Juvenal Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman poet{$I[g]Roman Empire;Juvenal} Juvenal expanded the dimensions of poetic satire in savage works that lashed out at humankind’s vices and corruption.

Early Life

Juvenal (JEW-vuhn-uhl) was born around 60 c.e. in the small town of Aquinum (now in Italy). It is thought that his family was wealthy and that Juvenal entered the army to make a career in service to the emperor. Unsuccessful in his endeavors to achieve a position of responsibility, however, he turned to literature to establish or simply to express himself. He was a friend of the well-known poet Martial during this period and wrote his first satires against the flatterers and hangers-on in the Imperial court. For this scathing attack, Emperor Domitian confiscated Juvenal’s property and exiled him to Egypt.

Juvenal returned to Rome after the death of Domitian in 96 and wrote, recited, and published his Saturae (100-127 c.e.; Satires, 1693) during the years that followed. Most of the satires written at this time do not refer to contemporary events but to the abuses of the earlier reign of Domitian. For several years, Juvenal was very poor, but eventually his financial problems were alleviated by a gift from Emperor Hadrian.

Life’s Work

Juvenal’s achievement can be found in the five books of satires he produced during his lifetime. There are sixteen satires in the collected works of Juvenal, and the first book contains the first five. These five satires have as their subject matter the corruption and immorality that Juvenal perceived among Roman aristocrats and leaders of his time. He considered that they were interested in wealth and sexual excess rather than the personal virtue and rectitude befitting leaders of the Roman Empire.

The first satire in book 1 is an introduction to the whole work; it is a justification for the literary mode that Juvenal created. There had been satire before Juvenal, but it did not have the tone, subject matter, or structure that Juvenal employed. Earlier satires, such as those of Horace, tended to laugh tolerantly at humankind’s social foibles rather than rage about their vices. The tone set by Juvenal, then, was new:

Must I be listening always, and not pay them back? How they bore me,
Authors like Cordus the crude, with the epic he calls the Theseid!

Juvenalian satire is an attack on those who have offended him; its realm is not the heroic but the low and the mean. He directs his hearers to the disgusting Roman scene and declares: “Then it is difficult not to write satire.” He points to such absurdities as a eunuch marrying and Juvenal’s former barber becoming richer than any patrician. Although his satire has the sweep of epic, covering “everything human” from the earliest times, its special province is contemporary life: “When was there ever a time more rich in abundance of vices?”

At the end of the poem, Juvenal brings up the problem of whether he will “dare name names,” meaning real names rather than invented ones. If he does, he is likely to end up “a torch in a tunic” in these corrupt times. He determines therefore to use only the names of the dead and reveal the type of vice, if not the specific example.

The second satire is against not only homosexuality but also the hypocrisy of homosexuals who set themselves up as moral censors of society. The poem opens with a typical Juvenalian hyperbolic exclamation of frustration:

Off to Russia for me, or the Eskimos, hearing these fellows
Talk—what a nerve!—about morals, pretend that their virtue
Equals the Curian clan’s, while they act like Bacchanal women.

A list of odious examples follows this opening, the most important being that of Gracchus, a descendant of the republican Gracchi who defended the rights of the Plebeians. This Gracchus has given a large sum of money to a musician and married him in a bizarre ceremony. Once more, the target of Juvenal’s wrath is members of the aristocratic class, who should be offering models for the rest of society instead of pursuing debauchery. Even the great feats of Roman arms are mocked: “An Armenian prince, softer than all of our fairies” ends up in the arms of a Roman tribune, an act that Juvenal calls “the Intercourse Between Nations.”

The third satire, against the city of Rome, is one of Juvenal’s greatest works. The speaker in the poem is not Juvenal but his friend Umbricius. Umbricius is leaving Rome because he is “no good at lying” and therefore cannot possibly survive in Rome. One aspect of Roman life that he finds especially offensive is that the old republican Rome has become a “Greekized Rome,” filled with subtle Greeks who can adapt to any role and thus are displacing the native aristocracy. Another target is the great value now given to wealth; poverty “makes men objects of mirth, ridiculed, humbled, embarrassed.” In addition, Rome is a dangerous place; if its resident does not catch a disease, then he is likely to die in a fire or be killed by a burglar at night. The only sane course is to flee the city and relocate in a country town where civic virtue is still possible and one can live an honorable life.

The fourth satire contains two episodes. In the first, Curly the Cur spends an absurdly large sum of money for a red mullet that he devours by himself. Juvenal remarks that he could...

(The entire section is 2256 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Born in the Roman town of Aquinum about 60 c.e., Decimus Junius Juvenalis, known as Juvenal (JEW-vuhn-uhl), was the poet of the Age of Trajan. Of his cruelly biting satires written between 100 and 127, sixteen, in five volumes, are still preserved. From them, a reader deduces that Juvenal disliked almost everything in the life of his time. There is a brief characterization of him in a poem written by Martial. A conservative Roman who scorned the soft life of the fashionable and wealthy, Juvenal lashed out in quotable epigrams against the follies and vices of the upper classes. Fools as well as philosophers are subject to his savage denunciation. His humor is grim, but his pictures are unforgettable, especially of the affectations and immorality of women of high society.{$S[A]Decimus Junius Juvenalis;Juvenal}

Several editions of his work contain prefatory biographies, but these show little agreement in details. Apparently, Juvenal was the son of a freedman. Tradition says also that, like Demosthenes, he practiced declamation with a pebble in his mouth. Wisely, not until after Domitian’s death did he publish his tragic satires, which show considerable development over the disunited productions of Petronius and Horace. An actor, taking personally the satire probably aimed at Domitian’s favorite actor, Paris, is believed to have persuaded Trajan to banish Juvenal under the guise of a military appointment to Egypt, though some claim that he was sent to Britain. According to a fourth century biographer, the poet died in exile at the age of eighty, “of vexation and disgust.”


(European Poets and Poetry)

Little is known about the life of Decimus Junius Juvenalis, commonly known as Juvenal. In Satire 3, Umbricius, who is retiring to Cumae, says that he hopes to see Juvenal occasionally in the poet’s native Aquinum, indicating Juvenal’s birthplace. Martial, in Epigram 7.91 (93 c.e.), calls Juvenal “facundus” (eloquent), a term equally appropriate for speakers and poets. Since Juvenal had not yet published any verse, Martial probably is praising Juvenal’s rhetorical ability. In Epigram 12.18 of about a decade later (c. 102), Martial imagines Juvenal sweating as he walks through Rome courting a patron, indicating that his friend was poor. The early satires also seem to reflect a writer in straitened circumstances. Juvenal began publishing about 110, when, he writes, he had passed middle age, indicating a birth date of about the year 60.

Satire 7 praises Hadrian for patronizing writers, and Juvenal’s circumstances seem to have improved after that emperor’s accession in 117. In Satire 11, he invites a friend to his house in Rome for a frugal dinner, with food from his farm in Tivoli. In Satire 15.45, he claims to have observed Egypt. His last book of satires was published about 130, and he probably died soon afterward.

Later commentaries embellished his life, maintaining that he was the son or stepson of a well-to-do freedman, though Juvenal repeatedly mocks such men. According to these accounts, he indulged in rhetoric for amusement. In about 93, an epigram (7.90-92) angered Domitian, who exiled him to Egypt and confiscated his property. After Domitian’s assassination in 96, Juvenal returned to Rome but now was poor, a condition he endured until about 117.