Classically Inclined

September 9, 2011

Undiscovered treasures – the Laus Pisonis

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:32 am
Tags: , , ,

I’m loving the fact that working on the Ad Polybium is taking me to some really strange places, mostly to attempt to work out what ‘stereotypical panegyric’ looks like. One big response I got from my reading group on the original article draft was a sense that the features I was pointing out formed part of the ‘normal’ panegyric repertoire – but I have to say that after going through the secondary literature and doing a bit of digging in the primary sources, I’m becoming less and less convinced about what a panegyric trope actually looks like and whether anyone’s proven one exists. Sure, we know what panegyric feels like, but I’m starting to have my doubts about dismissing something from anything in the early imperial period as a ‘trope’ without a lot more groundwork.

The text I want to talk about today is called the Laus Pisonis, or “the praise of Piso”. We’re fairly sure that the Piso in question is Calpurnius Piso, who was one of the ringleaders in a plot to assassinate the Emperor Nero; it was this same plot that Seneca and his nephew Lucan got incriminated in and were killed over, which gives some pleasing syncronicity to investigating it. The text is about 260 lines long and takes the form of poetry – and, I’m afraid to say, for the first dozen lines or so it really is dreadful poetry. I suspect this may be an artefact of the “introductions are hard” phenomenon that anyone who does any academic writing is very familiar with, because once the poet has got into his stride, he starts having quite a lot of fun with the language. (We have No Idea who wrote the Laus; it was preserved in a 1527 edition of Ovid by Sichard, who says it was traditionally attributed to Virgil, and various medieval compilations say it was written by Lucan, but this typifies the desire to hang orphan texts on famous names rather than anything approximating cast iron proof of authorship.)

I have a couple of thoughts about the text which are based mainly on what jumped out at me while I was translating the piece for myself, and some kind pointers from Ted Gellar-Goad over on Twitter. Ted responded to my tweet that olorinus, meaning of or belong to a swan, was a great word that I hadn’t seen before by pointing out that choosing that word was actually an important poetic choice – what the poet arguably should have done was pick cycneus, derived from the Greek word for swan, rather than the native Latin word, thereby signalling his allegiance to a certain kind of Callimachean poetry. Now, I’m not an expert on Callimachean poetry by any means, but suddenly a lot of other things about the poem’s style fell into place – the heavy reliance on lots of obscure mythological references and adjectives, for instance. The poet is clearly putting himself into a firm poetic camp, although I suspect it may be a Roman home-grown neoteric one rather than a strictly Callimachean one – he uses the word lepos, meaning smooth, at line 163, and that’s a notorious catchword for the neoterics, whose most famous member was Catullus. So while I can’t unpick precisely what’s going on here in terms of poetic agenda, there’s obviously something being said about allegiance and Roman-ness and style that’s worth unravelling.

The second thing that leapt out at me was an unusual phrase in line 76, succisso poplite (which means ‘with the knee having been severed’). This sort of language sticks in your head when you read it for the first time, and I was sure it was an echo of something pretty notable. Sure enough, when I chased it down, it turns up to be from Aeneid 9.762, where Turnus is attacking the gates of the Trojan camp while Aeneas is off on his diplomatic mission, and is basically laying waste to all before him. The Laus uses this phrase in a sentence where he says that he is tired and exhausted by the burden of singing Piso’s many praises, and that his ‘trembling limbs fall, with the knee severed’. This is a sneaky literary reference, but I do wonder why the poet has chosen to quote it, given it comes from such a martial source. Ted Champlin’s article on Piso points out that the poem makes a great deal of Piso’s martial expertise, despite the fact that we can tell from historical sources that he didn’t actually have any; I wonder whether this implicit reference to another scene of courage and virtue in battle is meant contribute to propping up Piso’s warrior image.

Finally, I have to say that I loved the extended praise of Piso’s excellence at chequers. Yes, the board game with the black and white pieces. There is a lengthy encomium about how great a player of board games he is. Champlin again points out that in this case, Piso’s ability to win competitions on the board is a substitute for actual battles won in the field, and is described in appropriately military language. That said, I still think it’s quite brilliant that we have evidence for ancient board game geeks, and from a context where that quality is actually praised and lauded – even if it is there because it’s making up for absences elsewhere.


Champlin, E. 1989. “The Life and Times of Calpurnius Piso.” Museum Helveticum 46: 101-24.


  1. Hi Liz! You might be interested in a recent article which my colleague Steve Green has published on the Laus Pisonis, which engages in particular with the issue of the military language used to describe Piso’s gaming activities. The reference is: S. Green (2010), “(No) Arms and a Man: The Imperial Pretender, the Opportunistic Poet, and the Laus Pisonis”, Classical Quarterly 60: 497-523.

    Comment by Penny Goodman — September 9, 2011 @ 6:07 am | Reply

    • Thanks, Penny – that’s a great reference to have, and I’ll follow it up as soon as I can!

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 9, 2011 @ 6:21 am | Reply

  2. Hey, just thought that if you wanted to follow up on your ideas about the poetic connections between this text and Roman neoteric poetry, you mentioned Catullus (the obvious text would be poem 64), but it might also be worth having a look at Vergil Georgics, particularly the Aristaeus episode in the latter half of book four. On the other hand, connections with Vergilian epic sounds rather Ovidian, and for that I’m thinking particularly of the tensions between traditional and neoteric poetry (e.g. the contrast between the grand scale ad mea tempora and the Callimachean/neoteric connotations of deducite) in the proem.

    Comment by Paul Dean (@PaullusD) — September 11, 2011 @ 8:04 am | Reply

    • Thanks for those suggestions! I don’t know when I’ll get around to following this up, but there’s definitely some interesting stuff about the way Roman poets thought about their stylistic allegiances that I’ll need to get myself familiar with when I start doing some proper work on my Priapea piece (more on which next week…)

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 11, 2011 @ 1:16 pm | Reply

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