An intriguing, but unfortunately rather context-deprived, incident occurred in the literary scene of the Roman Empire at the turn of the 1st and 2nd century. At that time, a man named Passennus Paulus was trying to gain a name for himself as a poet. He came from a family of the equites (knight) rank in the Asisi region of Italy. His drive to have a career in poetry came in part from Paulus’ emulation of his hometown hero and ancestor, Propertius (1st century BCE), a notable elegiac poet. Following his role model’s steps, Passennus Paulus began composing his own elegiac verse and started to hold public readings where he presented his work to live audiences. His poetry, unfortunately, did not survive the erosion of time and, therefore, it is impossible to know how extraordinary, average, or bland his works might have been. Whatever the case, be it through talent or social connections, he was able to attract large crowds to his public reading, and it was not uncommon to see famous figures among the crowds, for listening to performances of speeches and literature were a favored form of entertainment in ancient Roman society.
During one of Passennus Paulus’ public readings, a Roman celebrity named Javolenus Priscus joined the audience. As celebrities often are, Javolenus Priscus was said to have been an eccentric and flamboyant character. Nevertheless, underneath the interesting behavior was a man of notable ability. Javolenus Priscus was a prominent lagal scholar (in fact he was a leader of the Sabinian school of law) and he had an impressive career in the Roman military and government, including serving several times as a legate and as a provincial governor. Yet, for his encounter with Passennus Paulus, it was definitely his eccentricity that became his main character trait for the evening.
On the day of the poetry recital, after the audience members (including Javolenus Priscus) settled down for the performance, Passennus Paulus took up his position to begin reciting his verses. Unfortunately, details about what happened next is vague. At some point, perhaps in the prelude to the show or during the performance of the poems, Passennus Paulus happened to say the line, “You bid me, Priscus.” It is unknown if the line was actually directed at Javolenus Priscus, but, whatever the case, the eccentric celebrity unexpectedly and improperly decided to shout back a response from the audience. As Passennus Paulus’ line was either rhetorical or part of a poem, Javolenus Priscus was not meant to respond aloud, and therefore his shouting caused quite a memorable scene, with a great deal of laughter and confusion, among the crowd. Audience members recounted the incident to friends, who spread the news to other people, and one thing led to another, eventually resulting in the story of Passennus Paulus and Javolenus Priscus becoming the talk of Rome. The gossip was eagerly spread even by people who had not attended the event, such as the avid letter-writer Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), who made sure to describe the tale for a friend named Voconius Romanus. Pliny wrote:
“Paulus was giving a public reading and began by saying ‘You bid me, Priscus—” at which Javolenus Priscus, who was present as a great friend of Paulus, exclaimed ‘Indeed I don’t!’ You can imagine the laughter and witticisms that greeted this remark. It is true that Priscus is somewhat eccentric, but he takes part in public functions, acts as assessor, and is one of the official experts on civil law; which makes his behavior on this occasion all the more remarkable and absurd. Meanwhile Paulus has someone else’s folly to blame for a chilly reception, and this shows how anyone giving a reading must beware of eccentricity in himself or in the audience he invites” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.15).
Such is the brief and vague accounting of the incident that momentarily became the talk of the empire. From Pliny’s mention of the reading having a “chilly reception,” perhaps Javolenus Priscus’s interruption was perceived as more awkward and embarrassing than comedic. Whatever the case, the incident definitely gave Passennus Paulus a boost in name recognition. However, it is uncertain if the saying that all news is good news proved true for the aspiring poet.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (A Roman Slave Market (cropped and modified), by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c. 1824-1904), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Walters Art Museum.jpg).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.