Lucilius (2677 words)

Lucilius is regarded as the first Roman verse satirist and the model for Horace, Persius, and Juvenal. A major figure in Latin literary history, he composed thirty books of satiric poems; these were widely read in antiquity, but subsequently survived only in the form of quotations (fragments) amounting to about 1300 lines. Lucilius is notable for his irreverent social and political criticism, fluent poetic style, and distinctive authorial voice.

Lucilius came from Suessa Aurunca (Juvenal Satire 1.20), a town in southwest Italy where his family probably owned land. Jerome gives his birth date as 148 BC (Chronicle pp. 143e and 148e Helm). Because Lucilius is also reported to have served in a military campaign in 134, most modern scholars conclude that Jerome misunderstood his sources, and propose alternative dates starting as early as 180 (BC). The date that Jerome gives for the poet's death, 102 (BC), is more reliable. Lucilius most likely had a residence in Rome, and scholars have inferred from certain fragments that he also owned estates in Italy in Sicily. According to Jerome, he died in Naples and was honored with a public funeral.

The wealthy and well-connected Lucilian clan included senators and an ancestor of Pompey the Great. The poet himself may not have acquired Roman citizenship, since he lived before this privilege was extended to all the towns of Italy, but he did hold equestrian rank during his military service (Velleius Paterculus Histories 2.9.4). His education was clearly substantial and included study of Greek, as attested by several literary allusions and Greek terms in the fragments. In a period when most authors were professionals writing for patrons or theatrical companies, Lucilius enjoyed financial security and wrote by choice. He eschewed the political career that beckoned other men of his economic status, constructing instead a literary persona and career in his text. In this regard, his work was a significant model for later Roman poets of lyric and love elegies, who thematized their rejection of a public career in favor of poetry-writing.

Virtually the only significant fact that we do know about the poet's personal life is his close association with the statesman P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (“Scipio the Younger”), one of the most important military, political, and cultural figures of the Roman republic. Scipio's achievements included the final destruction of Carthage in 146 (BC), a term as censor (the highest Roman magistracy), and the subjugation of Numantia in Spain (where Lucilius also served). But Scipio is just as famous for his literary interests – he is reported to have wept and quoted Homer while Carthage burned (Polybius Histories 39.5) – and for keeping company with writers and philosophers from Rome and abroad. The important authors and intellectuals with whom the statesman associated and traveled during his long career – the so-called “Scipionic circle” – included the historian Polybius, the playwright Terence, and the Stoic philosopher Panaetius. Some of these were unequal and pragmatic patronage relationships, but the financially independent Lucilius is said to have enjoyed a unique intimacy with Scipio and his colleagues. Horace later idealized the friendship as one that played out comfortably “far from the crowd and the public stage” and was never threatened by the poet's political lampoons (Satire 2.1.65-74). An ancient commentator on this Horatian passage reports that a colleague of Scipio's once encountered Lucilius chasing his friend around the dining room with a rolled-up napkin. Even if apocryphal, the anecdote reflects the reputations of humanist politician and mischievous satirist alike.

The edition of Lucilius' work that circulated in the first century (BC) was probably produced by the critic and grammarian P. Valerius Cato (Horace Satire 1.10.1a-3a). This edition assigned to the thirty books numbers that reflected not their order of composition, but the meters used in them. Lucilius himself published his work piecemeal, with Books 1-21 appearing last (Varro On the Latin language 5.3). Some of the sources for the fragments supply the original context or book number, but the original location of many of them – many as short as a word or two – is still disputed. Even the original title of the collection is not positively known. Later authors call it Saturae [medleys], and in one fragment Lucilius uses a term that Horace later applied to his own poems, sermones [conversations; fr. 1085-86, ed. E. H. Warmington (Cambridge, MA, 1938)]. Both names convey the variety and informality that became synonymous with Lucilius' work.

The loss of Lucilius' texts is a significant one, although this is a common fate for the earlier Latin authors. The satirist's work was certainly esteemed by Roman readers for centuries. Cicero calls him “learned and extremely cultivated” (On the orator 2.25), and nearly two hundred years after his death Lucilius remained not just the favorite satirist, but the favorite poet, of many readers (Quintilian Education of the orator 10.1.93). The fragments have been culled from speeches, treatises, and other scholarly works spanning half a millennium. Some come from commentaries on Horace's Satires, where allusions to Lucilius are identified. The vast majority, however, appear as examples in studies of grammar, etymology, and meter, and a particularly rich selection survives in the encyclopedia of Nonius (c. 300). This means that most were preserved because they featured unusual vocabulary (including some loan words) or usage. For this reason, modern readers may be getting a skewed sample of Lucilius' style, but can at least appreciate his linguistic exuberance.

Lucilius is credited with establishing the formal conventions of the Roman satiric genre. Horace tells us (Satire 1.10.54) that Lucilius was a reader and critic of Ennius, who related trivial experiences in a book called Saturae (c. 200 BC; now almost entirely lost). That work certainly anticipated later satire, but Ennius worked in several different genres and is better known as the author of an enormous historical epic on Rome than as a satirist; it is Lucilius, the “career satirist”, who became known as the genre's father figure. His ultimate choice of meter was particularly important. In his early books, Lucilius employed a variety of meters, including some used in dramatic and erotic verse, but he shifted entirely to the dactylic hexameter in Books 30 and 1-21. In adopting the meter of heroic epic, Lucilius made a jarring connection between his “conversations” and the grandest poetic genre of classical antiquity. It became a meaningful paradox of satire that its mocking perspective on human endeavors was combined with the meter traditionally used to celebrate great battles, heroic exploits, and national identity.

Verse satire borrows from a range of Greek and Roman genres, including dramatic comedy, didactic poetry, and philosophical diatribe. But Lucilius had no single formal model, and so earned the title of “inventor” from Horace (Satire 1.10.48; cf. 2.1.63). Quintilian adds – perhaps in a nod to Horace – that satire is unique in being an “entirely Roman” product (Education of the orator 10.1.93). The label certainly fits the subject matter of satire, which engages with the whole gamut of issues connected to the growth of the Roman empire (a significant phase of which occurred in Lucilius' lifetime). The fragments of Lucilius name some of the most prominent figures of the late second century, and allude to political and social policies that dominated public debate. Many must come from lost dialogues and narratives that took place in the standard Roman social settings: dinner parties that brought together patrons and clients, the city streets and markets, and private and academic gatherings.

Lucilius' subjects range from the mundane to the politically momentous. Various groups of fragments catalogue luxury wares and elaborate banquets (337-40, 465-71, 595-604) and describe domestic life and sex (306-307, 324-335, 359-61, 1178-83). These everyday subjects are typical of comic discourse, but they were also ideologically loaded in the capital of a growing empire. The growing taste for luxury goods appalled traditionalists who feared the effects of conquest on Roman morality, and laws curbing extravagance were periodically enacted. Household management, especially among the elite, was invested with moral significance. The nobility were given legal incentives to marry and procreate. Some Lucilian fragments seem to refer derisively to this climate (599-600, 1239-41), as if the poet recognized and exploited his society's ambivalence. Cultural conservatives likewise objected to the popularity of Greek customs and intellectual culture among some members of the Roman nobility. One fragment mocks a Roman politician for peppering his speech with Greek expressions (87-93), but Lucilius also uses Greek and even quotes Homer (491-92). Several poems evidently dealt with language and literary topics (368-400, 410-15, 720-34). Others recounted trials, senate debates, and other political dealings. The political topics mentioned include foreign policy (1018), electioneering (1194-95), and grain distribution (350-51).

In his satire, Lucilius may be mimicking the censors – including his statesman friend – who scrutinized the behavior of prominent citizens. He does not seem to favor or spare any faction or level of society, but his connection with Scipio has influenced some interpretations of his work. The late second century saw a sharp increase in factional conflict between the senatorial and popular parties, and as a strong figure in the former group, Scipio had his share of adversaries. Some modern scholars have contended that Lucilius must have written satire that favored Scipio. Horace does write that Lucilius praised Scipio's “justice and courage” (Satire 2.1.16-17), and in the republic it was common practice for military and political leaders to commission works celebrating their exploits. Lucilius occupies unique generic and financial categories, however, and although he refers to quite a few of Scipio's actions, friends, and rivals, it is difficult to read his tone or meaning in the fragments. In most cases, we do not know the identity of the speaker or the original rhetorical context.

The fragments of Books 1 and 2 offer the most coherent picture of Lucilian political satire. In the first book (1-52), the senator and convicted extortionist L. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus stands trial before the gods after his death in 123 (BC). The second (53-93) narrates the earthly trial of Q. Mucius Scaevola, a former governor of Asia who was prosecuted for extortion in 119 (BC). Both sets of fragments exhibit a range of styles from grand oratory on the subject of moral decline, to colorful, irreverent descriptions of the players and crimes.

Two of the longest fragments deal with more generic ethical topics. They also exemplify the problems that scholars face when trying to interpret Lucilius' fragments – and indeed many works of ancient satire – in any depth. Both passages are supplied by the Christian author Lactantius, the first as a succinct description of the “dark way of life” (Divine Institutions 5.9.20):

But, as it is, from morning till night, on holiday and workday,
the whole commons and the senators too, all alike
go bustling about in the Forum and nowhere leave it;
all give themselves over to one and the same interest and artifices –
namely to be able to swindle with impunity, to fight cunningly,
to strive, using soft words as weapons, to act the “fine fellow”,
to lie in wait, as though all of them were enemies of all men.
(1145-51; tr. Warmington)

Here the moralistic element is lightened by caricature; the passage anticipates some of the poems of Horace and Juvenal that condemn self-seeking social climbing, and is easily recognized as satire. Lactantius goes on to report (Divine Institutions 6.5.2) that Lucilius also assembled a collective definition of virtue, which ends with these lines:

Virtue is knowing the limit and the end of seeking a thing,
virtue is being able to pay in full the price from our store;
virtue is giving that which in all truth is due to honor,
being an enemy and no friend of bad men and manners,
and on the other hand being a defender of good men and manners;
prizing greatly the latter, wishing them well and being a life-long friend to them;
and besides all this, thinking our country's interests to be foremost of all,
our parents' next, and then thirdly and lastly our own.
(1201-1208; tr. Warmington)

This passage is a “positive” counterpart of the first and, separated from its original context, it is less obviously satiric. The Latin texts of both fragments feature repetition, alliteration, and internal rhyming, but while these elements give the first fragment an amusingly brisk pace, in the second – no doubt because of its content – they feel more ponderous. In this case, the meaning seems to hang more on the lost original context and the identity of the speaker. These words might be a fervent Stoic defense of true virtue, inviting either approval or mockery, or a more nuanced, parodic definition of virtue as it was appropriated by the upper echelon of Roman society – the wealthy patrons and climbers of the cursus honorum. To choose one of these interpretations, however, might well mean to impose on the text a particular moral agenda that is not there.

Opaque as they are, the more moralistic fragments convey the author's talent for – and certainly his pleasure in – describing corruption and vice. Lucilius' successors immortalized his scathing outspokenness in colorful descriptions. Horace depicts him as the heir of Aristophanes and the other Greek comic playwrights (Satire 1.4.1-7), at once complicating the idea of satire's “Romanness” and aligning it with a venerable tradition of public mockery. Horace also writes that Lucilius “scoured Rome with salt” and stripped the shiny facades off of hypocrites (Satire 1.10.3-4, 2.1.64-65). In a similar vein, Persius imagines Lucilius “biting into Rome” and cracking his teeth on his prominent victims (Satire 1.114-15), while Juvenal represents his satire as a metaphorical sword – one that he only had to unsheathe to make the guilty sweat (Satire 1.165-67). It is also Juvenal who depicts Lucilius driving a chariot through the “field” of satire (Satire 1.19-20), perhaps alluding to the poet's social status or to the martial associations of the hexameter.

These later poets, who wrote in very different political circumstances, idealized the republican climate as friendly to satire. Although in Lucilius' time political and personal lampoons occasionally prompted legislative action or individual prosecutions, mockery was entrenched in political and forensic discourse. There is no evidence that Lucilius ever suffered consequences for writing poetry full of criticism and prominent names (although in an ironic reflection of the general climate, he did sue a dramatist who mocked him [Cicero] (Rhetoric for Herennius 2.19). Nevertheless, in making claims about Lucilius' freedom, the later satirists are probably aiming to valorize their own work as much as to document political changes.

The same poets alternately commended, imitated, and criticized Lucilius' poetry. According to an ancient commentator, the first line of Persius' first Satire is a quotation from Lucilius (“o the cares of human beings! o how much emptiness there is in things!” [fr. 2]). Horace wrote a satiric account of a journey (Satire 1.5) that is reportedly an homage to Lucilius' own “journey to Sicily” in Book 3. He also describes Lucilius' satire as a sort of personal diary that shares the ups and downs of the poet's life with readers (Satire 2.1.30-34). This charming idea carries with it a subtle criticism of Lucilius' undisciplined style. Indeed, Horace is largely responsible for the enduring image of Lucilius as prolix and “muddy”, an author who aimed for quantity over quality of verses and should have been born in a later, more polish-conscious age (Satire 1.4.9-13, 1.10.67-71).

However vulnerable to criticism it made him, Lucilius seems to have intended for his readers to inspect him closely; even in fragments, his work offers one of the most colorful authorial self-portraits in Latin literature. The poet adopts a playful and assertive persona, zestfully recounts personal and even embarrassing experiences, states that he would not become “a tax-collector [...] instead of Lucilius” for any price (650-51), and names the men whom he does and does not want as readers (632-34). Most important for his successors in satire, Lucilius probably began the tradition of a programmatic apologia, or a debate about the merits and dangers of his genre. Fragments 1061-92 present unsavory images of satire as slanderous, malicious, and savage (“Gaius, you lash us with your fault-finding” [1075, tr. Warmington]), matched by a spirited defense of its social value. The inventor of satire did not just promote the genre, but initiated the critical discussion that became an integral part of the tradition.

Keane, Catherine. "Lucilius". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 06 October 2006
[, accessed 28 June 2017.]

Articles on Lucilius' works

  1. Saturae [Medleys]

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