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. 

The Taste of Nero, The Brutality of Commodus

“The influence of a polite age, and the labor of an attentive education, had never been able to infuse into his rude and brutish mind the least tincture of learning; and he was the first of the Roman emperors totally devoid of taste for the pleasures of the understanding. Nero himself excelled, or affected to excel, in the elegant arts of music and poetry: nor should we despise his pursuits, had he not converted the pleasing relaxation of a leisure hour into the serious business and ambition of his life. But Commodus, from his earliest infancy, discovered an aversion to whatever was rational or liberal, and a fond attachment to the amusements of the populace; the sports of the circus and amphitheatre, the combats of gladiators, and the hunting of wild beasts. The masters in every branch of learning, whom Marcus provided for his son, were heard with inattention and disgust; whilst the Moors and Parthians, who taught him to dart the javelin and to shoot with the bow, found a disciple who delighted in his application, and soon equalled the most skilful of his instructors in the steadiness of the eye and the dexterity of the hand.”

-Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, Chp. IV, pt. 2

Lucan, The Civil War, 1.1-6: Beginnings, Eloquence and, eventually, Cicero

“War something more than civil over Emathian plains,
Legitimacy conferred on crime, and a powerful people,
We sing, a people who turned right hands against their own stomachs;
Battlelines of relatives, even when the pledge of tyranny was broken,
The forces of a shocked world marched toward common sin.
Standards waved to face enemy standards,
Eagles eyed each other and each javelin took aim at its mate.
What insanity is this, my countrymen, why so great a lust for violence?”

Bella per Emathios plus quam ciuilia campos
iusque datum sceleri canimus, populumque potentem
in sua uictrici conuersum uiscera dextra
cognatasque acies, et rupto foedere regni
certatum totis concussi uiribus orbis 5
in commune nefas, infestisque obuia signis
signa, pares aquilas et pila minantia pilis.
quis furor, o ciues, quae tanta licentia ferri?

Lucan, during the madness of the reign of Nero, wrote a sometimes incomprehensible and often untranslatable poem about the wars between Caesar and Pompey. Our friend Cicero shows up briefly in book 7 (61ff). The narrative description is less than flattering:

“The great model of eloquence, Cicero–
under whose rule and dress Cataline quavered–
brought forth the angry voices of the Roman people.
He was enraged by the wars and how soldiers had kept him
in a lengthy silence from the speaker’s platform and forum.
His florid strength supported a rotten cause.”

cunctorum uoces Romani maximus auctor
Tullius eloquii, cuius sub iure togaque
pacificas saeuos tremuit Catilina securis,
pertulit iratus bellis, cum rostra forumque 65
optaret passus tam longa silentia miles.
addidit inualidae robur facundia causae.

Cicero goes on to support Pompey….

Lucan, Pharsalia 3.364-6

“Just as a great fire dissipates when nothing stands in its way, thus the absence of an enemy harms me, and I consider my army wasted if those who can be conquered refuse to fight back.”

Utque perit magnus nullis obstantibus ignis,
sic hostes mihi deesse nocet, damnumque putamus
armorum, nisi qui vinci potuere rebellant.

This is yet another completely exaggerated speech which Lucan places into the mouth of Caesar. Throughout the poem, he portrays Caesar as a vain warlord with an unquenchable thirst for destruction and subjugation. Caesar was, indeed, a powerful military adventurer, and was known to have something of what the modern psychologist would term a “Type-A” personality, yet we can still be forgiven for feeling that Lucan’s portrait of an indomitable and irresponsibly violent Caesar stretches the limits of credulity.