I always think about different directions I can take this blog. The first criteria I have is to find personal interest in the topic. Of course, the end goal is for my pieces to resonate with readers; but my best work, and the work I enjoy writing the most, is from content I am fascinated by, and from research I love doing.
Last weekend one of my closest friends was in town. While recovering on Sunday morning from two long nights, he picked up my copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and, after just a few moments of flipping through, was blown away. “This book’s cool – it’s instantly significant. It makes you want to learn about each one of these people,” he said. And he’s right, that book was one of the reasons I started this blog. Since then, I thought about how fun it would be to profile people in history that I see quoted and would like to learn more about.
There are countless great thinkers, writers and storytellers through history, and so few remain household names. Whenever I picked up Bartlett’s in the past, I found myself flipping through until I recognized a name. For at least the near future I want to use this site as a place to bring people I have never heard of back to life for us through quotes and a brief profile. Shall we start with Publilius Syrus?
I am cheating a bit for this first one because I technically learned about Syrus around the first time I opened Bartlett’s. I found it interesting that I had no idea who this person was, yet he had an entire page to himself – something only the likes of Plato seem to have in this collection. His name came up again later in a “What I read recently” newsletter from a writer I follow that recommended the book “The Moral Sayings of Publilius Syrus – A Roman Slave.” I picked up a copy. And, as it turns out, what little we know about Syrus paints the picture of a fascinating person.
Syrus was born in modern day Syria around the first century B.C.E. and later brought to Rome as slave. Over time, through talent and impressive intellect for an uneducated man, he was freed and taught to write by his former master. He went on to earn fame as a writer and performer of mimes – a common and often flamboyant style of performance art in Rome that involved mimicry of the daily life of the lower classes.
As the art-form evolved, mimes became a vehicle for comic delivery of moral verse, political thoughts and poetry. Syrus, following in the footsteps of Decimus Liberius (great name), was a big factor in this broader shift toward more thoughtful and serious mimes. The two actually squared off in a sort of miming duel before Julius Caesar, who awarded Syrus the victory. Decimus’ performance featured its own powerful quotes, including some jabs at the emperor – one going so far as to predict his demise “Needs must he fear, who makes all else adread.” To which he later added:
“None the first place for ever can retain –
But, ever as the topmost round you gain,
Painful your station there and swift your fall.” **
As his fame grew, Syrus’ proclamations began to take a life of their own and were recorded and taught by contemporary scholars – notably Seneca, the great stoic, who referenced Syrus’ sayings throughout his body of work. What survives today are several hundred of these maxims that contain some of the more poignant and beautiful one liners that we have from the Roman age outside the more familiar likes of Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, etc.
Syrus’ “book” was less a book and more simply a listing of several hundred proverbs that, despite being thousands of years old, had quite a few lines that resonated with me. Some that stood out on my first read are below:
“Even a single hair casts its shadow.” 228
“The bow too tensely strung is easily broken.” 388
“I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.”1070
“When we speak evil of other, we generally condemn ourselves.” 1058
and my personal favorite, “He who has plenty of pepper, will pepper his cabbage” 673
It is a great book for flipping through before bed – I cannot recommend it highly enough. If nothing else, I promise it contains a few lines that will make you think, another few that will make you laugh, and maybe, if you are anything like me, one or two that will ruin your day with a piercing jab from the grave of a man who lived and died before the common era.
Publilius Syrus. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica. May 31, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Publilius-Syrus
The Moral Sayings of Publilius Syrus. Publilius Syrus