In high school my sister and I took a community college English class together. As somewhat sheltered homeschoolers this was the big time. We were surrounded by worldly and knowledgable people; we held our own and tried to convince ourselves we weren’t socially awkward.
One of the short stories we had to read and discuss was “The Rocking Horse Winner” (1926) by D.H. Lawrence. The basic plot is this: a family is struggling financially, the mother insists it’s because they are unlucky, she has thrown away her life on a worthless man and now she’s trapped in a house that whispers “More money! There must be more money!” Her son attempts to rectify the situation by betting on horse races. Luckily he has a little trick up his sleeve that involves riding his rocking-horse into a moment of ecstasy when the name of the next winner is revealed. This works! He starts surreptitiously giving his mother his winnings, but her response is to become even more avaricious. Her hunger for more drives him into a frenzy of rocking-horse riding…that eventually leads to him once again picking a winner and simultaneously dying of brain fever. So in a nutshell, this is a didactic lesson on the danger of chasing after wealth that is forever just outside your grasp.
I was young and innocent. In class when lewd suggestions were made about Paul’s rocking-horse business, I stood up and eloquently defended him. There was nothing untoward about rocking yourself into a trance. Totally normal behavior. Here’s a quote:
“When he had ridden to the end of his mad little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his rocking horse, starring fixedly into its lowered face. Its red mouth was slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy bright.”
(Side note: D.H. Lawrence isn’t really known for chaste and innocent writing. The Rainbow (1915) was censured after an obscenity trial and over one thousand copies were seized and destroyed…)
I refused to read anything sexual between the lines. I think my professor probably thought I was adorably naive. His response to my tirade was something along the lines of “…huh..” Still, there’s a difference between being naive and innocent, and willfully obtuse. And this is the accusation Persius makes against the Roman aristocracy.
Like Paul, riding his rocking-horse into a state of “frenzy”, Persius argues that Nero has rode the aristocracy into a paroxysm of debauchery and moral debasement. The aristocracy aren’t innocent bystanders, they are complicit. And after each “riding” they emphatically beg for more.
First, a little context. It’s 59 AD, and Nero has finally become a man. He’s been the caesar for the last five years, but there’s been rumors that he’s been entirely controlled by his mother, Agrippina, and the rumors aren’t hard to believe. (One of his first acts, after deifying his uncle Claudius, whom he was rumored to have poisoned with mushrooms, was to elect his mother “The Best of Mothers” and leave all “public and private affairs to her capable hands.”1) But it’s November and his Mother has been dead since March, when he had her murdered, and now it’s time to celebrate the trimming of his first beard hair. The celebration commences with a bit of poetry as Nero takes his place among the gods. The most distinguished of citizens were “offered” compulsory participation in his Juvenilia and those that weren’t debasing themselves on the stage were fighting each other in the stands for the bits and bobbles being thrown at them. To get on his bad side all one needed to do was applaud slightly less emphatically than everyone else.
Suetonius says that at first Nero practiced his vices with reserve. He was seventeen when appointed caesar, and more interested in singing and preening than affairs of state. But now, five years later, he has come into his own. Convinced like many of his predecessors that he is a god, Apollo himself, his compulsory hero worship takes a turn for the worse.
“His vices gaining strength by degrees, he laid aside his jocular amusements and all disguise; breaking into enormous crimes, without the least attempt to conceal them.” 2
“Besides the abuse of free-born lads, and the debauch of married women, he committed a rape upon Rubria, a Vestal Virgin. He was upon the point of marrying Acte, his freedwomen, having suborned some men of consular rank to swear that she was of royal descent. He gelded the boy Sporus, and endeavored to transform him into a woman. He even went so far as to marry him, with all the usual formalities of a marriage settlement, the rose-colored nuptial veil, and numerous company at the wedding. When the ceremony was over, he had him conducted like a bride to his own house and treated him as his wife. It was jocularly observed by some person, ‘that it would have been well for mankind, had such a wife fallen to the lot of his father Domitius.’ This Sporus, he carried about with him in a litter round the column assemblies and fairs of Greece, and afterwards at Rome through the Sigillaria, dressed in the rich attire of an empress; kissing him from time to time as they rode together…” 3
I’m leaving so much out…but the point has been made. He has insulted the gods by raping a vestal virgin, he has insulted societal decorum by his attempt to marry a freedwoman and he has insulted nature with his marriage to Sporus. His absolute power has quickly led to absolute corruption. And yet the people do nothing! They cheer for the newlyweds, they attend his poetry recitations and applaud, (granted there are five thousand “Augustan” soldiers making sure the crowd appropriately responds…but still.) (According to Dio the citizens were supposed to follow the lead of the soldiers/cheerleaders and proclaim: “Hurrah for Caesar! He’s Apollo! Augustus! A match for the Pythian himself! We swear by your own self, O Caesar, no one defeats you!”) 4
And this is where Persius comes in. In his prologue he immediately gets to the point:
That’s not how I suddenly became a poet,
By wetting my lips in the Hippocrene,
Or dreaming on the twin peaks of Parnassus
I leave the Muses, and Pirene’s pale
Spring, to those with busts to which
A crown of ivy clings; a semi-pagan
I bring my song to the bards’ holy rites.
What teaches the parrot to squawk: “Hello!”
And urges the magpie to try human speech?
Hunger, that master of arts, and dispenser of skills,
For if there’s the gleam of a hope of crafty gain,
You’ll hear crow-poets and magpie-poetesses
Singing in praise of Pegasian nectar.
[Persius, Prologue to the Satires. Translated by A.S. Kline, 2011]
Unlike Hesiod, who tends his sheep and then is visited by the Muses; a mortal, handpicked by the gods to reveal the creation of the world, Persius is driven by a different muse, hunger. Not physical hunger, but moral emaciation. Helikon (the mountain of Hesiod’s Muses) has been replaced by the twin peaks of Parnassus, sacred to Apollo and Dionysus - the gods of poetic inspiration. Only, Nero has elbowed Apollo out of the way, so in Persius’ retelling it is Nero in the mist and haze waiting to reveal his cosmogenic reality, but Persius walks the other way. The crown of ivy no longer represents victory and honor, but moral turpitude. The aristocracy has lost respectability, toadying to a monster for the chance to live another day in a modicum of pleasure. In this world, the only way to survive is to become semi-pagan. All worship has become corrupted, the gods have become a laughing stock, and either they exist and don’t care (allowing their vestal virgins to be raped with impunity without lightning striking from heaven) or they have left long ago.
Here stands Persius, a lonely poet, hemmed in on every side with vice and corruption. Juvenal summarizes the zeitgeist under Domitian in a similar way, arguing that when morality has been tossed in the bin and “Flabby impotence takes him a wife…etc” (J.S.1.19-50) -to not write satire is what comes hard. He has been driven to write by the incomprehensible wickedness that permeates everything. Like Juvenal and Horace and the rest of the Roman satirists, Persius is compelled to write, it is his civic duty.
-O troubled humanity! O the emptiness of life!
-Who wants to read about that?
-Are you asking me? No one, by Hercules!
-No one or two.
-That’s wretched pathetic.
-Why? Because the noble ‘Trojans’ and their women
Happen to prefer Attius Labeo’s Iliad to my verse?
Nonsense. If turbid Rome weighs something lightly
Don’t go looking for fault in the scales, don’t look
He begins with his accusation: Rome is too busy hellenizing itself to realize there’s a moral famine. They have become obsessed with all things Trojan, not the Homeric version, but rather the hack-poet version of Labeo who has translated the Iliad into Latin and spoon fed it to the masses.
A great example of this is Petronius’ Satyricon. Everyone is constantly referencing the Iliad, but out of context and incorrectly. Everything is a farce. It’s a psychedelic world of crazy, where name dropping Homer moves you one seat closer to the place of honor at a dinner that is more like a musical comedy.
Kirk Freudenburg says this about Persius: “He alerts us to the problem in the opening lines of his first hexameter poem. Labeo’s tight Latin translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, he tells us, are all the rage, a quick and easy Homeric fix for upwardly mobile Romans who have fallen behind in their Greek; all those “Polydamases” and “Trojan Women” who cannot manage their Homer in the original.” 5
Why is this significant? Because saturated in the cult of Troy they have forgotten themselves. The scales are broken. The Delphic oracle is suppressed, there is no desire to “know thyself”…the only desire is to stroke along with the current of popular trends. To survive.
But Persius argues that this is not survival. They have lost their moral compass, that have lost the ability for thoughtful criticism that comes only with painstaking work. They have taken the easy road and it has led to moral prostitution.
Neatly, in a white toga, wearing your birthday ring
Of sardonyx, you’ll read to the audience from your
Tall seat, while you gargle with water to rinse your
Fickle throat, your expressive [ejaculating] eyes moved to tears
Then you’ll watch as grown men tremble, their sober
Manner and tranquil voices gone, as your poetry stirs
Their loins, your rhythmic verse works away inside.
So, old man, you compose tit-bits, for other’s ears
To make even your decrepit skin and bones cry “Stop!”
Freudenburg has an amazing take on all of this: “But what, from one angle, looks like an exciting new world of governance and good taste, with emperor and aristocrats performing “in concert” to the rhythms of Nero’s pounding new beat, from another angle, Persius’ angle, looks like nothing more than a cheap pornographic sideshow featuring Nero’s outsized dick performing spectacular feats of multiple-penetration on Rome’s eager and amazingly orgasmic aristocracy. It is a jarring spectacle, hard to look at.” 6
Yikes? (I’ve come a long way since the “Rocking-Horse Winner…)
The rest of Satire 1 deals with the problem of what to do in a world where criticism is dead and everyone is too afraid to tell the truth.
Then say ‘I love the truth, tell me the truth about myself.
How can I? Do you want me to say you’re talking rubbish,
Baldy, you with your fat belly sticking out a foot and a half?
The safer course is to only speak truth behind the back of your patron and those in power. (Patronage destroys the ability to speak truth objectively.) Juvenal comes up with another option: only lampoon those who have been dead for a long time, but even this plan is not failsafe. His criticisms of the dead seem a bit too contemporary and he is exiled by Domitian until Nerva becomes emperor.
Truth telling always comes with a risk. The very thing that drove Persius to begin his project, hunger, ironically will be the thing that keeps the populace trapped. The risk of becoming hungry is too much to bear. So they continue to flatter, they deify Nero and tell him he’s the best they’ve ever had. There’s too much risk in alienating a matricidal tyrant, alienation means no invitation to dinner.
While it’s tempting to read Petronius as a veiled critique of all things Neronian…Freudenburg and others argue that is too simplistic. There’s another person, standing off in the shadows of hypocrisy.
In “The Apocolocyntosis” Seneca writes a bit of eulogy propaganda. After being banished by Claudius, Agrippina had called him back to be her son’s tutor. Now Claudius is dead and although Nero has deified him Seneca writes a short story that throws him into hell as the perpetual secretary of Caligula. Poetic justice is served.
Or is it? One of the fathers of stoicism has tutored the world’s most un-stoic tyrant. Seneca teaches everything in moderation; Nero’s life is a study in excess. Nero has showed himself an unruly pupil, but what Seneca has become is worse. Remember the Juvenilia? Taking his place beside Nero on stage stood Seneca and Burrus. Dio writes: “like teachers, prompting him (Nero); they would wave their arms and togas at every utterance of his and lead others to do the same.” 7
Seneca has lost his credibility and it won’t be long before he takes his place in the long list of compulsive suicides. In the end the question becomes: what drives a person to debase themselves? What whispers haunt them, driving them on until they become unrecognizable? Is it the whispering voice of “More money! There must be more money!” Or during the mercurial reign of tyrants is it “More life! Anything for one more day!” When the poets and philosophers have become little more than “crow-poets and magpie-poetesses” pecking at shiny objects there is no one left to speak truth.
2. Suetonius, V.XXVII
3. Suetonius V.XXVIII
4. Dio 62.20.5
5. Freudenburg, Kirk. Satires of Rome: Threatening poses from Lucilius to Juvenal. Cambridge University Press, 2001
7. Dio 62.20.20
The Satires of Persius
Politics and Invective in Persius and Juvenal
Nero: The End of a Dynasty
The Rocking Horse Winner