Buying Erudition

Seneca, Moral Epistle 27.5-8

“In our memory there was a rich guy named Calvisius Sabinus. He had the wealth and brains of a freedman. I never saw a more indecently lucky guy. His memory was so bad that he forget the name Odysseus, or Achilles or Priam, those names we know as well as our elementary school teachers. No aged concierge who can’t remember names assigns them as randomly as Sabinus would make up the names for Trojan and Achaeans.

Yet he used to wish to appear educated, so he came up with this strategy. He paid a high price for enslaved men, one who knew Homer and another who knew Hesiod, and he assigned nine individual slaves to each of the lyric poets. Don’t be surprised at how much he spent on this. If he didn’t find people, he made sure to have them made.

Once he completed this collection, he used to terrorize his dinner guest. He would keep them at his feet to ask for verses to repeat and he would often forget them in the middle of a line. Satellius Quadratus, a parasite of stupid millionaires and, what follows, a flatterer too (since this quality is a partner of the others) suggested that he should get some professors to clean up the fragments too. When Sabinus admitted that he had spent 100,000 sesterces on each enslaved person, Satellius said, “You could have bought a whole library.” But Sabinius was of the opinion that he knew whatever a member of his household did.”

Calvisius Sabinus memoria nostra fuit dives. Et patrimonium habebat libertini et ingenium; numquam vidi hominem beatum indecentius. Huic memoria tam mala erat, ut illi nomen modo Vlixis excideret, modo Achillis, modo Priami, quos tam bene2 quam paedagogos nostros novimus. Nemo vetulus nomenclator, qui nomina non reddit, sed inponit, tam perperam tribus quam ille Troianos et Achivos persalutabat. Nihilominus eruditus volebat videri. Hanc itaque conpendiariam excogitavit: magna summa emit servos, unum, qui Homerum teneret, alterum, qui Hesiodum; novem praeterea lyricis singulos adsignavit. Magno emisse illum non est quod mireris; non invenerat, faciendos locavit. Postquam haec familia illi conparata est, coepit convivas suos inquietare. Habebat ad pedes hos, a quibus subinde cum peteret versus, quos referret,  saepe in medio verbo excidebat.

Suasit illi Satellius Quadratus, stultorum divitum adrosor, et quod sequitur, adrisor, et quod duobus his adiunctum est, derisor, ut grammaticos haberet analectas. Cum dixisset Sabinus centenis milibus sibi constare singulos servos; “Minoris,” inquit, “totidem scrinia emisses.” Ille tamen in ea opinione erat, ut putaret se scire, quod quisquam in domo sua sciret.

Moral Epistle 27.1

“Listen to me as if I were talking to myself.”

Sic itaque me audi, tamquam mecum loquar.

Drawing of a man with a beard and long hair, a handband around his head

Bust-length Study of the Blind Homer, drawing, Paul Buffet (MET, 2013.1122)

Leave a Reply