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Show and Tell: Satire and the Spread of Vice in Juvenal 14

Timothy Haase

Juvenal begins Satire 14, perhaps the most neglected poem in his corpus, with the assertion that parents hand down folly and vice to their descendants through their living example (Plurima sunt, Fuscine, et fama digna sinistra/ et nitidis maculam haesuram figentia rebus,/ quae monstrant ipsi pueris traduntque parentes, 14.1-3). Previous commentators have elucidated how the staleness of Juvenal’s moral sentiments in Satire 14 undercuts the poem’s ethical considerations (Corn; cf. Weisen for the general trend in Juvenal) and how Satire 14 caps Juvenal’s vision of vice appropriating didactic authority from satire (Keane; cf. Rosen on satiric didaxis in Juvenal). Scholars up to now, however, have failed to recognize Juvenal’s subtle intimations of satire’s responsibility in spreading vice. Taking into account the programmatic nature of monstrare and its cognates, especially monstrum, in Juvenal (Plaza; Braund and Raschke), this paper will investigate how the demonstration and repetition of immorality in Satire 14 recreates, at the textual level, the very transmission of vice that it lambasts.

            Recent scholars have extensively mapped the visual nature of Roman moral thought (inter alios: Bartsch; Barton; Gunderson on Juvenal 2 in particular). A Roman’s (im)moral inner character was thought to be projected externally onto his body, gait, or speech and thus became legible to other Romans’ visual judgment, encapsulated in Seneca’s famous dictate:  talis hominibus fuit oratio qualis vita (Ep.114.1; cf. Ep. 52.12). The first part of this paper will argue that Satire 14 makes a twofold addition to this discourse. First, Juvenal posits that vice can be transmitted, even unintentionally, merely by being viewed (cf. iuvenis, qui...didicit nebulone parente/ et cana monstrante gula, 14.7, 9-10). Second, and more disconcerting, Juvenal implicates his own satiric enterprise in this vile show: for what has Juvenal’s project been but to show his reader examples of Roman vice? He makes this parallel explicit later on in the poem, in the famous comparison of satire to a side-splitting theatrical spectacle: monstro voluptatem egregiam, cui nulla theatra,/ nulla aequare queas praetoris pulpita lauti/ si spectes… (14.256-68). Thus, even as Juvenal displays Roman immorality or folly to his audience, he risks contributing to their spread.

            What confirms the metapoetic implications of the threat of “showing” vice in Satire 14 are repetitions throughout the poem of earlier moments from Juvenal’s Satires. The second half of this paper will argue that these intertextual moments effectively become manifestations of the phenomena that Juvenal sets out to correct. Satire 14 “inherits,” so to speak, these examples from earlier satirical demonstrations. This is immediately evident in Juvenal’s first picture of “inherited” vice, the dice-game, which he denigrates through a sardonic comparison to battle (parvoque eadem arma movet fritillo, 14.5). Through the use of eadem, Juvenal shows that he is self-consciously drawing on two of his own earlier depictions of the dice games of bankrupts or dissolute nobles, where they were imagined as debased reenactments of warfare (1.88-90; 8.9-12). On the reading of Satire 14 proposed, these self-references take on an added significance; they become embodiments, at the textual level, of the poem’s content, which can in turn be fit into larger patterns of self-defeating discourse in Juvenal.

Session/Panel Title

The Descent of Satire from Old Comedy to the Gothic

Session/Paper Number

21.2

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