The “Sententiae” of Publilius Syrus

Publilius Syrus is a name that few will know.  According to Pliny the Elder, he was brought to Rome in the first century BC as a slave, and rose to become the author of many mimes.  These are lost, but a collection of sayings or sentences is preserved.  The 1895 Cambridge edition here has 70 pages of English preface, although it leaves the text untranslated.

Such a collection of sayings was always likely to be popular in the Middle Ages, and consequently quite a collection of manuscripts exist, the oldest of which is 9th century.  There are 717 lines in the edition above; a mutilated version containing only the first half also circulated, and older English editions were based on this.  An old 1856 translation is here.  How this relates to the edition is not clear to me.

The text is in alphabetical order, all the sayings — in Latin! — starting with A, then those starting with B, and so on.

UPDATE: I have been gently reminded that most people will not be familiar with the Roman mimes.  The excellent Bill Thayer comes to my rescue with the following:

Among the Romans the word mimus was applied to a species of dramatic plays as well as to the persons who acted in them.

It is certain that the Romans did not derive their mimus from the Greeks in southern Italy, but that it was of native growth. The Greek mimes were written in prose, and the name μῖμος was never applied to an actor, but if used of a person it signified one who made grimaces.

The Roman mimes were imitations of foolish and mostly indecent and obscene occurrences (Ovid, Trist. II.515; Valer. Max. II.6 §7, X.11), and scarcely differed from comedy except in consisting more of gestures and mimicry than of spoken dialogue, which was not the case in the Greek mimes. The dialogue was, indeed, not excluded from the Roman mimes, but was only interspersed in various parts of the representation, while the mimic acting continued along with it and uninterruptedly from the beginning to the end of a piece. At Rome such mimes seem originally to have been exhibited at funerals, where one or more persons (mimi) represented in a burlesque manner the life of the deceased. If there were several mimi, one of them, or their leader, was called archimimus (Suet. Vespas. 19; Gruter, Inscript. 1089.6).

During the latter period of the republic such farces were also represented in the theatres; but it appears that they did not attain any high degree of perfection before the time of Caesar, for it is not until then that writers of mimes are mentioned: Cn. Matius, Decius Laberius, and Publ. Syrus were the most distinguished among them (Gellius, XV.25; Suet. Caes. 39; Cic. ad Fam. XII.18). These coarse and indecent performances, of which Sulla was very fond, had greater charms for the Romans than the regular drama: hence they were not only performed on the stage, but even at repasts in the houses of private persons. On the stage they were performed as farces after tragedies, and during the empire they gradually supplanted the place of the Atellanae. …

It was peculiar to the actors in these mimes, neither to wear masks, nor the cothurnus, nor the soccus, whence they are sometimes called planipedes (Diomed. III.487; Gellius, I.11; Macrob. Sat. II.1). As the mimes contained scenes taken from common life, such as exhibited its most striking features, their authors are sometimes called biologi or ethologi (Cic. pro Rabir. 12, de Orat. II.59), and the works themselves were distinguished for their richness in moral sentences.

That distinguished and living persons were sometimes exposed to ridicule in these mimes, is clear p764from J. Capitolinus (M. Ant. Philos. c29). (Cf. Reuvens, Collectan. Literar. I p51, &c.; Osann, Analect. crit. I p67, &c.; Ziegler, De Mimis Romanorum, Götting. 1788).


9 thoughts on “The “Sententiae” of Publilius Syrus

  1. The English translation book had a big thing about mimes. It sounds like they were improv comedy, and went on until the main actor in the troupe was stuck for a line, and literally ran off. Syrus was famous for improving the wit level and moral tone of his improv troupe, to the point that people thought mimes were almost an art like tragedy.

    So we can think of this as the Sayings of Drew Carey, or the comparable Whose Line Is It Anyway guys in the UK.

    I am so tickled by this, you can’t imagine. I also was amazed to find out that Julius Caesar could be such a jerk about stage performances. I guess Nero and Caligula didn’t fall too far from the established imperial tree.

  2. It just occurred to me that, since Julius Caesar wrote a jokebook, he might have been working off his artistic envy by treating both of the most famous mime comedians so badly in public.

  3. Mind you, was he actually treating Publilius Syrus badly? The man was, after all, a freed slave. Being an actor would not be demeaning for a man in so low a social situation. The insult was to Laberius, I think.

  4. Yes, it seems un-Caesarly. But then again much of Caesar’s public persona was adopted for effect in later life. His early career was pretty disreputable.

  5. Well, an insult to one member of the art is an insult to all, surely, and it’s fairly clear that Syrus was following up the vein of mime play that Laberius opened. Laberius becoming an equestrian was kinda “living the dream”, so it’s not nice to see that happening to your predecessor. It’s like Caesar saying to you, at the beginning of your fame, “No matter how good you are and how far you get in your career, I can always kick you down and make you crawl. Just like the guy before you.”

    But Romans had “robust” senses of humor, so maybe they thought this was just a sort of comedy roast?

  6. Perhaps so. There’s no lack of people on Wikipedia who’re basically saying “I may know nothing about this, and you may be an expert, but I’m as good as you and if you aren’t nice to me I’ll make sure you can’t do a single edit without my permission.” Such nastiness is, sadly, a feature of human nature among those with neither talent nor morals.

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