Juvenal is one of my favourite Latin authors – he adopts a persona with such vivid anger that it’s hard not to realise that the whole piece is a carefully constructed piece of art, and not the ad lib rantings of an angry poet. One of the reasons I find this section (from the first 35 lines of his first satire) so interesting is the way it offers a window to the literary world of post-Domitianic Rome. Poets recite the same old drivel, boring those attending the compulsory recitations to tears, while Rome trundles on outside. The satirist reminds us that the past was always so much better, but that nowadays it’s the wrong sorts of people who have the money: the up-and-comers, the immigrants, the political wheelers and dealers, the lawyers. Even the morals of today are awful. If these gripes sound familiar it’s because Juvenal’s satire clings to the constant issues that still bite today – the satirist is a racist, a homophobe, and a sexist but that doesn’t mean we can’t relate to him in some small ways.
semper ego auditor tantum?numquamne reponam
vexatus totiens rauci Theseide Cordi?
inpune ergo mihi recitaverit ille togatas,
hic elegos? inpune diem consumpserit ingens
Telephus aut summi plena iam margine libri
scriptus et in tergo necdum finitus Orestes?
nota magis nulli domus est sua quam mihi lucus
Martis et Aeoliis vicinum rupibus antrum
Vulcani; quid agant venti, quas torqueat umbras
Aeacus, unde alius furtiuae devehat aurum
pelliculae, quantas iaculetur Monychus ornos,
Frontonis platani convolsaque marmora clamant
semper et adsiduo ruptae lectore columnae.
expectes eadem a summo minimoque poeta.
et nos ergo manum ferulae subduximus, et nos
consilium dedimus Sullae, privatus ut altum
dormiret. stulta est clementia, cum tot ubique
vatibus occurras, periturae parcere chartae.
cur tamen hoc potius libeat decurrere campo,
per quem magnus equos Auruncae flexit alumnus,
si vacat ac placidi rationem admittitis, edam.
cum tener uxorem ducat spado, Mevia Tuscum
figat aprum et nuda teneat venabula mamma,
patricios omnis opibus cum provocet unus
quo tondente gravis iuveni mihi barba sonabat,
cum pars Niliacae plebis, cum verna Canopi
Crispinus Tyrias umero revocante lacernas
ventilet aestiuum digitis sudantibus aurum
[nec sufferre queat maioris pondera gemmae,] difficile est saturam non scribere. nam quis iniquae
tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se,
causidici noua cum veniat lectica Mathonis
plena ipso, post hunc magni delator amici
et cito rapturus de nobilitate comesa
quod superest, quem Massa timet, quem munere
palpat Carus et a trepido Thymele summissa Latino;
Am I always just a listener? Shall I never retaliate,
Angered so often by Cordus’ raucous Theseid?
Therefore will that man have recited comedies to me unharmed?
And this one elegies? Unharmed shall a huge Telephus have consumed
The day? Or an Orestes, not yet finished, written in the
Already full margin of the end of the book and on its back?
No one’s home is better known to himself than I know the grove
Of Mars and, next to the Aeolian cliffs, the cave of
Vulcan. What the winds are doing, which shades Aeacus tortures,
To where another man carries off the gold of a pilfered
Little fleece, how many ash trees Monychus hurls –
Fronto’s plane trees and shattered marbles cry out
And his columns ever and constantly ruptured by the reader.
You would expect the same stuff from the best and worst poet.
Therefore I have also drawn my hand back from the rod – and I have
Given advice to Sulla so that he might sleep deeply, a private citizen.
It is a stupid clemency (when you run into so many ‘bards’
Everywhere) to spare paper that will be wasted.
Yet why should it be more pleasing to charge across this field
Through which Arunca’s great foster son wheeled his horses?
If there’s time and you placidly accept my reasoning I’ll tell all.
When a womanly eunuch takes a wife, when Mevia spits a
Tuscan boar and bears hunting spears on her bare breast,
When there challenges all the patricians with his wealth one man
Under whose shaving my rough beard used to grate when I was young,
When a member of the Nile’s rabble, when Canopus’ homeborn slave
Crispinus – as his shoulder pulls up Tyrian cloaks –
Airs his summer gold on sweating fingers,
[For he could not suffer the weights of a larger jewel] It is difficult not to write satire! For who is so patient of the
Unequal city, so steel-hearted, that he can restrain himself
When shyster Matho’s new litter comes up,
Filled with himself, and after him a great friend’s informant
About to seize swiftly whatever remains of his gobbled up
Nobility, a man whom Massa fears, whom Carus flatters
With a gift, and Thymele secretly sent by a trembling Latinus?
Chosen and translated by Sam Hayes.
The above text is provided by The Latin Library .
Further reading – A key text that takes Juvenal Satires 1 and 3 and brings them kicking and screaming into the 18th Century is Samuel Johnson’s London. He changes the Romans for the English and the Greeks for the French, and removes all of the obscenities which makes it a safer read for younger groups.