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Sidera testes: Masculinity and the Power of the Ancestral Gaze in Cicero, Tacitus, and Juvenal

Julie Langford and Heather Vincent

In this essay we examine how Juvenal’s eighth satire employs echoes of Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis and Tacitus’ Agricola in order to bring the contemporary moral and social landscape into sharp relief.  Each of these texts leads the reader to imagine noble ancestors who gaze at their descendants, whether from celestial habitations, funerary masks, or statuary (Somn.13, 19; Agr. 46.1-3, Sat. 8.1-18).  In Cicero’s imagination, as in Tacitus’, the ancestral gaze fosters virtus in the descendants but is most powerful when it encompasses the mutual participation of the minores and maiores gentis. In Juvenal, however, this powerful symbol of political stability and virtus, exists only in perverse imitation; the imagines maiorum which once decorated senatorial homes as testament to the panoptic control of ancestral values have been replaced by halls of neglected and disfigured statuary.  From the atria filled with limbless, earless, and noseless effigies in Satire 8 to the disapproval of the moon and stars above illicit liaisons (6.306-313, 8.144-154), we are everywhere confronted with the idea that in Juvenal’s Rome, nobiles are deeply out-of-touch with the past and with the true nature of Roman virtus.  As Shadi Bartsch puts it in her discussion of panegyric, the latter portion of the 1st century marks a period of instability in ethical rhetoric wherein the nomenclature that once signified the most important Roman values becomes an empty cipher (Bartsch 1994: 185-6).  Such a “collapse of signification” also lies at the heart of Juvenal’s eighth satire where ghosts of Cicero’s Scipiones and Tacitus’ Agricola illuminate the fissure between Republic and Empire, past and present, the substance of virtus and its representation.   

            Juvenal’s nobiles are twisted distortions of their august ancestors in at least three regards: in their elemental make up (wet/muddy vs. fiery/airy); in the improper focus of their gaze (earthward vs. heavenward); and in their willingness to “see” virtue, both literally and metaphorically. In the Somnium, Scipio Aemilianus is exhorted by his ancestor to "Look up" to the Milky Way, the cluster of stars that is comprised of the souls of great Romans of the past (13, 16, 20). Their souls represent the Aristotelian ideal of manliness -- fiery and hot (cf. Arist. GA 765b 8, PA 648a 28; cf. Anon. On Regimen i.34;   Flemming 2000); their brilliance emanates earthward as if to beckon the emulation of their descendants or really any truly virtuous Roman (13, 16; cf. Tac. Agr. 46). But in Juvenal, pinguis Lateranus patently ignores his ancestors both in the tombs on the road beside him and in the stars above. Beneath his Gallic cloak, he focuses earthward and the mulio consul cannot see beyond the mules he drives, as if to suggest an ontological connection between the two hybrid beasts (141-162; cf. Cic. Somn. 17, Sall. BC 1.1). Lineage alone cannot save Lateranus, for nobilitas sola est atque unica virtus (19). In this, Juvenal echoes Tacitus and Cicero who identify virtus as the provenance of the invisible rarified soul. Such virtus is apprehensible to every Roman citizen, not merely those whose identity as nobiles rests in stemmata. Tacitus and Cicero exhort their readers to shape their souls so as to despise the visible matter whose visage is as malleable as the waxen masks of the ancestors. By contrast, Juvenal implicates his readers in the moral failure of his contemporary milieu. He encourages them to be a Paulus or Cossus or Drusus -- if only they can.

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Vision and Perspective in Latin Literature

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