Juvenal c. 55–127

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c. 55–127

Juvenal, Decimus Junius Juvenalis, a Latin poet of satires, was born between 55 and 60 ce in Aquino, where his family owned land. He served in the Roman army and became a tribune while in Dalmatia. By about 78 ce Juvenal moved to Rome, where he spent most of his life observing the deterioration and corruption of Roman society. He studied rhetoric until his middle age and practiced eloquence under the Emperors Domitian (r. 81–96 ce) and Trajan (r. 98–117). The most distressing event of his life was his ten-year exile from Rome, ordered by the Emperor Hadrian (r. 117–138). He incurred the emperor's ire because of his biting satires, written between 100 and 128 ce, that attacked the corruption of the ruling class and the degeneracy of all classes of Roman society, from the nobles to the nouveau riches and the newcomers from the colonies. Undoubtedly these virulent attacks earned Juvenal numerous enemies. The emperor recalled him from exile around 130, when in his seventies, and Juvenal lived in Rome until his death, between 131 and 140 ce.

The tone of Juvenal's satires is indignant and he resorts to violent invective and rhetorical declamation, whereas Horace was less harsh and employed ridicule perhaps more effectively. Juvenal's satires tell as much about himself as they do about Roman society, for he was not a cheerful fellow but rather a pessimist.

Juvenal was influenced by Lucilius (c. 180–c. 102 bce) in his acerbic and comically mocking tone, but he shows much more passion, exuberance, color, and taste for caricature than any of his predecessors, including Horace (65–8 bce), Martial (c. 40–c. 103 ce), and his quasi-contemporary Persius (34–62 ce). He has been the most read Latin author after Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Terence. Yet he did not attract much interest until Lactantius, a Christian writer of the third to fourth century, brought him back to light, and he was quite popular in the Middle Ages, especially because his sentential moralizations became proverbial sayings. Dante, Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Geoffrey Chaucer made usage of him, as did Elizabethan authors such as Joseph Hall, John Marston, and John Donne. He also influenced early modern European authors such as Erasmus, Thomas More, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, François Rabelais, Nicolas Boileau, Julius Caesar Scaliger, and Samuel Johnson, who rewrote the tenth satire, titled "The Vanities of Human Wishes," which concerns the illusory desires of humanity. Gustave Flaubert admired both his style and his rage. In short Juvenal remained for centuries the epitome of a sharp, witty, classical satirist.

His diatribes are directed at the injustices, tyranny, and hypocrisy of the regime, he seems to know a lot about the poorest and destitute class, and he unleashes against the aristocratic, affluent society living in degradation, luxury, and laxity. Though he was not from a poor family, Juvenal may have had to depend on patrons. He attacks and mocks the affectations of men and women, their immorality and sexual excesses, their degeneracy and lewdness (Satire VI is the most misogynist). Besides the aristocracy he satirizes those who have risen up the scale of Roman society, including the liberti (freed slaves), and the many newcomers or foreigners operating in Rome, especially Greeks and Eastern people, such as one Crispinus. Satire IX, his most important one, expresses his rage against women, pandering homosexuals, sexual mores in general, corruption and cruelty of rulers, pomposity, ill manners, and overall stupidity. Although Juvenal is not obscene, his verbal candor and witticism and his frank, tight speech may have caused some shock to readers of past ages (he was the most aggressive Roman writer in his indictment of human pretenses and corruption).

For example, in Satire II, which deals with homosexuality, he says:

    At which the powers of War and Beauty quake,
    What time his drugs were speeding to the tomb
    His seed, the fruit of Julia's teeming womb.
    … But Hispo's brutal itch both sexes tried,
    And proved by turn the "bridegroom" and "the bride."
    To such a pitch of evil are we come;
    Abomination reigns in conquering Rome …
                         (Gifford 1954, p. 11, 12, 14)

His intent is to spare no one and his verbal assault resorts to the most eloquent rhetoric to achieve a realistic effect and convey rage. Thus obscenities are part of the society in which he lived. His epigrammatic style, full of hyperboles, furnishes many memorable sayings that have become common usage, such as "Panem et circenses" (bread and circuses), to indicate the primary concerns of Roman society; "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes" (Who watches those who guard?); "rara avis" (a rare bird); and "mens sana in corpore sano" (a sound mind in a sound body). He made it clear in his first satire that he would spare no one, stating, for instance:

    But when Lucilius, fired with virtuous rage/
    Waves his keen falchion o'ver a guilty age
    I point my pen against the guilty dead/
    And pour its gall on each obnoxious head"
                                  (Gifford 1954, p. 9)

see also Ancient Rome; Political Satire.


Bond, Robin P. 1979. "Anti-Feminism in Juvenal and Cato." In Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History. Vol. 1. Bruselas. pp. 418-447.

Braund, Susanna Morton, ed. and trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Braund, Susanna Morton. 1992. "Juvenal Misogynist or Misogamist?" Journal of Roman Studies 82: 71-86.

Freudenburg, Kirk, ed. 2005. The Cambridge Companion to Roman Satire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Gifford, William, trans. 1954. Juvenal's Satires, with the Satires of Persius. London: Dent; New York: Dutton.

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

Highet, Gilbert. 1962. The Anatomy of Satire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Juvenal. 1996. Satires, ed. Susanna Morton Braund. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kimball, Roger. 2003. "Lessons from Juvenal." New Criterion 21 (8): 4-8.

Richlin, Amy. 1984. "Invective against Women in Roman Satire." Arethusa 17: 67-80.

                                          Giuseppe Di Scipio

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Juvenal c. 55–127

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