views updated


by Juvenal


Satirical poetry set within the Roman Empire during the first century ce; published in latin as Saturae c. 100-127 ce.


The satirist comments savagely upon what he perceives as the evils of his age, which range from corrupt social institutions to human vice in all its manifestations.

Events in History at the Time of the Satires

The Satires in Focus

For More Information

Decimus Junius Juvenalis was born around 60 ce, at Aquinium near Rome. Little is known about his youth, family background, or education, although a fourth-century biography written by Lactantius claimed that Juvenal was the son of a freedman and that he practiced rhetoric for his own amusement until he was middle-aged. It is known that Juvenal spent time in Rome during the reign of Domitian (81-96 ce), who may have exiled Juvenal to Egypt, a country for which the satirist later shows contempt. In the course of his life, Juvenal experienced the rule of nine emperors, of whom many figure in his satires, though seldom to their advantage. Juvenal began publishing his writings around 100 ce, several years after Domitian’s death. Savage, incisive, merciless, and sometimes sardonically funny, Juvenal’s 16 satires—the last of which survives only as a fragment—were to influence many later writers, including Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson.

Events in History at the Time of the Satires

The reign of Domitian

Although Juvenal lived under several emperors, his cynical view of Roman rulers may stem mostly from the repressive regime of Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 ce). The younger son of Emperor Vespasian and the brother of Emperor Titus, Domitian was a member of the Flavians, an equestrian (business-class) family that became increasingly prominent during the first century ce. His father, Vespasian, had distinguished himself as a military commander before acceding to the imperial throne at the end of a turbulent period known as the Year of the Four Emperors. Within 18 months Rome had experienced four rulers, three of whom reigned in-effectually and met violent ends. The fourth, Vespasian, became emperor in late 69 ce and managed to restore order and stability to the state in the course of his ten-year reign. His eldest son, Titus, ruled only for two years (79-81 ce), but he carried on his father’s policies.

Unlike Vespasian and Titus, Domitian had no military experience at the time of his accession; while his father and brother campaigned in the African provinces and Judaea, the young Domitian remained in Rome, studying rhetoric and literature. This tendency to be overshadowed continued during Vespasian’s and Titus’s reigns. Domitian was granted no important imperial position or office, though he held several honorary consulships and priesthoods. Thus, he gained little official training for leadership.

Domitian nevertheless ruled moderately during the early years of his reign. Conscientious and diligent, he promoted religious festivals, erected public buildings, led military campaigns in the Rhine and the Danube areas of Germany, and raised army pay by a third, which fostered loyalty between him and the Roman troops. Domitian’s regime was not, however, an unqualified success. Because of an economic depression, the value of Roman currency dropped dramatically and Domitian’s numerous public works further strained the state’s finances.

In the later years of his reign, Domitian became increasingly rigid in his policies. He had long been concerned with public morality and adherence to religious ritual. When three Vestal virgins broke their vows of chastity, Domitian sentenced all three to capital punishment and later had Cornelia, the chief Vestal, buried alive. No doubt this brutality lost supporters among the general population. The emperor’s relations with the senatorial class meanwhile deteriorated too as he became more determined to rule as an absolute monarch. His arrogance eventually led him to take away the Senate’s decision-making powers, and he grew ruthless in his efforts to suppress opposition, reviving treason trials, encouraging informers, and prosecuting members of the senatorial and equestrian orders whom he suspected of conspiring against him. At least a dozen former consuls were executed during Domitian’s reign, mainly for dissent or alleged conspiracy against the emperor.

Ultimately, Domitian’s fear of assassination became a self-fulfilling prophecy. His enemies in the Senate, members of the Praetorian Guard (his household troops), and his own wife, Domitia Longina, successfully carried out a plot against his life. The actual assassin was a steward attached to Domitian’s niece’s household, who on September 18, 96 ce fatally stabbed the emperor eight times. Juvenal’s own loathing of Domitian is evident in his fourth satire, “Against a big fish,” in which Domitian summons his terrified adherents, who live in fear of his cruel caprices, to his palace to discuss how a big fish given to him as a gift should be prepared. Juvenal concludes, “Would that to nonsense like this [Domitian] had given all his devotion. / Spared that savage caprice which took away from the city / Bright illustrious souls…. / Nobles he could kill. He was soaked in their blood, and no matter. / But when the common herd began to dread him, he perished” (Juvenal, Satires, Satire 4, lines 150-152; 153-154).

Patrons and clients

One aspect of Roman society mentioned frequently in Juvenal’s satires is the patron-client relationship, which involved political and social connections. Dating from the time of the Roman Republic, patrons, usually of patrician (aristocratic) rank, would take clients—younger patricians or plebeians (commoners) —under their influence. Patrons would provide their clients with advice, money, and business opportunities in exchange for personal loyalty, political support, and other services intended to enhance the patrons’ status. Clients could be freedmen (former slaves), businessmen, artists, or writers; indeed, patrons with political aspirations often chose to ally themselves with prominent writers, who received financial support and publishing opportunities in exchange for exercising their talents at their patron’s behest.

A client had duties to his patron. These might include visiting the patron every morning to greet him formally, accompanying him to the Forum and to other places of business, and supporting him politically in the assembly. The ceremony associated with these daily rituals was as important as the actual performance of them; the more clients seen attending the patron, the greater status and prestige attributed to him. Faithful clients might be rewarded with handouts of coins or food for their morning efforts or, if they were of sufficiently high rank, with an invitation to dine with their patron. It is worth noting that the patron-client relationship operated at all levels of Roman society. Patrons themselves tended to be clients of their political and social superiors.

In his Satires, Juvenal frequently attacks the patron-client system, which he portrays as having deteriorated into a humiliatingly unequal relationship. Stingy patrons dole out meager rewards to obsequious clients who are too cowed to protest their treatment. In the fifth satire, Juvenal chides clients who futilely hope for a good meal from a patron when he keeps the best dishes for himself and gives them only scraps: “He’s a wise man to treat you like this, for if you can stand it, / You can stand anything else, and, by God, I think that you ought to! / Some day you’ll offer your shaved-oft heads [the mark of an exslave] to be slapped, and a flogging / Won’t seem fearful at all” (Satires, 5.169-172).

The development of satire

Derived from the Latin term “lanx satura” (full plate, usually consisting of mixed fruits), satire is considered a uniquely Roman genre. The Roman critic Quintilian (c. 35-90s ce) boasted, “Satire, at any rate, is all our own” (Quintilian in Hornblower and Spawforth, p. 636). As its name suggests, satire was comprised of a mixture of elements, including parody, exaggeration, deflation, caricature, and invective. The use of satiric techniques varied from writer to writer.

Lucilius (c. 180-102 bce) was usually considered the father of satire; he specialized in stringent criticism of his contemporaries and fixed the dactylic hexameter as the conventional meter for satire. He was also known for his earthy, sometimes coarse, conversational writing style. Although he reportedly composed some 30 books of satiric verse, only 1300 lines survive. Another popular form of satire, which mingled verse and prose, was associated with the Cynic philosopher Menippus of Gedara (c. third century bce), and became known as Menippean satire. Both satirists had their admirers, adherents, and imitators.

Among the satirists who followed Lucilius’s example most closely, Horace (65-8 bce), Persius (34-62 ce), and Juvenal are perhaps the best known. Horace and Juvenal, however, put their own stamp on the genre as well. Using a less bitter tone than Lucilius and avoiding political themes, Horace created an urbane persona that gently mocked human foibles. By contrast, Juvenal’s persona in his satires was an outraged moralist, railing against the vices and corruption of his city and its denizens.

Associated with the relative freedom of the Roman Republic, satire became more hazardous to write after the establishment of imperial rule. In his opening satire, Juvenal vividly depicts the likely fate of satirists who offend cruel or capricious rulers; dare to name names and you become “a torch in a tunic / Standing where other men stand, victims, choking and smoking, / Till you fall, and your corpse makes a furrow across the arena” (Satires, 1.155-157). To write satire, Juvenal argues, requires more courage and audacity than it takes to rewrite ancient myths and plays.


Some historians have speculated that Juvenal was the son of a freed man, a circumstance that might account for his extensive knowledge of the patron-client relationship, since freedmen automatically became clients of their former owners. As the term suggests, freedmen—and freedwomen—were emancipated slaves. In the Roman world freedmen could be granted manumission by their owners or could raise enough money to buy their freedom. Informal manumission (before friends) did not grant citizenship to freedmen, who were nonetheless protected by the praetor. Formal manumission, which took place before a magistrate, conferred citizenship as well as freedom upon the former slave. However, no freedman was eligible for political office, though if his children were born after his manumission, they qualified as free citizens who could hold political office. Even first generation freedmen could play a role in government, though. Emperor Claudius appointed several as his secretaries, and Caenis, a freedwoman of Claudius’s mother Antonia, became Emperor Vespasian’s long-term mistress, living with him until her death.

The Satires in Focus

The Sequence of Juvenal’s Satires

Satire 1 “On his compulsion toward this form of writing”

Deals with why the poet has chosen to write satire.

Satire 2 “Against hypocritical queens”

Attacks homosexual men.

Satire 3 “Against the city of Rome”

Catalogues all the ills of Rome and the reasons one should abandon the city.

Satire 4 “Against a big fish”

Mocks fawning courtiers of the late Emperor


Satire 5 “Against mean patrons”

Attacks stingy patrons and the clients who tolerate their abuse.

Satire 6 “Against women”

Presents a diatribe against women couched within an argument against marriage.

Satire 7 “On poets, pedagogues, and poverty”

Laments the straitened financial circumstances of poets and scholars.

Satire 8 “Against base nobles”

Argues that noble blood should be less important than worthy deeds.

Satire 9 “On the griefs of a career man”

Attacks pimps and informers.

Satire 10 “On the vanity of human wishes” Dissects the folly of common human aspirations and dreams.

Satire 11 “With an invitation to dinner”

Criticizes extravagance at mealtimes, promising a simple repast served in peace as an alternative.

Satire 12 “On the near-shipwreck of a friend” Celebrates a friend’s narrow escape from death and attacks legacy hunters.

Satire 13 “For a defrauded friend”

Offers consolation to a friend who has been defrauded and enumerates the torments of a guilty conscience.

Satire 14 “On education in avarice”

Discusses the evils of avarice and the importance of setting a good example for one’s children.

Satire 15 “On the atrocities of Egypt”

Attacks the customs of Egypt, especially an instance of cannibalism.

Satire 16 “On the prerogatives of the soldier”

Discusses the advantages enjoyed by Roman soldiers, who have started to trample upon civilians’ rights; appears to be incomplete.


Juvenal’s satires were apparently published in five books of varying length. The first book contains Satires 1-5; the second book, Satire 6 alone; the third book, Satires 7-9; the fourth book, Satires 10-12; and the fifth book, Satires 13-16. The angry, ranting tone of the first two books, which deal mainly with issues related to Roman men and women, differs from the more detached, ironical tone of the last three books. The transformation is detectable in the following set of the few satires this writing describes in further detail. While Juvenal’s speaker remains cynical throughout, the difference in tone may suggest a degree of internal growth in the narrator; he has perhaps gained a measure of control over the ungoverned anger of his earlier self.

Satire 1

The first satire, “On his compulsion toward this form of writing,” begins with an attack on the mediocre poets of his day as Juvenal’s speaker asks, “Must I be listening always, and not pay them back?” (Satires, 1.1). The speaker bemoans not only the quality but also the quantity of doggerel produced by these hack writers, whose works continue to recycle old epic themes and subjects. Taking the satirist Lucilius for his model, the speaker declares his own intention of writing satire, especially in light of the many vices plaguing his society, asking, “What human being / Has such iron control of himself in this city of evil / As to hold his tongue” (Satires, 1.29-31).

According to the speaker, immorality flourishes in Rome in the shape of greedy lawyers, backstabbing informers, ambitious lackeys, and countless other malefactors. The speaker asks, “Do things like these not rate the midnight oil of a Horace? / Should I not bring them to light?” (Satires, 1.51-52). In this age of vice and folly, the speaker maintains, satire practically writes itself. A mere observer could fill notebooks with verses about the crimes and misdeeds that occur in Rome on a daily basis, from forgery to poisoning.

The speaker goes on to depict a humiliating scene of the city’s poor clients lining up to receive a grudging pittance from their wealthy patrons. While the poor must scrounge for food and fuel, the patron gluts himself at lavish banquets, gobbling up the price of an estate at one sitting. The speaker predicts no improvement over the present injustices, predicting that future ages will practice the same vices.

The writer of satire should be aware of the risks he is taking in speaking out against the evils of his time. Ancient myths and legends are far safer subjects about which to write, exciting neither anger nor distress. “But when Lucilius roars and draws the sword in his anger, / Then the listener’s mind, cold with its guilty knowledge, / Reddens and sweats; hence tears and wrath. You’d best think it over; / Once the helmet is on, it is much too late to be sorry” (Satires, 1.165-168). The satire concludes with the speaker’s declaration, “Let’s see what can be done about less fortunate mortals, / Those whose ashes lie by the great roads out of the city” (Satires, 1.170-171).

Satire 3

The third satire, “Against the city of Rome,” begins with a framing narrative about the poet’s friend Umbricius, who is leaving Rome to settle “in the ghost town of Cumae” (Satires, 3.2). While waiting for his goods to be loaded onto a wagon, Umbricius launches into a lengthy monologue about the many evils plaguing his native city.

According to Umbricius, Rome is no longer a place for an honest man, who is doomed to idleness and poverty if he remains there. Thus, Umbricius plans to settle where he can enjoy his declining years in peace, abandoning Rome to the wealthy and corrupt who wield all the power in the city. Rome itself has become a city of detestable foreigners, more welcoming to flattering, fawning Greeks, whose manners and customs have beguiled the patrons of the city and have become the fashion. Unable to compete, native Romans find themselves slandered by the Greeks and subsequently dismissed from their patron’s service.

Umbricius declares that Romans’ faithful service is not valued, that only wealth matters. Poor men are mocked for their shabby clothes and prevented from advancing socially through marriage or employment. The rising cost of living and the pressure of trying to keep up with one’s neighbors drive poor men further into debt.

In addition, Rome offers terrible living conditions in the form of dilapidated houses with cracked walls and ruined beams. When a fire erupts, the poor man finds himself without help or possessions, while a rich man whose home burns receives financial and emotional support from his many friends to replace what he has lost. It is far better, Umbricius insists, to live in the country, where decent housing is cheap and plentiful.

Umbricius goes on to condemn Rome’s lack of tranquility and high crime level. Only the rich can sleep in peace and make their way in cushioned litters through crowded streets without fear of getting jostled or trampled (the litter being a couch mounted on poles and used to carry or transport someone). The streets themselves are full of hazards, especially at night; drunkards, hoodlums, and thieves lurk in the shadows to assault the poor and unwary passers-by, while burglars scheme to break into citizens’ houses. Most of the iron and steel in Rome are used to forge chains for criminals, rather than to make hoes and ploughshares.

Bringing his tirade to a close, Umbricius announces that he must be on his way. He declares that he will gladly come to visit his friend should the latter desert Rome for the Aquino and even promises to listen to his friend’s satirical verses.

Satire 10

“On the vanity of human wishes,” one of Juvenal’s more famous satires, begins with this solemn observation: “In all the lands that reach from Gibraltar to the Euphrates / Few indeed are the men who can tell a curse from a blessing.... / In peace, in war, in both, we ask for the things that will hurt us” (Satires, 10.1-2, 9). Instead of trusting the gods’ judgment, petitioners pray for the blessings of eloquence, physical strength, and wealth, which too often turn out to have unpleasant consequences.

Wealth is most often prayed for. But rich men live in continual fear of their lives, often becoming the target of envious rivals or poisoners. Poor men, by contrast, venture forth at night without dreading attacks by robbers. The laughing philosopher Democritus and the weeping philosopher Heraclitus both deplored the craving for riches; their wisdom should set an example for all.

Political power likewise brings about ruin. The once-mighty Sejanus, leader of the palace military guard, lost the favor of Emperor Tiberius, fell from his high position, and was dragged as a disgraced prisoner through the streets of Rome. The fickle Roman populace shows no loyalty to former favorites, caring only for bread and entertainment. High rank and ambition have been the downfall not only of Sejanus but of Crassus, Pompey, and even Caesar himself. “Few are the kings who descend without wounds or murder to Pluto. / Few tyrants die a dry death” (Satires, 10.114-115).

Verbal eloquence can also be a two-edged sword. Budding scholars may pray for the talents of Demosthenes and Cicero, two famed orators. But both were undone by their talents. Cicero died at the hands of Mark Antony’s soldiers who cut off his head and hands. Demosthenes lived an ill-starred life and died miserably as well.

Military glory similarly proves to be a hollow aspiration. Taken away from the battlefield, what are spoils of war but a motley collection of battered weapons, arms, and demoralized captives? Hannibal’s military ambitions eventually brought ruin to his native Carthage, Alexander the Great died young, and King Xerxes of Persia suffered a great defeat, losing all but one of his ships, at the Battle of Salamis.

Many pray for a long life, but “a long old age is full of continual evils” (Satires, 10.190). The elderly lose their looks, their vigor, their teeth, their hearing, their sense of taste, and their ability to perform sexually. Worse, they suffer from a succession of illnesses and injuries, eventually growing senile and unable to care for themselves. Meanwhile, those who retain their mental faculties into old age must endure the deaths of their siblings, spouses, and children. Who would be like the ancient kings Nestor or Priam, whose sons predeceased them? Moreover, Priam lived to see his kingdom destroyed before he himself was slaughtered. Many men, including Marius and Pompey, survived long enough to be conquered, exiled, or imprisoned. An early death would have spared them these indignities.

Fond mothers pray to Venus to grant beauty to their sons and daughters. But men prey upon beautiful girls, while handsome boys are seldom virtuous. Beauty often leads to corruption and vice; even handsome men who resist temptation, like Bellerophon and Hippolytus, may find themselves the target of lustful, predatory women (for more on Hippolytus, see Phaedra , also in Classical Literature and Its Times).

What should one pray for? The speaker advises readers to respect the wisdom of the gods and allow them to choose what blessings to bestow upon their supplicants. Meanwhile,

Pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body, a spirit
Unafraid of death, but reconciled to it, and able
To bear up, to endure whatever troubles afflict it,
Free from hate and desire …
I show you what you can give to yourself: only through virtue
Lies the certain road to a life that is blessed and tranquil.
           (Satires, 10.358-361, 363-364)

The virtue of simplicity

Although Juvenal offers little in the way of solutions to Rome’s many evils, it would be inaccurate to say that he is pessimistic about or indifferent to every aspect of the human condition. Indeed, one may contend that his out-rage reflects the magnitude of his concern for the welfare of Rome. There are things that Juvenal clearly values, including true friendship and simple pleasures (a good meal, a long soak in the baths), the latter best enjoyed in moderation: “Isn’t pleasure / All the more keen in our lives the less we’re inclined to repeat it?” (Satires, 11.207-208).

The need for moderation and simplicity is a recurring theme throughout Juvenal’s satires. He deplores extravagance in all forms, whether in food, clothing, expenditures, or customs, and seems to ascribe much of it to foreigners who have taken up residence in Rome and made it somehow less Roman. In Satire 3, the speaker Umbricius declares, “Citizens, I can’t stand a Greekized Rome. Yet what portion / Of the dregs of our own town comes from Achaia [Greece] only? / Into the Tiber pours the silt, the mud of Orontes, / Bringing its bauble and brawl, its dissonant harps and its timbrels” (Satires, 3.61-64). Umbricius goes on to argue that “Long before now, all poor Roman descendants of Romans / Ought to have marched out of the town in one determined migration” and taken up quieter, simpler lives in the country (Satires, 3.163-164).

When extending a dinner invitation to his friend Persicus, Juvenal describes a plain, wholesome meal that is meant to contrast with the wasteful extravagance and opulent decor of most Roman banquets. He promises “things we can’t get in a market,” such as “the fattest kid in the flock, and the tenderest,” “fresh eggs … warm from the nest,” “Syrian bergamot pears” and “fragrant sweet-smelling apples… perfectly ripened” (Satires, 11.65-74). He maintains that “Such a meal would have pleased our luxury-loving senate / In the good old days” when everything was “perfectly simple, / Furniture, household, food” (Satires, 11.76-77, 98-99).

Although readers might question whether “the good old days” Juvenal describes so nostalgically ever truly existed, modesty and simplicity, along with frugality, piety, and chastity, were qualities that many Romans prized. The Emperor Augustus, for example, was often praised for his own modest lifestyle: he furnished his palace simply, ate moderately, and wore unremarkable clothes when at home. Simplicity and moderation were also characteristic of the reigns of Vespasian and Titus, two of Augustus’s more respected successors, who ruled during Juvenal’s lifetime.

Sources and literary context

Juvenal drew mainly upon his experiences in Rome and upon the city’s long history. Frequent references are made to past incidents and scandals, such as the fall of Sejanus and the affairs of Empress Messalina, as well as to more recent events, like the tyranny of the late Emperor Domitian and the deterioration of the patron-client relationship.

While Juvenal’s personal observations provide the meat of his satires, he was also writing within an established tradition of satire inherited from Lucilius, Horace, and Persius. In his first satire, Juvenal even refers to Lucilius and Horace, announcing that he will follow “on the drill ground / Where Lucilius drove the wheels of his chariot” (Satires, 1.20-21). In style, however, Juvenal followed Horace’s example, adopting a refined, almost conversational tone that becomes more detached in the later satires. Cynicism, pessimism, vivid pictorial imagery, and biting invective characterize Juvenal’s work; he seldom offers constructive criticism or proposes solutions while railing against vice, folly, and corrupt institutions.


While Juvenal is said to have enjoyed moderate success as a writer during his lifetime, his satires were seldom read for two centuries after his death. Towards the end of the fourth century, however, interest in Juvenal’s work revived. Between the fourth and fifth centuries, the reading public in Italy, Gaul, Spain, Africa, and the Greek-speaking East continued to enjoy his Satires. In the West and the East, Juvenal was included among the classical writers studied in the school curricula of the time.

During the period known as the Dark Ages Juvenal’s work fell into obscurity again, but manuscripts of his writings, which had survived from late antiquity, were rediscovered and copied by the end of the eighth century. Later medieval and Renaissance scholars also found Juvenal a subject worthy of study, as a moralist and as an example of a classical poet. Between 1470 and 1500 there were at least 50 known printings of Juvenal’s work. Later satirists, such as John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson, admired Juvenal and were influenced by him to some degree. Johnson, in particular, based two of his own famous works, London and On the Vanity of Human Wishes, on Satires 3 and 10 from Juvenal’s corpus.

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Anderson, William S. Essays on Roman Satire. Princeton, N J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Boardman, John, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray, eds. The Oxford History of the Roman World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Coffey, Michael. Roman Satire. London: Methuen, 1976.

Courtney, E. Commentary on the Satires of Juvenal. London: Athlone Press, 1980.

Freudenburg, Kirk. Satires of Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Grant, Michael. The Roman Emperors. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985.

Highet, Gilbert. Juvenal the Satirist: A Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Juvenal. The Satires of Juvenal. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958.

Knoche, Ulrich. Roman Satire. Trans. Edwin S. Ramage. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.