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At the School of Rhetoric

From the book: Satyricon

Written 62-65 A.D. by Titus Petronius Arbiter (?-66 A.D. - ordered by Nero to commit suicide)

Translated from Latin by P.G. Walsh, Professor Emeritus of Humanity at the University of Glasgow.

[This article was put here to present this rare quality of Petronius to transcend time. His human touch makes the text look as if it was clipped from yesterday's newspaper. My father used to compare education during his time and mine saying: "This is why I believe that our hapless youngsters are turned into total idiots in the schools ..." and then bragged about how good education was in times past. I am sure everybody has had similar experiences. Oooops! This book was written in 62-65 A.D. Enjoy! - Zafiris]

Chapter 1 At the School of Rhetoric

1   [Encolpius is in full flow:] ‘This, surely, is the same band of Furies goading our teachers of rhetoric when they cry: “These wounds have I sustained for our country’s liberty, this eye have I forfeited in your service. Give me a helping hand to escort me to my children, for my legs are hamstrung and cannot support my body’s weight.” Utterances even as bad as this we could stomach if they advanced students on the path to eloquence. But in reality all that they achieve with their turgid themes and their utterly pointless and empty crackle of epigrams is that when they set foot in court they find themselves transported into another world. This is why I believe that our hapless youngsters are turned into total idiots in the schools of rhetoric, because their ears and eyes are trained not on everyday issues, but on pirates in chains on the sea-shore, or on tyrants signing edicts bidding sons decapitate their fathers, or on oracular responses in time of plague urging the sacrifice of three or more maidens. These ate nothing but verbal gob-stoppers coated in honey, every word and every deed sprinkled with poppy-seed and sesame!

2   ‘Students fed on this fare can no more acquire good sense than cooks living in the kitchen can smell of roses. Forgive my saying so, but you teachers of rhetoric more than any others have been the death of eloquence. Your lightweight, empty bleatings have merely encouraged frivolity, with the result that oratory has lost all its vigour, and has collapsed. Young men were not as yet strait-jacketed with declamations when Sophocles and Euripides devised the language they needed. No professor in his ivory tower had as yet expunged all genius when Pindar and the nine lyric poets shied from Homeric measures in singing their songs. Not that I need to cite the poets in evidence; so far as I am aware, neither Plato nor Demosthenes had recourse to this kind of exercise. Lofty and what one may call chaste eloquence is not blotchy or turgid; its inherent beauty lends it sublimity. But of late this flatulent, disordered garrulity of yours has decamped from Asia to Athens. A wind as from some baleful star has descended on the eager spirits of our youth, as they seek to rise to greatness, and eloquence has been stopped in its tracks and struck dumb, once its norms were perverted. In short, who in these later days has attained the renown of Thucydides or Hyperides? Even poetry has not maintained the brilliance of its complexion unimpaired; it has all been fed on the same diet, and has not been able to survive to grey-haired old age. Painting too came to a similar end, once the shameless Egyptians devised short cuts to so noble a pursuit.’

3   Agamemnon refused to allow me to deliver in the colonnade a declamation longer than the one which had raised sweat on him in the school. ‘Young man,’ he said, ‘your speech reflects no ordinary taste, and you are uniquely gifted with love of good sense, so I shall not withhold from you the secrets of the trade. It is hardly surprising that teachers are at fault in these school exercises; they have to go along with lunatics, and play the madman. Unless their speeches meet with the approval of their young pupils, they will in Cicero s words be left high and dry in the schools. Our plight is like that of flatterers on the stage who cadge dinners from the rich; their chief preoccupation is what they think will please their hearers most, for they will attain their aim only by laying traps for their ears. Likewise, unless the teacher of eloquence turns angler and baits his hook with the morsel which he knows the fish will bite on, he stands idle on the rock with no hope of a catch.

‘So what is the moral? It is the parents who deserve censure for refusing to allow stern discipline to ensure the progress of their children. To begin with, they sacrifice their young hopefuls, like everything else, on the altar of ambition. Then, in their haste to achieve their goals, they bundle them into the courts while their learning is still undigested. When their sons are still in their cradles, they swaddle them with eloquence, believing that eloquence is the be-all and end-all. Whereas if they allowed them to struggle step by step, making the youngsters work hard, steep themselves in serious study, order their minds with the maxims of philosophy, score out with ruthless pen what they had first written, lend patient ears to the models which they wished to imitate, convince themselves that nothing admired by boys can be of intrinsic worth—then the lofty utterance of old would maintain its weight and splendour. But as things stand, as boys they fool around in school, and then as young men attract derision in the courts; and what is more shameful than either of these, in old age they are unwilling to acknowledge the defects of their education. But I would not have you think that I have been carping at the impromptu, commonplace utterances of a Lucilius, so like him I shall express my feelings in verses.

 . . . . . . . 

[End of] Chapter 7:

'It is not advisable to put much faith in planning, for Fortune has its own rationale …'

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