Lucilius Philosophos? Manipulation of Greek Philosophy in the Early Roman ​Satires

Classical Outlook​ 95.3

American Classical League

  It is undeniably difficult to assess the state of Greek philosophy in Rome during the years following her conquest of Greece. Our knowledge is limited, in part, by the state of the evidence, which is predominantly fragmentary, as well as by the domestic turmoil at Rome during this period, when the emulation of Greek culture and language appeared particularly polemic. While the seminal work of Rawson (1985), Gruen (1992), Moatti (1997), and Hutchinson (2013) has improved our comprehension of how Greek philosophy was incorporated into the Roman way of life during the first century BCE and onward, how Roman culture embraced, rejected, modified, and adapted Greek philosophy during the second half of the second century BCE remains shadowy.

     Yet some light may be shed on this problematic relationship by looking to the fragments that survive of the poet Lucilius. As one of our few surviving witnesses to the time period, Lucilius, a prolific and incisive observer, offers much potential insight into the matter of Greek culture at Rome during the latter half of the second century BCE. Philosophy—and philosophers—are a recurrent theme and frequent target in the Satires, particularly in his earliest books, and thus it is within the surviving fragments of Lucilius that we find much of the earliest evidence of Roman engagement with Greek philosophy (see Vesperini 2012).

     It is the purpose of this paper to examine the Lucilian manipulation of Greek philosophy and to question how the satirist’s account reflects or potentially distorts the context of intercultural adaptation of Greek philosophy within the Roman world. I will focus on evidence found in one of the longer fragments of the Satires, building on work begun by Farrell 2014 and Lévy 2017. This fragment (784-90M/805-11W/28.29C/789-795K)—likely produced circa 131 BCE (see Raschke 1979)—is part of a satire that told the tale of an attempted lovers’ tryst; the fragment itself depicts the unfortunate paramour brought up before the magistrate on the grounds of physical assault. It is a complicated account, and culminates in a confrontation between the judge and defendant, into which Greek philosophical terminology is jarringly inserted.

     Cultural and linguistic fusion lies at the heart of this satire, which interweaves distinctly Greek and distinctly Roman elements throughout. In this satire, Lucilius grants his reader a little bit of everything: aborted romance, attempted assault, juristic litigation, political commentary, Greek philosophy, and literary emulation of a type scene derived from New Comedy. The form, setting, and characters are Roman; but the genre parodied, the philosophy quoted, and the terms incorporated are Greek. Thus, when threatened with the Roman formula for exile (deprivation of fire and water), the witty rejoinder offered by the defendant is to appeal to Greek philosophy trans-lingually. This rich layering of culture is echoed in the poet’s mixture of elemental terms, half in Latin (ignis, aqua), half in Greek (γῆ, πνεῦμα). These terms, together with the two other borrowings (ἀρχή and στοιχεῖον), resonate with Greek philosophical overtones, paying homage to multiple, foundational philosophers at the same time—all while avoiding ground previously covered by Ennius (see Fabrizi, forthcoming).

     But the humor, and, indeed, the point of the satire is ultimately lost if the reader is not simultaneously fluent in both languages and, furthermore, well-versed in the aspects of each culture that are activated in these lines. What we gain from close study of this fragment, then, is not only a glimpse of the erudite and elusive comedy in play during the late second century BCE, but an idea of the Greco-Roman cultural knowledge required—and expected—of readers who wished to understand the joke. Lucilius tackles Greek philosophy from a distinctly Roman point of view, and, in so doing, offers modern scholars a compelling example of Greek and Roman cultural interaction during the Republican era.