Publilius Syrus

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Was brought to Rome as a slave in the 1st cent. bc. Acc. to Macrobius, he was freed for his wit and educated by his master. He composed and performed his own mimes throughout Italy. Invited by Caesar to perform at the games of 46 (see ludi) he challenged other mime‐writers to improvise on a given scenario and was declared victor by Caesar over his chief rival. It became a commonplace that his aphorisms expressed moral teaching better than serious dramatists, and fourteen of them are quoted by Gellius.

In the 1st cent. ad maxims uttered by various characters in the mimes were selected and alphabetically arranged as proverbial wisdom for schoolboys to copy or memorize. These formed a fixed syllabus with e.g. the distichs of Porcius Cato 1, so that in the 4th cent. Jerome learned in class a line which he quotes twice. It is hard to distinguish original Publilian sententiae (see sententia) from accretions.

One would not expect a common ethical standard among maxims spoken by different characters in a mime. Some contradict others, as proverbs often do. Although many advocate selfish pragmatism, their prevailing terseness of expression gives them an undeniable attraction.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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