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Just Taking the Pith: Lucilius’ First Satires as (Mis)Quotable One-Liners

Marcie Persyn

University of Pittsburgh

The textual remains of Lucilius’ Satires, the cornerstone of Roman verse satire, can perhaps best be described using the Horatian tag “disiecti membra poetae.There is no surviving manuscript of Lucilius: the remaining verses, of which there are approximately fifteen hundred, have been torn apart, left as fragments quoted idiosyncratically by more than sixty Latin authors across a range of nearly six-hundred years. These diverse authors, who represent not only a broad chronological spectrum but also a vast generic corpus, quote Lucilius for myriad reasons: as a keen critic of societal mores, a lexical authority for obscure terms, a skilled linguistic scholar, a generic model. The influence of Lucilius’ work, though it survives only in fragments, was clearly sweeping.

Yet the state of Lucilius’ earliest books, Satires 26-30, is anomalous when compared to this literary/textual tradition. Some five-hundred lines are still extant from these first, polymetric experiments, accounting for almost one-third of the Lucilian corpus (Raschke 1979; Breed 2018). Despite this high proportion, however, a mere fifteen authors are responsible for the preservation of these early satirical fragments, fourteen of whom together yield only twenty-six fragments. The fifteenth author, fourth-century grammarian Nonius Marcellus, is single-handedly responsible for the remaining three-hundred and fifty fragments: roughly 93% of what remains of these books (and these fragments in turn make up the majority of Nonius’ Lucilian quotations).

Furthermore, with a singular exception (784-790M), the remains of Satires 26-30 are particularly scrappy, composed of one- or two-line fragments with very little context. As a further challenge to the organization of these texts, Nonius employed a unique and baffling reverse-order of quotation for these, and only these, books of the Satires. That is, all of the poems of Satires 26-30 are cited backwards, relayed painstakingly from end to beginning—a method of reading that defies logic, if we assume that Nonius inherited a complete text of the Satires (Lindsay 1901; Charpin 1978; White 1980).

But what if we do not make this assumption? Given the brevity of the lines that survive, their lack of context, and Nonius’ reversed reading method, is it not far more likely a scenario that what Nonius had of these Lucilian books were already “apophthegmata”—pithy one-liners that, removed from their original settings, could be read in any order? This would explain not only the unusual ordering of Nonius’ quotations of Satires 26-30, but also the relatively high frequency of his citations of these early works, as previously-excerpted texts (bereft of context) could more easily be repurposed.

It is the purpose of this paper, following the thought-provoking observations of Steinberg 2008 and Goh 2016, to explore the probability and potential ramifications of such a theory. To test this, I will examine in close detail how non-Nonian authors excerpt and utilize Satires 26-30, using their methods of quotation to determine whether Nonius is indeed exceptional in his methodology, or if there is further evidence to support a unique transmission history and literary legacy for Lucilius’ earliest satires.

Session/Panel Title

Republican Latin Poetry

Session/Paper Number

79.1

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