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The Wisdom of Publilius Syrus, a Slave by Manifold Names

According to an erroneous belief, Publilius Syrus (1st century BC), in ancient times was called also Publius. Publilius’ real name was finally established by Woelfflin:

“Until the beginning of the sixteenth century the Sentences  were attributed to the philosopher Seneca, from whose credit to that of Publilius they were transferred by Desiderius Erasmus. It was, moreover, only quite recently at the hands of Sillig the editor of Pliny, that the name of Publilius was substituted for the monstrosum nomen [monstrous name] (so E. Woelfflin calls it) of Publius, although the latter form was preserved in manuscripts of Cicero, the Senecas, Gellius, Macrobius and Jerome. Woelfflin, supported by Ritschl, definitely established the name Publilius, which has been accepted by such authorities as Baehr and Teuffel.” (Bickford Smith).

Besides, Publilius was also surnamed Syrus because he was a native of Antioch, Syria. Indeed,  his full name had a rough path. As Bickford Smith  wrote, Publilius was named also Lochium, because Pliny the Elder in his Natural History would call him  Publilius Lochium, so that, “Both O. Jahn and Woelfflin have conjectured that the name should be Antiochium, which seems not unlikely, as we find his cousin called Antiochus. Woelfflin points out a similar error in the Medicean manuscripts of Tacitus (13. 7) where Lochium is found for Antiochum. This of course agrees very well with the cognomen of Syrus, which is usually given him, probably out of Macrobius.”

Publilius Syrus was a libertus (=freedman), and  one of the most famous mimes in  the age of Caesar. He was a slave, but his ability as a mime  gained  him manumission, and he became so popular that under Julius Caesar he was called to Rome where there were public games (“per Caesaris ludos” [games]) [ Macrobius’ Saturnalia, 2, 7, 7-8). The ancient writers did not say in what year Publilius Syrus died, but the famous Latin writer Petronius Arbiter said that Publilius made his career under the Emperor Nero, and  that he died at  a good old age.

Publilius Syrus was the most successful writer of mimes. The mime was of Greek origin,  providing both a very strong form of realism, and using a trivial and scurrilous language. Despite Publilius Syrus had been both the leading mime-writer and actor in Rome, almost nothing of his writings remains, except four doubtful  fragments. On the contrary, there are about 700 proverbs or Sententiae still very well-known.

Publilius Syrus, despite the messy business of his name,  owned a fair amount of  wisdom; and, for example,  for those familiar with the business, he wrote a collection of  moral sentences worthy of mention:

Avarus animus nullo satiatur lucro (No amount of gain satisfies Avarice); or  Effugere cupiditatem, regnum est vincere (Avoid cupidity, and you conquer a kingdom). Bona, imperante animo, siet pecunia, (Money is worth something when good sense disburses it).

Other well-known sentences related to money are :

“A small loan makes a debtor, a great one, an enemy.”

“Bitter for a free man is the bondage of debt.”

“When reason rules, money is a blessing.”

“Money does not sate Avarice, but stimulates it.”

“The guilty man deserves to lose the money with which he would bribe the judge.”

“The gain acquired at the expense of reputation, should be counted a loss.”

“When utility is our aim, a little delay is advisable.”

Not too bed for a man who was not only under slavery, but who suffered also a millenary identity crisis.




The Sentences were translated by D. Lyman, Publilius Syrus, a Roman Slave, Cleveland, O., L.E. Bernard & Company, 1856, pp. 3, 14, 16, 17-18, 25,  27.

Publilii Syri Sententiae, Edited by R.A.H Bickford Smith, M.A., London, C.J. Clay & Sons,  Cambridge University Press, 1895, Introduction, p. I.

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