Reading Lucilian Satire in the Age of Twitter

Dealing with the fragmentary nature of the evidence for the ancient world is frustrating to say the least. Take for example the so-called inventor of satire Gaius Lucilius. Out of the thirty books of his satires we have a mere few hundred lines.

Most of these books are filled with seemingly random one-liners such as “et mercedimerae legiones,” which means “and wage-earning legions.” After reading several lines that were similar to this one, I struggled to appreciate Lucilius’ art. And even after digesting massive amounts of secondary scholarship on the satirist I found myself lost. I wrestled to figure out what was it that made reading Lucilius so frustrating. The answer was so obvious. He is in fragments. Perhaps if I understood the context of “ut iure peritus (like one skilled in law),” it would not have given me such a headache. And while not all of Lucilius’ satires are this obscure a large chunk of them are.

The frustration and puzzlement I felt reminded me of how I feel when I read a politician’s twitter. Like Lucilius, tweets can often be confusing. For example, on February 10th, 2013 Sean Spicer tweeted “whomever just unfollowed me- show yourself you coward.” I remember my high school teacher at the time sharing this in class and having more questions than I did answers. Besides the fact that I did not know who Sean Spicer was at the time. I was confused by the nature of the tweet itself.

Sean had over 400,000 followers on twitter and he could have been unfollowed by anyone of them. Apparently, Sean was not being sarcastic at the time and was legitimately upset by losing a follower. Similarly, Lucillius could have been referring to any number of wage-earning legions. Even scholars with an impressively dense breadth of knowledge on the context in which Lucilius wrote have scrambled trying to understand lines like this. In fact, it is unlikely that we will ever know Lucilius’ merry band of money-hungry legions. And poor Sean will probably never know who unfollowed him.

In Book 14 of his satires Lucilius writes that, “nemo est halicarius posterior te,” which means “No wheat-grinder is second to you.” There are a few things that frustrate the reader here. One, who is the worst miller of all time that Lucilius is referring to here? Two, it appears as though Lucilius disagrees with the common spelling of alicarius, which scholars debated over. However, the correct spelling is alicarius. So, was Lucilius just trying to be funny? Did he not know any better? The sad truth is, we will never know.

On May 31st, 2017 Donald J. Trump tweeted “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” He later claimed that this was an intentional mistake, but the truth was that he fell asleep while tweeting. It is obvious that he meant to say conference not covfefe. However, regardless of the spelling error there is still a problem with this tweet that puzzles the reader. Let us imagine that Trump had tweeted out “Despite the constant negative press conference.” There is still a lack of context that leaves the reader guessing. What happened as a result? Was he successful in some business deal? Did his approval rating go up? Did he pass a new bill? The questions that come to one’s mind are endless.

Another issue is the matter of invective. Twitter seems to be a great place for such things these days. If you scroll through Twitter at any time during the day, there is guaranteed to be some post where someone is putting someone else on blast. This is not unlike Roman satire. Lucilius for example makes a satire out of a legal despute between a certain Albicius and a man named Scaevola. In fact, this seems to be the longest fragment of Lucilius that we have recovered thus far. It reads (Lucilius 87-93). :

Graecum te, Albuci, quam Romanum atque Sabinum, municipem Ponti, Tritani,
centurionum, praeclarorum hominum ac primorum signiferumque, maluisti dici. Graece
ergo praetor Athenis, id quod maluisti, te, cum ad me accedis, saluto: ‘chaere’, inquam,
‘Tite’. lictores, turma omnis chorusque [cohorsque Manutius]: ‘chaere, Tite’. hinc hostis
mi Albucius, hinc inimicus (Lucilius 87-93).

Albucius, you wanted to be called a Greek instead of a Roman and a Sabine, a citizen of
Pontius and Tritanus, of centurions, of illustrious and first men and of standard-bearers.
Therefore, I as a praetor salute you at Athens in Greek, when you get to me, as you
wanted “Hey, Titus,” I said. The lictors, all of the squadron and the chorus, said “Hey
Titus.” (My translation).

While reading Lucilius is frustrating, because there is so much missing, it is also addicting. I kept reading line after line for the slim chance that I would better understand the poet and his satires. On the other hand, understanding tweets like the ones I mentioned above do not require nearly as much effort. One can simply google “why did Trump say the following?” or “why did Sean Spicer freak out on Twitter?” Even if at first these tweets leave the reader confused, they can quickly find an adequate answer. Unfortunately, Lucilius and many other authors that are left in fragments will most likely remain mysterious.

If someone were to google “why did Lucilius say the following?” or “why did Lucilius insult this miller?” There would probably be tons of suggested reading that would pop up which ask similar questions. Studying the ancient world can be frustrating. Especially when dealing with authors like Lucilius who are severely fragmented. If we want to know about what is going on in today’s world, we simply have to open a browser and ask away. Though, that in itself is a tricky process.


Javal A. Coleman was born and raised in Fort Worth Texas. After receiving his Bachelors in History with a minor in Latin and Classical Studies at the University of North Texas, he married his wife who he met at UNT and  moved to Austin to pursue a Phd in Classics at the University of Texas. Javal is primarily interested in the history of enslavement and more generally disenfranchised people and how law and gender contributed to their lived experience. In his free time he loves to read, play video games, and spend time with his wife and their beautiful daughter.