Philodemus and Poetry: Poetic Theory and Practice in Lucretius, Philodemus, and Horace

By Dirk Obbink | Go to book overview

Preface

Philodemus and poetry have been on the lips of the intelligentsia in the same breath since at least the year 55 B.C. when Cicero paired them in his speech Against Piso (68-72):

There is a certain Greek who virtually lives with him, a man whom, to tell the
truth, I have found to be a very gentlemanly fellow, at any rate as long as he is
in other company than Piso's, or is by himself. This man met our young friend
Piso who even then went about with eyebrows raised, and was not averse to his
friendship, especially as the other eagerly sought him; he so far gave himself up
to his company that he absolutely lived with him and scarcely ever left his side.
I am speaking not to an ignorant audience, but, as I think, in an assembly of
learned and accomplished gentlemen....Now the Greek of whom I speak was
refined (perpolitus) not only in philosophy but also in other accomplishments
which Epicureans are said commonly to neglect; he composes, furthermore,
poetry so witty, neat, and elegant, that nothing could be cleverer....In response
to request, invitation, pressure, he wrote reams of verse to Piso and about Piso,
sketching to the life in lines of perfect finish all his lusts and immoralities, all his
varied dinners and banquets, all his adulteries; and in these poems anyone who
wishes can see the fellow's life relected as in a mirror. I would read you a
copious selection from these (they have often been read and listened to before),
were it not that I am afraid that, even as it is, my present subject is out of keeping
with the tr aditions of this place, and at the same time I do not wish to cast any
slur upon the character of their author.

No one in antiquity ever doubted whom Cicero meant. "Philodemum significat," comments Asconius (ad In Pisonem 68, adding that Philodemus was also the leading Epicurean philosopher of the day): so well known was he as an expert in the field of poetics. Later in the speech (74), in defense of his own poetry against Piso's criticism of it, Cicero indicates that he would defer to this critic's judgement about poetry, bidding Piso: "Ask your friend the Greek poet; he will recognize my figure of speech, and will feel no surprise at your lack of discernment."

In the Renaissance, an age that might have hoped to add Philodemus' complete prose writings on poetics, rhetoric, and music to their canon of classical texts recovered from oblivion, Philodemus' elegant epigrams (known from the Greek anthologies) and his relationship with his famous patron Piso so intrigued readers that learned epigrams were forged around data gleaned from Cicero and other sources

-vii-

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