Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History

  Compton, Todd M. 2006. Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History. Hellenic Studies Series 11. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 20. “Wounded by Tooth that Drew Blood”: The Beginnings of Satire in Rome

“Satura quidem tota nostra est,” wrote Quintilian. “Satire is entirely ours [Roman].” [1] Thus blame in verse, of a certain type, was a characteristically Roman genre, despite some influence from Hellenistic Greek poetry. [2] Cicero, in the Tusculan Disputations, tells us that “Cato, that most authoritative author, said in the Origins that our ancestors had this custom at feasts, that they would sing to the flute, one after another, the praises and braveries of outstanding men, as they were reclining,” but soon after this he speaks of “poems made for the injury of someone else” in archaic Rome. “The Twelve Tables show that songs used to be written already at that time, because they made it illegal for a song to be written to injure someone else.” [3] Valerius Maximus adds this important passage:

Maiores natu in conuiuiis ad tibias egregia superiorum opera carmine comprehensa pangebant, quo ad ea imitanda iuuentutem alacriorem redderent. Quid hoc splendidius, quid etiam utilius certamine? … Quas Athenas, quam scholam, quae alienigena studia huic domesticae disciplinae praetulerim? Inde oriebantur Camilli, Scipiones, Fabricii, Marcelli, Fabii.

Our ancestors, in feasts, accompanied by flutes, would compose poetry on the outstanding deeds of distinguished men, by which they would make the youth more eager to imitate those works. What is more splendid than this, what indeed more useful in battle? … What Athens, what school, what foreign studies shall I prefer to this native custom? From this arose the Camilli, the Scipiones, the Fabricii, the Marcelli, the Fabii.

Valerius Maximus 2.1.10, my trans.

Thus narrative poetry, as martial paraenesis, is central to archaic Roman culture; it also seemingly has an aspect of ancestor worship in it.

Horace (Epistles 2.1.139–155) offers a useful historical outline of Roman blame:

Agricolae prisci, fortes paruoque beati,
condita post frumenta leuantes tempore festo
corpus et ipsum animum spe finis dura ferentem,
cum sociis operum et pueris et coniuge fida
Tellurem porco, Siluanum lacte piabant,
floribus et uino Genium memorem breuis aeui.
Fescennina per hunc inuenta licentia morem
uersibus alternis opprobria rustica fudit,
libertasque recurrentis accepta per annos
lusit amabiliter, donec iam saeuus apertam
in rabiem coepit uerti iocus et per honestas
ire domos impune minax . Doluere cruento
dente lacessiti , fuit intactis quoque cura
condicione super communi; quin etiam lex
poenaque lata, malo quae nollet carmine quemquam
describi: uertere modum, formidine fustis
ad bene dicendum delectandumque redacti.

According to Horace, then, Roman blame thus started from light-hearted ritual abuse at harvest festivals; this became more and more abusive and political, and was turned against the aristocracy. Society, even those who were not attacked, saw it as a major problem, and the Twelve Tables law was passed against it, after which poets had to be more civil and even entertaining.

Thus, poetic/verbal abuse was a well-attested phenomenon in ancient Rome. And the companion theme, the exiled or executed poet, is attested at the beginnings of Rome’s literary history, in Naevius, and continues through the Empire, with such a poet as Ovid, and into Silver Latin, with Juvenal.


[ back ] 1. Quintilian 10.1.93. Of course, Quintilian was well aware of the Greek satiric tradition. He was using the word in a limited, technical sense, of a certain Roman satirical genre, the satura. However, there was a strain of satire that was characteristically Latin. See Coffey 1976:3–23; Knoche 1975:3–16; Hendrickson 1927.

[ back ] 2. See Knoche 1975:4–5 for a discussion of the Greek element in Roman satire.

[ back ] 3. Trans. Warmington, revised, Grauissimus auctor in Originibus dixit Cato, morem apud maiores hunc epularum fuisse, ut deinceps, qui accubarent, canerent ad tibiam clarorum virorum laudes atque virtutes … XII tabulae declarant, condi iam tum solitum esse carmen, quod ne liceret fieri ad alterius iniuriam, lege sanxerunt (Tusculan Disputations 4.2); cf. Hendrickson 1925:125; Duff 1960:54; Cicero Brutus 19.75; Varro, quoted by Nonius Marcellus, p. 76, assa uoce pro sola.

[ back ] 4. See above, ch. 11; ch. 17 (poet as warrior section).

[ back ] 5. Pliny Natural History 35.2; trans. from Lewis and Reinhold 1966 1:483, triumphabantque etiam dominis mutatis aeternae domus. erat haec stimulatio ingens, exprobrantibus tectis cotidie inbellem dominum intrare in alienum triumphum.

[ back ] 6. Polybius 6.53.1–54.2.

[ back ] 7. Pliny Natural History 28.2.17; possible variant reading, incantassit: occentassit. See Ernout 1966:119; Marmorale 1950:53, with bibliography; Pugliese 1941:22ff. (further bibliography); Momigliano 1942; Fraenkel 1925; Usener 1901; Warmington 1936:474.

[ back ] 8. Festus 190 (p. 181 Müller), ‘Occentassit’ antiqui dicebant, quod nunc convicium fecerit dicimus, quod id clare, et cum quodam canore fit, ut procul exaudiri possit. quod turpe habetus, quia non sine causa fieri putatur. The emphasis on the justice of the satire is a familiar theme. OLD defines convicium as ‘angry noise, clamor, uproar; insulting talk, abuse, reproof, mockery …’ See Ernout 1966:119; Marmorale 1950:53, with bibliography; Pugliese 1941:22ff. (further bibliography); Momigliano 1942; Fraenkel 1925; Usener 1901; Warmington 1936:474; Lewis and Crawford 1996:677–679 (in a thorough reconstruction of the Twelve Tables with their most important testimonia); Rives 2002.

[ back ] 9. Rives 2002:285, cf. Momigliano 1942:120. For the curse containing elements of abuse, see Watson 1991; for blame, curse, and spell, ch. 17, above, on Lugh in battle, and on the glám díchenn.

[ back ] 10. Some critics regard the second clause as Cicero’s explanation of si quis occentauisset. Rives 2002:282–283, following Fraenkel, suggests that the second clause was part of the original law, which contained three clauses. Lewis and Crawford reconstruct this law (VIII, 1) as qui malum carmen incantassit … occentassit carmen cond …

[ back ] 11. Trans. Dods, adapted. Some critics regard this as a restatement of the Pliny passage; others see two different laws, one against sorcery, one against slander. See Momigliano 1942:121. Other statements on capital punishment for slander: Horace Epistles 2.1.154 (see below in text); Scholiast (“Cornutus”) ad Persius Satires 1.123, cautum est ut fustibus feriretur qui publice invehebatur (“It was laid down that, if anyone was found to be uttering a slander in public, he should be clubbed to death”), trans. in Warmington 1938:475, adapted.

[ back ] 12. See Brink 1982:191 for Fescennine abuse.

[ back ] 13. For the sense of honestas … domos, see Brink 1982:194.

[ back ] 14. Archilochus is the first great abusive poet of Greece, and his family was associated with the worship of Demeter, which had a large element of ritual abuse. Perhaps familiarity with ritual abuse would equip a poet for abuse of wider application. There is also an element of ritual abuse in Sappho (the epithalamia), see app. A below. Fescennines were used in marriages and triumphs, to avert evil—Adams 1982:4; Duff 1960:59. Cf. the ritual mockery in the Nonae Capratinae, Plutarch Camillus 29; Bremmer and Horsfall 1987:82.

[ back ] 15. See Wiseman 1985:132, a valuable discussion of the sanctions against slander in Rome.

[ back ] 16. For further on this passage, see Braund 2004:413–414.

[ back ] 17. Wiseman 1985:134; Cicero For Caelius 38: Quid signi? Nulli sumptus, nulla iactura, nulla versura. At fuit fama. Quotus quisque istam effugere potest praesertim in tam maledica civitate?

[ back ] 18. See below, ch. 22. For surveys of Roman blame, see Koster 1980; Opelt 1969, a collection of texts; Elliott 1960:100–129; Ward 1973:131.