Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) was born in 65 BC in Venusia. We know quite a lot about his life because he included details in his writings. His father was a freedman (significant) perhaps a small farmer. He refused to have Horace educated in Venusia and took him personally to Rome to be taught by Orbilius. He continued his education in Athens (rhetoric) and there joined the army of Brutus (assassin of Julius Caesar). This was the losing side, and Horace describes how he fled after the battle of Philippi in which Brutus was defeated. When he returned after the war to Italy he found that his father was dead and the farm confiscated. He became a government clerk and says poverty drove him to write poetry. He knew the poets Virgil and Varius who introduced him to the wealthy impresario Maecenas; through him he got to know the leading artists and politicians of his day, and also the Emperor Augustus. The support he received freed him from money-worries, and eventually brought him the Sabine farm he refers to in Satires II 6. He published a number of works including two books of Satires (Sermones). Book I was published about 35 BC and Book II about 30 BC. He died in 8 BC.
SMB calls him the ‘smiling’ satirist: and says that humour and humility are his hallmarks. “He presents an unthreatening appearance through self-deprecation and invitations to laughter at his own expense, but at the same time offers criticism, often indirect, which take his victim and his audience unawares.”
Titus Petronius Niger known as Arbiter. It is not known when he was born, but he died in 66 AD. The details of much of his life are unknown, but we learn that he was consul suffectus in 62 AD, ‘proconsul of Bithynia’ – the implication of this is that he had had a successful career as a politician, had reached senatorial rank and was probably well born and wealthy. he became the Emperor Nero’s arbiter elegantiarum or ‘adviser on good taste’. However in 66 AD he was implicated in a plot against the Emperor and, in a scenario in the best possible taste, committed suicide. It is said that he wrote a document denouncing his master’s vices and accomplices, but this is not the work we have today. His book The Satyricon or collection of satirical material is a ‘picaresque novel’ written in the form known as Menippean satire, i.e. a mixture of verse and prose. The subject matter is difficult to define because we have relatively little of the original 15 books, but it is suggested that it resembles the Odyssey in that the disreputable heroes find themselves on a long journey as a result of having offended the god Priapus.
Decimus Junius Juvenalis (Juvenal) was a free-born Roman citizen and came from Aquinum, eighty miles from Rome. He was probably born about 50 AD and died sometime after 127 AD. It is not possible to give an account of his personal life and circumstances, though scholars have deduced some ‘facts’ from his writing. One suggestion is that he was banished by the Emperor Domitian for satirising a court favourite. If this is so it would account for his apparent poverty, his inability to obtain any position, and his refusal to mention any living person in his poems. He is the epitome of the ‘angry’ satirist whose indignation at the world causes him to rant and rail at people and things.
What is satire and what is it for?
Quintilian (a Roman literary critic) says that Satire is ‘entirely ours’ i.e. an entirely Roman-invented literary form. This cannot be true in broad terms, though he may have a point if you only think in terms of the form not the content. Roman satire is written in two possible forms – the dactylic hexameter (Lucilius, Horace, Juvenal) and the ‘Menippean’ – a mixture of prose and verse (Petronius, and others). There is no agreement on the derivation of the word satire, except that it indicates a mixture, a farrago, a charivari (wonderful words, look them up) of ideas and scenes. The content of Roman satire is however by no means unique to Rome. You will have come across some of the themes (political and personal) in Aristophanes, and much of the material pops up in such writers as Lucian (Greek, 1st Century AD), Theophrastus (Greek, 4th Century BC) and Aesop (Greek 6th Century BC). What these writings have in common is a quest to define the good and/or wise man and how he should behave. The approach may be to describe the faults of the bad person, or a particular fault in a number of people, to equate men with particular animals in order to isolate characteristics, or simply to relate incidents that illustrate particular good or bad traits. You will recognise the format in the teachings of the New Testament in the parables or moral tales that Jesus used to illustrate a concept. Aristophanes of course went rather further in naming contemporary figures as exemplars of the sins, crimes or vices of which he was critical, and Horace tells us that his model and hero Lucilius did the same. Such personalising is of course dangerous as many modern satirists still discover, as you are likely to be required to substantiate your accusations. Because it was part of a philosophical exercise, there is a further dimension to Satire in the Greek and Roman world, namely to train the reader or pupils in wisdom and goodness. Readers/hearers of the text would be expected to recognise the faults described in themselves and to work on eliminating them. Hence satire has a moral purpose. It is difficult at times to detect the moral purpose of a particular passage (Dinner with Trimalchio for example, and quite a lot of Juvenal Satire 6), because the writer gets a bit carried away by the scene he is describing, but it is there if you look for it.
SMB describes satire as a form of drama, as a performance. The satirists wear masks and play a part, they are not necessarily being themselves. It is worth noting that many satires (Juvenal 3, Horace II 7 and 8 for example) use another character either as a solo speaker or in dialogue) to present the argument. This device enables the satirist to avoid the charge of inconsistency, and to vary the tone.
It is essential to understand what this literary term means and to recognise its influence in all literature, but particularly in this genre. Rhetor is a Greek word meaning ‘speaker’; the Latin form is orator. In English there is a difference between ‘rhetoric’ and ‘oratory’ – what is it?
Both the Greeks and the Romans lived in a world of the spoken word: there were books but they were not commonplace. On a daily basis these people relied on memory, and if they wanted to experience new works they went to a public recitation (cf the beginning of Juvenal 1). Only the wealthy possessed books, and they often used slaves to read them aloud to them. In politics and in the law-courts you had not only to express your ideas, you had to be persuasive, and rhetoric is the art of persuasion with words. All our satirists have received formal training in rhetoric from their schooldays onwards, and they use their skills. It is likely that quite a lot of their subject matter is taken from the exercises they had to do as part of their training. It is also reasonable to suppose that the audience appreciated their technique, so that quite a lot of the pleasure to be got from hearing Horace or Juvenal read their work was derived from their consummate skills in this area. Cicero, a famous orator and writer on the subject, said that a person cannot become a good orator unless he is a good man: it is reasonable to conclude then that part of the training of the orator was in morality and the pursuit of goodness. SMB discusses the kind of training exercises that might have influenced the satirists on p4.
Gaius Lucilius is often referred to by our writers: the reason for this is that he, in their opinion, was the writer who set the standard for others to follow and develop. He was born about 180 BC and died about 102 BC. He is responsible for two major aspects of writing satire; first he settled on the hexameter as the standard format for the genre, and both Horace and Juvenal use this metre. Secondly he was not afraid to name names when pointing out society’s faults: he is said to have ‘lashed the city’ and scared the guilty. Some have suggested that he was able to do this only because he had the protection of one of the most powerful people of the time Scipio Aemilianus. His work has only survived in fragments, but we know enough to be able to piece some of it together. Horace admires him particularly and gets some of his ideas direct from him.
Patrons and Clients
The Romans did not share our attitude to work. Work (paid work that is, which you did to make enough money to keep you fed, clothed healthy and with a roof over your head) was an abomination to be avoided if at all possible. The ideal was a life of leisure in which you were free to pursue your interests: the fact that these might involve work, even hardship and deprivation, like in the army, was unimportant. The writer Pliny who was wealthy enough to own two huge mansions in the country and who could have lived comfortably without doing a stroke, used to occupy every waking hour with legal advice, politics, reading and writing. For the poor, paid work was inevitable, but for anyone with an education it was unendurable, and there had to be an alternative.
The alternative that the Romans developed was the client system. Essentially all the rich men adopted a retinue of poorer or lower status people as their clients: the idea was that each morning the clients would go and greet their patron and receive either some temporary employment or a dole or gift of food or money. They might be invited to dinner, but if they were they might be there only to make up an impressive number, and would possibly be served inferior food. At least the relationship provided a way of getting a living. In earlier days there had been a point to the institution: in the clannish nature of Roman society a large group of supporters loyal to you personally was a very useful adjunct for anyone in politics. Your clients were a part of the wider family. But by the first century AD the nature of politics had changed and the relationship was an institution without an obvious purpose. It is likely that the rich and powerful enjoyed the status it gave them, but they felt no obligation to their clients and merely went through the motions of generosity. Juvenal suggests that clients for their part regarded it with total cynicism as a means of getting free food and/or other handouts. He suggests that even the well off fought for the pickings.
Juvenal describes this relationship in several poems, and he also describes the way in which it was abused. He sees it as a severely flawed institution partly because greed turns everyone from top government officials to the poorest clerk into shameless grabbers of the free handout, and partly because the relationship itself he finds debased and degrading. His depictions of the morning race to salute the patron are graphic and appalling.
Horace represents the other side of this relationship, though you might find his willingness to acquiesce in being patronised unappealing. His patron, Maecenas, is a man of some discrimination, and, judging by the occasions on which people try to use Horace to get acquainted with him, he is much sought after. Horace is enabled through the patronage of Maecenas to give up work as a government clerk and to enjoy a life of leisure on his Sabine farm that will give him time to write. What Maecenas gets is the knowledge that he has nurtured a talent for the world. Perfect … or is it?
In Dinner with Trimalchio part of the joke that Petronius wants us to share is the idea of a man with no culture or discrimination attaining the status of a patron. His clients seem to be the riff-raff of the baths (the narrator and his cronies) and a selection of the freedman classes of little or no formal education. This gives our elegant and sophisticated writer a chance to mock not the institution but the practitioner. A parallel with Juvenal is that the guests, so generously treated by their host, do not appear to need the benefits they receive. Incidentally you will note that Trimalchio acquired his wealth not by hard work but through inheritance: much the best way!
Stoicism and Epicureanism
The Stoic School of Philosophy derives its name from the Stoa Poikile in Athens in which the founder Zeno and his successors used to teach. Proper understanding of the teachings will require long study, but the basics are clear, even if they need some interpretation. They are:
- Only the wise man, who knows the truth and knows that it is the truth, can be really virtuous.
- The wise man lives in harmony with nature. The guiding principle of nature is reason (which may be identified with god) and which manifests itself as fate or destiny.
- If you succeed in this you will be virtuous; you will not be affected by the vicissitudes of fortune; you will be absolutely brave since you know that pain and death are no evils; you will be absolutely just because you will not be influenced by prejudice or favour.
The teachings refer to ‘god’ and it is assumed that there is some sort of guiding force behind nature, which we must recognise. This might carry with it a belief in some sort of afterlife, which in religions is a powerful source of consolation for deprivation and grief in this life. It is also a source of fear for many, convinced of their own inadequacies. The Greeks and Roman practised their religion alongside their philosophical and ethical studies. Thus the Stoic might well endure everything that life throws at him with patience and fortitude, without complaint to others or to the gods, on the grounds that he has lived as far as possible a virtuous life and if there is another life he may expect no punishment or terrors.
Needless to say for most people a goal such as ‘knowing the truth’ would be difficult to achieve, but many would try to live their lives according to the teachings, just as many would today at least try to observe the teachings of Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. As Pontius Pilate is supposed to have said (thinking no doubt of Stoicism) “What is truth?”
Epicurus was an Athenian philosopher who lived in the 4th Century BC. He taught that the aim of human life should be happiness. Happiness is perhaps not the best translation of the Greek word eudaimonia, since at the heart of the word is daemon which gives us the English demon and which refers to an inner spirit (not a soul). The aim of his followers was to achieve this elusive quality, which as we shall see was not quite what it may appear. The Epicureans took the teachings of Democritus about the physical nature of the universe as a fundamental for their ethical teaching, namely that matter was made up of atoms moving in the void. The atoms link in random ways to produce the multiplicity of the perceived world, and at death disperse to reform elsewhere. The movement of the atoms is dictated by chance. There are gods, but they too are part of this perishable system. They take no interest in human affairs.
The objective of the good Epicurean was to achieve happiness in this life, but this did not imply a life of luxury and self indulgence. It meant a struggle to understand life as it really was, and to organise your life in such a way that nothing disturbs you. You should therefore avoid public life, avoid marriage and children and live the life of a monk or nun. Simplicity and purity was the aim.
The belief that the gods were a construct of the random joining of atoms in just the same way as humans, and that they were not interested in the wickedness or otherwise of humans, meant that man could be free from the fear and all the other evils that organised religion is guilty of. The Epicureans were the humanists of the classical world: “man is the measure of all things” would sum up their approach. In our own day Epicureanism has come to mean exactly what the originators did not mean, the devotion to luxury and fine living, which is a travesty of the ascetic approach to life that they advocated.
You will find reflections of both these influential schools of thought in the satirists. In the absence of a god or gods to instruct mankind on how to live properly, the Greeks and Romans relied on philosophy (which included science as well as conceptual analysis) to provide them with moral guidelines. To some extent (provided the laws were obeyed) each person had to reach their own conclusions about how they would live: satirists of course had some ideas to put over, and some persuasive lines of argument.
THE SATIRES OF HORACE
The nature of Horatian satire.
Braund calls Horace the smiling satirist. It must be remembered however that his is an ironic smile, that there is always a purpose behind the smile. The purpose is that of all satirists - to make the reader pay attention to the faults and vices which he is describing. She also defines humour and humility as the key to his approach: “He presents an unthreatening appearance through self-deprecation and invitations to laughter at his own expense, but at the same time offers criticisms, often indirect, which take his victims and his audience unawares.” For example, in I 4 he attributes his code of morality to the way his father would point out examples of particular vices and urge him to avoid them. He is showing proper respect and gratitude to his father, but at the same time he has cleverly introduced examples of what he regards as culpable behaviour for our consideration. He emphasises his humble origins - only a freedman’s son - and his ‘laughable’ military career, his lack of ambition in politics or business. He constantly describes how he is put the position where he is taken advantage of, is let down, hears of things second hand, is insulted by his own slave. He is content always with only as much as he needs; he not really a poet. When great events are afoot all he can do is describe the horrors of the journey that precedes the meeting. He knows that lots of people would give their eye-teeth to have Maecenas as their patron, but constantly expresses surprise that they should try to use him to gain admission. You may consider modesty and discretion to be virtues and proper in a man of such humble origins, and you may like and admire Horace for his character, but remember that he is also very clever, and that his modesty is probably a mask assumed for his particular purposes.
There are those who do not share Braund’s view, however. Dryden called him ‘a temporizing poet, a well-mannered court slave … who is ever decent because he is naturally servile’. In Satire II 1 he starts by saying that some people think that he has been too sharp in his satire and gone beyond its legitimate limits. Which presumably means that in his own day some of the things he said in Book I were considered libellous or at least overstated. So Dryden is perhaps going too far in the direction of considering him too mild, but he has a point if Horace then tones down his satire. But the point of satire II 1 is that his indignation at what he sees around him compels him to go on, and that at best he will see to it that his strictures are wrapped in the best poetry. What Dryden is alluding to is perhaps the fact that it is likely that Horace was influenced by Epicurean teaching when formulating his approach to life. As was said in the introduction, Epicureanism taught that politics and public life were unimportant, so Horace implicitly has rejected that kind of life. He cannot, or does not want to, reject the world completely, but the only field left open to him is that of personal relationships, and that is what he concentrates on.
What are the structural characteristics of Horace’s Satires? Rudd, in the introduction to your text, identifies three. First, he singles out just one vice and concentrates on it. Even when several are presented they treated in an orderly way and grouped under a single heading, such as ‘madness’ or ‘servitude’. Secondly, the satirical attack is conducted in the form of an argument or a debate. Third, he rarely adopts a truculent, insulting manner; he does not try to establish too much. He hears objections, makes concessions, so that at the end of the poem the reader feels not only that they have been listening to a reasonable man, but also that the ethical point at issue has been made clearer and more precise. Where Juvenal is a much more ‘in your face’ satirist, Horace allows the reader to think further and reflect, conscious that he has set him/her on the right path.
Rudd summarises Horace’s approach as follows:
Horace, then, offered a critique of vice and folly, and he certainly did not share the view, which is widely held today, that a man’s behaviour is totally unaffected by what he reads. Nevertheless it would be wrong to regard him as a reforming satirist, if by this one means a writer who sets out to influence society at large. For although he aimed to stimulate people’s moral awareness, he had no missionary zeal, and he never sought a wide audience. Moreover the purpose of his work was not solely - perhaps not even primarily - didactic. He wrote to give pleasure, to entertain people with his deft presentation of ideas, his amusing anecdotes, and his skilful adjustment of the hexameter to the rhythms of educate conversation - a combination of utility and delight.
Satires I 4
In this Satire Horace is giving us some insight into his approach to writing satire. There are two aspects of his writing that Horace wants to clarify - his chosen form and his attitude. He asserts that the masters of Old Comedy (including Aristophanes) denounced wrongdoers with great outspokenness and that Lucilius (a model for Horace) followed them. Horace feels that there was a certain malice or exaggeration in such attacks (consider that of Aristophanes on Cleon), though he applauds their assertion of the freedom of speech. Lucilius was also (he feels) rather exuberant and badly disciplined as a writer (two hundred lines an hour standing on his head). He wishes to avoid such excesses: he is writing for a discerning audience, and practising a skill his father used to teach him right from wrong, that of pointing to examples in real life of the vices to avoid. Horace also suggests in his typically self-deprecatory way that satire is not really poetry at all, more like ordinary speech in a metrical form. Remember that the title given to these poems (Sermones) means ‘conversations’. He mentions a number of names, some of which are those of real people, but many are unknown: in a way it does not matter who they are, because they are intended to be ‘types’
His attitude will be to point out vices in a good-humoured way, so as not to offend, though of course ‘if the cap fits, wear it’. He will avoid the ‘acid of malevolence’.
Satires I 5
This satire is often given the title ‘The Journey to Brundisium’. It can be read as a factual account of a journey undertaken at a significant moment in history (negotiations with Mark Antony in spring 37 BC) in company with some very important people (Maecenas, Virgil, Varius etc). What is however clear from the start is that if the reader is expecting any insight into the lives and activities of the great and famous they will be disappointed. All they do is banal and trivial, what they see is comical or everyday, they say very little.
The poem records the route taken and the forms of transport; Horace describes some of the places they stay at. He is amused by some of the people they meet - the pretentious official at Fundi, the host at Beneventum whose zeal in preparing the meal nearly set the house on fire. He records the minor discomforts and mishaps, bad water, a smoking fire, muddy roads and the frustration that followed the failure of a girl to keep an assignation. There is a poem like this in Lucilius (the Iter Siculum, or ‘Journey to Sicily’) and Horace may be deliberately imitating it, but there is no doubt that there is also much original observation.
Apart from the insight it gives us into travel in the Roman world, what is the point of the poem, and why is it a satire? The clue lies in what the poem does not do: it makes no revelations about the great and good: Horace is saying in a sense that it is not good to gossip and you are a fool if that is what you expected. Secondly, he is doing what he also does in Satire I 9 (the one about the persistent bore who latched on to Horace). He lets it be known that though he is part of the ‘inner circle’ he exerts no influence with these men of power, and remains his modest self despite everything. A lesson for us all, of course. Thirdly, it is not a record of an improving and elevating few days spent in the company of wise and thoughtful people. What did you expect, idiot!
Satire I 8
Priapus is a god of fertility whose statues featured an enormous phallus. Though originally taken seriously as a cult it seems that by this time he was found broadly funny rather than impressive, and he was adopted as the god of gardens, where he acted as a sort of combined scarecrow and guardian deity. It is therefore appropriate that we should find him in this poem presiding over the newly laid out garden on the Esquiline funded by Maecenas. The site had once been a paupers’ cemetery, and as such it attracted all sorts of criminals and beasts, and worst of all necromancers (people who predict the future by communicating with the dead) and witches (who presumably came to collect suitable material for their potions). Priapus, we are asked to imagine, was quite unable to prevent such people from intruding here, until a happy (?) accident drove them all away. We must remember that he is made from figwood, and that at an opportune moment his buttocks split as though he had farted.
Despite the bad taste, the poem is clever in the way it combines a fantastic story with the idea of celebrating the cleaning up of a notorious eyesore by Horace’s patron. Coffey says it is ‘without uplift’ presumably meaning it has no moral purpose, and that it is simply within the tradition of satire as a ‘miscellany’. Highet on the other hand refers to “the pleasure which this hilarious satire could be expected to give him (Maecenas)”.
Satire I 9
It is possible that this incident actually happened, but unimportant. Horace describes running into a very persistent and impervious ‘social climber’ who is determined to use him as a means of getting an introduction to Maecenas. Horace tries a number of ways to shake him off - he is going a long way to visit a sick friend, being ironic, rude, reminding him that he has to appear in court, refusing to acknowledge any influence with Maecenas, but to no avail. He cannot even persuade a friend to rescue him. Eventually the man’s opponent arrives on the scene and hauls him off to court. Horace is happy to act for the prosecution!
There are two significant features of this poem: the first is that it is about Horace and Maecenas (again). The implication of the whole poem is that Horace does have contact with Maecenas even if he chooses not to effect an introduction for his new acquaintance. The second is the fact that the character of this man is revealed entirely in what he says, very much in the tradition of satire. You see it in the monologues in Dinner with Trimalchio, and it is a technique often employed nowadays by novelists and dramatists. We do not know if he is tall or short, thin or fat, where he lives or what he does. But we do know that he epitomises a vice which if we are wise we will avoid. The poem makes lavish use of ironic self-criticism, typical of Horace. You should be aware that there are lines in the poem, which use the high-flown language of epic poetry, and even a direct quotation from the Iliad. The irony lies in the contrast between the language and the distinctly unheroic actions of the poem.
Satires I 10
In this Satire Horace returns to the issue of his attitude to Lucilius and the appropriate style for a satirist. It is not enough to make the audience guffaw; economy of style, variation of tone, changes of level, the overblown and the restrained - all these things are necessary for an effective poem. Satirists should remember that serious matters can often be resolved by mockery rather than vituperation (as Aristophanes demonstrates). Though Lucilius is to be praised for the spirit of his writing, he has his faults, not least of them his lack of discipline, and his propensity for using Greek, when Latin can produce as good an effect. Horace’s ambition is to do for satire what Varius has done for epic, what Virgil has done for pastoral poetry - to become the best exponent of that most Roman of genres. Lucilius’ style would not be acceptable in the Rome of Horace’s day: he would have to edit his work. Horace wants his work to appeal to the most discriminating of critics, among them Maecenas, Messalla and Octavius (all of them men of letters), and fellow writers.
Who were his critics? Valerius Cato, editor of Lucilius and arbiter of literary fashion; other minor figures, Carper, Demetrius, Fannius, Tigellius, who can be identified, but are not in Horace’s estimation, worthy literary critics. Horace feels that with the support of his patron and others he can afford to be like ‘Miss Tree’ (an actress) who did not care if an ignorant audience hissed her off the stage. “I am happy if the better classes applaud me” - she could afford to take this attitude as she was a wealthy knight’s mistress!
This is a poem about satire rather than a satire in itself, though there is plenty of comment and perhaps bitchiness about the contemporary literary scene for it to have a satirical flavour. The point is that Horace is trying to establish for satire some pretension to literary as well as social value. He does not think Lucilius did the genre any favours, but hopes that by applying some of the standards of more elevated literary forms he can turn it into something more lasting, valued for its poetic skill as well as its content.
Satires II 1
This introduction to Book II was written after the other poems had been completed. In it Horace discusses with the distinguished legal expert Trebatius Testa (again the introduction of another voice) whether his satires are going too far, and what the consequences might be. The advice he receives is basically to try a different line (write poems in praise of the work of Octavian [Caesar] for example). But Horace does not think he is capable of such writing, and says that he will follow the example of Lucilius, but rather than attack the wicked, he will simply write in self-defence. This can, in Trebatius’ view, still be dangerous, and if he writes ‘foul verses to another’s hurt’ he can expect a lawsuit. But if they are good, and approved of by Caesar? Then he will get away with it.
Coffey calls this a ‘fundamentally frivolous piece’. It is true that it does not contribute much to our understanding of what satire is for or what motivates Horace, but it does illustrate an important aspect of the difficulty of writing satire. If you are too blunt, too impassioned, you run risks and are in danger from the law and from personal abuse. Satire must be personal, pointed, clever and universal, otherwise it will provoke entirely the wrong reaction. Without actually claiming to be able to deliver this, Horace suggests that that is what he is aiming at.
Satire II 2
Food is of course one of the great themes of the satirist, as it is a need we all share, but an area rich in opportunities to make social distinctions, teach moral lessons, and best of all mock those who do not do as we do. Here the mask that Horace adopts is that of a countryman called Ofellus, and his argument is in favour of ‘plain living’ which in his view is not the same as self-denial. He begins by contrasting the lifestyles of the excessively rich (obsessed with obtaining the finest and rarest of foods) and the miser Avidienus who epitomises the other extreme and serves only the cheapest and nastiest fare. The right approach is to eat a moderate amount of wholesome food and to push the boat out only when there is something to celebrate. This is of course the concept which we have met elsewhere (in Tragedy, for example) of the golden mean, moderation in all things, nothing in excess. The final scene combines Ofellus’ description of a modest feast with the use of the biographical details to point to a lesson in stoicism - the idea that we must learn to ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ by adopting wise acceptance as our attitude.
Satire II 6
“Is it better to live in the town or in the country?” was probably a question set for debate in the rhetoric schools. The issues have still not been settled. Horace’s contribution to the debate in this satire should be compared with Juvenal’s in his Satire 3. Despite being a commonplace topic, Horace turns it into a clever and satisfying poem. He was presented with the farm in Sabinum by his patron Maecenas, and this is in part a poem of thanks. Its setting is idyllic, so the description of pastoral perfection links it with the tradition of an idealised country life. It is also modest, providing him with just enough to live comfortably in retreat, and is therefore an illustration of the moral advantages of moderation referred to in II 2. The contrasting picture of busy life in the city with its constant demands and intrigue is cleverly evoked through snippets of conversation which again remind us of another poem, this time the one about the bore (I 9).
The poem ends with the fable (cf Aesop) of the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. The Country Mouse is hospitable but frugal and does his best to give his guest a good time. The Town Mouse’s tastes are clearly for a more exciting lifestyle, but when the Country Mouse experiences it he finds it luxurious but also pretentious and ultimately dangerous. The moral of the story is that life in the country is better … for Horace, but typically he does not drive home the point, but allows the reader to be drawn into agreeing with him. The teachings of Epicureanism underlie the poem somewhere.
Satire II 7
The Roman Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17th: one element in the festivities was the granting of permission to slaves to enjoy a certain amount of licence to do as they pleased. In this satire Horace is having an imaginary conversation with his slave Davus on the theme that only the wise man is free; this may well have again been a commonplace topic in the schools of rhetoric, and is certainly a Stoic paradox. The dialogue purports to be an actual encounter, and some take Davus’ accusations against Horace as biographical, but this is unlikely. Davus says essentially that Horace, being tempted by the desire for good food and sex into the most ludicrous contortions, is no better than him, a slave, and at least he is honest about it.
The self-deprecation we have noted before is here again, but remember that it is just a device: no-one is being accused or threatened, but everyone will take the point.
Satire II 8
Food again; and again a foolish and misguided hosts who hopes to gain some social advancement from inviting Maecenas and his retinue to dinner. We are invited, as in Dinner with Trimalchio to laugh with Horace and his friends at the disastrous dinner, though, as with Trimalchio it is impossible not to feel a certain sympathy for someone who tries so hard to please, only to have his important guests leave without finishing the meal. Coffey suggests that it might be regarded as an offensive piece in which Horace shown unexpected insecurity of social judgement. The best view is probably to see it as part of a tradition in satire and conclude that Horace wrote it because that was what was expected.
The incident is related not by Horace, but to him by Fundanius, a comic poet, who may be relied on to give everything a comic twist. Again Horace distances himself from the narrative by this device. Nasidienus may be a nouveau riche social climber, but his guests are condescending and rude. This condescending attitude is underlined in the way Fundanius - who clearly shares the sensibilities of the group - is given approval by Horace himself, who thinks the story better than any show. The tone is overall one of mocking laughter.
What is going on here? Clearly certain types of behaviour are being pilloried and we should learn by this homily to avoid them. But is that all? Probably not, but the message is a deep and difficult one: when we hear people mocked we feel a certain relief that we are not the victim; we might join in the mockery in order to show that we identify with the mocker and want to be considered like him. We want to join the elite club, not to be outside. Horace is inviting us in, just as Petronius invites us in, to the club of good taste. We do not question the values, because we desperately want to be ‘in’. But perhaps we should question them, like the boy in the story of the King’s New Clothes, and not simply agree just to be acceptable.
PETRONIUS: DINNER WITH TRIMALCHIO
The story of the ostentatious dinner party with Trimalchio is told in the first person by ‘the self-dramatising wastrel’ Encolpius. It is not Petronius’ voice that we hear, and therefore should beware of thinking that he shared the opinions of his character. Nevertheless, since this is a satire in the Roman tradition, in which undesirable social behaviour is mocked and censured, we can assume that he wanted us to be critical of the behaviour and mores of the host and his guests.
(The following is an edited extract from Roman Satire by Michael Coffey, which is in the Library).
The entertainment organised by Trimalchio proceeds with a rumbustious speed and a rich variety of incidents. But Encolpius’ comments are entirely condemnatory. He begins with ironical sneers at the singing waiters, the hors d’oeuvres, an inept visual pun, and the banality of the freedmen’s conversation. When Trimalchio offers sympathetic understanding for any guest suffering from constipation or wind, laughter is suppressed by hasty draughts from goblets. But Encolpius’ thoughts become increasingly intolerant, and Ascyltos (followed by Giton) bursts into uncontrolled laughter, whereupon a fellow guest reviles them for the superciliousness and bad manners. Encolpius’ ironical admiration of a carver’s gladiatorial antics soon gives way to violent indignation. Pieces of delicatessen are brought in of which even the memory is offensive to him. They cannot escape from Trimalchio’s foul boasting even in the bath, and the final stroke of the nauseating spectacle comes with Trimalchio’s mock funeral. At this point the three companions make a hasty and surreptitious departure.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that such occasions were a social reality: we have other evidence for wealthy but ignorant freedmen, for people with obsessions about their own funerals, and for excessive feasting such as is described. This passage is a comic picture of an upstart’s unsuccessful attempt to imitate life in Roman high society. What makes it satire is the tone with which it is described and the combination of horrified fascination and disgust which it intended to create in us the readers, as a result of which we will of course avoid such excesses ourselves, or smirk with smug self-satisfaction. There is also an element of parody here of the Greek genre which describes feasting and the symposium or drinking party. You have read one such satirical description in Aristophanes’ Wasps when Anticleon tries to teach his father how to behave at a drinking party, which (when he describes what happened later) he clearly failed to apprehend. Plato, the Athenian philosopher, wrote a dialogue called The Symposium in which one guest, Alcibiades, arrives late and drunk, as Habinnas does. There is an implied contrast between the serious and civilised conversation of the learned men in Plato and the small talk of a polyglot assemblage of the uneducated in the seamy setting of a Campanian town.
The character of Trimalchio
The nouveau riche freedman with pretensions to learning and a leaning to superstition was, as is clear from the writings of Seneca, a familiar type in the middle of the First Century AD. Yet although many of Trimalchio’s sayings are typical of the ostentatious vulgarian (such as his utterly ignorant comments on objets d’art and matters of learning), Petronius shows much skill in presenting a unique individual. Before the guests meet Trimalchio they hear that they will be dining with an eccentric who has a clock and a trumpeter to tell him how much longer he has to live. They first see him as a bald old man playing an unusual ball game, surrounded by his slaves including a favourite boy, whom Encolpius describes as uglier than his master. Morbid superstition, particularly a preoccupation with death and its appurtenances, is a constant theme throughout the Cena. Late in the proceedings there is a violent quarrel over a slave boy between Trimalchio and his wife Fortunata; yet according to a freedman guest he is completely dependent on her managerial skill and decisions. He is only prevented from dancing by a whispered admonition from her; Encolpius comments that at one moment Trimalchio was afraid of Fortunata and at the next would revert to his natural bent of acting the fool. Although undoubtedly vulgar, he always courteous to his guests, tolerant towards Ascyltos and Giton, and kindly towards the glum Niceros. Though the speech of the slave-owner on the essential humanity of the slave is intended to be seen as humbug, Trimalchio in practice can be considerate, as when he ensures that the slaves who have served at dinner then eat their own meal. In the later part much of the portraiture is expressed by Trimalchio’s description of himself. He reads out the bombastic wording of the inscription to be carved on his tombstone, dutiful, brave and loyal self-made man who never listened to a philosopher, and recounts his life story as the slave boy who, after gratifying the desires of both his master and mistress became chief manager of the house and then retired to his present affluent ease.
In the modern egalitarian age there is some danger of sentimentalising the character of Trimalchio. Petronius sets out to present him as an object of amused contempt; Encolpius’ comments throughout the narrative make this clear, and the reader may wish this to be the final verdict. But it is possible to argue that Trimalchio has in some way gone beyond his creator’s intentions. He is a complex amalgam of observed behaviour and the imagination of a writer of fiction.
Is Dinner with Trimalchio true satire?
…or to put it another way, Was Petronius a satirist? There is some argument over this question which rests basically on his purpose in writing the book of which this is an extract. The idea is that satire is seen as an art form that is concerned in some sense with morality (including under this head aesthetic and intellectual principles) and it expresses an ethical or apparently ethical point of view. Petronius however (they say), although he employs models, themes and techniques of the genre, is not interested in morality in the larger sense, but only in art. There may be an occasional hit at some contemporary fashion, but this is not done with sufficient consistency. The result is a curious distancing, a wry irony, and at times this makes the author seem almost ambivalent towards his characters. As a result, though the Dinner is an obviously satiric episode, it is transformed. It begins as a sardonic caricature of a volatile, ignorant, superstitious and boastful freedman, who seems initially set before us for condemnation, and ends up a convincing and sympathetically felt creation of a memorable fictional character.
Another view similar to this is that Petronius sets out to present to us a favourite philosophical and ethical truth, that luxuria or excess in food, sex or language brings about death (physical and spiritual), but this message gets somehow lost in the detail, lovingly described, of the dinner. He allows himself to be carried away by the graphic and vigorous language of these freedmen, and he begins to sympathise with his characters. The result is that instead of enjoying in our refined and superior way a clever but moral tale of the pitfalls of excess and ignorance, we start to feel uncomfortable because we are being snobbish and supercilious. Once we realise this, we start to empathise with the characters, and to condemn the writer. We should not, of course because all he is doing is describing the occasion with realism, clarity and charity. Thus Petronius exposes the pretensions of both his character and his audience. Not everyone takes this charitable view:
He is not creative at all; his mind is dry
And bears no blossoms even in the season,
He is an onlooker, a heartless type
Whose hobby is giving everyone else the lie.
The Introduction to your text has a section on this question:
The main themes of the work then seem predominantly satiric and the close relation of humour or wit with moral satire in ancient as well as modern times might seem to explain the nature of most of Petronius’ work. Ancient and more recent satirists often chose prurient or disgusting targets for their humorous or ironic shafts. But the truth is that Petronius, on a careful reading, does not strike us, for all his satiric themes, as a truly classic satirist. There is something oddly wrong in this classification, and the long debate over the nature of the work reinforces our doubts. For Petronius does not strike us as a serious moralist, or even, like Juvenal, as the adopter of a conventional morale from which to launch into his more vital and artistic preoccupations. He is completely disengaged from the moral situations he depicts.
The Dinner with Trimalchio offers the real clue to this difficulty. The theme is traditional, even if considerably deepened by experience and observation, but the standard adopted is clearly one of taste, as one might expect of its author, rather than any moral standard. But even this standard is constantly undercut by the deliberate satire on Encolpius, the mouthpiece of the satire. All his strictures on Trimalchio’s vulgarity and pretentiousness lose their effect when Petronius makes his narrator expose himself time and time again to the reader’s contempt, however indulgent. As a partial consequence, although the sheer vitality of Petronius’ invention must not be overlooked, Trimalchio more and more assumes the status of a great comic character rather than the mercilessly flayed object of satire. Much the same may be said of Trimalchio’s circle.
What has happened, I think, is this: Petronius’ themes are at first dictated by the tradition of the genre he has chosen and his success or relative failure with them depends on their challenge to his imagination. The challenge that he has been able to meet is the novelist’s challenge, for we have seen that his artistic impulse is not really the satirist’s impulse at all. His claim to be a satirist is no more than the fact that he has chosen traditional satirical topics where the air of disengagement is too obvious to be missed, and when he does approach satire from an implicit standard, it is a standard of taste which he constantly undercuts by irony.
THE SATIRES OF JUVENAL
The following is taken from the introduction to Niall Rudd’s text and notes of Satires 1,3 and 10.
Did Juvenal intend to promote general moral reform? Most of those who have written about Juvenal over the centuries think he did. Starting from Ramsey, who says “He holds up a mirror to every part of the private life of Rome of his day, and by the most caustic and trenchant invective seeks to shame her out of her vices.” We turn back to men like Gifford in the 19th century, Lubinus in the 17th, and Britannicus in the 16th, all of whom express the same view; from there we go back to the middle ages when Juvenal stood so high as a preacher and moralist that he was sometimes referred to simply as ethicus.
Yet this can hardly be right. Although one might possibly imagine that after reading Juvenal a few patrons decided to treat their guests more politely or that some women were induced to behave with more sense and dignity, most of the features of Roman life attacked by Juvenal were the result of a long and irreversible process. The squalor and danger of apartment blocks, the impoverishment of the middle classes, the success of energetic freedmen and immigrants, the sexual frivolity - these were developments that could not possibly have been altered by the work of a poet. And Juvenal knew it (Satire 1 147-8).
Did he then have a more limited aim, viz. to attack prominent men who were active in public life? Again, some readers have thought so. But closer inspection reveals that ‘Juvenal did not attack any person or category that commanded influence in his own time’ (Syme). Instead he did something different: he used notorious characters from earlier generations as exempla to illustrate crimes and vices, which were for the most part were still flourishing (Satire 1 170-171).
If he didn’t hope to remedy these evils, should Juvenal then be thought of more as a declaimer, giving a display of rhetorical virtuosity? There is a good deal of truth in this. We know from Satire 1 that Juvenal received a rhetorical education, and his poems exhibit all the attendant features from anaphora to zeugma. The school handbooks provided a range of general topics such as ‘wealth’ or ‘fortune/chance’ or the degeneracy of the age, and also a wealth of illustration drawn from the lives of the notorious or the unfortunate. Thanks to appearance of the Loeb translation of the elder Seneca we now have easier access to the world of declamations, and we need not look much further to find the source of Juvenal’s general ideas. In spite of a few references to Stoicism and Epicureanism, he did not possess a philosophical mind; and so, unlike Horace, he does not ask us to discriminate between one type of fault and another. Everything is condemned with the same vehemence. This too is part of his rhetorical stance. Again, as he is not conversing with us in an informal way, he does not tell us about his friends or his private life; instead he stands apart and delivers a series of harangues. The most famous of these with the exception of Satire 10, are inspired by indignatio - a term which in the vocabulary of rhetoric can imply not just indignation on the part of the speaker, but also a rhetorical procedure for arousing the same emotion in the reader.
Yet it would be wrong to think of Juvenal simply as a declaimer. Leaving aside the poetic quality of his writing (which lifts them into a quite different dimension) we cannot always fit the Satires into any of the conventional rhetorical categories. Clearly they are not examples of a person arguing a case in court or appealing to any particular law, nor can they be related to the exercises designed to persuade the hearer of the truth of your argument. True, Satire 3 marshals the arguments for leaving Rome, and Satire 6 the arguments against marriage, but several others are not constructed in that way and even Satire 1 does not try to persuade anyone else to write satire. In some respects, especially in their abundant vituperation, the Satires come closest to the second of these types, but the standard examples of vituperative oratory were composed for particular occasions and directed at specific people. It is hard to think of any speech or groups of speeches that would correspond to the first two books of Juvenal in structure and function.
Or in wit. For in his own dreadful way Juvenal is an immensely entertaining writer, which is more than can be said for any of the surviving declaimers. Moreover, his wit is often so extravagant, and sometimes so inappropriate to his thesis, that we can hardly believe his indignation to be quite sincere. But sincerity - or the appearance of sincerity - is an orator’s main business. If he is willing to weaken his argument for the sake of a joke, his effectiveness is seriously diminished.
Should we then regard Juvenal as primarily a wit? This is the position worked out with skill and learning by H.A. Mason, who sets out to show that ‘Juvenal is more interested in literature than in social conditions, and that he lacks any consistent standpoint or moral coherence. Indeed his whole art consists in opportunism and the surprise effects of deliberate inconsistency’. In taking this approach Mason starts from Martial, arguing that both he and Juvenal shared an audience which, while not necessarily vicious, enjoyed salacious poetry as a sort of game, provided it was cleverly written. He then goes on to show how Juvenal sometimes used stones from Martial’s epigrams to build the more elaborate edifice of his own satires.
All this is true and worth saying, yet it would be wrong to underestimate the firm foundation of fact which often underlies even the most hyperbolic of passages. The tedium and hypocrisy of recitations, the fires and falling houses, discrimination in hospitality, the plight of intellectuals, the unpopularity of the army - these and many other features of Roman life are abundantly attested in other sources
Nor, after all can we neglect the moral element in the satires. Here it may look as if we have come full circle, but to express and appeal to an attitude of mind is only indirectly influencing behaviour, and to invite a moral response from a reader is very different from trying to reform society. There are occasions when Juvenal in effect turns to the reader and makes his sense of moral outrage clear, and invites the reader to agree with him.
These remarks may help to define the area within which critical assessment has to be made. How the final judgement is composed and weighted must be left to the reader after he/she has followed the path of this complex and elusive genius.
Comments on Individual Satires.
Juvenal’s first satire begins with an impassioned statement of intentions, without any preamble. Surrounded by the din of declaiming poets Juvenal will retaliate, not with another mythological work, but with satire - subject matter close at hand in the sins of the age. A rising sequence of examples of viciousness culminates with rapidly enriched freedmen of Near Eastern origin; in a series of rhetorical questions and insistent expressions of anger Juvenal incites the reader to share his indignation. He sees a sedan chair bulging with the obese bulk of a rich barrister, followed by a treacherous and venal public informer; he is then pushed aside by gigolos who vie with each other in the extent of their services to a wealthy old woman. Later when he talks of standing at the street corner and filling his tablets with the misdeeds o the passers by, like the effete forger and the successful female poisoner, Juvenal’s listeners are appealed to as if actually present at the scene.
The stated theme of his book is real life, past and present, in all its aspects, but he makes it plain that he means the plenitude of vice, avarice in particular. The follows a more expanded description of the daily round of life in Rome as experienced by the poor client. This includes queueing for the daily dole, handed out by the rich and influential. In the final section the satirist is warned that he may be destroyed if he attacks the powerful. He therefore promises to attack the dead alone; by this he means that he will use the dead as exempla of wickedness. The treatment of the theme is varied; vivacious and rapidly changing presentation is followed by more leisurely narrative and argumentation.
In this satire the simple decency of old republican life contrasts with the corruption and danger of the modern capital. Umbricius, a native Roman of small means is retiring in disgust to Cumae on the Bay of Naples. His complaint makes up the bulk of the poem. Its angle of vision is that the honest (but querulous) Roman who is without wealth, but believes tht a simple innocent way of life is still to be found in provincial Italy. The long speech is framed by a description of the place and circumstances like a forma dialogue. At the beginning the poet and Umbricius walk while the removal cart is being loaded under the arches of the Capuan Gate. At the end, as the sun sinks, Umbricius departs. The poem’s balanced structure, its orderly succession of topics and its naturalistic humanity have won it high esteem that has been extended by Samuel Johnson’s magisterial adaptation ‘London’.
This satire uses the traditional theme of the dinner party to describe the humiliations endured by the client at a meal given by his patron. There is a series of contrasts between what is offered to the host and to his guests. Virro is served with wine of an illustrious vintage, his clients with wine that drives men to crazed brawling; Virro’s wine-waiter is a handsome youth, but the clients are served by a dark-skinned ruffian who looks like a highway robber. They are even abused by the waiter for taking bread reserved for their patron. Humiliation continues until the dessert. Virro has acted like this not out of meanness, but because he takes cruel pleasure in the spectacle of the humiliated retainer. The viewpoint of the poem is not that of the client himself, but of the critical but sympathetic onlooker, who chides the client for accepting invitations that will lead inevitably to such insults. In the middle there is an appeal to the patron to treat his guests with more consideration.
Satire 6 is an enormous indictment of women in married life that unfolds item by item to fill the whole roll of nearly 700 lines. Its thesis is the loss of female integrity in a society in which marriage inflicts intolerable humiliations on the husband. It is impossible to separate marriage from and the vices of women, at which a husband is usually no more than a helpless onlooker. The poem is essentially a catalogue of graphic descriptions, linked by the thesis that conjugal happiness is broken by both depravity and eccentricity. The sequence is roughly as follows:
1-60 Chastity existed in the Golden Age, but the world has degenerated. 60-183 Women, or at least women from wealthy, aristocratic families whom men marry for their fortunes, now have an independence that frees them from the normal restrictions men would prefer to see, and allows them to pursue a very public and very depraved lifestyle. Eppia and Messalina are examples of this, one eloping with a hunk of a gladiator, the other (the wife of the Emperor Claudius) working as a prostitute to satisfy her sex-drive. But to marry any woman from this class is to court humiliation. There follows a series of portraits of the kind of monster you might end up with:
the litigious female
the woman gladiator
the women who practice secret cultic orgies
women who have sex with family retainers or eunuchs
the female musician
the women knowledgeable about world affairs who talks on equal terms to generals
the aggressive female athlete
the intellectual woman
the ‘style-slave’ who flogs her hairdresser if she gets it wrong
the participants in the cult of Ma-Bellona
the superstitious woman
Conclusion: if you are thinking of getting married, don’t.
There is every reason to suppose that Juvenal is practising his rhetorical skills in this satire, and using traditional material as well as reflecting common assumptions, and that therefore it is both exaggerated and dramatised. In the present day it could be seen as offensive and biased. What accounts for its survival and continued interest in it are the artistic qualities. You may not like the subject or the approach, but the verbal power, the economy of scene painting, the vividness of the portraits are all overwhelming. There is even a hint of glee or enjoyment on Juvenal’s part in the artistry of his contribution to what even he may have regarded as a partisan argument.
Johnson called his translation/adaptation of this satire The Vanity (i.e. pointlessness) of Human Wishes. Juvenal takes all the things which (he says) people pray and hope for from life, and by referring to well-known examples of people who have achieved these targets, points out that in the end it did them no good. The desires he identifies are: power, eloquence (the power to persuade), military glory, long life, beautiful children. In each of these areas he refers to famous historical figures who have made it. Power? Sejanus (the Emperor Tiberius’ agent in Rome) ended up dragged through the streets he once controlled. Eloquence? Cicero (expert on rhetoric and politician, contemporary of Julius Caesar) was murdered because he offended Antony with the power of his Philippic speeches (Demosthenes wrote the original Philippics against Philip of Macedon). He should have stuck to poetry. Military glory? Hannibal (Carthaginian general, nearly captured Rome) ended up committing suicide in some Middle eastern tyrant’s court. Same with Alexander and Xerxes, Marius and Pompey - all dead with no lasting monument. A long life? Do you really want to be old? Do you want to see your children die, and suffer all the indignities of failing health and powers? Beautiful children? They are a liability to you and to themselves. Best leave it to the gods to decide what your lot in life should be. Or if you must pray for something, pray for a healthy mind in a health body, a valiant heart, free from lust and anger and unaffected by a desire for luxury and wealth. There is only one path to a life of peace - through virtue.
Coffey describes this poem as uncomplicated in structure, combining a grave nobility with cynical wit.