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  • Reading the Sick Body: Decomposition and Morality in Persius’ Third Satire
  • Kenneth J. Reckford

Before considering bodies, let us think about voices. How shall we distinguish the speakers or personae or (as I prefer) the voices of Persius’ third satire? Back in 1913, Housman argued from first person plural verbs that Persius “makes division of himself” in Satire 3 into “the whole man,” “his higher nature,” and “his lower nature,” and thereby “holds parley with himself.” 1 Although scholars soon questioned, and largely rejected, the biographical implications of Housman’s argument, I want to argue that (with modifications) Housman’s intuition was basically right: only, that “whole man” has not yet been realized. He is, rather, the object of Persius’ passionate search; as also, if we read the satire thoughtfully and receptively, he must be of ours. 2 [End Page 337]

May we imagine Satire 3 as a dramatic monologue in different voices as Persius himself might have performed it before a small circle of friends and relations, many of them Stoics? In the first part, the inner dialogue, we may identify Housman’s three voices and give them various names, old or new. There is, first, the narrator or presenter who sets the scene for us, introducing the action. He may also be called the observer, the satirist, or the raconteur. Second, there is the reluctant student: dissipated, spoilt, and lazy, who may embody something of Persius’ own background and tendencies. And, third, there is the comes, a friend or attendant or adviser, who enters abruptly to scold the youth into taking himself and his studies more seriously, and who may later blend into the more abstract Stoic voice that preaches, especially in the satire’s second half, to an unconverted world.

It is hard to pin down these voices (which Persius will himself have distinguished in that first dramatic reading); hard, too, to ascertain the best punctuation of our present text. Even the first words, nempe haec adsidue, could be spoken in two very different ways: by the narrator as a sort of title for the satire before the fuller stage setting of lines 1b-4; or by the (as yet undistinguished) comes bursting in sarcastically, “So this is what you’ve been doing [sleeping and snoring]!” 3 The first person plural verbs in lines 1–16 are complex and fascinating with their implied or, better, implicated authorial presence. Thus, stertimus (3): “Here we are, snoring”: the spoilt student, yes, but also something of Persius, a genuine shared “we.” So, too, with the repeated querimur (12, 14): “Here we go again, [End Page 338] complaining . . .” The venimus of 16 is clearly sarcastic: “Have we come to this?” It should be introduced in quotation marks together with the following very sarcastic rebuke of the student’s babyish behavior. But it equally suggests an intense inner dialogue within Persius such as Housman envisaged. We might compare the way Plautus’ Epidicus “holds parley” with himself in his first scene (Epid. 81–103) in what Slater has called “a dramatic monologue framed as schizophrenic internal dialogue.” 4 Epidicus, by warning and scolding himself, called forth his own strongest powers as servus callidus—the id and ego, we might say, allied against the spoilsport superego, the ever-deceived father. Differently (though with no less comic energy), Persius rouses himself against moral lethargy. He must work out his salvation in fear and trembling.

Voices shift in Satire 3 and sometimes blend. The detached observer, my initial narrator, soon disappears, fading perhaps into the comes who anticipates, mimics, and scornfully refutes the student’s objections. “To the mob with your trappings! I know you from within and beneath the skin.” The “inside joke” is suggestive. Persius is the first object of his own satire: dialogue before diatribe. He is, as we shall see, symbolically and symptomatically a broken person, modeling not so much Stoic integrity as the passionate need and search for integrity, the struggle to become that “whole person” with whom we did not start. He is also the living author, a fragile human being (the words are redundant) who dissects himself in the operating theater of his satire—which brings me to our...

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