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Before the Ars Poetica: Poema and Poesis in Lucilius and Varro

Marcie Persyn

University of Pennsylvania

Though very little survives of the Hellenistic grammarian Neoptolemus of Parium (a mere twenty fragments, collected in Mette 1980), his influence upon subsequent literature has received substantial scholarly attention, due almost entirely to his apparent influence upon the Ars Poetica of Horace (see Brink 1963, Laird 2007, or, adversely, Wigodsky 2009). The primary link between the Ars Poetica and this Hellenistic theorist stems from Horace’s exploration of the triune terms poema, poesis, and poeta; Horace’s poem offers a remarkable integration of Greek compositional theory within Latin compositional practice, and his exploration of the Hellenistic theory is all the more marked because of the rarity of Greek terms within Horace’s corpus (see Dufallo 2005).

Yet Horace is not the first Roman author to refer to Neoptolemus’ three-fold theory, nor the first Roman poet to reflect upon its potential ramifications within a poetic framework. Both Varro and Lucilius discuss poema and poesis within their writings, differentiating the two words and offering a range of synonyms and examples that make clear their own familiarity with Hellenistic debates (Sat. 338-347, Marx; Sat. Men. 396, Cèbe). Scholarship on the reception of Neoptolemus has not addressed this early engagement, nor has research on the Ars Poetica adequately noted the potential influence of Lucilius and Varro upon Horace. Only brief remarks have been made on Lucilius’ use of poema and poesis, though he is, notably, the first extant Roman author to bring the latter term into Roman literature (see, chiefly, Lehmann 2004; Charpin 1979 marks the intellectual trajectory of the terms without further exploration). Varro, too, suffers from silence (Dahlmann 1953 and Sbordone 1976 offer brief studies).

My paper aims to resolve these oversights by contrasting the usages of poesis and poema evidenced by Lucilius’ Satires and Varro’s Menippean Satires. The two texts were set in dialogue with one another in antiquity and, indeed, are preserved due to their very similarity by Nonius Marcellus, a fourth century grammarian who was concerned with the “distantia” between the two Greek terms (428.5-26M, Lindsay). In a sense, my paper picks up where Nonius left off. Both passages are tantalizingly brief, just over one hundred words combined, but even in this short space, several aspects are immediately striking.

First, both poets are struggling, within deeply divergent texts (though both retrospectively function under the label “satire”), to define Greek terms for a Roman audience, proving their own access to and knowledge of Hellenistic theory while attempting to set these terms within the Roman literary and cultural milieu. Second, Varro paraphrases Lucilius, setting his work in a continuum with Lucilius while simultaneously drawing upon another Hellenistic scholar, Posidonius, in his explication. Third, neither poet (in what Nonius has preserved) explicitly includes the final member of the trinity, the poeta, though both make reference to specific, epic poets whose works were already hallmarks of the classroom: Homer and Ennius. While we cannot be certain that Nonius did not truncate the original passages, the omission of poeta by both of these poets is particularly striking, as they incorporate theory into practice and muse upon the performative aspects of Neoptolemus’ theoretical construct even as they juxtapose the Roman epic poet Ennius to the Greek epic poet Homer. This, too, parallels with Horace’s Ars Poetica, another creative development upon theory that emphasizes the mingling of Greek concepts and vocabulary with Roman practice and terminology (as recently demonstrated by Ferriss-Hill 2018).

It is the goal of this paper to explore these three aspects further, focusing primarily upon the creative and competitive nexus crafted by Lucilius and Varro both in their respective relationships to Greek literature (scholarly and poetic), and in Varro’s subsequent, and potentially corrective, elaboration of Lucilius’ arguments. By setting these two understudied authors in dialogue with one another, I will trace the evolution of this Greek literary critical theory within early Latin literature and illuminate the foundation upon which Horace would later build his Ars.

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