James Harrison

Sydney College of Divinity

Publilius Syrus, Popular Morality, and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

From the mid-twentieth century onwards, New Testament scholars increasingly discussed the intersection of Paul’s theological and social thought with the ancient philosophical schools and various philosophers. Two scholars in particular have charted how the ethical preoccupations of the philosophical elites moved  from the apex of the social pyramid to its base. E. A. Judge concentrated on how philosophy, among other phenomena, shaped the ethical and social agendas of antiquity, unveiling thereby in comparison the social distinctiveness of the early Christian communities in their Graeco-Roman context. The peripatetic movement of  “popular philosophy,” promulgated by sophists throughout the Roman Empire, has also been thoroughly investigated by Abraham Malherbe in regards to its intersection with Paul’s epistolary rhetoric and models of pastoral care.

Extending the boundaries of this research, Teresa Morgan produced an authoritative examination of “popular morality”, conveyed by the moral proverbs, fables, gnomai, and exempla that were found in diverse literary and oral genres. Publilius Syrus is a promising candidate for unveiling Roman popular morality in this regard. The freedman Publilius was a Latin mime writer and actor in mime shows who in 46 BCE visited late republican Rome from his base in provincial Italy for a mime competition. His collection of 734 maxims, emanating from his mime productions, commanded the attention of the literary and philosophical elites in the Neronian age and well beyond. What was the continuing moral impact of the sententiae of Publilius Syrus among everyday Romans at the time of Paul’s composition of his letter to Roman believers living in the capital?