Roman Juvenal Composes

Juvenal, the major writer of Roman satire, a unique literary achievement of the Romans, influenced numerous writers of satire from late antiquity to the modern era.

Summary of Event

Juvenal is a Roman poet who composed sixteen verse satires, the Saturae (Satires, 1693), in hexameters ranging from 60 to 660 lines. Arranged in five books, the Satires cover an extremely wide range of topics dealing with Roman society in the early second century c.e., including friendship, city and country, the law, food, and women. Accordingly, Juvenal calls his writing farrago (stuffing), a mishmash of grain fed to cattle. The Satires are notable especially for the poet’s disgust with contemporary society and its standards. In contrast to his predecessor Horace, who produced comparatively restrained satire, Juvenal stretches the invective of Gaius Lucilius, the traditional founder of Roman verse satire, to the limit by adopting a stance of moral outrage, especially in Satires 1-6, to describe what he perceives as the depravity of contemporary Rome. Juvenal
Lucilius, Gaius (poet)

Very few biographical details are known about Juvenal. Any conjectures about his life and circumstances have their foundations not in irrefutable historical evidence but rather in imaginative inferences drawn from certain passages of the Satires. The date of Juvenal’s birth is usually given as 60 c.e., but probably rests somewhere between 55 and 67 c.e. For the date of his death, evidence from the Satires themselves points to sometime after 127 c.e., although the date is usually given as 130. Arguments for the date of composition of the Satires range from 100 or as late as 117 to sometime after 127.

At the beginning of the Satires, Juvenal remarks, “It is difficult not to write satire.” He leads his readers through an intricate yet constantly entertaining nexus of images, themes, and characters. What emerges is a picture of a society in which the established traditions and codes buttressing the Roman elite have disintegrated. As a mirror of Roman society, Juvenalian satire is powerful and direct in its portrayal. Corruption and absurdity abound at all levels from slave to emperor. The aristocratic classes are portrayed as paradigms of moral and political corruption. The wealthy are criticized for their arrogance and selfishness. Not even the emperor Domitian, depicted as a sexual hypocrite and tyrant, is immune from this criticism.

The tone of book 1, which consists of Satires 1-5, is one of savage indignation. Important themes include the corruption of the upper classes (Satires 1, 2, and 4) and the debasement of the patron-client relationship of friendship (Satires 1, 3, 4, and 5). Satires 1 serves to define Juvenal’s satirical stance—his relative position in the social and literary spheres. Various manifestations of contemporary Roman vice, corruption, perversity, and absurdity pass into the sphere of his literary vision, and these are enumerated one by one. Especially important from a programmatic perspective is Juvenal’s attack on the literary intelligentsia of his day. Stock themes such as those dealing with mythological subjects are disparaged as socially irrelevant as well as burdensome to those forced to sit at formal recitations of such literary treatments.

Satires 2 exposes the corruption of traditional Roman values and attacks homosexuality as a depraved social institution. This picture of social decline continues in Satires 3, an elaborate sketch of urban “disease” voiced by a character called Umbricius, who is quitting Rome for the simple ways of country life. Umbricius’s monologue features criticisms of life in Rome, for example, the ever-present threat of fire and ruin and the prevalence of violent crime, and of its people, including criminals and the nouveaux riches. A prominent feature is the sustained expression of xenophobia, especially toward Greeks and Greek culture. Satire 4 is probably the most farcical satire in the collection, involving as it does an imperial council convened to deliberate on the grave matter of how to prepare a giant turbot presented to Domitian. Satires 5 describes the humiliation of clients at a dinner put on by their rich patron. Although the primary targets in these poems are the wealthy and powerful, those who are at their beck and call are equally open to condemnation because of their slavish obedience to corrupt political and social codes.

Book 1, which focuses upon the world of men, is complemented by book 2, which contains a single long poem on women, but the indignant tone continues. Satires 6, in superficial form an admonition against marriage, disturbs with its relentless portrayal of women as depraved freaks of nature. Practically no stone is left unturned in the misogynist’s single-minded search for hideous and disagreeable feminine traits and practices.

The themes of book 3 are the same as two of those introduced in book 1: the decline of the patron-client relationship (Satires 7 and 9) and the corruption of the upper classes (Satires 8). There is a marked shift from the strident indignation of the first two books, however, especially in Satires 9, in which Juvenal adopts a tone of detached irony and pessimism in contrast to the anger and bitterness of his interlocutor Naevolous, who complains about the meanness of his rich patron, who rewards him stingily for his homosexual services.

There is a further shift in tone at the beginning of book 4, in which Juvenal directly opts for a more remote stance as a reaction to human absurdity. In the rest of Satires 10, he then proceeds to satirize the folly of human ambition and prayer, successively exposing the dangers of wealth, power, eloquence, military success, long life, and beauty. The promise of a more detached attitude is fulfilled in the succeeding satires with themes reminiscent of the more restrained satire of Horace. In Satires 11, Juvenal contrasts the simple dinner put on by a friend with the extravagant banquets of the wealthy, while Satires 12 contrasts the false friendship offered by legacy hunters with true friendship.

The authorial tone of book 5, with its themes of money, greed, and crime, becomes yet more remote, as suggested in the opening programmatic poem, Satire 13, which features Juvenal’s criticism of anger in a mock consolation to a friend defrauded of money. Satire 14 treats parent’s influence and the danger of teaching their children the vice of greed through their example. The antepenultimate poem, Satire 15, moves from a story of cannibalism in Egypt to a discourse on human nature, while the final incomplete poem, Satire 16, ironically explains the advantages of military life.

The compositional style of Juvenal is economical and paragraphic. Although rhetorical questions are posed in the rhetorical style, these questions in many cases lead not to logically drawn-out expositions but rather to other spheres of digressive discourse. This stylistic feature has led modern critics to examine the Satires for evidence of identifiable, if not predictable, structure. Lack of “logical” structure, however, is itself a poetic technique—a technique that adds spontaneity and liveliness.

Recent critical work has usually maintained either that Juvenal constructs a series of personal identities or masks (personae) to express his bitter denunciations of Roman society or that there is a sincerity and general consistency of authorial attitude, character, and convictions as revealed in his criticisms. The two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and the disaffection expressed for various aspects of contemporary life in the Satires seems to have been common among the literati in Rome.


Juvenal is generally considered to be the primary exponent of Roman satire, a genre that appears to be a particularly Roman accomplishment. He developed a model for the satire of indignation, which included the adoption from other genres, especially epics, of an elevated style. However, Juvenal does not seem to have been extremely popular in his day, or for 250 years after his death. In the late fourth century c.e., editions and commentaries of his work began to appear, and he was cited in the Latin writings of the church fathers. Juvenal was widely read and imitated in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Since the sixteenth century, his popularity has been evident in the appearance of numerous editions, translations, adaptations, imitations, and citations of his work.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, W. S. Essays on Roman Satire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. Essays on various aspects of the satires of Juvenal and his predecessors, including influential discussions on the application of the persona theory to Juvenalian satire.
  • Braund, Susanna H. Beyond Anger: A Study of Juvenal’s Third Book of Satires. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Braund argues that Juvenal employs an ironic persona in Satires 7, 8, and 9 that makes his satire more nuanced and ambiguous than in the earlier books. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Courtney, Edward. A Commentary on the Satires of Juvenal. London: The Athlone Press, 1980. Contains an introduction and commentary on the Satires of Juvenal.
  • Freudenburg, Kirk. Satires of Rome: Threatening Poses from Lucilius to Juvenal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Freudenburg describes satire’s frequent shifts in focus and tone in Juvenal and his literary predecessors. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Highet, Gilbert. Juvenal the Satirist: A Study. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1954. Highet examines the life, work, and influence of Juvenal and undertakes a detailed literary analysis of each of his sixteen satires. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Wehrle, William T. The Satiric Voice: Program, Form, and Meaning in Persius and Juvenal. New York: Olms-Weidmann, 1992. A discussion of program, form, and meaning in Juvenal and his predecessor Persius. Bibliography.
  • Winkler, Martin M. The Persona in Three Satires of Juvenal. New York: Olms-Weidmann, 1983. Winkler discusses the concept of the persona in Satires 2, 6, and 9 of Juvenal. Bibliography.

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