Born around 20 AD in Libya, Lucius Annaeus Cornutus was a Phoenician like the Stoic founder Zeno. He was at some point brought to Rome, most likely by Seneca’s brother Mela. Perhaps it was seeing what an impact Seneca’s childhood tutor—the Stoic Attalus—had on his brother that Mela hired Cornutus to tutor his own son, Lucan. Along with Lucan, Cornutus also famously taught the poet and satirist Persius. Suetonius records that both Lucan and Persius were rarely seen apart from their beloved teacher. Persius died young of a stomach disease. When he was diagnosed, he penned his will and left Cornutus a huge sum of money and his library, which included the full seven hundred volumes of Chrysippus’s books. Cornutus accepted the books but not the money, instead demanding Persius’ sister take it.
After Persius’ death, Cornutus set out on a mission to collect and edit all of his prolific friend and protégé’s writing. As soon as he published the book, Suetonius writes, “all the world began to admire it, and were eager to buy it up.” One of his famous edits was the line where Persius compared Nero to a donkey:
Auriculas asini Mida rex habet;
King Midas has an ass’s ears;
Cornutus changed it to:
Auriculas asini quis non hahet?
Who has not an ass’s ears?
Though willing to compromise on the page, in person, Cornutus couldn’t. As Persius’ posthumous work was being read across the empire, Cornutus’ other student Lucan was also enjoying high praise. Word of this man producing great writers must have gotten to Nero. Cassius Dio tells us that Nero summoned Cornutus for advice. “Continuing to do many ridiculous things,” Dio writes, Nero was now planning to write an epic history of Roman achievement. The group all agreed with what Nero wanted to do: tell the narrative in four hundred books. When Cornutus was asked for his thoughts, he, unlike the rest, didn’t tell the Emperor what he wanted to hear. Four hundred books is “too many, nobody would read them.” One of Nero’s sycophants interjected to point out that Chrysippus wrote way more. “But they are a help to the conduct of men’s lives,” Cornutus said. Cornutus must have known the risk of offering his honest opinion. He did, afterall, tweak the donkey line. Nero banished Cornutus right then and there. And his student Lucan, Nero added, was prohibited from continuing to write poetry.
We don’t know where Cornutus was exiled to. But wherever it was, he was swallowed by obscurity because there is nothing more on him in the historical record.
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