Time has wrought Syrus a singular destiny, building up for him a second reputation on the ruins of a first. Of his plays, which were the admiration of the Romans, the ages have brought down to us only a few sayings which were dispersed through them. The sayings were for that age of secondary consideration ; they are now his chief performance. Thus deprived of glory he once had, he has conquered another, and the once celebrated dramatist has become posterity's famous gnomic poet.

Like Terence and Phaedrus, Syrus passed his early years in slavery ; but as we have no evidence that he was born a slave, it is supposed he became one, when Syria, his native country, was reduced to a Roman province by Pompey (year of Rome 690 ; B.C 64). He was brought to Rome when about twelve years of age, by an inferior officer of the army, called Domitius, as report goes, and thereupon received the name Syrus, in accordance with the custom by which slaves took a name derived from that of their province. The young Syrian was fair, and well formed, of lively wit, and ready at repartee. Domitius taking him one day to the house of his patron to pay his court, as was a client's duty, the latter was struck with the elegance of his manners, and the beauty of his person—"an excellent recommendation," as Syrus himself has said, and particularly at Rome. The patron begged his little slave of Domitius, and the present was of course immediately made.

Syrus soon surprised his new master with sallies of wit superior to his age and condition. They were one day crossing a court together, in which a slave afflicted with dropsy lay idly baking in the sun. "What are you doing there?" cried the master in an angry tone. "He's only warming his water," said Syrus ;  and the master's anger vanished in a laugh. On another occasion, his guests were discussing this question at table : what renders repose insupportable? The guests debated at great length without any prospect of agreement. The young slave had the audacity to throw in these words : "The feet of a gouty man ;" sure of a pardon for his license from the patness of the remark—and the question was solved. On another occasion, pointing to an envious character who appeared that day more gloomy than usual—"Some misfortune, said he, has happened to that man, or some good fortune to some one else."

The master of Syrus desired that a liberal education should grace such rare faculties, and accordingly gave him one. He afterwards added the gift of liberty, a kindness which Syrus never forgot, which substituted for the bonds of servitude, ties dearer to both. "An affectionate freedman, said Syrus, is a son acquired without the aid of nature."  At this period of  his life it was, that according to the custom of freedmen, he took the name Publius, which was doubtless the surname of his master. it has been long maintained by some, but without proof, that he received it much later in life from the favor of the people.

Hardly had Syrus received his freedom, when he visited Italy, and there gave himself up to the composition of Mimes, a kind of theatrical exhibition at that time very popular. This species of drama must not be confounded with pantomime, in which dancing and gesture represented only a series of disconnected pictures, for Ovid informs us that his "Art of Love" was exhibited in this way ; nor with the Greek Mimes, in which the sentiment uttered was of more importance than the performance of the actors. The Mimes of the Romans, from which dancing was gradually banished, consisted at first of burlesque attitudes, and gross and often licentious farces, a species of exhibition more to the taste of the rabble than the regular Greek Mime, and better adapted besides to representation in theaters which admitted eighty thousand spectators.

As it was the chief purpose of the Mimes to raise a laugh, they were used to represent the failings and eccentricities of the higher classes, and the vulgar language of solecisms of the lower. Good imitation was therefore their perfection, and they were so pleasing to the Romans, that even in funeral processions, a band of mimics performed beside the chief mourners, whose leader (Archimimus) imitated the voice and gestures of the deceased.

Emboldened by success, they soon began to act little scenes which had no connection with each other, it is true, but in which the author himself performed the principal part, and in which each of the other actors, who played barefoot, added to his part whatever his own genius might suggest. As there could be no final scene in a play without plot, whenever an actor could not carry out his part, he took to his heels, and his flight put an end to the play.

The mimetic art was in this condition, that is to say, in its infancy, when Syrus composed his mimes. Laberius, a Roman knight, had just produced the first examples of mimetic poetry. Though aiming to amuse the people, he desired to instruct them, and therefore sought to blend useful truths and noble maxims with the pleasantries demanded in this species of comedy. He made the theater a school of morals, and a vehicle of political satire ; and although he did not perform in his own pieces from a regard to his rank, he sprinkled them with biting epigrams designed to hit the all-powerful Caesar.

Syrus followed him closely in this new path. He tempered the license of the mimes with many grave features, and a morality so severe, that Seneca, in his disquisitions on the Stoic philosophy, often cited their maxims as authority, and still more frequently made them themes of lengthy essays.

Syrus traveled Italy for a long time, writing and playing by turns, every where applauded as a poet and as an actor. The fame of his success finally reached Rome, and an occasion offered for his appearance there with honor to himself. When Caesar was elected dictator a second time, he resolved to give the enslaved Romans such shows and amusements as should surpass in splendor and duration every thing they had before seen. Many days were to be devoted to games, to contests of all kinds, to theatrical representations in all quarters of the city, and in all languages of the then known world ; conquered kings were to take part in them. To add to the success and splendor of the performances, Caesar had solicited the presence of the most celebrated writers and actors, and among others, called Syrus to Rome. The news of the exhibitions attracted such multitudes from the neighboring provinces, that, as the houses were full, it was necessary to pitch tents for them in the streets and open fields ; and many citizens, among the rest two senators, were crushed to death by the crowd.

Quite proud of his provincial success, when Syrus arrived in Rome, he had the courage to challenge to a trial of wits all the poets who adorned the stage. Every one accepted the challenge, and they were every one beaten. The caprice of Caesar brought out against him, however, a formidable competitor. The dictator had commanded Laberius, then sixty years of age, to perform in one of his own mimes, which was a disgrace for a freeman, and above all for a knight. Laberius submitted, but his vengeance was at hand. The day and hour of the contest came. Caesar was the judge, and all the senators and magistrates were its spectators, together with the whole order of knights, all the generals of the victorious army, all the strangers whom conquest or curiosity had made the guests of Rome, and last of all the people, that people whose highest desires were now comprised in bread and public shows—panem et circenses.

Laberius appeared on the stage, and began, in an admirable prologue, with deploring his compulsory appearance, as an actor, so little in keeping with his age and rank. "Behold me, then, who after having spent a life of sixty years without a stain on my honor, have left my house a knight, to return to it a mere actor. I have lived too long by one day." Then thinking of the talent of his young rival, and fearing a defeat, he added, to extenuate its possible disgrace, and gain the pity of the spectators—"what do I bring upon the stage to day? I have lost every thing—beauty of form, grace of mien, energy of expression, and the advantage of a good utterance. Like a tomb, I bear on my person only a name." But he soon recovered his self-possession, and in his performance launched against tyranny a torrent of severe invective, the application of which was readily seen. Thus acting the part of a slave, escaping from the hands of his executioner, he fled shouting—"It is all over with us, Romans, liberty is lost!" "He who becomes a terror to multitudes, he added, a moment after, has multitudes to dread"—while his gaze was continually fixed on the impassible dictator.

The performance ended, Caesar invited the audacious actor to take a seat among the spectators of his own rank. Syrus, whose turn to perform had now come, then approaching Laberius, said with a modest air, "be so good as to receive with kindness as a spectator, him against whom you have contended as an actor." Laberius sought a place among the ranks of the knights, who however crowded together so as not to allow him a seat. Cicero, who was somewhat given to raillery, shouted to him from a distance, directing his irony at once against the actor and the new batch of senators : "I would cheerfully give you my place, if it were not too much crowded." "I am astonished," pertly replied Laberius, "to hear that from a man who is wont to sit so well on two seats at once ;" a witty allusion to the equivocal character of the orator, a friend at the same time of Caesar and Pompey. He seated himself as he best could, to listen to his rival.

Syrus at length appeared, the crowd shouting their applause, and played the piece he had composed ; but we are ignorant even of its title.

Whether from resentment, or a sense of justice, Caesar awarding to Syrus the prize of the theatrical contest, immediately passed him the triumphal palm, saying to the knight, with a mocking smile, "Although I was on your side, Laberius, a Syrian has beaten you." "such is the fate of man," answered the poet ;  "to-day, every thing ; to-morrow, nothing." Notwithstanding, to restore the honor of the knight, lost by compliance with his own orders, Caesar passed him a gold ring, the symbol of knightly rank, and added to it a present of five hundred thousand sesterces (about nineteen thousand dollars).

This solemn contest between the two greatest mime writers of Rome, was not the last ; it was sometimes repeated. But Laberius, thenceforward confessing the superiority of his conqueror, was content with saying, that another would some day claim it over him ; while Caser, according to Aulus Gellius, continued to prefer Syrus. After the death of his rival, and notwithstanding his jealous predictions, Syrus reigned sole master of the stage for nearly fifteen years,—Romae scenam tenet, says St. Jerome in his chronicle ; and he continued sole master of it during the rest of his life, which was prolonged, as is generally supposed, to the beginning of the reign of Augustus (year of Rome 725 ; B.C. 29).

Many testimonials of the ancients prove that the renown of this writer did by no means die with him, and St. Jerome informs us, that after the lapse of four centuries, he was read by the Roman youth in the public schools. Seneca, the tragedian, borrowed from him more than once, and the philosopher often speaks in his praise. "He is," said he, 'the most sublime of dramatic poets, when he abstains from nothings designed for the lowest benches of the amphitheater." "How well, he writes on another occasion, would his sayings become, not the barefooted actors of mimes, but the buskined tragedian!"

Macrobins and Aulus Gellius, who with Seneca have done most to preserve us these sayings, are as loud in their praises of them as the philosopher. Petronius, who admired this author so much as to compare him with Cicero, grants the latter superiority in acquirements only ; "Syrus," said he, "had the nobler soul." There is in fact nothing more elevated than the sentiments expressed in the greater part of these sayings, all that remains of the works of the poet, precious fragments snatched by science from the ravage of time. This little collection is, as it were, the storehouse of ancient ethics, and Seneca in his long essays has added nothing to them. The very form in which Syrus presented them, in the nervous conciseness of his iambics, must have been far more efficient in gaining men over to the practice of virtue, than all the arguments of the Stoic school. Marcus Agrippa, that illustrious contemporary of our poet, declared that a single saying had made him a good brother and a fast friend. Seneca, who has written so much on wisdom, has admitted how much he can gain by the neatness and brevity of poetic expression. "We discourse lengthily," said he, "to men on the contempt and use of riches, and the principles of morality, but the same precepts, clothed in verse, make a more vivid and lasting impression on the mind." to make such impressions in favor of virtue and morality was the glorious purpose which Syrus had in view.