Frontispiece from John Dryden, The
Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis:
And of Aulus Persius Flaccus
Juvenal, an Anglicized form derived from the Latin (Decimus Iunius) Iuvenalis, was a Roman poet active in the late first century and early second century C.E., author of the Satires of Juvenal. The details of the author's life are unclear, although references within his text to known persons of the late first and early second centuries C.E. fixes his terminus post quem (earliest date of composition). In accord with the vitriolic manner of Lucilius—the originator of the genre of Roman satire—and within a poetic tradition that also included Horace and Persius, Juvenal wrote at least 16 poems in dactylic hexameter covering an encyclopedic range of topics across the Roman world. While the Satires are a vital source for the study of ancient Rome from a vast number of perspectives, their hyperbolic, comedic mode of expression makes the use of statements found within them as simple fact problematic, to say the least. At first glance the Satires could be read as a brutal critique of (Pagan) Rome, perhaps ensuring their survival in Christian monastic scriptoria, a bottleneck in preservation when the large majority of ancient texts were lost.
The Satires have inspired many authors, including Dr. Johnson, who modeled his “London” on Satire III and his “Vanity of Human Wishes” on Satire X. Juvenal is the source of many well-known maxims, including:
- the common people—rather than caring about their freedom—are only interested in “bread and circuses” (panem et circenses 10.81; i.e. food and entertainment),
- rather than for wealth, power, or children, men should pray for a “sound mind in a sound body” (mens sana in corpore sano 10.356),
- a (truly good) person is a “rare bird” (rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cycno 6.165; a rare bird in the earth and most similar to a black swan)
- and the troubling question of who can be trusted with power—“who will watch the watchers” (quis custodiet ipsos custodes 6.347-48).
The precise details of the author's life cannot be securely reconstructed based on presently available evidence. The Vita Iuvenalis (Life of Juvenal), a biography of the author that became associated with his manuscripts no later than the tenth century C.E., is little or nothing more than extrapolation from the Satires themselves. It is this text alone that gives the author's tria nomina (full Roman name) as Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis. This text is the ultimate source of the idea that Juvenal was exiled at some point to Egypt or to Britannia. 
In Satire III, the character Umbricius promises to come and listen to the Satires, if the narrator returns from Roma to his own Aquinum (3.318-22). In the 19th century, a dedicatory inscription is said to have been found at Aquinum with the text:
(From L to R: the inscription as preserved, the restored inscription, and the translation of the restored inscription.) This suspiciously convenient inscription is now lost; if genuine it would not have certainly referred to the author or his family, as only his cognomen is securely known.
There have been repeated attempts to derive a biographical narrative for the author from his work, notably by Gilbert Highet. Suppositions, for example, that he was relatively poor and dependent on artistic patronage are commonly derived from Satire VII, in which he bemoans the parsimony of the elite, who no longer are willing to provide patronage. Positivistic readings of ancient texts have come under general disrepute in more recent scholarship. Illumination cast on the life of Juvenal by references of other authors is virtually nonexistent. There are only three potential references to a Iuvenalis, all in the epigrams of Martial. In the first of these Martial compares his friendship with Iuvenalis to the bonds of the Dioskouroi. In the second, he says that he will send Saturnalia nuts to the facunde (eloquent) Iuvenalis. And in the final reference compares the easy life of the country to the hardships of life in Rome for Iuvenalis.
It is generally accepted that this Iuvenalis is the author of the Satires, which would indicate that he was an adult at the time when Martial wrote the relevant poems: 92 and 101-2 C.E. What can be known securely is that Juvenal was alive at least until 127 C.E., as that is the year of the last datable reference in the Satires. By mere fact of their existence, the Satires demonstrate that their author had access to education, leisure, and writing materials—all expensive commodities in second century C.E. Rome. The lack of a dedication to a patron may indicate that Juvenal was himself wealthy.
The Satires and their Genre
Juvenal is credited with sixteen known poems divided between five books (scrolls); all are in the Roman genre of Satire, which, at its most basic in the time of the author, comprised a wide-ranging discussion of society and social mores in dactylic hexameter. In Satire I, concerning the scope and content of his work, Juvenal asserts that:
In sum, Juvenal claims as his purview the entire gamut of human experience since the dawn of history. In the first century C.E., the Roman orator Quintilian—in the context of a discussion of literary genres appropriate for an oratorical education—claimed that, unlike so many literary and artistic forms adopted from Greek models, “satire at least is all ours” (satura quidem tota nostra est). At least in the view of Quintillian, earlier Greek satiric verse (e.g. that of Hipponax) or even Latin satiric prose (e.g. that of Petronius) did not constitute satura per se. Roman Satura was a formal literary genre rather than being simply clever, humorous critique in no particular format.
- Book I: Satires 1-5
- Book II: Satire 6
- Book III: Satires 7-9
- Book IV: Satires 10-12
- Book V: Satires 13-16 (Satire 16 is incompletely preserved)
The individual Satires (excluding Satire 16) range in length from 130 (Satire 12) to c. 695 (Satire 6) lines. The poems are not individually titled, but translators have often added titles for the convenience of readers.
Significance of the Satires
Although Juvenal has enjoyed a wide readership across the centuries, the content and tone of the Satires have become increasingly problematic and unpalatable with the rise of the feminist movement and greater awareness (and rejection) of intolerance in all forms. While Juvenal's mode of satire has been noted from antiquity for its wrathful scorn towards all representatives of social deviance, scholars such as W.S. Anderson and later S.M. Braund have suggested that this apparent anger is merely a rhetorical persona (mask) taken up by the author to critique the unbalanced anger aroused by the sort of elitism, sexism, and xenophobia that the Satires seem replete with at first glance. The aphoristic, absolutist character of the text lends itself all too easily to indiscriminate application of critiques originally directed at literary exemplars of particular vices. In the interest of keeping the text from total eclipse by such concerns, it is vital that the text and its author be distinguished from the manner in which they have commonly been read. As has been noted by the literary theorist Stanley Fish, the reading of a text is as much a product of the reader’s beliefs and prejudices as of those contained within the text. The misogyny and other forms of hatred perceived in the text are as attributable to what readers across the centuries have brought to the reading as to what Juvenal intended.
It would be an equally grave error to read the Satires as a literal account of normal Roman life and thought in the late first and early second centuries C.E., just as it would be an error to give credence to every slander recorded in Tacitus or Suetonius against the members of prior imperial dynasties. Themes similar to those of the Satires are present in authors spanning the period of the late Roman Republic and early Empire ranging from Cicero and Catullus to Martial and Tacitus; similarly, the stylistics of Juvenal’s text fall within the range of post-Augustan literature as represented by Persius, Statius, and Petronius. Finally, it is necessary to realize that the conceptual system present within the text is most representative of only a portion of the Roman population; the Satires do not speak clearly for the concerns of women, immigrants, slaves, children, or even men who deviated from the elite, educated audience intended by the author. With these caveats held in mind, it is possible to approach the Satires as a crucial source for the culture of early Imperial Rome. In addition to a wealth of incidental information on everything from diet to décor, the Satires of Juvenal reveal what is most essential to a civilization: the issues at the core of the Roman identity. Rather than revealing the myriad potential answers spanning the diverse Roman population, Juvenal reveals the questions pivotal to Roman society.
Appendix: The Vita Iuvenalis
[Nota bene: The Vita Iuvenalis is given here in translation as an appendix to the discussion above. It is likely that it contains nothing other than speculation.]
Decimus Junius Juvenalis, while it is uncertain whether he is the son or the foster-son of a wealthy freedman, practiced oratory almost to the middle of his life—more due to his disposition than because he was preparing himself for the philosophical schools or the Forum. Next, having written a satire of a few verses—not unreasonably composed—against the pantomime actor Paris and against one of Paris’ poets, who became arrogant about a six-month military command, (Juvenal) diligently refined this genre of writing. For a long time, however, he did not dare to give a public reading to even a modest audience. Soon he read his work before a big crowd—two and three times with much success, and in consequence he expanded his first efforts with new writings:
What the nobles do not give, the actor will give. Do you reverence the
Carmenerini and Bareni, do you care about the huge atria of the nobles?
Pelopea makes prefects, (and) Philomela makes tribunes. (a quotation of Satire 7 lines 90-92)
At that time, Paris was the favorite actor of the palace, and many of his associates were receiving social advancement daily. Therefore Juvenal came under suspicion, just as if he had used astrology to predict the time of the emperor’s death, and immediately—although eighty years old—he was removed from the City (Rome) through appointment to military office and sent to command a cohort encamped in the farthest part of Egypt. This manner of punishment seemed appropriate, since it was proportional to a minor and jocular offense. It is certain that he died within the briefest time due to mental anguish and weariness.
- Cf. the Appendix: Vita Iuvenalis in this page.
- Martial, Epigrams 7.24
- Martial, Epigrams (7.91):
- From our little field, to you O eloquent Juvenal,
- behold we send Saturnalia nuts.
- The dissolute phallus of the guardian god has bestowed
- other fruits upon licentious girls.
- De nostro, facunde, tibi, Iuuenalis, agello
- Saturnalicias mittimus, ecce, nuces.
- Cetera lasciuis donauit poma puellis
- mentula custodis luxuriosa dei.
- Martial, Epigrams (12.18.1-9):
- Mayhap while you wander restless,
- Juvenal, in the clamorous Subura
- or upon the hill of mistress Diana;
- while your sweat causing toga fans you before the
- thresholds of more potent men and wandering
- the bigger and smaller Caelian hills wears you out:
- Sought out after many Decembers
- my Bilbilian villa arrogant with her gold and iron has
- received me and made me a country boy.
- dum tu forsitan inquietus erras
- clamosa, Iuvenalis, in Subura,
- aut collem dominae teris Dianae;
- dum per limina te potentiorum
- sudatrix toga ventilat vagumque
- maior Caelius et minor fatigant:
- me multos repetita post Decembres
- accepit mea rusticumque fecit
- auro Bilbilis et superba ferro.
- Satire 15.27 consule Iunco (when Juncus was consul); that Juvenal survived at least until 127 C.E. is adequate demonstration that the Vita Iuvenalis is unreliable, since it states that he was eighty years old before 96 C.E. and then he died soon afterwards.
- Lucilius experimented with other meters before settling on dactylic hexameter.
- Institutiones Oratoriae 10.1.95
- According to Braund (1988 p. 25), Satire 7—the opening poem of Book III—represents a “break” with satires one through six—Books I and II—where Juvenal relinquishes the indignatio of the “angry persona” in favor of the irony of a “much more rational and intelligent” persona.
- Literary texts, especially those of a highly rhetorical nature as are the Satires, cannot be profitably read as if they were entries in an encyclopedia.
- Amy Richlin identifies oratorical invective as a source for both satire and epigram. 1992 p. 127.
- i.e. why have any respect for the traditional elite and their mansions, since an actor (horror) playing female roles (shudder) is more likely to secure advancement for his friends than they are.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Anderson, William S. 1982. Essays on Roman Satire. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691007915
- Braund, Susanna M. 1989. Beyond Anger: A Study of Juvenal’s Third Book of Satires. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. ISBN 9780521356374
- Braund, Susanna. 1996. Juvenal Satires Book I. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. ISBN 9780521356671
- Braund, Susanna. 1996. The Roman Satirists and their Masks. Duckworth Publishers. ISBN 9781853991394
- Courtney, E.. 1981. A Commentary of the Satires of Juvenal. London: Athlone Press. ISBN 9780485111903
- Edwards, Catherine. 2002. The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521893893
- Gleason, Maud. W. 1994. Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691048000
- Gowers, Emily. 1997. The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198150824
- Highet, Gilbert. 1961. Juvenal the Satirist. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Juvenal. 1999. The Sixteen Satires. Trans. Peter Green. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140447040
- Juvenal. 2003. The Satires. Trans. John Ferguson. Duckworth Publishers. ISBN 9781853995811
- Juvenal. 1992. Persi et Juvenalis Saturae. ed. W. V. Clausen. London: Oxford University Press.
- The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 2003. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198606413
- Richlin, Amy. 1992. The Garden of Priapus. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195068733
- Rudd, Niall. 1998. Themes in Roman Satire. Bristol Classical Press. ISBN 9781853995613
- Syme, Ronald. 2002. The Roman Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192803207
All links retrieved October 4, 2022.
- Latin text of The Satires of Juvenal at the The Latin Library
- Juvenal's first 3 "Satires" in English
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