What is more, the linguistic obscurity is part and parcel of a vitriolic tongue that makes the anger of Juvenal seem windy and forced. It is not for nothing that Gildersleeve, in the comment from which Hooley takes his title, refers to Persius’ satire as a ‘knotted thong’ (translating Horace’s ‘secto … flagello’) because of its sheer ferocity. But the effort required to read Persius is well repaid: his images and his rhetoric may be rebarbative, but they are brilliant and memorable; the first Satire in particular (the most untranslatable poem in an untranslatable collection) is, at least to me, one of the most remarkable, and funniest, pieces of ancient literary criticism that there is. And critics have risen to the challenge, ranging from the earlier commentaries of Casaubon and Gildersleeve to the superb studies of Kenneth Reckford and William Anderson in this country and, more recently, of John Bramble and John Henderson in Britain. Daniel Hooley knows Persius well, and he has drawn intelligently on the scholarly tradition from the seventeenth century to the present; he has written a valuable study of Persius that, while concentrating on the issue of Persius’ relationship to his literary models (principally Horace), has a great deal to offer on Persius as a whole.

In an introduction and five chapters, H. deals with all six satires (although not in the order as transmitted); a brief conclusion deals with the choliambic prologue — although he seems strangely and unjustifiably uncertain about its proper place in the collection, and an appendix considers more broadly the tradition of imitatio. The last has excellent things to say about the ideas of Seneca, Quintilian, and Longinus on the role of imitation in poetic composition, but is less successful in discussing modern theories of either poetic doctrina or intertextuality; but that would be too much to ask for from a brief essay. The starting point of his study is the long-recognized fact that Persius, more than almost any other Roman poet, takes as his own starting point in each satire a specific literary model, generally from Horace’s Satires and Epistles, but in the case of Satire 4 the (Pseudo-)Platonic Alcibiades I. What H. explores in his book is how this relationship works: the ways in which Persius’ allusions both create an interpretation of Horace and condition one’s reading of Persius’ very different approaches to the same topics.

At times, Hooley’s approach is very successful; his discussion of Satire 1 and the Ars Poetica illuminates both Persius and Horace. But, as H. also recognizes, not all the Satires are so deeply enmeshed in poetics as the first, and it is there that the literary and meta-literary aspects of Persius’ compositional techniques most completely reinforce one another. In other poems, Persius’ use of Horace, while almost omnipresent, is less amenable to serving as the core of an interpretation, and what H. often gives us is an intelligent reading of these difficult poems, with particular emphasis on intertextuality and imitation.

The strengths and weaknesses of H.’s approach are well exemplified by his discussion of Satire 2, which has often been dismissed as a juvenile exercise based on school-declamation on the subject of prayer, and compared unfavorably with Juvenal’s great ‘Vanity of Human Wishes’ (Satire 10). H. argues that Persius’ poem is different: it concerns less the futility of prayers than the psychology of the person praying; and in this, he is surely right. He offers acute readings of particular verses, shows how Persius develops a set of portraits not so much of evil people, but of average people carried away by their desires, “an almost cinematic portrayal of the movements of mental and ethical configuration” (193). But in discussing Horatian antecedents for Satire 2, H. seems to me to go somewhat astray. After discussing (following Niall Rudd) Persius’ debt to four passages from the Satires and Epistles, he settles for Odes 3.23 (‘Caelo supinas si tuleris manus’) as the model/contrast for the psychology of prayer, and in this, he seems to me to over-read the Phidyle ode considerably. Horace instructs Phidyle to be content with her small offering, and not to regret her inability to make the large sacrifices that are made for public purposes in Rome. There is indeed an important contrast between rustic and urban, private and public; but when H. argues that the fact that the bull destined for sacrifice by the Roman pontifices is grazing Albanis in herbis is a sign of invasion of country by city and a violation of pastoral innocence, he goes wide of the mark. Where are bulls supposed to be raised — in the Forum? And what of the fact that one of the great annual Roman sacrifices, the Feriae Latinae, took place on the Alban Mount? Or that Alba itself has deep and intimate connections with Roman origins and religion? H. oversimplifies and overinterprets Horace’s language at one and the same time.

Nor are the parallels he draws between the rustic Phidyle and the old women wishing for prosperity for the infant altogether convincing. The avia aut divum metuens matertera are not “rustic naive[s]” (189), but practitioners of folk-magic warding off an evil eye; nothing like Phidyle offering a simple and pious sacrifice for her flocks and land. Parallels from Horace’s epistle to Tibullus (1.4) are germane, but the passages of Tibullus from which Horace drew in the epistle are not very cogent, and they fail to demonstrate that there is anything rustic or pastoral in Persius’ poem; the verbal echoes that H. finds are almost all the technical language of religion, scarcely to be avoided in poems about prayer and sacrifice. H.’s detailed analysis of Satire 2 provides an excellent interpretation of the poem, which does indeed raise it far above the level of school exercise; but I did not think that his Horatian parallels added a great deal to what is essentially a new-critical reading on the lines of Reckford and Anderson. There is nothing at all wrong with that; but it is not quite what H. claims to be doing.

At some points, details of H.’s interpretations are questionable, and a few of his translations (which are generally very serviceable, if not elegant, and are necessary in dealing with such a difficult poet) are wrong. In his reading of Satire 5, he places a great deal of weight on the identification of the speaker of lines 5-18 as Cornutus, as most critics have done; but in this, Witke is surely right that the identification makes very little sense, and too much of H.’s reading of the poem hangs on it: I find it hard to see the criticism of the old Stoic for which H. argues. Another dubious connection is H.’s link (83) of 5.41-42 with Catullus 50, which seems to me very unlikely. At the same time, however, much of his reading of this longest of Persius’ poems is cogent and perceptive. The most serious flaw in H.’s book, to my mind, is his style: he tends to broad generalizations (particularly on the psychology of the author or characters) that are often unclear and hard to relate to the specifics of his argument, and his writing is often overwrought and vague. The title of the book itself, unrevealing and portentous, is unfortunately too typical of H.’s manner. Persius himself is excessively telegraphic and oblique, but his use of language is sharp and precise; the lack of such precision in writing about him is unfortunate.

That being said, however, H.’s book remains valuable. He is a very good and sympathetic reader of a difficult poet, and while I did not agree with all his interpretations (and did not quite understand some of them), everything in the book is thoughtful and worth considering. H. has an impressive knowledge of the literature on Persius: it is a pleasure to find a critic who makes intelligent use of Casaubon and Dryden as well as of more recent scholarship. H.’s book serves as an excellent introduction to the pleasures and difficulties of reading Persius, whom he treats with affection as well as intelligence.

Thus Masuri rubrica (5.90) is not “the Masurian law” (95), as Masurius was a legal teacher, not a legislator (the rubric is in a commentary, not a statute). It is hard to accept H.’s assertion that publica lex (5.98) does not mean “public law”, as it manifestly does: Persius is saying that statute and natural law are in agreement. It is not at all clear that the Indo-European etymology of utor (167) has any relevance to Persius’ use of the word. At 5.105 H. rightly prints veris speciem but translates “the appearance of truth”, i.e. veri speciem; at 2.61 he translates the genitive animae as if it were nominative plural; and at 2.68 he misses the point of utitur, which is not “yet it profits from its vice” but “at least it makes some use of its vice”. One might also wonder, in a book which carefully translates all the Latin quotations, why a long and not very easy passage of Chrysippus on oikeiosis (not, as H. suggests, on natural law) is left untranslated (166 n.64) and cited from the second (Greek) rather than the first (English) volume of Long and Sedley. Although H.’s bibliography and citations are copious and generally accurate, one unfortunate footnote (157 n.50) misspells F. Buecheler’s name (also in the bibliography) and attributes an article by Franz Skutsch to his son Otto.