ROMAN SATIRE


Satire began in the middle Republic, it was a basically Roman venture, owing little or nothing to the pervasive cultural forces which were then spreading Greek Classical literature throughout the peninsula. From the 3rd c. B.C. we have only fragments, those of Lucilius give us the best picture of what early Roman satire was like. It was critical, at times acerbic, social in its scope, and sharply focused, and was set the tone for all satire, Roman and modern, which was to follow.

When Horace settled down to become an "author" rather than a minor clerk in the public employ, it was quite naturally Satire which he turned to, and he issued the first book of the Satires (actually called Sermones or Conversations) in 35 B.C. In contrast to Lucilius, of whom he gave an interesting critique in the first book, calling him "a trifle muddy... ". Horace developed a gentle, smiling genre of armchair satire, which subjected the author to the same strictures as he applied to the world at large. Morals of a practical kind, interesting stories about the variety of personages appearing in Rome, imaginative skits, pieces of literary criticism (which appear more regularly in the later work the Epistles, dating from his last years) - - - these are the topics which populate Horace's prosy, on-running poems in a loosened up and conversational dactylic hexameter, now turning from the Epic verse form to the Urban scene. A good representation of this kind of work is found in the longer story-poems of Robert Frost, which probably owe a great deal to Horace, whom Frost studied before being ejected from Harvard. Put briefly, Horace never loses his cool, even when his pen is turned against himself. "And you, Sir? Have you no faults? " 'Oh yes, but others, and maybe lesser ones... '

Juvenal is the opposite. He says of himself : 'Facit indignatio versus', and indignation at the moral decline, the huge number of foreign-babbling immigrants flooding up the Tiber (as he puts it) from Ostia daily, the sexual scandals of the rulers, the prevalence of cheats, liars, homosexuals and faddists of every strain, does apparently form automatic subject matter for this serious social critic. Juvenal has always been seen as a social monitor; Samuel Johnson took him this way when he put together his Satire 'The Vanity of Human Wishes', based on Juvenal tenth satire. And the good Reverend Madan later in the 18th c., after translating Juvenal with a relatively accurate English translation (which provided the only sex education available to generations of English schoolboys), turned to a poems of his own called Theluphthoria or 'The Destruction of Womankind', after which he became permanently deranged, a fact which testifies to the seriousness with which the social satire of Juvenal can be taken. It is only recently that some critics have felt that Juvenal, who shares many of his topics with the satiric epigammatist Martial, is responding to a market eager for sensational stories, which have little to do with the historical social scene of the time. Were this found true, it would be necessary to consider Juvenal first as a social artist, like a Daumier, and not as a critic of real morals in a real social setting.

Juvenal's acerbity, his terse recounting of social outrage, his compact gathering up of shocking data in a handful of succinct lines, is memorable artistically and not the kind of thing one forgets. As (1991) the Russians were everywhere pulling down statues of Marx, Lenin and the head of the KGB, and (2002) the US forces were downing the huge statue of Saddam Hussein, one is reminded of Juvenal's graphic toppling of a giant statue of Sejanus, the face that the mob adored now lying face down in the mud. Certain things in history do recur, exactly.

Persius is different. Writing much earlier than Juvenal, under Nero, this precocious young man, raised mainly by women and grandly influenced by a fathering Stoic tutor, before dying at a younger age than Schubert wrote six strange satires, which have been misunderstood again and again over the centuries. Persius has been severally criticized by generations of Classicists, for whom Ciceronian clarity, of which it could be said that not one sentence in 5000 pages in unclear, was the desirable norm. Persius was obscure by preference, his vocabulary is an exotic mix of archaisms, literarisms, and vulgarisms drawn from the street, of which the sheltered Persius should have been ignorant. It can be said that one must read Persius with a good commentary, like Gildersleeve's or the new Latin one by Oleg Nikitinski, or one does not read him at all. He must be deciphered rather than perused.

But since Eliot's 'Wasteland' and Pound's 'Cantos', one does not have to apologize for obscurity, and the old excuse for not reading Persius is no longer valid. Persius can now be seen as blindingly brilliant, the master of convolutions of inner perceptions which have, behind their almost abstract use of language, messages to the heart. He had not forgotten the injunctions of Stoicism, the pseudo-religion which served intellectuals much as Christianity served the uneducated masses. It was his sincere and moving Stoicism, as in the apostrophe in the middle section of the third satire calling upon God to say for what purpose he had put men here on earth, that turned pious Christian eyes toward Persius as a pagan seer who understood the word of the Lord. Hundreds of MS copies of the slight six Satires of Persius were copied in the monasteries before the first millennium had given out, and there are probably more copies of Persius than any book, other than Vergil and the Bible, surviving. How strange this is, considering that Persius was nothing like a Christian, that the monastic copier could certainly not understand a third of what this recondite young man was writing, and that from the same period only one copy of the grand and important scientific poem of Lucretius, the "De Rerum Natura", is known to have survived. Even stranger is the scant attention which was paid to Persius to, through, and after the Renaissance, despite the commentaries Gildersleeve and Conington, right up to mid-century generation of Classicists. But attention is at last turning toward back this recondite and curious Latin author. There is even a footnote in the MS Vita which may someday unravel the corrupted textual reference to his teacher one *Aristotegratis*, who may turn out to have been Petronius, the author of the scandalous Satyricon and possible source of Persius's street language. We have not yet seen the end of this misunderstood and ignored author!

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris