Juvenal is one of the greatest satirists in the literary tradition. An examination of the poet’s influence on writers of generations succeeding his own bears out such an assessment. Often imitated, and even more frequently quoted, Juvenal has been venerated as one of the founding practitioners of satire and one of the most penetrating commentators on the human condition. His stance is that of the “angry” satirist who is driven to expression by a sense of indignation at the corruption he sees around him.
Juvenal’s poems are rich in lurid description and vituperative rhetoric. The angry persona he adopts in his poems has spawned a tradition of satire that has run for nearly two thousand years through European literature. Perhaps more than any other figure, he is the source of inspiration for perhaps the greatest of English satirists, Jonathan Swift.
Writing at the height of the Roman Empire, Juvenal’s principal target is the city of Rome and its inhabitants. Born during the reign of Nero, he lived under nine other emperors, including the tyrannical Domitian, of whom he was especially critical. In addition to the court of the emperors, he turns his critical gaze on the Roman nobility, a host of professions, as well as ordinary citizens, whose lives he sees being wasted in the vain pursuit of pleasure and wealth. As succeeding generations have noted, the failings he exposes are not unique to the Roman Empire: avarice, sycophancy, lewdness, treachery, and self-centeredness exist in every society, and Juvenal’s satires speak to readers of any age who can see the analogies between the satirist’s times and their own.
Juvenal was born in Aquinum, southeast of Rome, and may have worked in minor governmental positions, perhaps abroad in Egypt for a time. Few facts about him have survived outside those provided by his own writings, although a biography written in the fourth century indicates that he was the son of a freedman and had practiced rhetoric until middle age for his own amusement—perhaps until he took up poetry. He was clearly well-versed in both Greek and Latin literature and mythology, to which he constantly alludes. His favorite genre appears to have been epic, as he writes in hexameters and uses many words and phrases from Vergil’s Aeneid. As far as satire is concerned, he tells readers in his opening lines that he models himself on Lucilius, who was renowned for his outspokenness and fearless attacks on powerful men.
Juvenal’s pictures of life in Rome are colorful and brilliantly observed. He is the master of the telling detail and the piquant metaphor, all deployed in the service of skewering those whom he targets. He resents the growing power of the moneyed classes, the traders, and the freedmen and the displacement of traditional Roman centers of power. He disapproves of the softening influences of Greek and Eastern cultures and the vices they introduce into the hardy and self-reliant Roman character that had made the empire great. He despises the Roman aristocracy for its weakness and degeneracy and for its abandonment of the patron-client relationship in favor of naked self-interest. Last but by no means least, he presents himself as revolted by men who do not behave as men should, but have adopted womanly ways and, conversely, women who have abandoned Roman ideals of modesty and chastity and who take on masculine roles, such as that of gladiator in the arena.
Juvenal explains his choice of medium in his first satire. Having no desire to rewrite old plays or endless epics, and having seen a barber become wealthier than a patrician and a social-climbing Egyptian advance himself at the expense of the Romans, he declares that “it is difficult not to write satires.” His writing was little appreciated during his lifetime. Indeed, his satires disappeared for several centuries. Rediscovered, Juvenal was esteemed as an epigrammatist and social historian because of his vivid pictures of Roman life. Sixteen satires, totaling 3,775 lines, make up the total preserved work of Juvenal. The poems vary in length from the little more than sixty lines of the unfinished satire 16, which deals with the prerogatives of a soldier, to the 661 lines of satire 6, directed against women, a poem that is long enough to fill a papyrus roll.
(The entire section is 1765 words.)