Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis (Eng. Juvenal) was the last great Roman satirist. Almost nothing of his life is known. There exists thirteen ancient biographies for him, but all are late, and the majority likely derive from a single one written in the fifth century.
What we do know about Juvenal comes from a single inscription bearing either his or his relative’s name from Aquinum, a few epigrams penned by Martial, and the Saturae themselves.
From the Saturae we can deduce that he was born sometime in the middle of the first century, and he began writing after the death of Domitian in 96. His death was after 127, since he mentions the consul for that year.
His sole work is the Saturae, sixteen satires in five books composed in hexameters, the standard meter for satire after Horace and Persius. Some 36 verses of the sixth satire have also been discovered, separated somehow from the rest of the work.
Juvenal’s earlier satires are caustic and biting criticisms of the activities of Romans. He exclaims, in his first satire, that he wishes to write satire to portray his contempt for the baseness of his peers. He begins semper ego auditor (“Shall I always be a listener?”), and takes indignatio as his Muse and writes satire.
In this respect, Juvenal is very close to Persius in style, though both satirists claim that they are writing in the tradition of Lucilius and Horace. Juvenal’s satire is the fourth and final peg of the leg journey of the genre from its initial origin with Lucilius through Horace and then Persius. Yet while Lucilius and Horace write almost witty satires, Persius and Juvenal are moralists, decrying the vices of the city. He follows in the path set by Persius in criticizing not particular individuals, buffoons the city can laugh at with the poet, but the failings of the city itself and its degeneracy. In this respect, the poet isolates himself from his compatriots, and satire becomes bitterer.
In his last two books (Saturae 10–16), Juvenal, now in his old age, departs from his outcry, and instead produces a more ironic satire, in a somewhat similar vain as his predecessors.
Where he and Persius still differ is in religious outlook. As a Stoic in the circle of Seneca, Persius offers Stoicism as a way to overcome moral failings. No such hope is offered by Juvenal. The picture is bleak: Rome is a degenerate city, and because of negative influences it will continue to be so.
‘Isn’t there a single one worthy of you, in all that vast flock?’
Let her be lovely, gracious, rich, and fertile; let her exhibit her
Ancestors’ faces round her porticos; be more virginal than the
Sabine women, with tangled hair, who ended war with Rome;
A rare bird on this earth, in the very likeness of a black swan;
Who could stand a wife who embodied all of that? I’d rather,
Much rather, have Venustina than you, Cornelia, O Mother
Of the Gracchi, if that proud expression has to accompany
Your weighty virtues, if triumphs are part of your dowry.
I know the warnings and advice that all my old friends offer:
“Lock the door, and keep her close.” But who is to guard the
…They shed their sense of responsibility
Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob
That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,
Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only,
Bread and circuses…
Still, if you want a reason for prayer, for offering a pretty
White piglet’s innards, the sacred sausages, at the shrines,
Then you might pray for a sound mind in a healthy body.
Ask for a heart filled with courage, without fear of death,
That regards long life as among the least of nature’s gifts,
That can endure any hardship, to which anger is unknown,
- Michael Coffey 1989. Roman Satire. Bristol Classical Press.
- Kirk Freudenburg 2001. Satires of Rome: Threatening Poses from Lucilius to Juvenal. Cambridge University Press.