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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Thomas Bond Lindsay (1853–1909)

By Juvenal (c. 55–127)

THE PERMANENT value of any literary work may be due to the fact that it appeals to those common emotions which vary neither with time nor with nationality. Love, hatred, envy, and ambition differ in the objects towards which they are directed, and in the methods of their manifestation; but as primary emotions they exist unchanged in the modern as in the ancient world. The writer who knows how to depict them directly, with little or no reference to the changing conditions under which they appear, is sure of an audience for all time. The rhythmic heart-beats of Catullus find their echoes everywhere. On the other hand, there are writers whose abiding interest springs from a different source. In them there is less emphasis on the emotion, more on the object upon which the emotion is exercised,—on the complex and constantly shifting circumstances under which it reveals itself. Thus the two factors of history—the individual and the environment—are presented with varying degrees of prominence.

In writers of the former class, we prize chiefly depth of feeling, breadth of sympathy, and that quick responsiveness to indefinable spiritual influences that marks the poet and the genius. In the latter, we look for the more strictly intellectual qualities of keen insight, clear judgment, and power of pictorial representation. It makes very little difference when and where such a poet as Catullus lived. With the writer of the latter class, however, the condition of the society with which he is surrounded is all-important.

It is to this latter class that Juvenal belongs. As a great poet he is undoubtedly inferior to Catullus or Lucretius. As a depicter of morals and manners he is far beyond them. They appeal to the student of poetry; Juvenal appeals to the student of history. Nowhere, not even in the histories (satires themselves) of Tacitus, can we find so distinct a picture of the seething tumult of that complex Roman civilization which was rapidly moving on to destruction. To the modern reader the value of this picture is enhanced by the fact that it represents a state of society which in many respects closely resembles that of our own time.

At the period which Juvenal describes, Rome was full of unearned wealth; wealth that had come not as the result of honest effort in agriculture or commerce, but from the plunder of the East, from bribery and corruption in public life, from usury and blackmail, from the prostitution of power to the ends of selfish ambition. At this time, too, Rome was flooded with a foreign population: all the refuse of the earlier civilizations of Persia, of Carthage, and of Greece, had been poured into that powerful stream which seemed destined to engulf the world; the stream was clogged and spread out into a pool of corruption. The old Roman spirit was gone: the simplicity and directness of purpose, the force of will, the devotion of the individual to the State, the dignity that marked Rome’s earlier struggle to embody her ideals of law and of order in a great political commonwealth,—had given place to the complexity of a luxurious society, to a selfish pursuit of private interest, to that dangerous relaxation which almost inevitably attends the attainment of an eagerly sought purpose. Rome had become the undisputed mistress of the world, and resting on her laurels, she grew inert and powerless. The force that shaped her course was no longer in the hands of the old patricians,—men who, whatever their faults, loved Rome and the Roman ideal State; it had passed to those whose only claim to precedence was their ability to pay for it,—and that too, oftentimes, with money gained by the kindred professions of informer and legacy-hunter. The severity of the old Roman morality of Cato’s time had given place to a system—or lack of system—in which duty, self-denial, honesty, and uprightness, had little place.

While it may not be claimed that this dark picture has its exact reflection in our own time, and while the forces which work for social regeneration are now undoubtedly far more active and far better organized than in that day, yet the student of social and economic history cannot fail to be struck by certain marked similarities in the progress of tendencies in Rome and in our own republic. The rapid and vast increase of wealth and its accompanying luxury; the changes in political methods and in the use made of political power; the displacement of the old Puritan ideals of duty by a morality much less severe in its type,—all these seem to be among the repetitions of history. Nor is the parallel confined to such general outlines. Juvenal describes the mania for building great palaces, the degradation of the stage, the influence exerted by the worst element of a contemporary foreign people, the increasing frequency of divorce,—and even the advent of the new woman!

Juvenal appeals to the modern spirit also by his power of clear presentation. He has none of that vague denunciation of vice which is like an arrow shot harmlessly into the air, leaving the actual sinner untouched, and ready to follow its flight with sympathetic admiration. His description of the cringing parasite, the cowardly bully, the flattering courtier, the rich upstart, the degenerate patrician, the conceited patron of literature, all bear the marks of reality. The same is true where he puts before us a scene rather than a character. The departure of Umbricius from Rome, the quarrel in the street, the jostling crowd that pushes to the rich man’s door for its daily dole, the fortune-hunter hurrying off, dressing as he runs, to present himself at the rich widow’s morning reception, the obsequious senators gathered at the emperor’s villa,—they all stand out with the same pictorial vividness that marks the more delicate word-painting of Virgil, and with an even greater clearness of outline and strength of color.

Although Juvenal may not share with the lyric poets that universality of interest which has its explanation in the permanent character of the emotions, yet the circumstance that he deals with the facts of conduct which are common to all humanity makes it impossible for readers in any age to be indifferent to his work. Again, his method is the method of modern satire: in its impersonality, in its sustained force, in its systematic arrangement, in its concise adaptation of telling phrases, in its effective use of illustration, and more than all in its indignant bitterness.

Of the outer life of Juvenal, we know literally almost nothing. That his name was Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis; that he lived in the latter part of the first and the early part of the second century after the birth of Christ,—these two facts comprise all of which we can claim certain knowledge. We have indeed material for conjectures, in a life of the poet by an unknown author prefixed to his works, an inscription supposed to refer to him, two or three epigrams of Martial, and an occasional hint in his own works. Accepting the more probable of these statements, we may assume that Juvenal was the son of a freedman, born at Aquinum about 60 A.D.; that he spent most of his life at Rome, where he was especially interested in the study of rhetoric; and that his satires were written after he reached middle age, between 96 and 120 A.D. It is probable that he served in the army, that he was at one time banished to Egypt, and that he was about eighty years old when he died. The two most striking things about this dearth of information are—first, that Martial, the only classical writer who mentions Juvenal, speaks of him simply as a friend, with no reference to his literary achievements; and second, that the poet is so singularly chary of information about his own life.

Many poets write autobiographies in spite of themselves; from simplicity rather than egoism they lay before their readers records of their lives,—as Burns and Horace, for instance, have done. All that we need to know of the birth of Horace, his education, his friends, his pleasures, his taste, and his philosophy, we may find written down by his own hand, either in intentional description or in unintentional reference. Juvenal’s reticence is in the more striking contrast to this self-revelation, since they both deal with the same general subject,—the follies and vices of their own contemporaries. It is characteristic of the two points of view. Horace is not only in the world of which he writes, but of it. We may fancy him resting at ease in a circle of his friends, reading aloud to them, while a quiet smile plays about his lips, the carefully prepared, well-polished, often persuasive, but rarely convincing arguments in favor—of what? Not of righteousness, not even of good morals,—but of moderation, content, and good taste. Honesty is the best policy; discontent is very disquieting; violent emotion is conducive to dyspepsia: even his friends would hardly resent these pleasant discussions of everyday topics, this mingling of wit and wisdom, these little thrusts at their follies and affectations.

“We all have our faults: let us deal gently with each other; and when we laugh at our friends, let us laugh with them too. The really foolish man is the one that gives up the calm joy of living, in the pursuit of some vulgar extreme of wealth or power or philosophic asceticism.” Such a man, with such a disposition, and in such an environment as that of the early Empire, was naturally communicative.

If we can imagine Juvenal reading his satires to an audience, it must be to one that stood with him aloof from the world that he describes. The man who recognized his own portrait in any one of these figures, standing out with such startling distinctness from the background of infamy and degradation furnished by the later Empire, would be in no mood to take the reader by the hand and thank him for a very pleasant evening. Juvenal is not resting on a couch talking things over with his friends: he is standing in the full strength of an indignant manhood, denouncing with the voice of one of the old Hebrew prophets the debauchery and the crime which are the death of all that is great and good. He does not play about his subject, but attacks it directly and vigorously; and we follow him with personal sympathetic attention, confident that he means what he says, and that he will not turn around upon us at the end of the journey and laugh at us because we are out of breath. Sometimes indeed we may feel that the pace is rather hot, and we may think with a touch of envy of our round-bodied good-natured little friend Horace ambling along in the rear; but on the whole we enjoy the rush and the whirl of Juvenal’s gallop. After all, it is hard to make a hero of a philosopher. The man of few ideas, but of single purpose and indomitable will, rouses our enthusiasm, however much in our moments of calm reflection we may deprecate his violence.

The main source of Juvenal’s power is this directness—this honest recognition of the brute in man: he is like a preacher that believes in original sin and total depravity. We may gloss it over, and talk about the educative value of evil, and the refining influences of art and wealth; we may laugh with Horace, and say “What fools these mortals be!”—but when Juvenal sweeps away these philosophic compromises, we instinctively put out our hands as if to ward off a blow.

The works of Juvenal as they have come down to us consist of sixteen satires, containing about four thousand lines. The genuineness of several satires, and of passages in others, has been disputed; but while the two sections into which such critics divide the works attributed to Juvenal differ decidedly in subject and in style, these differences are not of such a sort as to lead the best editors to reject the disputed portions.

Juvenal announces his subject as “The doings of men, their hopes, their fears, their runnings to and fro.” It was a topic that found little or no place in the great body of Greek literature. Quintilian claimed this field for the Romans when he said, “Satire is wholly our own;” and Horace speaks of it as a form of verse untouched by the Greeks. Among the Romans themselves Juvenal’s most important predecessors were Ennius, Lucilius, Horace, and Persius. The fragments of Ennius are so few that the character of his satires is doubtful. We know little more of them than that they were medleys, sometimes in dialogue form. True satire began with Lucilius. Like Juvenal he was essentially Roman in spirit, and stood for the old Roman virtues; but, also like Juvenal, he sometimes rose to a broader conception, as in his famous definition of virtue: his style was careless, but full of force, and sharp with real satiric power. Horace differs from Juvenal in his whole spirit and tone. He is cosmopolitan rather than national, his weapon is ridicule rather than invective. His style is easy and conversational, free from rhetorical exaggeration and systematic elaboration. Persius, a student of books rather than of men, is didactic and pseudo-philosophical, full of affectation and self-consciousness; occasionally, however, he forgets himself and writes an effective passage, as in his description of the prayers offered in the temples. Juvenal is more polished and rhetorical than Lucilius, more vigorous than Horace, more real than Persius.

In the first satire, which is in a way introductory to the whole series, Juvenal gives his reasons for writing. He is tired of the fashionable poetry of the day, made up of mythology and commonplace, and proposes to follow in the footsteps of Lucilius. The state of the times certainly justifies satire. The social order is upside down, Rome is full of masculine women and effeminate men, rascally lawyers and malicious informers, rich upstarts and dishonest politicians, gamblers, forgers, poisoners. Here is a field indeed where “if nature fail, just wrath may fill the line.”

The third satire shares with the tenth the claim to greatest general interest. It was imitated by Johnson in his ‘London’; but the imitation is not close enough to be a good translation, and is too close to be a good paraphrase. Here Juvenal’s power of vivid word-painting is at its best. His friend Umbricius feels forced to leave Rome and go to live in a quiet little country town; and to justify this resolution he describes the state of the city. There is no room for honest men, since all success is the reward of wrong-doing. Rome has become the paradise of the versatile time-serving Greeks, who are ready to assume any part and do any work, and are equally unscrupulous in all. Nor is there room in Rome for a poor man: he is ill treated and despised, and driven to dishonesty by the ostentation that society forces upon him. Even in the streets deep with mud, brawny porters, with casks or beams on their shoulders, and sturdy soldiers with hob-nailed shoes, crowd and jostle him, while he makes way for the rich man’s litter or for the contractor’s wagon. The night is worse than the day; for then the streets are full of boisterous revelers, who delight to pick a quarrel, and after insults and blows, finish their frolic by summoning their victim for assault and battery! His head is not safe from falling tiles and objects of various sorts thrown from the windows of the tall buildings,—whose ill-built walls are a danger in themselves,—nor his neck from the footpads and garroters that infest the town.

The tenth satire, which English readers know through Dr. Johnson’s imitation, entitled ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes,’ is perhaps the least technical, the least Roman, and the least savage of all Juvenal’s works. It is marked by great breadth of view, and rests more firmly on ground common to humanity. Its instances of “the better that is ever the enemy of the good” teach the wisdom of content quite as clearly as the more direct maxims of the apostle of moderation, Horace himself. Sejanus, who sought the imperial crown and found a felon’s death; Hannibal, who fretted within the narrow limits of a single empire and became an exile and a suicide; Cicero, anxious to pose a second time as the savior of his country; Priam, whose length of days brought heaped-up woes: all these and other examples show—not, as some have thought, the futility of human effort, but as Juvenal himself says, the blindness of the human heart, and its inability to distinguish between the good and its opposite. What wonder that Heraclitus wept, and Democritus laughed, at the folly of man? Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. Man is dearer to the gods than to himself. Let him pray for a sane mind in a sound body; for the strength of soul that death cannot affright; for a heart that bears its burdens patiently, that knows not anger nor admits inordinate desire. Dr. Johnson’s imitation suffers by comparison with the original. It lacks force and fervor; its pictures are dull beside the brilliant coloring of Juvenal; while Wolsey is but a poor substitute for Sejanus, and Charles of Sweden a dim reflection of the man who bade his soldiers scale the Alps, “the walls of Rome.” Chaucer refers to this satire in ‘Troilus and Creseide’:—

  • “O Juvenall, lord, true is thy sentence,
  • That little wenen folke what is to yerne,
  • That they ne finden in hir desire offence,
  • For cloud of errour ne lette hem discerne
  • What best is.”
  • Another satire which appeals rather to humanity than to anything distinctly Roman is the fourteenth, on the influence of parental example. The young man learns of his father as the young bird learns of the old. Men complain of the faults and vices of their sons, and say, “I never taught him that.” No; but your example was stronger than your precepts, and he is only treading your own footsteps deeper. In the case of avarice indeed you add precept to example; and teach your boy meanness, injustice, and crime, only that he may be tormented by anxiety to retain what he has been tormented by anxiety to acquire.

    The contrast between the early Roman Senate and the collection of sycophants that bore the name in Juvenal’s day is brought out in the fourth satire. The Emperor summons his advisers to his Alban villa to decide on the disposition of a great fish which the poor fisherman, making a virtue of necessity, has presented to his imperial master. The various senators are described, each in a few lines, but in phrases so carefully chosen and so aptly framed that the individuals stand out like pictures on a canvas, from “kindly old Crispus” to “Pompeius,” who was “good at slitting throats with a whisper.”

    The degenerate form of the old Roman relation of patron and client is depicted in the fifth satire. The mean servility that will submit to all sorts of indignities for the sake of a place at a rich man’s table, where the obsequious guest receives an occasional word, like a bone thrown to a dog, calls for little pity. The man that will practice it deserves all the contempt that is his inevitable reward.

    The famous chapter in Punch, ‘Advice to Those about to Marry,’ is a condensation into one word of Juvenal’s six hundred lines of warning on the same subject to his friend Postumus, in the sixth satire. There is probably no chapter in the whole range of literature that deals so unsparingly with the faults and vices of women as this. The writer does not confine himself to sex relations, but dilates with vigor upon their extravagant love of display, silly devotion to actors and musicians, delight in gossip, cruelty to those weaker than themselves, childish literary aspirations, foolish superstitions, imitation of men’s dress, manners, and pursuits. If a woman be free from these vices of her sex, her self-complacency makes her very virtue distasteful. The chief value of the satire lies in its picture of the times, set forth with all the unrivaled vigor of Juvenal’s denunciation. An interesting parallel may be found in the third chapter of Isaiah.

    The thirteenth satire contains several famous passages. In one of them Juvenal describes the different mental attitudes of different men in the face of wrong-doing, in another the pains of remorse, and in a third the pettiness of revenge. In breadth of view, strength of grasp, psychological insight, and evidence of reserve power, the satire ranks with the masterpieces of literature; and it furnishes the chief arguments to those critics who have thought that its author was well acquainted with the ethics of the Christian system.

    Juvenal’s whole work takes its dominant note from his standard of morality, which is drawn not from any system of philosophic ethics, but from a simple recognition of the eternal conflict between right and wrong. In many passages indeed he applies this standard in a conventional Roman way, as when he flings his scorn upon the Roman noble who drives his own chariot past the very tombs of his ancestors. In general, however, he is human rather than merely Roman. It is the same standard that the old Roman character evolved without the help of Greek philosophy; the same crude but definite standard that Cato feared to see obscured by the complication and compromises of Greek culture. It results in that direct appeal to the individual conscience which marks all earnest reformers, all great religious movements. This gives to the satires their immediate personal interest.

    Juvenal’s style is the natural expression of strong feeling tinged with bitterness. His sentences come out with a rush and a swing that force the attention. They have the “drum and trumpet’s din,” rather than “the continuity, the long slow slope and vast curves of the gradual violin.” Artistic in the Horatian sense he is not. The tension is rarely relaxed. There are few lights and shades. His very strength becomes his weakness. We seem to feel, not the calm consciousness of power in which the word inevitably follows the thought, but the tumult of feeling that seizes upon the words and forces them into the verse: such a style is effective, but by its very stress and strain it is wearisome. Many critics have accused him of being a mere rhetorician; failing to see that while his strong phrases may sometimes cloud his thought, they never take its place.

    Besides its pictorial quality, instances of which have already been given, his style is marked by an epigrammatic terseness which puts an essay into a single line, and has made him one of the best quoted of Roman writers. “A sane mind in a sound body;” “But who shall watch the watchers?” “All men praise honesty—and let her freeze;” “The traveler with empty purse will whistle in the footpad’s face;” “To save his life, he gives up all that makes life dear;” “Prayers which the unkindly gods have granted;” “It is the innocence of youth that most deserves our reverence.” His works abound in such summaries of thought, which place a whole situation at the command of a reader who possesses an imagination, though they may leave the mere grammarian cold.

    A satirist without humor is a literary scold; and while Juvenal’s humor has none of the lightness and delicacy which we usually associate with the word, it is present in full measure. Remorseless as that of Swift, bitter as that of Thackeray, it does not stir to laughter, but raises at best a grim smile. Scornful rather than contemptuous, it is the humor of indignation rather than of ridicule. Juvenal can knock his victim down with the bludgeon of Cato, run him through with Swift’s rapier, and then draw his picture with Hogarth’s pencil.

    For us, then, Juvenal means a strong, earnest spirit with great breadth of view and distinctness of vision, depicting with marvelous power of expression the state of society during one of the most important periods of human history. He is not only a poet,—he is preacher and prophet as well.

    BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—The earliest English versions of Juvenal are those by Holyday and Stapylton in the middle of the seventeenth century. Gifford, Hodgson, and Badham have made translations in English verse. There are literal prose translations by Madan, Evans, and Lewis. Five of the satires were translated by Dryden; and two, the third and the tenth, were imitated by Dr. Johnson. The best English editions are those of Macleane and the exhaustive one of Mayor. There are excellent articles on Juvenal by Professor Ramsay in Dr. Smith’s ‘Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography,’ by Sellar in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ and in the introductions to Dryden’s, Gifford’s, and Lewis’s translations.