Stoicism in the Fourth Satire of Persius

Katerina Kourtoglou

Aulus Persius Flaccus (AD 34–62), one of the foremost writers of Roman satire, was born at Volterra in Etruria, and belonged to the equestrian order. In Rome he received an excellent education under Remmius Palaemon and Verginius Flavus; yet the teacher who decisively determined the direction of his work was the Stoic philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Cornutus. Persius sadly died young; however, he made his mark in literature, through his development of the satirical form.

Today the term ‘satire’ is used loosely to denote a particular kind of critical approach that often involves ridicule, mockery, irony or exaggeration; but it also describes a specific genre of poetry in Latin literature. By origin, Satire was a purely Roman form, without a direct antecedent in Greek poetry. Some Greek literature is ‘satirical’ in the modern sense of the term, but this approach was not confined to any single literary form. The Roman genre is thought to have been created by Lucilius (c.180–103 BC), who criticized human errors using humor; his poems were influenced by Attic comedy.

Portrait of Persius from a copy of the 1630 Italian translation of his Satires by Francesco Stelluti,, scientist and founder of the Accademia dei Lincei

Lucilius was succeeded as a ‘satirist’ most prominently by Horace (65-8 BC), Persius and Juvenal (c.AD 55-after 138). Persius, carried on the tradition of Lucilius and Horace in his Satires, whilst expanding and developing the genre both in terms of style and form. On the one hand, Persius’ Satires lack the humor of Lucilian and Horatian satire; his style is dark and he favours sophisticated, enigmatic expressions. On the other hand, Persius, unlike his predecessors, did not address a narrow circle of readers; he wanted to reach a wider readership. Moreover, Persius repeatedly emphasizes that his poetry pursues moral goals: he wanted to combat human stupidity and corruption. As has been observed: “Persius made his protest, first against the dissolute morals of the age and, secondly, against the false taste and insincerity in literature.”[1]  

Although there is no scholarly consensus about the level of Persius’s commitment to formal Stoicism, both the poet’s work and what we know of his life clearly confirm the Stoic framework of his thought. Some basic principles of Stoic philosophy are conveniently highlighted in Persius’s Fourth Satire, which deals with the question of self-knowledge, and the rejection of external factors that, create a false perception of reality. This satire is presented as a dialogue between Socrates (470–399 BC) and Alcibiades (450–404 BC), and begins and ends with harsh admonitions from the older man:

“Rem populi tractas? …
quo fretus?”

“You deal with affairs of state?… Based on what?” (4.1, 3)

“respue, quod non es. tollat sua munera Cerdo
tecum habita; noris, quam sit tibi curta supellex.” (4.51–2)

“Reject what is not you; let the oaf take back his presents again; live with yourself and you will learn what a sorry state the furniture is in.”[2]

In these verses, two important concepts of Stoic philosophy emerge: self-knowledge and ἀταραξία (ataraxiā, “equanimity” or “impertubability”). Self-knowledge is the central theme of this satire, which also concerns moral philosophy. Through questioning, innuendo, irony and sarcasm, the Greek sage Socrates urges the young and immature Alcibiades to renounce the superficial criticism of the crowd, and the vanity of his external beauty, and turn his gaze toward his inner world. Only then will he realize what a false impression he has had of himself and the world, and find that more than an attractive outward appearance is needed (lines 20–2).

Socrates protecting Alcibiades at Potidaea, Pyotr Basin, 1828 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Russia).

In Stoic philosophy, self-knowledge (and, by extension, self-control and self-discipline) means caring for our inner world with parallel indifference for the external factors that determine our daily life, such as health, wealth, glory and social status (Marcus Aurelius: ἔνδον σκάπτε: endon skapte: “dig within yourself”). Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius help illuminate these principles are:

οὐδαμοῦ γὰρ οὔτε ἡσυχιώτερον οὔτε ἀπραγμονέστερον ἄνθρωπος ἀναχωρεῖ ἢ εἰς τὴν ἑαυτοῦ ψυχήν, μάλισθ ὅστις ἔχει ἔνδον τοιαῦτα, εἰς ἃ ἐγκύψας ἐν πάσῃ εὐμαρείᾳ εὐθὺς γίνεται…

Because man can retreat to no quieter or more peaceful place than his own soul, particularly when it is in such order that, when he looks inside himself, a deep sense of comfort arises within… (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.3)

According to the Stoics, the entire world is a rational animate being, consisting of Nature / Λόγος (logos, “reason”) / God and matter. God as the creator of the universe is a ‘”fire’” that contributes to the creation of everything (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.156). Λόγος, which springs from divine providence and permeates nature leads to the real freedom of man, as the logical interpretation of things contributes to their essential understanding and above all, man realizes that he is part of a whole that reason it dominates and is the first cause of all (Seneca, Moral Epistles 65.12).

Detail of a Roman statue long thought to depict the dying Seneca, 2nd cent. AD (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

In this way, man moves away from worldly things and deals with his inner world, because dealing with himself also means dealing with the world (Seneca, Moral Epistles 65.15: me prius scrutor, deinde hunc mundum: “I investigate myself first, then the world around me”).[3] Λόγος in the sense of ‘living according to nature’ leads to virtue, which is the only thing of value and this in turn leads to happiness (εὐδαιμονία, eudaimoniā). According to the Stoics, freedom from passions (ἀταραξία/ἀπάθεια, ataraxiā/apatheia) and indifference to external events (ἀδιαφορία, adiaphoriā), will lead him to εὐπάθεια (eupatheia, “pleasant emotion”, or “pleasant disposition of the soul”), and will ensure our moral integrity.

Why did Persius choose Socrates and Alcibiades as the protagonists of his Fourth Satire? Of course, Socrates was one of the most important Greek philosophers; who lived guided by the truth (as was key for Persius as well), and  was convinced that virtue is knowledge. According to Socrates, someone can become truly virtuous only when he knows exactly what virtue is; furthermore, the goals of every human being, should be self-knowledge,[4] the care of the soul, and moral development.[5] To quote a characteristic passage from Plato’s Apology of Socrates (29d–e):

“Ὦ ἄριστε ἀνδρῶν, Ἀθηναῖος ὤν, πόλεως τῆς μεγίστης καὶ εὐδοκιμωτάτης εἰς σοφίαν καὶ ἰσχύν, χρημάτων μὲν οὐκ αἰσχύνῃ ἐπιμελούμενος ὅπως σοι ἔσται ὡς πλεῖστα, καὶ δόξης καὶ τιμῆς, φρονήσεως δὲ καὶ ἀληθείας καὶ τῆς ψυχῆς ὅπως ὡς βελτίστη ἔσται οὐκ ἐπιμελῇ οὐδὲ φροντίζεις;”

”My dear fellow, are you, who are an Athenian, a citizen of the largest city, most famous city for its wisdom and power, not ashamed to strive to gain as much money, fame and honor as possible, whilst neither caring or even thinking about prudence and truth, nor how your soul will be perfected?”

Socrates reproaching Alcibiades, Anton Petter, 1819 (priv. coll.).

Zeno of Citium (334–262 BC) the founder of the Stoa, similarly placed virtue (as well as wisdom) at the centre of Stoic philosophy as a basic condition for happiness, and valued moral development over mere emotional gratification. Socrates death too had something to teach Stoics. As Seneca notes in the EpistulaeMorales (77.6): magnum est honeste mori, prudenter, fortiter… (“it is important to die honorably, wisely, and bravely”). Persius reminds the reader of this at the beginning of the Fourth Satire, when he identifies Socrates as the main speaker in this dialogue:

            barbatum haec crede magistrum
dicere sorbitio tollit quem dira cicutae (lines 1–2)

Believe these to have been spoken by the bearded master, whose life was taken by a noxious draught of hemlock.

Throughout the ‘Middle Stoa’ (2nd and 1st centuries BC) and ‘Late Stoa’ (c.30 BC–AD 300) phases of Stoic philosophy, Socrates developed into an exemplary role model, for the Stoics, through whom their worldview emerged.[6] Among the Stoics of the Roman Imperial period, there was a special emphasis on the figure of the teacher, whose very personality was seen as a source of inspiration, and focus of admiration.[7]  This is why Persius calls Socrates barbatum magistrum (line 1).

By contrast, the Athenian general and politician Alcibiades was a man full of contradictions and passions. While he had all the gifts, talents, skills and advantages he needed to achieve greatness in a worldly sense, his excessive ambition, and other weaknesses in his soul, prevented him from attaining either spiritual or worldly greatness.  He had a circle of flatterers around him, who corrupted him; surprisingly, he was also a flatterer himself.[8]

15th-century depiction of Epictetus in dispute with the Emperor Hadrian (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Canon. Misc. 37, f.78r, produced 1436).

The pairing of Socrates and Alcibiades has a special significance, in the Fourth Satire, where the wise teacher tries to counsel his immature student, who engages in public life without having the appropriate inner resources. All he really cares about is his outward appearance, his luxuries, and amorous pleasures (lines 33ff.). The teacher’s advice is to drive away all that is false, remove flatterers, and be with himself. This is the path to wisdom and virtue.  

A carefree life turns out to be dull: Seneca even considered boredom with existence (taedium vitae, “weariness with life’’) to be among the pre-eminent diseases of his time, at least among the Roman élite. Seneca distinguishes various forms of restlessness, but they are all characterized by a lack of satisfaction with ourselves, restlessness and inability to utilize free time.[9]

Persius evidently wrote the Fourth Satire with knowledge of the pseudo-Platonic dialogue Alcibiades I. In this work, Socrates clearly reveals the way to self-knowledge: man is his soul. Therefore, self-knowledge means acquaintance with the soul (130a–e). In essence, one must look at the part of the soul, where its virtue is born and where knowledge and σωφροσύνη (sōphrosunē, “prudence”) have their seat. This part of the soul is godlike, which is why it may be the best mirror for human beings, as far as the virtue of the soul is concerned. Self-knowledge is a matter of σωφροσύνη (133c), thanks to which we are able to know good and bad.

Socrates and Alcibiades, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1813/16 (Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark).

In contrast to Epicurean philosophers, the Stoics believed that men could justly engage in public life, on the grounds that every man is a social being, and thus has a calling within society, to perform his social duties as appropriate to his station, in service of the universal Λόγος; this is different from merely seeking political office or some other sort of position, whether  professional, religious or in a family, for the sake of ambition, appetite or some other such lower purpose.  What matters is service to the Λόγος.[10]

In his Fourth Satire,  Persius examines people’s false impressions of happiness, when Like Alcibiades, they fixate on pleasure while underestimating the value of the inner world. He who is truly free is free from passions and pleasure; Persius reinforces this truth in the minds of his readers, so that they may attain the only genuinely worthwhile achievement, which is, to virtue. As Epictetus says:

Attend therefore to the appearances of things that you receive from the outside world, and be alert, because what you must guard is nothing small: it is dignity, trustworthiness, stability, freedom from passions, freedom from sorrow, freedom from fear, an undisturbed mind – in a word, liberty.[11]

Katerina Kourtoglou took her BA Honours degree in Philology (with specialization in Classics) at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, from where she also received her MA degree in Ancient Greek  Language and Literature from the Department of Classics. He MA thesis was on Herodotus and her PhD on Demosthenes.


1 J.M.K. Martin, “Persius– Poet of the Stoics,” Greece & Rome, 8 (1939), 172–82.
2 NB: ‘Cerdo’ is a generic name used in a disparaging sense, just as some English speakers currently use ‘Karen’ to denote a very different sort of stereotypical figure.
3 See also, Cicero Tusculan Disputations 5.70: “A mind trained on such subjects, that contemplates them day and night, contains in itself that precept of the Delphic God to “know itself”, and thus to see its connection with divine reason, from whence it becomes filled with a joy that can never become cloying, because to reflect on the power and nature of the Gods inspires a desire in us of imitating their eternity. The mind, which sees the necessary dependences and connections that one cause has with another, does not think it possible that it itself should be confined to the shortness of this life. Those causes, even though they proceed from eternity to eternity, are governed by reason and understanding..”
4 Plato, Phaedrus 229e.
5 Plato, Apology 29d–30b; also  Gorgias 492d, 500c.
6 Epictetus, Enchiridion 51; Seneca, On the tranquillity of the Mind 7.3.
7 Seneca, Moral Epistles 52.2, 8; see also M.L. Clarke, The Roman Mind. Studies in the History of Thought from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius (Cohen & West, London, 1956).
8 Plutarch, Alcibiades 23.4–5.
9 Seneca, On the Tranquillity of the Mind 2.
10 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.23 and 9.5–6.
11 Epictetus, Diatribes 4.3.6–8: πρόσεχε οὖν ταῖς φαντασίαις, ἐπαγρύπνει. οὐ γὰρ μικρὸν τὸ τηρούμενον, ἀλλ’ αἰδὼς καὶ πίστις καὶ εὐστάθεια, ἀπάθεια, ἀλυπία, ἀφοβία, ἀταραξία, ἁπλῶς ἐλευθερία.