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Publilius Syrus

(1st century BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Publilius Syrus lived in the 1st century BCE. He was a Roman writer, mime artist, theatre representative and creator of a sentence. He wrote in Latin.

According to Pliny the Elder, Publilius Syrus was from Antioch in Syria and came to Rome as a young slave with the creator of astrology Manilius of Antioch and grammar Staberius Eros1. With time, his talent in the field of facial expressions was noticed, and the owner allowed his further education. Syrus was liberated and was named Publilius with gens Publilia; his name then took the form of Publilius Syrus – meaning “Publilius of Syria”.

He has performed in many cities in Italy as an actor, where he became immensely popular over time. His wit and good contact with the audience were especially appreciated. His skills were appreciated by, among others Cicero, who could see him on stages. In turn, the recreated literary mimes of Syrus were appreciated by Seneca the Younger and Macrobius. In the middle of the 1st century BCE, Syrus was a true stage star and could be compared to today’s Hollywood stars.

During the organized ludi in 46 BCE (after Julius Caesar defeated optimates under Tapsus), Syrus appeared on the stage for a mimic competition. In the contest, he defeated, among others the popular Roman equite and literary mime creator, Decimus Laberius, who was as popular at the time as Syrus. The advantage of Syrus, however, was due to the fact that he himself was actively performing on the stage; The 60-year-old Decimus took part in the event at the urging of Caesar, because he himself was only the author of the works, and himself, as a Roman citizen, did not want to descend to the level of slaves and liberators.

During his lifetime, Syrus also earned a nickname – Sumen, which resulted from his love for exclusive dishes.

Publilius Syrus died after 43 CE.

Works of Publilius Syrus

Publilius, as a literary mime, specialized mainly in creating works on stage. Only fragmentary literary mimes have survived to our times: Potatores (“Drunkards”) or Putatores (“Branch cutters”, “Lumberjacks”), Murmurco (“Whisper”) or Murmido (“Myrmidonite”), which were popular, especially in provincial cities.

Ancient facial expressions were characterized by the fact that the actor used more gestures than words on the stage. The movements of the body and hands or the grimace on the face were to amuse the viewers. No masks were used on stage and women were also performing alongside the men. The actors often improvised and usually performed barefoot.

Certainly, the most famous work of Syrus is Sententiae also referred to as Publilii Sententiae, in which the author collected ancient gold’s thoughts that certainly appeared in his works. It is a treasury of about 700 sentences about man, gods, values, life, friendship and love. The author also focuses on the subject of human vices and misfortunes, and the message flowing from the sentence is timeless.

  1. Pliny the Elder, Natural history, XXXV 58, 199
  • Aleksandra Szymańska, Ireneusz Żeber, Publilius Syrus. Maksymy moralne – Sententiae, Wrocław 2020

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