It’s high time for me to write about another favourite book. This time I’ve chosen Juvenal’s Satires.
In the popular imagination, the Romans tend to be associated with seriousness, gravity, militarism, piety… well, with everything except humour. So it may be a surprise to some that the Romans excelled in that species of literature we call “satire”. Indeed, the best of Roman satirists will still measure up with any modern satirist you can think of. And in my opinion, the best of the best was Juvenal.
Almost nothing is known about Juvenal except his full name (Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis), thanks to a single inscription, and that he lived roughly in the late first and early second centuries AD. He seems to have socialized in fairly high circles, for he tells us much about high society, along with tidbits about the goings-on in the court of the Emperor Domitian (reigned AD 81-96).
Good satire always seems to flourish in bad societies. And if you peel off the outer layer of humour, you will usually find that good satire is motivated by anger, and by a deep cynicism about the age in which the author writes. This deep-seated moral outrage is what made Swift’s satire so effective. It’s easy to make the mistake of attributing anger and cynicism to the misanthropic tendencies of the writer himself, but more often we ought to point our collective finger at the society in which the writer lives. When we refuse to point our collective finger at society, it is the task of our satirists to do it for us. Instead of dismissing the Jon Stewarts of the world as cynics, we should rather blame the President Bushes of the world for making them so.
And we must not lose sight of the fact that we are society, and as such, we must each shoulder some blame for the bad state of things. Good satire holds up a mirror before us, and the better the satire, the uglier the image reflected. By this standard, Juvenal was either the one of the best satirists that has ever lived, or Imperial Rome was one of the worst societies that has ever existed.
Some ages and societies absolutely cry out to be satirized. Imperial Rome seemed to cry out the loudest, and Juvenal was happy to oblige. When surveying his times, he noted that, difficile est saturam non scribere, “it is hard not to write satire” (I.30). “We are,” he wrote, “living in the ninth age, an era worse than the age of iron. Nature herself can find no name for its wickedness and has no metal to label it” (nona aetas agitur peiorque saecula ferri / temporibus, quorum sceleri non invenit ipsa / nomen et a nullo posuit natura metallo, XIII.28-30).
What was so terrible about Juvenal’s “ninth age”? For one thing, he deplored the totalitarianism of Rome’s Imperial political order and its debased citizenry:
…iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli
vendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim
imperium fasces legiones omnia, nunc se
continent atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
panem et circenses.
(“Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things – bread and circuses,” X.77-81).
Much of Juvenal’s satire turns on a people who have given themselves over to pleasure-seeking, no longer interested in public service, or in the martial virtues that made Rome great but that are incompatible with the life of perpetual self-indulgence.
The fourth satire tells the tale of an extraordinarily large mullet caught by a fisherman and brought to the court to curry favour with Domitian; the fisherman himself, quips Juvenal, could be purchased at a lower price than his catch will command, implying that money is no object when spent on little delicacies, but human life is rather cheaply bought. This is consistent with a Rome flooded with the cheap slave labour of its conquered peoples, an industrial army of surplus labour which the sturdy independent Roman farmers of old could no longer compete with. Rome, you see, also outsourced its economy, but where we send jobs to China and India, Rome brought India and China to the city itself. There was a large underclass living off the public dole, while a wealthy owning class lived off moneylending or from the rents of extensive estates worked by slave gangs.
The ceaseless and amoral chasing after wealth and pleasure of the more fortunate classes was mirrored by the corrupt and decadent Imperial court, with its armies of eunuchs and shameless flatterers, in which the tyrant regnant, Domitian, heard little that could displease the Imperial ear, for nihil est quod credere de se / non possit cum laudatur dis aequa potestas (“there’s nothing that godlike power can’t believe of itself when it’s praised,” IV.70-71).
The limitless money-grubbing of Juvenal’s time would put even our casino capitalism to shame. One stock figure that appears regularly in the Satires is the wealthy, unmarried, and childless old man who uses his unique position to manipulate another stock figure, the legacy hunters who chase after him in the hope of ingratiating their way into his will.
Even worse, the worship of the almighty denarius interferes with Nature herself, subverting the family, making sons anxious for fathers to die, and, in the following sinister passage, giving fatherless orphans good reason to fear their mothers: livida materno fervent adipata veneno. / mordeat ante aliquis quidquid porrexerit illa / quae peperit, timidus praegustet pocula papas (“Those pastries are steaming darkly with maternal poison. Get someone else to taste first anything offered to you by the woman who bore you. Get your terrified tutor to drink from the cup before you,” VI.631-633). Thus, sadly, another stock character in Juvenal’s satire is the female poisoner. Familial affection is replaced by love of gold and silver, to such an extent that only “the loss of money is mourned with real tears” (ploratur lacrimis amissa pecunia veris, XIII.134).
What is perhaps most disconcerting about Juvenal’s Satires besides the rage and nihilistic cynicism they contain, is their frightfully modern ring. Take, for example this comment on the obsession with outward beauty: sed quae mutatis inducitur atque novatur / tot medicaminibus coctaeque siliginis offas / accipit et madidae, facies dicetur an ulcus? (“But when she’s coated and freshened up with all those concoctions one after another, and had lumps of hot, moist dough applied, will you call it a face or a sore?” VI.471-473). Which of us is not familiar with this phenomenon in all those ghastly images of aging celebrities who obviously go to superhuman efforts to continue looking young, to the point that they begin to resemble their own cadavers after the undertaker is done rouging them?
Worst of all, in all of this decadence, Juvenal offers not even the hope of a universal justice that could re-establish order, as the very gods seemed to have abandoned Rome. In any case, no one really believed anymore that the gods watched over anything, for ut sit magna, tamen certe lenta ira deorum est (“great though it is, the anger of the gods is, all the same, really slow,” XIII.100).
In Juvenal, we are presented with a Rome in decline. The irony is that his fellow citizens seemed to see themselves as perched at the very apex of civilized life, blissfully unaware that they had already lost everything that made them great. What neither Juvenal nor his fellow citizens could know was that Rome’s imperial glory was destined to sputter along for another generation or two — at least if “glory” can mean wealth without honour, and success without desert.