Petronius, Satyricon 1

“And therefore, I reckon that our young men are becoming total fools in our schools, because they neither hear nor see any of the things which we find useful, but rather pirates standing in shackles on the shore, and tyrants issuing decrees ordering that sons decapitate their fathers, and solutions to plagues which urge that three or even more virgins be burned, and those little honey-balls of words, and all things said or done as though sprinkled with poppy and sesame.”


Et ideo ego adulescentulos existimo in scholis stultissimos fieri, quia nihil ex his, quae in usu habemus, aut audiunt aut vident, sed piratas cum catenis in litore stantes, sed tyrannos edicta scribentes quibus imperent filiis ut patrum suorum capita praecidant, sed responsa in pestilentiam data, ut virgines tres aut plures immolentur, sed mellitos verborum globulos, et omnia dicta factaque quasi papavere et sesamo sparsa.


This may seem like nothing more than a rather disconnected list of preposterous subjects, but in fact these were popular subjects for exercises in the art of declamatio. It is perhaps difficult for a modern reader to appreciate the extent to which the Romans revered skillful rhetoricians. In the time of Petronius (27-66 A.D.), however, the chief aim of Roman education was to produce effective public speakers. To this end, young learners were provided with a topic (e.g. should Caesar cross the Rubicon?) on which they were expected to deliver a persuasive extempore oration. 


This passage is itself excerpted from a declamation delivered by the narrator Encolpius, which laments the decline of standards upheld by instructors of rhetoric, who assign to students trifling subjects for declamation dealing with pirates and the like. The Satyricon highlights numerous aspects of contemporary Roman excess, not the least of which was its apparently unsustainable rhetorical saturation. [For a similar sentiment, consult the first satire of Juvenal.] One tradition even holds that, after Petronius was ordered by Nero to end his own life, he held a lavish dinner party in which he opened his veins and bandaged them up; he then declaimed on various subjects, loosed his bandages, and died at the end of his discourse. 

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