All Ours. “Satire is all ours,” wrote Quintilian, by which he seems to mean that this was a competitive arena in which the Romans beat even Greek writers hands down. And indeed, some of the most memorable Latin literature is in this genre. While scholars are not able to agree on the origin of the actual word “satire,” one is able to discern two major strains of Roman satire: the Lucilian, that stemming from the tradition established by the early Roman writer Lucilius, and the Menippean, that is, satire written in the style of the Syrian writer Menippus (third century B.C.E.). Menippus wrote in Greek, in a mélange of prose and verse, and taking a seriocomic narrative approach; writers such as Varro and the Greek author Lucian worked in this genre, and we might say that the Satyrica of Petronius falls into the Menippean tradition. The Lucilian tradition, by contrast, reflects the influence of Gaius Lucilius (circa 180-102 B.C.E.), a member of the Scipionic Circle, who wrote purely in verse. The satires of Lucilius, known only in fragments, were composed in dactylic hexameter, like Greek and Roman epics, and took the form of informal philosophical discourses; they show the influence of Stoicism. The most significant follower of Lucilius in Roman satire is, of course, Horace.
Human Foibles. Small targets representative of human foibles recur in Horace’s Satires. These poems aim to be “conversations” advocating common sense mixed with some Epicurean philosophy. Moderation and contentment are set forth as keys to human happiness, while greed, social climbing, adultery, and other excesses are gently made fun of. In Satire 1.9, for instance, the bore who tries to get an introduction to Maecenas from Horace vividly dramatizes the social climber who will sacrifice even his own defense in a court case in order to get the chance at making the right connections. But some humor is also aimed at the speaker. At pains to get away from the sycophant, Horace’s friend Fuscus leaves the poet in the lurch. Only the bore’s legal opponent manages to haul him away. Horace’s conclusion raises the encounter to the level of an epic fight: “Thus did Apollo save me” (78). The otherwise skeptical Horace, having been rid of a pest of epic proportions, humorously attributes his salvation to a divinity. Only a god could have achieved this! The often strong autobiographical element recedes in the second book where dialogue plays a significant role in which the poet seems to yield to his conversation partner. Paradoxically, each speaker has strong and weak points to make and a positive code of behavior is not always clear. Things become clearer again in the much later Epistles, which continue in the prosaic hexameter style of the Satires, but now Horace gives advice to friends and acquaintances. In the second book of this new genre of verse-letters, whose third letter is commonly called Ars Poetica, Horace extends his advice to the writing of poetry.
The Pumpkinification of Claudius. In Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, or “Pumpkinification” of the dead emperor, Claudius, who is presented as asking to be admitted among the Olympians but is sent to Hades, ends up serving under a freedman. The work is a mixture of prose and verse satire in which Seneca makes fun not only of the emperor who had banished him in his youth but also of literary genres and styles, including possibly his own tragedies.
Arbiter elegantiarum. The date of birth of Gaius Petronius is unknown. He was consul before 66 C.E., which would put his birth in the 30s at the latest. Nero held him in high esteem as a judge of good taste (arbiter elegantiarum, hence “Arbiter”). He committed suicide in 66 C.E. It has been doubted whether he is the author of the work we know as Satyricon whose proper name is Satiricon or Satyrica. However, the work fits well in the middle of the first century C.E. and is therefore likely to be his. Of the Satyricon only some of books 14 and 16 as well as all of book 15 remain. What the reader has is a fantastic story of the adventures of a young man named Encolpius in successive homosexual triangle relationships. This work inverts the plot of Greek novels in which a pair of separated lovers overcome many hazards in order to be united. It is also written in the Roman tradition of Menippean Satire, a mixture of prose and verse passages like Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis. This form gives Petronius many opportunities to parody literary styles including Lucan and Homer. The most famous passage is the so-called Trimalchio’s Dinner Party, where riches and bad taste are satirized.
Petronius, author of the Satyrica, is a master of narrative and of mischievous humor. Of the portion of this work that remains, the most famous section is known as the Cena Trimalchionis —the “Banquet of Trimalchio.” Here Trimalchio, a freedman who has become vulgarly wealthy, has staged a party of unimaginable lavishness. After letting all his guests arrive, he stages a late and ostentatious entrance. His frank and crass conversation shows that it takes more than money to elevate one’s social class:
…Trimalchio waltzed in, mopped his brow, washed his hands in some scented water, and, after pausing a moment, said: “My friends, forgive me, but my stomach has been unresponsive for many days. The doctors are lost. Nonetheless, a concoction of pomegranate rind mixed up with pine sapboiled in vinegar has loosened things up a bit. I hope my stomach remembers its manners now; otherwise it’s as noisy as a bull. And if anyone of you wants to relieve himself, there’s nothing to be ashamed about. None of us was ever born solid inside. I don’t think there’s any greater torment than holding yourself in. This is the one thing Jove himself cannot deny us.…
I don’t object to your doing anything here in the dining room if it makes you feel better. Even doctors forbid holding it in. And if more comes out than you expected, well, there are facilities just outside—water, chamber pots, and little sponges. Believe me, those vapors go right into your brain and upset the whole body. I personally know many, many men who’ve died because they wouldn’t admit the truth to themselves.
When the food is served, the spectacle becomes more and more extraordinary. In his powers of phantasmagoric description, Petronius shows himself the rival of such authors as Rabelais and Lewis Carroll.
…looking intently at the pig, Trimalchio exclaimed, “What is this? Has this pig been gutted? No, it hasn’t, by god! Get that cook in here now!”
A contrite looking cook appeared in front of our table and admitted that he’d forgotten to gut the pig. “What? Forgotten!” shouted Trimalchio. “You’d think he’d forgotten to add the salt and pepper, the way he says it; off with his shirt!” In no time the poor man was stripped and flanked by two executioners. Everyone tried to get him off the hook saying: “This happens all the time. Please, let him go. If it happens again, no one will speak up for him.”
…[Trimalchio’s] face relaxed into an hilarious grin as he said, “O.K., since you’ve got such a bad memory, gut him right here in front of us.” The cook donned his tunic, again, grabbed his butcher knife, and sliced the pig’s belly every which way with a quivering hand. The slits immediately gave way to the pressure from inside and roasted sausages and giblets gushed out of the wounds!
Source: Petronius, Satyrica, translated by R. Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
Master of the Epigram: Martial. A totally different note is struck by the epigrammatist Marcus Valerius Martialis, known in English as Martial. From his pen we have twelve books of epigrams from the years 86-102 C.E. plus a separate, earlier one called Book about the Spectacles and two books of two-liners to accompany gifts (Xenia) or party-favors (Apophoretd). Epigrams started their life as Greek inscriptions but in Hellenistic times were cultivated as an art form, often associated with specific occasions. Catullus picked up the genre in the latter third of his collection and it is to him that Martial looks back. Unlike the Catullan epigrams we have, Martial’s poetry is of mixed meter and varied length. Martial aims mainly at giving lively impressions of contemporary Roman life. Although he provides celebrations of imperial events as well as funerary poems, he tends to be more humorous (and even satirical) about life in Rome than his Greek precursors and Catullus. He certainly cultivates the tendency to end an epigram with a witty final line, which had already been apparent in Hellenistic epigram, and which became the hallmark of this genre after him. Martial’s epigrams work rather like a joke: he starts by setting up the situation or character, thus heightening the reader’s suspense. This tension is then released at the end by a witty, unexpected, often paradoxical punch line called aprosdoceton (Greek for
“unexpected”): You ask me what I get / out of my country place. my country place. / The profit, gross or net, / is never seeing your face. (2.38, translation by Mitchie). However, witty and even salacious pieces are varied by more somber, serious, or encomiastic ones, thereby giving the reader interesting insights into all facets of late first-century life.
Satire: Persius. Verse-satire in this age was written by Aulus Persius Flaccus. Born on 4 December 34 C.E. into a family of Etruscan descent in Volterra, north of Rome, Persius went at the age of twelve to Rome for his education. At sixteen he joined the Stoic philosopher Cornutus, and got to know Seneca and Lucan. He died of a stomach ailment before turning twenty-eight on 24 November 62 C.E. He left his estate to his mother and sister, his books to Cornutus. In his writings, Persius aims at drastically reforming the morals as well as the literature of his day. In harsh and often cryptic terms he tries to shake his reader out of his complacency and turn toward the life of the Stoic sage.
Satire: Juvenal. Equally scathing but less obscure are the fifteen satires of Decius Junius Juvenalis. Born around 67 C.E. in Aquinum nearNaples, Juvenal made a living as a speech writer (declamator). His main creative period was under the emperor Hadrian (117-38 C.E.) to whom he dedicated satire 7. Accounts that he was banished in old age are highly suspect. He died sometime after 127 C.E. Juvenal chastises pretty much everything in his day, from declamation via legacy-hunting, social climbing, and sexual depravity to the life in the city in general: More deadly than armies, /luxury has fallen upon us, avenging the world we conquered. /Every crime and act of lust has become familiar / since the demise of Roman poverty (Sat. 6.292-5, translation by Rudd). Rather than attacking living contemporaries, he uses the dead as examples of vice. This attitude of rage mellows with satire 10, where he becomes a more detached observer of the irredeemable wickedness of the world. In his case, not even Stoic apathy can mend his disgust.
Gian-Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History, translated by Joseph B. Solodow (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
The word satire is often thought to be derived from the Latin word satura, originally meaning the vessel used for carrying harvest produce. It came to mean a mixture, and then a mixed form of entertainment that people might have at harvest time, consisting of songs, jokes, and other kinds of humor. In its broadest sense, then, satire is a mixed kind of humorous entertainment related to comedy that focuses on people and their behavior.
In a more particular sense, satire is a literary form, traced back to the Romans and in particular to the works of Juvenal (c. 50/60–127 CE) and Horace (65–8 BCE), who both wrote about their own times, though in different tones. Horace is characterized as more urbane and witty, Juvenal as more savage and critical. For these writers, a satire was a particular sort of poem with a strict form and specific content. It was this definition that pervaded English literature in the work of John Donne (1572–1631), John Dryden (1631–1700), Alexander Pope (1688–1744), and Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
From the Renaissance onward, the works of Horace and Juvenal, together with works by other great Greek and Roman writers, including Homer (ninth to eighth century BCE), Virgil (70–19 BCE), and Ovid (43 BCE– c. 17 CE), were the basis of an educated person’s reading. The one hundred years from the Restoration in 1660 constituted the great age of satire in English literature, known as the Augustan Age, referring to the period in ancient Rome when Augustus Caesar (63 BCE–14 CE) was the first emperor. English writers produced their own translations or versions of such classical works. For example, the “Epistle to Arbuthnot” (1735) is Alexander Pope’s prologue to his own imitation of Horace’s satires, and Dr. Johnson based his London (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) on Juvenal’s Satires 3 and 10.
The eighteenth century, however, also saw the rise of prose satire, especially in the works of Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), whose Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country (1729) have influenced most satirical writers since.
One significant reason for the pervasiveness and popularity of satire in England during the eighteenth century may have been people’s reactions to the disorder and division that they experienced during the civil war of the 1640s. Satire became an effective method of drawing attention to the ways in which human behavior falls short of its ideal and of trying to correct that within an accepted political and social framework. The job of the satirist, therefore, became, as Jonathan Swift put it, “to cure the vices of mankind.” It is this moral purpose that underlies great satirical achievements.
Along with this moral purpose, features that distinguish satire from other kinds of writing are its flexibility of tone and its consistent use of wit and irony. The most consistent target for satire in any period is hypocrisy, and the predominant method is irony, where the reader always has to be alert to the conflict between the literal and actual meanings of what is being said. Hence, although the golden age is perhaps the greatest age of satire in English and although writing is the dominant form of satire, nevertheless satire appears in many different periods and in many different forms: writing, painting, and more recently television and film.
It is often the case that effective satire can be ephemeral. Particular examples of hypocrisy come and go quickly, and so references can soon become dated as their occasion slips from memory. Obvious examples may be found in the contemporary television series South Park or The Simpsons or in political caricatures or cartoons.
There is also a sense in which satire is culture bound. Because it depends on wit and irony, it is neither accessible nor thriving in societies and groups where fundamentalism or literalism is the prevailing ethos. Throughout history there have been those who can only read literally and who have therefore missed the whole thrust of a satirical work. This was true of some readers of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, just as it has been true of some viewers of the satirical film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006).
Satire, the art of ridiculing human vice and folly, was arguably the most popular and politically important literary form during the Revolutionary and early republican periods. In fiction, drama, and particularly poetry, satire emerged during this time as a crucial means for shaping American social and political discourse, intervening in virtually every major controversy from the Stamp Act crisis to the War of 1812.
Befitting the political turbulence and fervor that characterized the era, early American satirists envisioned their works as weapons in a literary and ideological war to decide the future of the new Republic. During the Revolution, anti-British satires appeared regularly in newspapers or as broadsides, responding to specific events and depicting King George III and his supporters as villains or buffoons. The most prominent satirical writers of the Revolution included John Trumbull, author of M'Fingal (1776), a burlesque of a typical Tory magistrate, and Philip Freneau, who published dozens of burlesque portraits of the king and various colonial governors and generals. Satirists on the Loyalist side, meanwhile, employed comparable tactics against the Patriots, as in Jonathan Odell's The American Times (1780), a vitriolic assault against George Washington, John Hancock, and other Revolutionary leaders.
As with much eighteenth-century American poetry, verse satire from the Revolutionary and early republican periods was highly allusive, even consciously imitative, of English Augustan masterpieces by Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and others. Still, the Revolutionary period introduced a number of uniquely American characteristics and themes. American satirists were especially drawn, for instance, to writing verse parodies of other printed texts such as newspaper articles or official government documents. During the war, broadsides proclaiming martial law or demanding the arrest of rebels were frequently answered by anonymous verse parodies, such as William Livingston's "Burgoyne's Proclamation" (1777), ridiculing not only the colonial official who issued the proclamation but the language of political authority itself. This capacity of satire to alter or subvert the meaning of other printed texts would, in turn, make possible the principal literary dynamic of the early national period: poets representing one political perspective would engage in satiric exchanges with poets from the opposing side.
After the Revolution, satirists weighed in on the numerous social and economic challenges facing the new United States, and soon individual authors were identifying themselves with specific policies and parties. During the debate over the Constitution, a group of poets later known as the Connecticut Wits (Trumbull, David Humphreys, Joel Barlow, and Lemuel Hopkins) collaborated on "The Anarchiad" (1786–1787), which ridiculed the the Articles of Confederation and its defenders as unable or unwilling to resolve the social and economic crises that arose. After the federal government was formed, writers suspicious of Washington's administration, including Freneau and St. George Tucker, commenced a satiric counterattack in the pages of Freneau's National Gazette. At the same time, a new assemblage of Connecticut Wits (Hopkins, Richard Alsop, and Theodore Dwight) collaborated on a series of satires directed against the emerging Jeffersonian party, particularly for their sympathy toward the French Revolution (see, for instance, "The Echo" [1791–1798] and "The Political Greenhouse for 1798"). The 1790s thus constituted the high point of verse satire in the early national period, with writers engaged in often bitter personal attacks over issues ranging from the Jay Treaty (1795) to the election of 1800.
Not all satire from this period was political; nor was it limited to poetry. John Trumbull's first important work, "The Progress of Dulness" (1772–1773), took aim at Yale College and New Haven society, while his friend Timothy Dwight ridiculed the theological doctrines of Deists and Universalists in The Triumph of Infidelity (1788). In drama, Royall Tyler's The Contrast (1787) portrayed various American stock figures in a lightly satirical, though affectionate, light, while in fiction, Hugh Henry Brackenridge's early novel Modern Chivalry (1792–1797) responded with more caustic irony to the social implications of increasing democratization.
After the election of Jefferson, some Federalists, such as Thomas Green Fessenden in Democracy Unveiled (1805), continued the earlier strategy of unmasking Jeffersonian Democracy as a false ideology that primarily benefited demagogues and Southern slave owners. More generally, however, writers after 1800 turned away from the satiric ideal of literature as a means of political intervention and toward a contrasting notion of literature as refuge from the ruthless world of politics. Thus, although satire would live on in the 1810s and 1820s, it would appear chiefly in the guise of works written to entertain rather than to spur political action, as in the essays and stories of Washington Irving.
Dowling, William C. Literary Federalism in the Age of Jefferson: Joseph Dennie and the Port Folio, 1801–1812. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Wells, Colin. The Devil and Doctor Dwight: Satire and Theology in the Early American Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
- Arbuthnot, Mr . cliché expert who spoke exclusively in the clichés of each subject on which he was interviewed. [Am. Lit.: Frank Sullivan columns in The New Yorker ]
- Clouds, The attacks Socrates and his philosophy. [Gk. Drama: Haydn & Fuller, 144]
- Frogs, The lampoons the plays of Euripides and his advanced thinking. [Gk. Drama: Haydn & Fuller, 276]
- Joseph Andrews satirizes the sentimentality of contemporary fiction. [Br. Lit.: Fielding Joseph Andrews ]
- Knight of the Burning Pestle, The play by Beaumont and Fletcher burlesques the excesses of tales of chivalry. [Br. Drama: Haydn & Fuller, 399]
- M°A°S°H medical farce on the horrors of war. [Am. Cinema and TV: Halliwell, 474]
- Pogo comic strip rife with political satire. [Comics: Berger, 172]
- Praise of Folly, The uses tongue-in-cheek praise to satirize contemporary customs, institutions, and beliefs. [Dutch Philos.: Erasmus The Praise of Folly in Haydn & Fuller, 607]
- Scourge of Princes Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), wrote wicked satires on nobles and notables. [Ital. Lit.: Benét, 47]
- Teufelsdrockh, Herr fictitious professor, Carlyle’s mouthpiece for criticism of Victorian life. [Br. Lit.: Sartor Resartus ]
- Troilus and Cressida Homer’s heroes are reduced in character and satirized. [Br. Drama: Shakespeare Troilus and Cressida ]
- Ubu Roi burlesques bourgeois values through outlandish political adventurism, including assassination, mock heroics, and buffoonery. [Fr. Drama: Alfred Jarry Ubu Roi in Benét, 1036]
- Zuleika Dobson burlesques sentimental novels of the Edwardian era. [Br. Lit.: Magill II, 1169]
sat·ire / ˈsaˌtīr/ • n. the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. ∎ a play, novel, film, or other work that uses satire: a stinging satire on American politics. ∎ a genre of literature characterized by the use of satire. DERIVATIVES: sat·i·rist / ˈsatərist/ n.
So satiric(al) XVI. — F. or late L. satirize XVII. — F. satiriser. Hence satirist XVI.