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Persius, Nero, and the Midas(s)es of Rome

Konstantinos Karathanasis

Washington University in St Louis

Since Sullivan’s (1978, 1985) exploration of the anti-Neronian sentiments in Persius’ satires, novel and elaborate assessments of the satirist’s political agenda ensued. In this paper, however, I analyze an important vehicle of political discourse in Persius’ first satire, which remains understudied; namely, the myth of Midas.

The first satire culminates in the allusion that everyone in Rome has ass’s ears (1.121 auriculas asini quis non habet?), but the question is: why? For antiquity, as seen in the uita Persi, this reference to Midas was intended as a direct attack against Nero, which was eventually lost due to expurgation, but this anecdote has been long refuted by Conington (1998). Accordingly, given that greed and debased aesthetics are the themes of Persius’ prologue, Rudd (1982), Anderson (1982), and Freudenburg (2001) suggested that the satirist uses the myth of Midas, as the Romans knew it from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (11.85-193), to censure the aesthetic criteria of contemporary literature, as well as the aversion of Roman dilettantes to criticism. Yet, this is only half of Midas’ story. In the Metamorphoses, the story of the Phrygian king has two parts: the well-known corporealization of his “asininity” as a punishment for critical incompetence, but also the ordeal after Bacchus fulfils his greedy request for the ability to turn whatever he touches into gold. In the context of Persius’ satire, the significance of the former episode has been explored, but the significance of Midas’ infamous golden touch has not been considered at all.

Recently, Hadjittofi (2018) demonstrated the political significance of the golden-touch episode in the Metamorphoses vis-à-vis the Golden Age trope in Augustan literature. Such an analysis is equally relevant for Neronian literature, since examples of the Golden Age trope come as early as Nero’s ascension with Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, where Lachesis spins a golden life-thread for Claudius’ successor that preludes his Golden reign (4 mutatur uilis pretioso lana metallo, aurea formoso descendunt saecula filo), while Apollo bids the Fates to make that successor his peer in beauty and talent (4 mihi similis vultu similisque decore nec cantu nec uoce minor). Equally, in the Eclogues of Calpurnius Siculus one finds herdsmen reading on an oak’s branch a prophesy foretelling the rebirth of a peaceful Golden Age (1.42 aurea secura cum pace renascitur aetas).

Based on Tacitus’ (Ann. 14.16.1) information on Nero’s literary “workshops,” we can assume that golden and Apollonian imagery permeated Neronian literature in a top-down manner. Consequently, it appears that in Persius the myth of Midas works within the context of not only a literary invective against contemporary aesthetics, but also a political invective against Neronian belletrists who contribute to the regime’s propagated image of a New Golden Age. Additionally, as Freudenburg (2001) observes, the two-headed Parnassus of Persius’ prologue was equally sacred to Apollo and Bacchus. Nero, then, seems to be portrayed as both the Apollo and the Bacchus of Midas’ story: a god turning all greedy writers, who help gild the façade of the regime by regurgitating golden imagery, into Midas(s)es.

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Neronian Literature

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