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December 15, 2017

Prudens Simplicitas: The Decline of Simplicitas

Simplicitas rudis ante fuit: nunc aurea Roma est

Et domiti magnas possidet orbis opes

(Ov. Ars 3, 113-4)

In Latin literature simplicitas was considered one of the most important features of elite Roman citizens. Romans were proud of their simplicitas (Lucr. 1, 548; 1, 574; 1, 609; 2, 157; Ov. ars. 3, 113; Val.Max 2, 5, 5; Plin. Nat. 35, 67).

Simplicitas, which appears for the first time in Lucretius may be translated as simplicity, or, in a moral sense, as frankness, innocence, and honesty. Ovid in Tristia 1, 5, 39-42 asserts that his simplicitas caused his exile:

Saepe fidem adversis etiam laudavit in armis,

Inque suis amat hanc Caesar, in hoste probat.

Causa mea est melior, qui non contraria fovi

Arma, sed hanc merui simplicitate fugam

Often faith even among his enemies in arms has been praised by Caesar; when it exists among his own, he loves it; in an enemy he approves it. My case is still more favourable since I did not nurse strife against him, but earned this exile by my simplicity.

The mistake(s) which led Augustus to exile Ovid has been endlessly discussed. Ovid often refers to it, but he is so vague that finding out the real cause is unrealistic.

In Ovid, as well as in the majority of Augustan poets, simplicitas has a negative and unforeseen outcome: it is responsible for his exile. In Horace (Sat. I, 3) simplicitas has a positive meaning only when it corresponds to the ideal of moderatio; Livy (40, 8, 2) admits that in his day only children could display sincerity.

Honesty and frankness make Ovid weak and exposed to the anger of Augustus. Despite Suetonius (Aug. 71, 1) once defining Augustus as simplex, Augustus did not appreciate this quality in the poet. Ovid is overly naïve and does not consider the effect of his disposition. In doing this, he is comparable with the female heroines of his myths. Despite her malignant attitude, Ovid defines Medea (alongside with Cidippe and Phillys) as simplex because she believes in Jason and subsequently loses everything.

Tacitus himself seems aware of the perils resulting from simplicitas (hist. 3, 86). Speaking of Galba, the historian describes the emperor as a man in possession of simplicitas et liberalitas, qualities which, Tacitus remarks, will prove the ruin of their possessor, if unchecked. Tacitus’ words here echo Seneca’s earlier advice: simplicitas is a double-edged sword.

In the preface to the fourth book of Naturales Quaestiones, Seneca identifies simplicitas as one of the strategies used by those who want to put on a pretense.

Seneca summarizes this ambivalence and develops the potential risks implicit in this concept: simplicitas is a weapon in the hand of adulators. In De Tranquillitate Animi (15, 1; 17, 2) the philosopher, aware of how difficult it is to find traces of simplicity, seems to miss the old simplicitas. The times are so degenerate as to be unable to find traces of simplicity. Ovid had already complained about the absence of simplicitas in Rome. According to Ovid (Ars 1, 237-242) what rare appearances of simplicity there were, were due to wine:

Vina parant animos faciuntque caloribus aptos:

Cura fugit multo diluiturque mero.

Tunc veniunt risus, tum pauper cornua sumit,

Tum dolor et curae rugaque frontis abit.

Tunc aperit mentes aevo rarissima nostro

Simplicitas, artes excutiente deo.

Wines give courage and make men apt for passion; care flees and is drowned in much wine. Then laughter comes, then even the poor find vigour, then sorrow and care and the wrinkles of the brow depart. Then simplicity, most rare in our age, lays bare the mind, when the god dispels all craftiness.


The idea that “in wine there is truth” is a topos, already observed in Plato (leg. I, 649 a-b) and recurs also in Horace (sat. I, 4; epist. 1, 18) and in Diodorus Siculus (XX, 63, 1) (Ferrero, 1979: 56).

However, in Seneca’s view, it would be anachronistic to reintroduce simplicity: the philosopher is conscious that simplicitas would be unsafe (parum tuta simplicitas) at the imperial court. In his writings simplicity is on the opposite pole to dishonesty: ideally, simplicitas must be preferred to simulatio, nevertheless at the imperial court it is better to put on an act than to be frank. In De Ira Seneca refers to the historical exempla of men who, refusing honesty (simplicitas), don a mask in order to be disingenuous, nevertheless the Stoic philosopher justifies them.

Martial (epigr. 10, 47) identifies a series of specific features that make life happy: amongst them, he includes the ability to purposefully adopt simplicitas (prudens simplicitas).

Simplicitas went from being one of the most well-respected hallmarks of the ancient Romans to a sign of questionable moral character; a good quality which came to imply pernicious consequences. Due to this, if people still possessed a natural predisposition to simplicitas, they had to be able to moderate it. In the Roman Empire simplicity was allowed only if checked.

Select Bibliography:

Barchiesi, A. The prince and the poet: Ovid and Augustan Discourse (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London, 1997)

Ferrero, A.M. Simplicitas in Cicerone (AAT, 110, 1976b: 53-69)

Ferrero, A.M. Il concetto di simplicitas negli autori augustei (BStudLat 9, 1979: 52-59)

Ferrero, A.M. La simplicitas nell'età Giulio-Claudia (AAT 114, 1980: 127-154)

Rudich, V. Political Dissidence under Nero: The Price of Dissimulation (London, 1993)

Rudich, V. Dissidence and Literature under Nero: The Price of Rhetoricization (London, 1997)

Roller, M.B. Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome (Princeton-Oxford, 2001)

Currently, Martina is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick sponsored by the Wolfson Association. Her project investigates the discourse of flattery in Seneca’s philosophical texts, and analyses the extent to which Seneca developed a theory of adulation. More broadly, her interests within Classics focus on the Latin literature of the first century A.D. Along with Seneca, she works on Petronius and Lucan. She has a strong research interest in the connection between literature and history in Imperial Literature.Email:

May 15, 2017

Martial’s Erotion in the epigraphic landscape

Critics have been deeply engaged with research into the interdependence of classical literature and verse inscriptions. Their connection and mutual influence is revealed by verbal coincidences (i.e. hexametric-dactylic clausolae, entire verses) or more general similarities in phraseology and content. The literature-epigraphy relationship is, however, anything but easy to determine and not always unidirectional (elite literature influencing metrical epigraphy). The genesis of CLE (carmina latina epigraphica) itself, without underestimating the crucial role of canonical literature as model for the metric-stylistic use, (Thévenaz, 2008: 170) reminds us that epigram, elegy and epikedion are “literary genres that, before influencing inscriptions, took inspiration, in many aspects, from those” (Hernández-Pérez, 2001:287). More specifically, the comparison between literary funerary epigrams with their inscribed counterparts gives compelling clues. The lexeme “epigram” first of all indicates an epigraphic object: a funerary, honorific, or votive inscription; its semantic extension indicates a new literary genre, occurring during the third century BC, with Callimachus, Posidippus and Asclepiades (Puelma, 1997: 190). Particularly noteworthy is the case of Martial’s obituary epigrams, which are ideal for illustrating to what extent and how the epigrammatist played a role in shaping the contemporary and later epigraphic landscape. Scholars generally over-emphasise the debt of Martial’s obituary production - where the epigraphic origin of the genre is disclosed - towards the epigraphic context, specifically with reference to some lexical and structural features. The research of correspondences in phraseology and content between Martial and inscriptions (loci similes), however, tends to discredit this claim. Therefore, through the use of a case study, that of Iulius Aptus (CLEHisp 82), Iwill explore an instance of direct quotation from Mart. 10.61 (Berger, 1959: 259-260; Cugusi, 2007: 178), a poem dedicated to the young slave Erotion.

L(ucio) Iulio Apto Gallio patronus

Itala me genuit tellus Hispania texit

lustris quinque fui sexta peremit hiemps

ignotus cunctis hospesque hac sede iacebam

omnia qui no[b]is hic dedit tumulum.

“To Lucius Iulius Aptus Gallus Patronus.

The Italic land gave me birth, Spain covered me.

I lived for twenty five years, the sixth winter snatched me away from life

I lie here unknown to everyone and a foreigner.

The one who offered to me everything, also gave me this burial.”

This elegiac couplet epitaph of the second century AD found at Mértola, in the ancient province of Lusitania (now Portugal), is mimetically structured as an autobiographical speech delivered by the dead freedman Iulius Aptus to recall the attention of the passer-by. The first distich reflects a literary dependence from two models: on the one hand, the first hexameter that illustrates Aptus’ birth-place (Itala tellus) and burial-place (Hispania) exploits a well-known epigraphic tόpos expressed in the canonic formula tellus x me genuit. The phrase clearly emulates the popular pseudo-epitaph of Vergil (Svet. - Don. vita Verg. 17, p. 9 Hardie = p. 81):

Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc

Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces.

Itala me genuit tellus, Hispania texit.

On the other hand, Iulius Aptus, recreating a common feature of epitaphs remembering the death of immaturi (young people), claims his age through a periphrasis intended to increase pathos in the reader: he died at 25 years old, (lustris quinque), extinguished on his sixth winter (sexta peremit hiems). A closer examination of the sentence, reveals a logical inconsistency: how is it possible for Aptus, who died at 25 years old, to have been snatched away from life in his sixth winter (sexta hiems)? The answer to this misleading logical gap lies in Martial 10.61.2:

Hic festinata requiescit Erotion umbra,

crimine quam fati sexta peremit hiems. (Mart. 10.61.1-2)

lustris quinque fui sexta peremit hiemps

Berger (1959: 265) noticed how the final pentametric clausola resembled Martial’s line on Erotion: it is probable, then, that the composer of the inscription, willing to imitate a literary formula, mnemonically adapted the line by Martial without considering the resulting logical inconsistency of the pentameter. This direct borrowing from a literary model shows a typical technique of the “epigraphic memory”, here responsible for a mistake at the level of logic. The epitaph of Iulius Aptus is relevant for two reasons: on the epigraphic side, it is crucial to have an insight on how epigraphists composed verse inscriptions, pointing out a functional use of Latin authors; from a literary perspective, it allows us to argue that Martial’s Epigrams circulated in Portugal at least during the second century AD.


Primary sources

Martial, Epigrams, ed. and trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press 1993).

Secondary sources

Berger, C. (1987) ‘Virgile et Martial dans un épigramme de Mértola’ in Epigraphica 49, pp. 264-265.

Cugusi, P. (2007) Per un nuovo Corpus dei Carmina Latina Epigraphica. Materiali e discussioni (Roma: Accademia Nazionale Dei Lincei).

Cugusi, P. - Sblendorio, M. T. (2007) Studi sui carmi epigrafici. Carmina Latina Epigraphica Pannonica (Bologna: Pàtron Editore).

Hernández-Pérez, R. (2001) Poesía Latina Sepulchral de la Hispania Romana: estudio de los tόpicos y sus formulaciones (Valencia: Universitat de València).

Puelma, M. (1997) ‘Epigramma: osservazioni sulla storia di un termine greco-latino’ in Maia 49, pp. 189-213.

Thévenaz, O. (2001) ‘Flebilis lapis? Gli epigrammi funerari per Erotion in Marziale’ in

Materiali e discussioni per l'analisi dei testi classici 48, pp. 167-191.

Alessandra Tafaro is a prospective doctoral student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Her interest is in the interaction of Latin Literature with Roman epigraphy, particularly focusing on the Imperial Age. Her research focuses on the influence of Martial’s Epigrams upon the contemporary and later epigraphic context.

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