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The Angry 2000-Year-Old Man: Juvenal's Satires


Humor and social commentary have probably been around as long as civilization, but what we recognize as satire today is generally held to have its roots in the days of ancient Rome. Both the late Republic, tottering under the weight of an increasingly untenable bureaucracy, and the imperial system that supplanted it were ripe targets for criticism, especially given Rome's unusually literate society. The social turbulence that marked the dying days of the Republic and the early days of the Empire coincided with the golden years of Roman literature.

Juvenal (or Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis) is perhaps the most famous satirist of the Roman age, although little is known about his personal life. He did not invent satire - Lucilius is usually cited as the originator of the genre - nor was he the most sophisticated writer; fellow writers Persius and the well-known poet Horace both had a much more elegant and delicate touch. But Juvenal was prolific, hyperbolic, and acerbic, and his very lack of subtlety ingrained his name indelibly with the idea of satire. He wrote at least sixteen major poems in dactylic hexameter, Satires I through XVI, lashing out at a wide range of social and political targets ranging from the political indifference of the populace (who prefer "bread and circuses" instead) to the rarity of good in mankind. He is the source of several well-known cynical maxims, including the still-relevant concern about who can be trusted with power: "Who watches the watchers?" (quis custodiet ipsos custodes).

Juvenal's harsh criticism of the Roman empire helped ensure the survival of his work through the Middle Ages, when Christian scholars were pleased to find flaws in the daunting pagan legacy of the Romans; and his works influenced many important later authors such as John Dryden and Samuel Johnson. Today, however, he is increasingly obscure to the general public. Higher education no longer revolves around classical literature, and few readers today (aside from classicists and Latin students) are sufficiently grounded in Roman history and culture to understand much of what he says. Satire, unfortunately, does not generally age well; to appreciate the social commentary, it is first necessary to understand the society being commentated upon. But while the specifics of the institutions and social mores that Juvenal attacks are now obscure, his rage and sense of injustice are timeless, and speak to satirists even today. The following excerpt is from his first poem, where he sets out the rationale for his work and warns readers that the scope of his work is no less than the full extent of mankind.

Excerpts from Juvenal: Satire I (late 1st/early 2nd century CE)

What? Should I spend my days as a spectator? Shouldn't I get a word in - I, who have been so often bored by the epics of others? Why should this one get to spout his comedies to me, and that one his love ditties, and I be unavenged? Shall I have no revenge on one who has taken up the whole day with interminable [poems] which, after filling the margin at the top of the scroll and the back as well, still stretch on endlessly?... With poets jostling elbows at every corner, it may seem foolish to spare them any more paper. But if you can give me time, and will listen quietly to reason, I will tell you why I prefer to take this well-trod path...

Why tell how my heart burns dry with rage when I see a thronging entourage fawning over someone who has defrauded and corrupted his ward, or on another who has been handed a useless conviction - for what does notoriety matter if the thief gets to keep the cash? Political exiles carouse in luxury all day and scorn the so-called wrath of Heaven, while you, poor country, win your cases in court but still end up weeping!

Shouldn't I consider these things worthy of attention? Shouldn't I take a shot at them? Would I do better retelling old stories about Hercules or Diomedes?... You can tell tales of Aeneas with an easy mind; it will hurt no one's feelings to hear how Achilles was slain. But when a satirist such as Lucilius roars and rages, the listener grows red in the face, his soul cold with crime; he sweats in the knowledge of his own sin. So think about this before the trumpet sounds. Once the helmet is put on and the battle is begun, it's too late to go back.

(The full text of this poem, along with Satires II through IV, can be found at The Ancient History Sourcebook. The translation above has been edited for clarity.)