The Tale Of Sickly Zosimus The Bard

A man named Zosimus was a freedman who was employed as an entertainer by the Roman lawyer and statesman, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113). Zosimus was an educated fellow with a talent for reading and reciting literature. He honed in himself the skills required for physically bringing literature to life, becoming a talented actor and a pleasant singer, as well as becoming an orator who could dynamically narrate poetry, books or speeches. These gifts were accompanied by great musical ability, as he could play musical instruments (his specialty being the lyre) to complement the literature that he presented. All in all, Zosimus was a talented performer who could dazzle any crowd. As described by his employer, Pliny the Younger, Zosimus was, “an honest fellow, obliging and educated, marked out by his talent for acting, where he has great success. His delivery is clear and intelligent, his acting correct and balanced, and he plays the lyre well, better than an actor need do. He also reads speeches, history, and poetry so well that it might be his sole accomplishment” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 5.19). Pliny had a great affection for the entertainer, not just for the man’s impressive abilities, but also on a personal level as a human being and a friend.

At some point during Zosimus’ employment with Pliny the Younger, the entertainer began to fall seriously ill. Zosimus, however, continued to push through his illness and performed despite his increasingly concerning symptoms. Ultimately, Zosimus was said to have been in the middle of a performance when he finally reached a breaking point that could no longer be ignored. As told by Pliny, “Some years ago he was exerting himself during a passionate performance when he began to spit blood. I then sent him to Egypt, and after a long stay there he recently returned with his health restored. Now after demanding too much of his voice for several days on end he has had a slight return of his cough as a reminder of the old trouble, and once again has brought up blood” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 5.19). With the sudden and dramatic return of the performer’s symptoms, Pliny the Younger decided to send Zosimus off on another vacation for some rest and relaxation. Instead of sending the entertainer back to Egypt, this time Pliny sent Zosimus to the south of France (Gallia Narbonensis) to stay on the estate of a friend named Valerius Paulinus. The move likely did not improve Zosimus’ sickly condition, but Pliny and other friends kept the ailing performer well looked-after and presumably in good spirits until the end.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Musician from a terracotta amphora (jar), c. 490 BCE, attributed to the so-called Berlin Painter, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).



  • The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.

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