Juvenal (died c. 127), or Decimus Junius Juvenalis, was the greatest of the Roman satirists. His bitter and rhetorical denunciations of Roman society, presented in a series of vivid pictures of Roman life, inspired all later satirists.
The life of Juvenal coincided with one of the most eventful periods of Roman history, one in which the weaknesses and failures of the government and the corruption and decadence of society were especially grave and evident. In reaction to this, Juvenal molded a new kind of satire, and he was able to impose it by his example on posterity.
An Undocumented Life
Juvenal was apparently almost completely unread between his own lifetime and the 4th century, when an attempt seems to have been made to compile his biography. This work, of which we have traces in over a dozen medieval biographies, seems to have been derived mainly from (occasionally misunderstood) passages in his works. As a result, the facts of his life are almost singularly lacking in certainty.
Juvenal was apparently born at Aquinum, a town in Latium. He spoke of himself as middle-aged in his first satire (the satires seem to be arranged in at least roughly chronological order), written shortly after 100; and in Satire XIII, the first satire of his last book, he refers to Juncus (consul in 127) as the recent consul. According to the medieval biographies, he lived to be over 80; if he was born about 50, this would fit the facts well enough, but it is only a guess.
We know nothing certain about Juvenal's life and activities before he started writing his satires. An inscription found at Aquinum tells of a dedication to Ceres by a——nius Juvenalis who was a military tribune, held high public office in Aquinum, and was a priest of the deified Vespasian. But the inscription may refer not to the poet but to some other member of the family, and the date is uncertain.
Martial knew Juvenal and calls him "eloquent" in the 90s, suggesting, as do the general tone of his poems and the vividness of his bleak picture of the teacher's life, that Juvenal may have been a rhetorician, although it might refer to his having been an advocate. He was certainly poor and knew the miseries of a client intimately; if Satire XI was written from personal experience, late in life he acquired a modest farm at Tibur (Tivoli) and a small house in Rome. Juvenal's references to the great figures of the day do not seem to imply familiarity.
According to the tradition of some very late ancient writers, Juvenal was banished because of the anger of an actor, the Emperor's favorite (supposedly at some lines in Satire VII). The time and place of exile are uncertain because of the conflicting evidence handed down to us.
Juvenal's 16 satires were apparently issued in 5 separate books. The first book, written sometime after 100, consists of Satires I-V and contains savage attacks on the city of Rome and the physical dangers and discomforts of life there, which were accompanied by social corruption and sexual degeneration. Book I is characterized by a greater scope and generality of attack and less use of specific virtues and vices to serve as the focus of the exposition than are any of the later books.
The first satire is programmatic. In Rome, he declares, "it is difficult not to write satire … even if nature does not allow you to write verse, your indignation will write it for you." A brilliant series of pictures of disgusting parvenus, forgers, poisoners, informers, and fortune hunters is adduced as demonstration, and Juvenal angrily declares that money, obtained by whatever shameful or evil means might come to hand, is alone honored and "honesty is praised and freezes." Never have selfish luxury and cringing, dependent poverty been so prevalent or been accompanied by so much vice. But it is no longer safe to make personal attacks on great sinners, as it was in the time of Lucilius, and so, to avoid a horrible death, one must limit oneself to attacking the dead.
This Juvenal proceeds to do: when he is not using traditional type names, his attacks are on figures of the age of Domitian and Nero. For this he has often been accused of cowardice and irrelevance, but Juvenal clearly intended an oblique attack against the rich and powerful of his own time, whose practices and morals could hardly have changed very greatly from what they were under Nero and Domitian.
The other charge often made against him, that his indignation is as frequently spent with as much force against relatively harmless breaches of current standards of behavior as against the gravest crimes and grossest immoralities, can be answered as well. First, the outrage of the average man (which Juvenal always purports to be) is often as much exercised against, for example, harmless eccentricities of dress and personal appearance as against the darkest crimes and corruptions of the day. Second, the Stoic doctrine that the good man was totally good, and the evil completely evil, with no intermediate position being possible, had a great influence on Juvenal's thought. These attacks on minor breaches usually occur at the climax of one particular line of invective, where they can serve as wry, half-humorous anti-climaxes, thus pointing up the weaknesses and hypocrisies of conventional morality (like Mark Twain's young man who, after thefts and murders, gradually "sank" to lying, swearing, and breaking the Sabbath).
The second satire is a violent and explicit attack on the hypocrisy of those who pretend to be pillars of morality, yet are deep in vice and are thus worse than open offenders. Satire III was paraphrased by Samuel Johnson in his "London": it is an attack on the city of Rome, where wealth is everything and "poverty makes a man ridiculous" and subjects him to many annoyances, troubles, and dangers.
The fourth satire is a satirical account of the calling of a council of state by the tyrant Domitian—to discuss how to cook a giant turbot with which he had been presented. Its picture of the gathering of the councilors, frightened by the sudden, unexplained summons, each either compromised or sinister and evil in his own way, is unforgettable. Satire V is an indignant account of a client dining with his patron and being subjected to indignities by the servants and eating cheap food while his host dines luxuriously, all so that the patron can amuse himself at the discomfiture of his guest.
Satire VI, a separate book in itself, written after 115, is by far the longest satire and is often considered Juvenal's masterpiece. It scathingly attacks women, their vanities and affectations.
Satire VII is an account of the miseries which the writer and teacher of literature must endure. It opens with the anticipation of brighter prospects under the patronage of a new emperor who was interested in literature and so is probably to be dated shortly after the accession of Hadrian in 117. The eighth satire is on the subject of the superiority of virtue to noble birth and contains interesting pictures of the evil and degenerate aristocracy. Satire IX, one of the most amusing of the satires, is generally neglected because of the obscenity of its subject matter.
With the fourth book, critics have generally felt that a weakening of the satirical force becomes evident. Thereafter, the subjects and illustrations seem chosen less from life than from literature. No decline in excellence, however, can be noted in the tenth satire, paraphrased in Dr. Johnson's "Vanity of Human Wishes." Its subject is the foolishness of human desires, illustrated by brilliant vignettes, derived from history and mythology, on the evil ends to which great political power, eloquence, military glory, long life, and beauty have led their possessors. At the end he answers the question "What, then, should men pray for?" with the famous phrase "mens sana in corpore sano"—"a sound mind in a sound body."
The eleventh satire is a contrast between the extravagant follies of contemporary gourmandise and ancient austerities at the table and is couched in the form of an invitation to dinner at the satirist's humble farm at Tibur, where rustic simplicity will mark the fare. The twelfth satire consists of congratulations to a friend on his escape from a shipwreck, with observations on the distinction between true and false friendship.
The incomplete, final, fifth book consists of Satire XIII, written shortly after 127, which attempts to console a friend who has been cheated of some money by telling him that the true punishment for crime is a guilty conscience; XIV, on the influence of parental example in teaching their children to sin, which is linked to a long sermon on avarice; XV, a horrified account of a murder and cannibalism as the result of a feud between two Egyptian towns; and XVI, a fragment apparently originally intended to be part of a long satire on the military life.
General Characteristics and Influence
Juvenal was little read until a revival of interest in the 4th century, probably first in the circle of Servius, to whom Juvenal's allusiveness and occasional obscurity gave ample field for the exercise of their learning and who appreciated the rhetorical style of his invective and the mastery of his Virgilian hexameters. The pagan poet Claudian and the Christian poets Ausonius and Prudentius imitated him.
After the revival of learning under Charlemagne, Juvenal became popular, and he was one of the most widely read Latin authors during the Middle Ages. To the medieval reader, he was primarily an ethical writer: his memorable phrases (some of which are still familiar, for instance, "rara avis," "bread and circuses," "Who will guard the guards themselves?") were prized, and his moral indignation was respected and admired. He is referred to by Geoffrey Chaucer, among others.
Juvenal's influence continued during and after the Renaissance, when he began to be read more for his style and his pictures of Roman life than as a moral handbook. Shakespeare refers to a passage by him in Hamlet, and Nicholas Boileau uses him as a model. In the 18th century John Dryden (who translated him) and Alexander Pope are permeated by the Juvenalian spirit, and Byron refers to him and clearly knew his work well.
Further Reading on Juvenal
The introductions to various (partial) editions of Juvenal's works in English are valuable, especially those of James D. Duff, Saturae XIV: Fourteen Satires of Juvenal (3d ed. by Michael Coffey, 1971, omitting Satires II and IX), and John E. B. Mayor, Thirteen Satires of Juvenal (5th ed., 2 vols., 1900-1901; repr. 1966, omitting Satires II, VI, and IX). Translations of Juvenal's works are The Satires of Juvenal, translated by Rolfe Humphries (1958), the most vivid, racy, and poetic rendering available in English; Juvenal: Satires, translated by Jerome Mazzaro (1965), with an introduction and explanatory notes; and Juvenal: The Sixteen Satires, translated with an introduction and notes by Peter Green (1967), which is faithful to the original Latin.
The standard work on Juvenal in English is Gilbert Highet, Juvenal the Satirist (1954), although the objection is usually made that Highet places too much reliance on the satires as a source for Juvenal's life. Good older appreciations of Juvenal are in H. E. Butler, Post-Augustan Poetry from Seneca to Juvenal (1909), and the two works of J. Wight Duff, A Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age: From Tiberius to Hadrian (1927; 3d ed., edited by A. M. Duff, 1964) and Roman Satire: Its Outlook on Social Life (1936). See also Inez Gertrude Scott, The Grand Style in the Satires of Juvenal (1927).