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Bill Thayer

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This text of the
Laus Pisonis

an unknown author

published in the Loeb Classical Library,
1934 (and revised in 1935)

is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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 p295  Panegyric on Piso

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Uncertain are my feelings where first should start the order of the poem which I have undertaken, or what titles of honour I should chant. On the one hand, Piso, comes the summons of your noble rank with the exalted names of ancient Calpus,​1 resplendent among the clans of Rome: on the other, I am thrilled by your own merit, your life in every phase inspiring admiration — such a life as would have been equal to nobility, if nobility had perchance not been yours at birth. For what shall halls strengthened by images and triumphs ancestral,​2 what shall archives filled with many a consulate, profit the man of unstable life? In him whose only merit is birth, the whole honour of a family is lost. But you, gifted with a mind to match your high descent in which you set a part but not the whole of your renown, you will yourself be a fit theme for song. What need to record how the Calpurnian house derives its name from Calpus and won its first famous surname of Piso for pounding (pi(n)seret) the moist barley with hard-skinned hand? I could not, if I would, rehearse the whole in brief; the circling mass of heavenly flame​3 will in a twelvemonth recall its yearly constellations  p297 ere it could be mine to record the titles and toilsome wars of the men of olden days. But the warlike hand of their fathers and armed emprise well beseemed the citizens of yore, who were sung by bards of their own times in their lays.4

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] We too can praise as his grandsires' peer a Piso brilliant in the glories of peace. For, if wars have sunk to rest, courage is not dead also: there is freedom to fulfil the tasks of campaigning in the gown — freedom, with no blood drawn, to conduct mild warfare before the judge ordained by law. Hence too comes the distinction of saving a fellow-citizen: and so victorious palms enwreathe the lofty portals.​5 Come now, eloquent youth, o'er-climb the titles of your forbears and the honours of ancestral fame; outstep by forensic exploits the renown of arms. So too in great Cicero's day of vigour the laurelled arms gave way to eloquence begowned.​6 The crowd which once in close array thronged the streets to see the illustrious triumphs of the Pisos now packs the laborious law-courts, when your oratory utters its accents to set unhappy defendants  p299 free. Whether the spear of the decemviri summons the panic-stricken to trial and ordains the establishment of cases before the centumviri,​7 or whether with busy skill you refute a capital charge, the very courts resound with your praises. As you carry along with you a judge's feelings, assailing his captured heart, vanquished he follows of his own accord wherever you call — weeps if you say "weep," rejoices if so compelled; and you are the giver from whom a judge gets an anger not his own. So the Thessalian rider is wont on the open plain to guide his horse's steaming mouth with mobile bit, now spurring his rapid steed and not merely giving him rein, now jerking high the open jaws in his control, and now starting to wheel the horse's neck round and pull its wild rush into a circle. What judge fails to watch your lips in wonderment? Who orders his own mind save by your weighty arguments? For whether it be rain along with hail and repeated thunder-bolts that you choose to hurl with whirling tongue, or whether you please to condense compact expressions in a period and lend enduring words to the graceful texture of your speech, you surpass Ulysses' force and Menelaus' brevity; or whether with no concealed but with open flowers of speech you prefer to embellish sweet words as they flow on their clear course, the famous  p301 charm of Nestor's honied eloquence​8 yields place to you. 'Tis not only courts before a citizen jury that admire you, Piso: 66the senate welcomes you with manifold praise, and its assembly renders you well-earned plaudits. Who​9 may worthily recount the glory that befell you beneath the light of that day on which, when your purple counted its twelve fasces,​10 before a hushed senate you sang from grateful heart the praise of the imperial divinity?

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Yet, if the strength of powerful intellect were now within me, and my early years were filled with solid force, then should I dare to recount your eloquence, Piso, in lays of mine; but my neck sways wearily beneath the load: hamstrung, my limbs drop palsied. Even so Pandion's little bird​11 dares not record the swan's notes, nor, had it the wanton will, would it have the power; even so the nightingale's song excels the grasshoppers a‑chirping their noisy abuse at the scorching sun.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Wherefore come, Calliope,​12 passing over his forensic dignity, with me approach Piso's doors: there is still more abundance of what is found in his very home to tempt your praise. Hither also repair youths from all over Rome to listen to the man, whenever judges are weary, and in vacation​13 confused wrangles are  p303 hushed. For then his sport seems to be with light weapons,​14 as he plies his true accomplishments after lawsuits are settled.​15 Moreover, Greek culture flows forth readily from Roman lips, and Athens meets a weighty rival in his accents. Witness, eloquent Naples that founded her walls under Acidalian auspices and repeats the skill of Euboea.​16 What lustre, ye gods above, what lustre shines on the fair language of his lips! Here words sparkling in compact splendour have filled out his choice passages; here, decked out with tropes there flies to the hearer from the freed lathe a swift epigram.​17 Great merit truly it was, even if it had been the only one, now to delight the venerable senate with his style, now to clear the innocent, anon to lay the burden upon the guilty: yet more appealing still is a countenance full of serene dignity, while his look dazzles with stamp of eminence. The mien he wears is such as we can call neither sad nor flippant, but seemly in a joyous seriousness. The fair honour of inborn nobility stands fast in him, and lineaments worthy of his birth. Thereto is joined true loyalty, frankness full of modesty, and a nature unstained by malicious envy — his mind itself is richer than the gold he owns.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Which of your clients, eloquent youth, approaches your threshold in poverty who is not welcomed and enriched by a generous indulgence with the aid of an unexpected income? And, what may well be more precious than any gift, you esteem him as  p305 an equal: neither the fortune nor the pedigree of clients influence you: uprightness is the test in them. They do not wince under any witticisms of overbearing jests: no man's grievance furnishes material for sudden laughter. A uniform tenor of friendship encompasses highest and lowest. Rare the house that does not scorn a needy friend; rare the house that does not trample contemptuously on à humble dependant. Though his mind be clean and his life unimpeachable, still his probity will rank as low as his poverty; and no patron seeks to have at his side a retainer got by pure affection but one whom cursed gain has brought him: no one confers largess on a true friend in order to guide him on an equal footing and in turn be guided by him, but one hires​18 the wretched man for a trumpery wage to have the power of practising shameful witticisms at the festal board.​19 Far has such a disgrace, far has a plight of this sort fled, worshipful Piso, from your house. In your gentleness and freedom from sharp asperity, laying aside pride everywhere, you are reckoned as but one among your friendly peers: you teach obedience, as you court love by loving. The whole house rings with the varied accomplishments of its frequenters: zeal is the motive force everywhere; for you find no satisfaction in a clumsy uneducated band of clients, whose forte lies in trivial services and whose one ability is to walk before a patron when the common herd are cleared away. No, it is a wide  p307 range​20 of good qualities that pleases you. Your own keenness leads the mind to every sort of work, whether the call has come from graver pursuits, or lighter pursuits are to your fancy; for the eloquence of the serious brow does not charm at every season: not for ever does the warlike band remain under arms: nor does the trumpet's alarum blare all night and day: not for ever does the Cretan aim his bow, but, freeing its string, he relaxes its horns: and the soldier unbinds helmet from head and sword from flank. Nature herself undergoes alterations, in varied form ordering her courses, unfolding the year with the change of the leaf. Not for ever does ether, shrouded in streaming clouds, darken the golden stars with dreadful rains. Winter flags and in the springtime dries his dripping locks. Spring flees before the summer-heats: on summer's heels presses fruit-bearing autumn, destined to yield to snow and flood. Yea, the Sire of the Gods stores away his fiery weapons, and, seeking again the banquet at the table served by Ganymede, he grasps the goblet in the right hand wherewith he wielded the thunderbolt. 'Tis meet to obey the seasons: whoso has weighed the seasons​21 with sure weights, he, if war calls him, will be a soldier; if peace, he will lay down his arms and his dress will be the gown. Him the law-court in peace, the camp in war will befit. Happy that day, for all time worthy of song, which, so soon as it gave you the breath of life, conferred on you countless gifts within your breast. A wondrous dignity upholds you in court; a wondrous wit, when for the moment dignity is dropped. If  p309 mayhap it is your pleasure to twine in sportive verse the unpremeditated lay, then an easy page draws out the Aonian song; or, if you smite the lyre with finger and ivory quill, sweet comes the strain on a harp worthy of Apollo: well may we believe you learned under Phoebus' tuition. Blush not to strike the lyre: mid peace serene let national tranquillity rejoice in a care-free world: blush not: so, 'tis believed, Apollo's strings are played by the hands which also stretch the bow. Even so fierce Achilles is related to have touched the lyre, albeit the hero son of Priam (Hector) burned a thousand ships, and the war-trumpet clashed harshly with the well-tuned strings. The hero sprung from Nereus​22 beat out sweet melody with the thumb 'neath which the mena­cing spear from Pelion​23 sped against the foe.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] If moreover you have chosen mayhap to whirl weapons from the shoulder and take your stand, limbs taut in fixed position, and at the same moment both avoid and hit your adversary, then with nimbleness of foot you swiftly interlace circle upon circle; with slantwise rush you press on your retreating opponent; now your vigorous right hand lunges at his breast, now your unexpected thrust strikes his exposed flank. No less is your nimbleness, if mayhap it is your pleasure to return the flying ball​24 or recover it when falling to the ground, and by a surprising movement get it within bounds again in its flight. To watch such play the populace remains stockstill, and the  p311 whole crowd, sweating with exertion, suddenly abandons its own games. If mayhap you please, when weary with the weight of studies, to be nevertheless not inactive but to play games of skill, then on the open board​25 in more cunning fashion a piece is moved into different positions and the contest is waged to a finish with glass soldiers, so that white checks the black pieces, and black checks white. But what player has not retreated before you? What piece is lost when you are its player? Or what piece before capture has not reduced the enemy? In a thousand ways your army fights: one piece, as it retreats, itself captures its pursuer: a reserve piece, standing on the alert, comes from its distant retreat — this one dares to join the fray and cheats the enemy coming for his spoil. Another piece submits to risky delays​26 and, seemingly checked, itself checks two more: this one moves towards higher results, so that, quickly played and breaking the opponent's defensive line,​27 it may burst out on his forces and, when the rampart is down, devastate the enclosed city.​28 Meanwhile, however fierce rises the conflict among the men in their divided ranks, still you win with your phalanx intact or deprived of only a few men, and both your hands rattle with the crowd of pieces you have taken.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] But the Sun-God would complete his circuit after measuring the heavens, ere my lays could traverse so many merits. Fortunate youth, most worthy of  p313 long life, distinguished ornament of your clan, assured of my loyalty, accept and welcome this pledge of true affection. Yet, if my page falls short of your renown, the intent is enough. I vaunt my aspiration, not my poetry. Do you but lend your joyful presence: perchance I shall sing better lays and your very favour will give strength, the very hope will give a fertile spirit: deign to throw open your home: this is my sole request. For it is no imperious hunger for rich gold, no savage lust of possession that has prompted me, but love of praise. I fain, noble sir, would dwell with you, and through all my life hold rivalry in my songs with your excellences: more lofty will be my way, if you are now opening for me the path of fame, if you are removing the shadow (of obscurity). What profits the hidden vein of precious metal, if it lacks the miner? What can a vessel do, buried in some sluggish haven, if it lack captain, though it carry all its tackle, and could loosen its flapping sails on the shapen mast from the slackened rope?

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] The very bard who through Italian peoples makes his poem on Aeneas resound, the bard who in his mighty renown treads​29 Olympus and in Roman accents challenges the old man Maeonian, perchance his poem might have lurked obscure in the shadow of the grove, and he might have but sung on a fruitless reed unknown to the nations, if he had lacked a Maecenas. Yet it was not to one bard only that he opened his doors, nor did he entrust his (imperial) divinities to Virgil alone: Maecenas raised to fame Varius,​30 who shook the stage with tragic mien;  p315 Maecenas drew out the grand style of the thundering poet and revealed famous names to the peoples of Greece. Likewise he made known to fame songs resonant on Roman strings and the Italian lyre of graceful Horace. Hail! ornament of the age, worshipful deservedly for all time, protection of the Pierian choir, beneath whose guardian­ship never did people fear for an old age of beggary.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] But if there is any room for entreaties of mine, if my prayers have reached your heart, then you, Piso, shall one day be chanted in polished verse, to be enshrined in memory as my Maecenas. I can consign a name to everlasting renown, if after all 'tis right for any man to promise this of himself, and if the avenging god is absent:​31 there is abundance of spirited will, and the mind itself ventures on something of surpassing quality. Do you stretch out your hand to a swimmer:​32 do you, Piso, bring to the light one who is obscure. The home of my sires, humble but true, along with its slender fortune hides me in its own darkness. I can clear my head of its enshrouding burden, I can behold fresh light, if you, my fair-souled friend, do but cheerfully approve and support my aspirations. I have, trust me, a spirit firmer than my years, though youth's comeliness has just begun to shade my cheeks and my twentieth summer is not yet at hand.

The Editor's Notes:

1 Through the Calpi the gens Calpurnia claimed descent from Numa Pompilius. The Pisones of Hor. A. P. 292 are termed "Pompilius sanguis."

2 fulta suggests the columns to which triumphal ornaments were attached.

3 The sun.

4 This, it should be observed, indicates belief in the existence of heroic lays in ancient Rome: cf. Cic. Tusc. Disp. IV.II; Brutus xix.75; Varro apud Nonium Marcellum, 76; Val. Maximus, II.I.10. For Niebuhr's ballad-theory see J. Wight Duff, Lit. Hist. of Rome to Golden Age, pp72‑73.

5 i.e. the advocate can save a life in the law-court, as the soldier can on the battlefield. Successful pleadings were honoured by setting up palm-branches at the pleader's house-door: cf. Juv. VII.118 scalarum gloria palmae; Mart. VII.XXVIII.6 excolat et geminas plurima palma fores.

6 An intentional echo of Cicero's own alliterative line, cedant arma togae, concedat laurea laudi, De Off. I.XXII.77; cf. Philipp. II.VIII.20.

7 Decemviri and centumviri took cognisance of civil lawsuits. The spear, as a symbol of magisterial power, was set in the ground to mark the holding of a centumviral court: cf. Mart. VII.LXIII.7 centum gravis hasta virorum; Stat. Silv. IV.IV.43 centeni moderatrix iudicis hasta. Suet. Aug. 36 shows that decemviri (stlitibus iudicandis) were required from Augustus' time to call together the "Court of One Hundred" (ut centumviralem hastam . . . decemviri cogerent).

8 Cf. Hom. Il. I.249 τοῦ καὶ ἀπὸ γλώσσης μέλιτος γλυκίων ῥέεν αὐδή. For the eloquence of Ulysses and Menelaus cf. Il. III.221‑223 and 213‑215.

9 The passage 68‑83 (quis . . . ipsis) is omitted here by P i.e. p + n; but 77‑80 (sic nec . . . soli) are added at the close of the poem.

10 When he entered on his consulate, Piso delivered a complimentary address to the emperor. Pliny's Panegyricus illustrates this kind of oration.

11 Pandion's daughter, Philomela, was changed into a nightingale, or, in some accounts, a swallow, as here.

12 The Muse particularly of heroic narrative poetry. For a summary of the provinces of the nine Muses see the lines in this volume, pp434‑435 and pp634‑635.

13 Cases are said to be prolatae when there is a iustitium or cessation of legal business, particularly at times of harvest and vintage.

14 Especially the exercise of declamation.

15 Or, it may be, in settling the fictitious cases of the rhetorical controversiae.

16 The Acidalian fountain in Boeotia, where the Graces bathed, was sacred to Venus. Her bird (ales) was the dove. Euboicam alludes to the connexion of Cumae, on the bay of Naples, with Chalcis in Euboea: cf. Virg. Aen. VI.2.

17 Cf. the sense of excusso (rudenti) in 229. The lathe, metaphorically, is made to turn out the epigram which flies to the audience; (cf. Hor. A. P. 441 male tornatos . . . versus). The tornus is "shaken free" of its epigram, as the ship in Virg. Aen. VI.353 is excussa magistro.

18 fōcĭlăt, "revives," "cherishes," the reading of S, does not agree in quantity with the usual fŏcĭlat or fŏcillat.

19 Juvenal, writing at the beginning of the second century A.D., draws parallel pictures of the relations between patron and client: e.g. with 115‑116 and 118‑119 cf. Juv. III.152‑153, nil habet infelix paupertas durius in se quam quod ridiculos homines facit, and with 122‑124 cf. X.46 defossa in loculos quos sportula fecit amicos.

20 Cf. 66 numerosa laude.

21 Here tempora is used in the sense of "the fit times."

22 Achilles, son of Thetis, and grandson of Nereus.

23 Pelias, sc. hasta: the spear of Achilles was so called because its shaft came from Pelion. The phrase Pelias hasta occurs in Ovid, Her. III.126, and in Pentadius, De Fortuna, 29‑30.

24 Excursus X in Wernsdorf's Poet. Lat. Min., IV, pp398‑404, deals with lusus pilae at Rome.

25 Excursus XI, ibid. pp404‑419, deals with the ludus latrunculorum, a game with a resemblance to chess or draughts.

26 i.e. instead of advancing, this "soldier" lets himself be stopped and then, when he looks penned in, suddenly breaks out. Another explanation is that one counter "undergoes a double attack" (mora technically meaning "check"), i.e. is in danger from two opposing pieces, but by a further move endangers two enemies.

27 Mandra, a herd of cattle, was taken by Scaliger for the equites of the ludus latrunculorum. Some suggest that, as a piece, the latro had higher value than pieces in the mandra. In the sense of "enclosure," mandra might mean the line of less valuable pieces (like "pawns"). R. G. Austin, "Roman Board Games," Greece and Rome, Oct. 1934, takes mandra as "any solid phalanx barring the enemy's advances."

Thayer's Note: Roland Gregory Austin died in 1974; so his interesting paper will not enter the public domain until January 1, 2045, one hundred and ten years after it was written: the odds are, gentle reader, that you will be dead by then. The absurdities of the current copyright laws: just whom does this benefit?

Those privileged few, however, with access to JSTOR may read "Roman Board Games" here; the hoi-polloi are out of luck. If I am still living and running this website by then — hey, I'll only be 95 — I hope I remember to put the article onsite; if not, remind me please.

Addendum, Apr 2014: Ulrich Schädler, "Latrunculi — ein verlorenes strategisches Brettspiel der Römer", in Homo Ludens. Der spielende Mensch IV, Salzburg 1994, pp47-67. And, for the German-challenged, Ulrich Schädler, "The Doctor's Game — New Light on the History of Ancient Board Games", in: Philip Crummy et al., Stanway: An Elite burial site at Camulodunum, Britannia Monograph Series No. 24, London 2007, pp359-375. [My thanks for this heads‑up to their author, an expert on Graeco-Roman games and toys, whose page at Academia.Edu includes many other interesting items.]

28 The πόλις of a similar Greek game.

29 Cf. Ennius' Musae quae pedibus magnum pulsatis Olympum: or the idea may be that Virgil's fame rises and "strikes" the heavens.

30 L. Varius Rufus, who with Plotius Tucca edited the Aeneid, was an epic and elegiac as well as a tragic author: Hor. Od. I.VI.1 and Porphyrion ad loc.; Sat. I.X.44; A. P. 55; Quintilian X.I.98; Mart. VIII.XVIII.7; Tac. Dial. xii.6.

31 A divine power hostile to pride is suggested, but not named; cf. Sen. H. F. 385, sequitur superbus ultor a tergo deus; Ovid, Met. XIV.750, quam iam deus ultor agebat. The idea resembles that of Nemesis, and it is noteworthy that Ovid, Met. XIV.693‑694 mentions the dei ultores and, independently, the "mindful wrath" of Nemesis.

32 The appeal of this young poet contrasts with Johnson's famous sarcasm: "Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?"

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