AKA Decimus Junius Juvenalis
Born: c. 60 AD
Birthplace: Aquinum, Italy
Died: c. 140 AD
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Nationality: Ancient Rome
Executive summary: Greatest Roman satiric poet
Roman poet and satirist, born at Aquinum. Brief accounts of his life, varying considerably in details, are prefixed to different manuscripts of the works. But their common original cannot be traced to any competent authority, and some of their statements are intrinsically improbable. According to the version which appears to be the earliest:
Juvenal was the son or ward of a wealthy freedman; he practiced declamation until middle age, not as a professional teacher, but as an amateur, and made his first essay in satire by writing the lines on Paris, the actor and favorite of Domitian, now found in the seventh satire (lines 90 seq.). Encouraged by their success, he devoted himself diligently to this kind of composition, but refrained for a long time from either publicly reciting or publishing his verses. When at last he did come before the public, his recitations were attended by great crowds and received with the utmost favor. But the lines originally written on Paris, having been inserted in one of his new satires, excited the jealous anger of an actor of the time, who was a favorite of the emperor, and procured the poet's banishment under the form of a military appointment to the extremity of Egypt. Being then eighty years of age, he died shortly afterwards of grief and vexation.
Some of these statements are so much in consonance with the indirect evidence afforded by the satires that they may be a series of conjectures based upon them. The rare passages in which the poet speaks of his own position, as in satires XI and XIII, indicate that he was in comfortable but moderate circumstances. We should infer also that he was not dependent on any professional occupation, and that he was separated in social station, and probably too by tastes and manners, from the higher class to which Tacitus and Pliny belonged, as he was by character from the new men who rose to wealth by servility under the empire. Juvenal is no organ of the pride and dignity, still less of the urbanity, of the cultivated representatives of the great families of the republic. He is the champion of the more sober virtues and ideas, and perhaps the organ of the rancors and detraction, of an educated but depressed and embittered middle class. He lets us know that he has no leanings to philosophy (XIII,121) and pours contempt on the serious epic writing of the day (I,162). The statement that he was a trained and practiced declaimer is confirmed both by his own words (I,16) and by the rhetorical mould in which his thoughts and illustrations are cast. The allusions which fix the dates when his satires first appeared, and the large experience of life which they imply, agree with the statement that he did not come before the world as a professed satirist until after middle age.
The statement that he continued to write satires long before he gave them to the world accords well with the nature of their contents and the elaborate character of their composition, and might almost be inferred from the emphatic but yet guarded statement of Quintilian in his short summary of Roman literature. After speaking of the merits of Lucilius, Horace and Persius as satirists, he adds, "There are, too, in our own day, distinguished writers of satire whose names will be heard of hereafter." There is no Roman writer of satire who could be mentioned along with those others by so judicious a critic, except Juvenal. The motive which a writer of satire must have had for secrecy under Domitian is sufficiently obvious; and the necessity of concealment and self-suppression thus imposed upon the writer may have permanently affected his whole manner of composition.
So far the original of these lives follows a not improbable tradition. But when we come to the story of the poet's exile the case is otherwise. The undoubted reference to Juvenal in Sidonius Apollinaris as the victim of the rage of an actor only proves that the original story from which all the varying versions of the lives are derived was generally believed before the middle of the 5th century of our era. If Juvenal was banished at the age of eighty, the author of his banishment could not have been the "enraged actor" in reference to whom the original lines were written, as Paris was put to death in 83, and Juvenal was certainly writing satires long after 100. The satire in which the lines now appear was probably first published soon after the accession of Hadrian, when Juvenal was not an octogenarian but in the maturity of his powers. The cause of the poet's banishment at that advanced age could not therefore have been either the original composition or the first publication of the lines.
An expression in (XV,45) is quoted as a proof that Juvenal had visited Egypt. He may have done so as an exile or in a military command; but it seems hardly consistent with the importance which the emperors attached to the security of Egypt, or with the concern which they took in the interests of the army, that these conditions were combined at an age so unfit for military employment. If any conjecture is warrantable on so obscure a subject, it is more likely that this temporary disgrace should have been inflicted on the poet by Domitian. Among the many victims of Juvenal's satire it is only against him and against one of the vilest instruments of his court, the Egyptian Crispinus, that the poet seems to be animated by personal hatred. A sense of wrong suffered at their hands may perhaps have mingled with the detestation which he felt towards them on public grounds. But if he was banished under Domitian, it must have been either before or after 93, at which time, as we learn from an epigram of Martial, Juvenal was in Rome.
More ancient evidence is supplied by an inscription found at Aquinum, recording, so far as it has been deciphered, the dedication of an altar to Ceres by a Iunius Iuvenalis, tribune of the first cohort of Dalmatians, duumvir quinquennalis, and flamen Divi Vespasiani, a provincial magistrate whose functions corresponded to those of the censor at Rome. This Juvenalis may have been the poet, but he may equally well have been a relation. The evidence of the satires does not point to a prolonged absence from the metropolis. They are the product of immediate and intimate familiarity with the life of the great city. An epigram of Martial, written at the time when Juvenal was most vigorously employed in their composition, speaks of him as settled in Rome. He himself hints (III,318) that he maintained his connection with Aquinum, and that he had some special interest in the worship of the "Helvinian Ceres." Nor is the tribute to the national religion implied by the dedication of the altar to Ceres inconsistent with the beliefs and feelings expressed in the satires. While the fables of mythology are often treated contemptuously or humorously by him, other passages in the satires clearly imply a conformity to, and even a respect for, the observances of the national religion. The evidence as to the military post filled by Juvenal is curious, when taken in connection with the confused tradition of his exile in a position of military importance. But it cannot be said that the satires bear traces of military experience; the life described in them is rather such as would present itself to the eyes of a civilian.
The only other contemporary evidence which affords a glimpse of Juvenal's actual life is contained in three epigrams of Martial. Two of these (VII,24 and 91) were written in the time of Domitian, the third (XII,18) early in the reign of Trajan, after Martial had retired to his native Bilbilis. The first attests the strong regard which Martial felt for him; but the subject of the epigram seems to hint that Juvenal was not an easy person to get on with. In the second, addressed to Juvenal himself, the epithet facundus is applied to him, equally applicable to his "eloquence" as satirist or rhetorician. In the last Martial imagines his friend wandering about discontentedly through the crowded streets of Rome, and undergoing all the discomforts incident to attendance on the levées of the great. Two lines in the poem suggest that the satirist, who inveighed with just severity against the worst corruptions of Roman morals, was not too rigid a censor of the morals of his friend. Indeed, his intimacy with Martial is a ground for not attributing to him exceptional strictness of life.
The additional information as to the poet's life and circumstances derivable from the satires themselves is not important. He had enjoyed the training which all educated men received in his day (I,15); he speaks of his farm in the territory of Tibur (XI,65), which furnished a young kid and mountain asparagus for a homely dinner to which he invites a friend during the festival of the Megalesia. From the satire in which this invitation is contained we are able to form an idea of the style in which he habitually lived, and to think of him as enjoying a hale and vigorous age (203), and also as a kindly master of a household (159 seq.). The negative evidence afforded in the account of his establishment suggests the inference that, like Lucilius and Horace, Juvenal had no personal experience of either the cares or the softening influence of family life. A comparison of this poem with the invitation of Horace to Torquatus (Ep. I,5) brings out strongly the differences not in urbanity only but in kindly feeling between the two satirists. Gaston Boissier has drawn from the indications afforded of the career and character of the persons to whom the satires are addressed most unfavorable conclusions as to the social circumstances and associations of Juvenal. If we believe that these were all real people, with whom Juvenal lived in intimacy, we should conclude that he was most unfortunate in his associates, and that his own relations to them were marked rather by outspoken frankness than civility. But they seem to be more "nominis umbrae" than real men; they serve the purpose of enabling the satirist to aim his blows at one particular object instead of declaiming at large. They have none of the individuality and traits of personal character discernible in the persons addressed by Horace in his Satires and Epistles. It is noticeable that, while Juvenal writes of the poets and men of letters of a somewhat earlier time as if they were still living, he makes no reference to his friend Martial or the younger Pliny and Tacitus, who wrote their works during the years of his own literary activity. It is equally noticeable that Juvenal's name does not appear in Pliny's letters.
The times at which the satires were given to the world do not in all cases coincide with those at which they were written and to which they immediately refer. Thus the manners and personages of the age of Domitian often supply the material of satiric representation, and are spoken of as if they belonged to the actual life of the present, while allusions even in the earliest show that, as a finished literary composition, it belongs to the age of Trajan. The most probable explanation of these discrepancies is that in their present form the satires are the work of the last thirty years of the poet's life, while the first nine at least may have preserved with little change passages written during his earlier manhood. The combination of the impressions, and, perhaps of the actual compositions, of different periods also explains a certain want of unity and continuity found in some of them.
There is no reason to doubt that the sixteen satires which we possess were given to the world in the order in which we find them, and that they were divided, as they are referred to in the ancient grammarians, into five books. Book I, embracing the first five satires, was written in the freshest vigor of the author's powers, and is animated with the strongest hatred of Domitian. The publication of this book belongs to the early years of Trajan. The mention of the exile of Marius (49) shows that it was not published before 100. In the second satire, the lines 29 seq., "Qualis erat nuper tragico pollutus adulter Concubitu", show that the memory of one of the foulest scandals of the reign of Domitian was still fresh in the minds of men. The third satire, imitated by Samuel Johnson in his London, presents such a picture as Rome may have offered to the satirist at any time in the 1st century of our era; but it was under the worst emperors, Nero and Domitian, that the arts of flatterers and foreign adventurers were most successful, and that such scenes of violence as that described at 277 seq. were most likely to occur; while the mention of Veiento (185) as still enjoying influence is a distinct reference to the court of Domitian. The fourth, which alone has any political significance, and reflects on the emperor as a frivolous trifler rather than as a monster of lust and cruelty, is the reproduction of a real or imaginary scene from the reign of Domitian, and is animated by the profoundest scorn and loathing both of the tyrant himself and of the worst instruments of his tyranny. The fifth is a social picture of the degradation to which poor guests were exposed at the banquets of the rich, but many of the epigrams of Martial and the more sober evidence of one of Pliny's letters show that the picture painted by Juvenal, though perhaps exaggerated in coloring, was drawn from a state of society prevalent during and immediately subsequent to the times of Domitian. Book II consists of the most elaborate of the satires, by many critics regarded as the poet's masterpiece, the famous sixth satire, directed against the whole female sex, which shares with Domitian and his creatures the most cherished place in the poet's antipathies. It shows certainly no diminution of vigor either in its representation or its invective. The time at which this satire was composed cannot be fixed with certainty, but some allusions render it highly probable that it was given to the world in the later years of Trajan, and before the accession of Hadrian. The date of the publication of Book III, containing the seventh, eighth and ninth satires, seems to be fixed by its opening line to the first years after the accession of Hadrian. In the eighth satire another reference is made (120) to the misgovernment of Marius in Africa as a recent event, and at line 51 there may be an allusion to the Eastern wars that occupied the last years of Trajan's reign. The ninth has no allusion to determine its date, but it is written with the same outspoken freedom as the second and the sixth, and belongs to the period when the poet's power was most vigorous, and his exposure of vice most uncompromising. In Book IV, comprising the famous tenth, the eleventh and the twelfth satires, the author appears more as a moralist than as a pure satirist. In the tenth, the theme of the "vanity of human wishes" is illustrated by great historic instances, rather than by pictures of the men and manners of the age; and, though the declamatory vigor and power of expression in it are occasionally as great as in the earlier satires, and although touches of Juvenal's saturnine humor, and especially of his misogyny, appear in all the satires of this book, yet their general tone shows that the white heat of his indignation is abated; and the lines of the eleventh, already referred to (201 seq.), "Spectent juvenes quos clamor et audax / Sponsio, quos cultae decet assedisse puellae: / Nostra bibat vernum contracta cuticula solem", leave no doubt that he was well advanced in years when they were written.
Two important dates are found in Book V, comprising satires XIII-XVI. At (XIII,16) Juvenal speaks of his friend Calvinus as now past sixty years of age, having been born in the consulship of Fonteius. Now L. Fonteius Capito was consul in 67. Again at (XV,27) an event is said to have happened in Egypt "nuper consule Iunco." There was a L. Aemilius Iuncus consul suffectus in 127. The fifth book must therefore have been published some time after this date. More than the fourth, this book bears the marks of age, both in the milder tone of the sentiments expressed, and in the feebler power of composition exhibited. The last satire is now imperfect, and the authenticity both of this and of the fifteenth has been questioned, though on insufficient grounds.
Thus the satires were published at different intervals, and for the most part composed between 100 and 130, but the most powerful in feeling and vivid in conception among them deal with the experience and impressions of the reign of Domitian, occasionally recall the memories or traditions of the times of Nero and Claudius, and reproduce at least one startling page from the annals of Tiberius. The same overmastering feeling which constrained Tacitus (Agric. 2, 3), when the time of long endurance and silence was over, to recall the "memory of the former oppression", acted upon Juvenal. There is no evidence that these two great writers, who lived and wrote at the same time, who were animated by the same hatred of the tyrant under whom the best years of their manhood were spent, and who both felt most deeply the degradation of their times, were even known to one another. Tacitus belonged to the highest official and senatorial class, Juvenal apparently to the middle class and to that of the struggling men of letters; and this difference in position had much influence in determining the different bent of their genius, and in forming one to be a great national historian, the other to be a great social satirist. If the view of the satirist is owing to this circumstance more limited in some directions, and his taste and temper less conformable to the best ancient standards of propriety, he is also saved by it from prejudices to which the traditions of his class exposed the historian. But both writers are thoroughly national in sentiment, thoroughly masculine in tone. No ancient authors express so strong a hatred of evil. The peculiar greatness and value of both Juvenal and Tacitus is that they did not shut their eyes to the evil through which they had lived, but deeply resented it -- the one with a vehement and burning passion, like the "saeva indignatio" of Jonathan Swift, the other with perhaps even deeper but more restrained emotions of mingled scorn and sorrow, like the scorn and sorrow of John Milton when "fallen on evil days and evil tongues." In one respect there is a difference. For Tacitus the prospect is not wholly cheerless, the detested tyranny was at an end, and its effects might disappear with a more beneficent rule. But the gloom of Juvenal's pessimism is unlighted by hope.
Algernon Charles Swinburne has suggested that the secret of Juvenal's concentrated power consisted in this, that he knew what he hated, and that what he did hate was despotism and democracy. But it would be hardly true to say that the animating motive of his satire was political. It is true that he finds the most typical examples of lust, cruelty, levity and weakness in the emperors and their wives -- in Domitian, Otho, Nero, Claudius and Messalina. It is true also that he shares in the traditional idolatry of Brutus, that he strikes at Augustus in his mention of the "three disciples of Sulla", and that he has no word of recognition for what even Tacitus acknowledges as the beneficent rule of Trajan. So too his scorn for the Roman populace of his time, who cared only for their dole of bread and the public games, is unqualified. But it is only in connection with its indirect effects that he seems to think of despotism; and he has no thought of democracy at all. It is not for the loss of liberty and of the senatorian rule that he chafes, but for the loss of the old national manliness and self-respect. This feeling explains his detestation of foreign manners and superstitions, his loathing not only of inhuman crimes and cruelties but even of the lesser derelictions from self-respect, his scorn of luxury and of art as ministering to luxury, his mockery of the poetry and of the stale and dilettante culture of his time, and perhaps, too, his indifference to the schools of philosophy and his readiness to identify all the professors of stoicism with the reserved and close-cropped puritans, who concealed the worst vices under an outward appearance of austerity. The great fault of his character, as it appears in his writings, is that he too exclusively indulged this mood. It is much more difficult to find what he loved and admired than what he hated. But it is characteristic of his strong nature that, where he does betray any sign of human sympathy or tenderness, it is for those who by their weakness and position are dependent on others for their protection -- as for "the peasant boy with the little dog, his playfellow", or for "the home-sick lad from the Sabine highlands, who sighs for his mother whom he has not seen for a long time, and for the little hut and the familiar kids."
If Juvenal is to be ranked as a great moralist, it is not for his greatness and consistency as a thinker on moral questions. In the rhetorical exaggeration of the famous tenth satire, for instance, the highest energies of patriotism -- the gallant and desperate defense of great causes, by sword or speech -- are quoted as mere examples of disappointed ambition; and, in the indiscriminate condemnation of the arts by which men sought to gain a livelihood, he leaves no room for the legitimate pursuits of industry. His services to morals do not consist in any positive contributions to the notions of active duty, but in the strength with which he has realized and expressed the restraining influence of the old Roman and Italian ideal of character, and also of that religious conscience which was becoming a new power in the world. Though he disclaims any debt to philosophy (XIII,121), yet he really owes more to the "Stoica dogmata", then prevalent, than he is aware of. But his highest and rarest literary quality is his power of painting characters, scenes, incidents and actions, whether from past history or from contemporary life. In this power, which is also the great power of Tacitus, he has few equals and perhaps no superior among ancient writers. The difference between Tacitus and Juvenal in power of representation is that the prose historian is more of an imaginative poet, the satirist more of a realist and a grotesque humorist. Juvenal can paint great historical pictures in all their detail -- as in the famous representation of the fall of Sejanus; he can describe a character elaborately or hit it off with a single stroke. The picture drawn may be a caricature, or a misrepresentation of the fact -- as that of the father of Demosthenes, "blear-eyed with the soot of the glowing mass", etc. -- but it is, with rare exceptions, realistically conceived, and it is brought before us with the vivid touches of a Defoe or a Swift, or of the great pictorial satirist of the 18th century, Hogarth. Yet even in this, his most characteristic talent, his proneness to exaggeration, the attraction which coarse and repulsive images have for his mind, and the tendency to sacrifice general effect to minuteness of detail not infrequently mar his best effects.
The difficulty is often felt of distinguishing between a powerful rhetorician and a genuine poet, and it is felt particularly in the case of Juvenal. He himself knew and has well described (VII, 53 seq.) the conditions under which a great poet could flourish; and he felt that his own age was incapable of producing one. He has little sense of beauty either in human life or nature. Whenever such sense is evoked it is only as a momentary relief to his prevailing sense of the hideousness of contemporary life, or in protest against what he regarded as the enervating influences of art. Even his references to the great poets of the past indicate rather a blasé sense of indifference and weariness than a fresh enjoyment of them. Yet his power of touching the springs of tragic awe and horror is a genuine poetical gift, of the same kind as that which is displayed by some of the early English dramatists. But he is, on the whole, more essentially a great rhetorician than a great poet. His training, the practical bent of his understanding, his strong but morose character, the circumstances of his time, and the materials available for his art, all fitted him to rebuke his own age and all later times in the tones of a powerful preacher, rather than charm them with the art of an accomplished poet. The composition of his various satires shows no negligence, but rather excess of elaboration; but it produces the impression of mechanical contrivance rather than of organic growth. His movement is sustained and powerful, but there is no rise and fall in it. The verse is most carefully constructed, and is also most effective, but it is so with the rhetorical effectiveness of Lucan, not with the musical charm of Virgil. The diction is full, even to excess, of meaning, point and emphasis. Few writers have added so much to the currency of quotation. But his style altogether wants the charm of ease and simplicity. It wearies by the constant strain after effect, its mock-heroics and allusive periphrasis, and excites distrust by its want of moderation.
On the whole no one of the ten or twelve really great writers of ancient Rome leaves on the mind so mixed an impression, both as a writer and as a man, as Juvenal. He has little, if anything at all, of the high imaginative mood -- the mood of reverence and noble admiration -- which made Ennius, Lucretius and Virgil the truest poetical representatives of the genius of Rome. He has nothing of the wide humanity of Cicero, of the urbanity of Horace, of the ease and grace of Catullus. Yet he represents another mood of ancient Rome, the mood natural to her before she was humanized by the lessons of Greek art and thought. If we could imagine Cato the Elder living under Domitian, cut off from all share in public life, and finding no outlet for his combative energy except in literature, we should perhaps understand the motives of Juvenal's satire and the place which is his due as a representative of the genius of his country. As a man he shows many of the strong qualities of the old Roman plebeian -- the aggressive boldness, the intolerance of superiority and privilege, which animated the tribunes in their opposition to the senatorian rule. Even where we least like him we find nothing small or mean to alienate our respect from him. Though he loses no opportunity of being coarse, he is not licentious; though he is often truculent, he cannot be called malignant. It is, indeed, impossible to say what motives of personal chagrin, of love of detraction, of the mere literary passion for effective writing, may have contributed to the indignation which inspired his verse. But the prevailing impression we carry away after reading him is that in all his early satires he was animated by a sincere and manly detestation of the tyranny and cruelty, the debauchery and luxury, the levity and effeminacy, the crimes and frauds, which we know from other sources were then rife in Rome, and that a more serene wisdom and a happier frame of mind were attained by him when old age had somewhat allayed the fierce rage which vexed his manhood.
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