“Who can sleep easy today? Avaricious daughters-in-law
and brides are seduced for cash, schoolboys are adulterers.
Though talent be wanting, yet indignation will drive me
to verse such as I – or any scribbler – can manage.
All human endeavours, men’s prayers, fears, angers, pleasures,
joys and pursuits, make up the mixed mash of my book. – from Satire I”
A pretty standard definition of satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. I think modern audiences tend to think of satire as primarily humorous, as being along the lines of watching an episode of SNL or Family Guy. While Juvenal is occasionally humorous, his work is better characterized as abrasive, abusive, ironic, critical, and fond of exaggeration; all of which he employs to expose the vices of Roman society.
In his satires, Juvenal adopts a cynical tone to criticize what he views as a corrupt and decadent Roman world. His outlook is very provincial and conservative, preferring the landscapes and isolation of the countryside to urbane Rome.
“I’d prefer a barren island to down-town Rome:
what squalor, what isolation would not be minor evils
compared to an endless nightmare of fires and collapsing
houses, the myriad perils encountered in this brutal
city, and poets reciting their epics all through August!”
Like in many populated cities, there was the danger that if one house caught fire, all the neighboring homes and even the entire city would be threatened. Juvenal plays with some interesting irony here in that one of the major Roman punishments for a crime was banishment to a barren island. For example, I am reading Tacitus the historian right now and quite often the punishments of various citizens who commit crimes are banishment to an island. Here Juvenal flips things around and says he’d rather be on a barren island (where they send criminals as a punishment) then have to live in a brutal place like Rome! The best part, however, is the last line of this stanza in which Juvenal suggests that listening to all these bad poets recite their long-winded epics is just as bad as the danger of fires and being in a collapsing building!
In many of his poems, Juvenal complains about foreigners and low-born people rising to become rich respected citizens who are treated better than natural-born Romans, husbands who care less about their duty to procreate virtuous citizens with their wives and more about getting rich to the point that they’re even willing to pimp out their wives if it will bring them money. Indeed, Satire XI, one of the most well-known satires, is dedicated to criticizing the behavior of women of his time and the institution of marriage. He goes so far as to suggest it would be better to commit suicide than to stay married to a bad wife.
“But marrying, Postumus? You used to be quite
what Fury’s got into you, what snake has stung you up?
Why stand such bitch-tyranny when there’s rope available,
when those dizzying top-floor windows are all wide open,
when there’s a bridge near by from which you can make your
jump – from Satire VI”
This is a world full of legacy-hunters, essentially the ancient equivalent of gold-diggers, who will commit the most terrible crimes to make a quick buck.
“A hardened legacy-hunter wouldn’t hesitate . . .
Just say the word, and this fellow will vow to sacrifice
the tallest and most good-looking of his numerous slaves,
he’ll deck the brows of his houseboys and chambermaids
with the ritual chaplet; and if he happens to have a nubile
daughter like Iphigeneia, he’ll sacrifice her – from Satire XII”
Here he suggests legacy-hunters would commit human sacrifice, even sacrificing their own child, if it would bring them money.
Money and its corrupting power is often a concern for Juvenal. In satire VII, he complains about the wretchedness of poets who cannot find a wealthy patron to support them. Although, in his usual fashion, he goes further and also complains about the ridiculous experiences a poet must endure when he does manage to find a patron to support him.
“[Your patron is] a poet himself, second only to Homer—
he thinks – in a thousand years. If the sweet itch for renown
stirs you to give a recital, he’ll fix you up with some peeling
dump of a hall in the suburbs, its doors all chained,
their hinges squealing like a herd of pigs in a panic.
He’ll lend you a claque of freedmen and other hangers-on
to sit at the end of each row, distribute the applause. – from Satire VII”
Despite detailing the financial difficulties a poet must face, this doesn’t stop Juvenal from also criticizing the Roman poets and playwrights of his day for being unoriginal and relying heavily on clichés, it being a torture to listen to them.
“I know all the mythical landscapes like my own back-room—
the grove of Mars, Vulcan’s cave near Aeolus’ rock island;
what winds are up to, which phantoms Aeacus
is tormenting, from where old what’s-his-name’s carrying off
the golden fleecelet, the size of those ash-trees the Centaurs
rich Fronto’s plane-trees and quivering marble statues
echo such rubbish non-stop – from Satire I”
All of the old mythical landscapes are so overused that they have become stock settings, plots, and characters for hack writers.
Like many Roman poets, Juvenal doesn’t shy away from insults or sexual innuendoes, nor does he balk from graphic details when it suits his purpose. If such things bother you, then you won’t like Juvenal. There is an obvious conservative streak in his themes, a man looking at a corrupt city full of uppity foreigners and degenerated contemporary moral values, while longing for the tranquility of the countryside and the Roman values of old, which some who consider political affiliations in literature important might find distasteful as well. Nevertheless, Juvenal is an excellent satirist who often utilizes memorable exaggerations and over-the-top caricatures to hammer his point home about how degenerate in his mind Rome has become.