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Cannibalizing Satire: Insult, Violence, and Genre in Juvenal’s Fifteenth Satire

Edward Kelting

Stanford University

Juvenal’s Fifteenth Satire and its indignant criticism of infighting Egyptians’ barbarous cannibalism has always proved a puzzle to scholars, beginning with Ribbeck’s outright rejection of Juvenal as the poem’s author. Satire 15 is a poem of winks and nods: Juvenal constantly shifts gears and all but begs the reader to dismiss his own veracity and moral sincerity. He moves quickly from a criticism of Egyptian animal worship filled with Ciceronian and Ovidian allusions (Courtney, Ehrhardt, Keane 2007), to a narration of an Egyptian battle and the cannibalism that ensued, to a lengthy aetiology on the formation of community and the glue that holds it together. Similarly, scholarship has shifted from assessing the sincerity (Tennant, Powell) or insincerity (McKim) of Juvenal’s disgust to thematic discussions of the unique and ultimately sincere contribution Satire 15 makes to Juvenal’s meditation on ira in Books 3-5 (Anderson 1982 and 1987, Keane 2015).

But when read metagenerically as a reflection on satire, this seemingly disjointed combination of cannibalism narrative and civitas aetiology in fact contributes to a coherent argument about the social function of satire. I argue that in Satire 15 Juvenal first associates satire with cannibalistic violence and then meditates on the efficacy of this satire and violence in defining one community through opposition with another. I take as my starting point the presence of etymological wordplay at the poem’s opening which connects satiety and over-fullness (satur) to the genre satura: “Who doesn’t know, Volusius of Bithynia, what sort of monsters mad Egypt worships? This part reveres the crocodile, that one fears the ibis, sated on snakes (illa pavet saturam serpentibus ibin)” (15.1-3).

The presence of “saturam” has been noted only in passing, either to advance an intertextual argument (Ehrhardt) or as a small part of a larger survey of food in Satire (Gowers). I instead focus on Satire 15 itself and argue for the intratextual value of this generic marker. This preposition of saturam calls the reader’s attention to the way in which intercommunal conflict between Egyptians, here represented totemically through the ibis and snake, establishes anger and satiric insult as the first two steps in an inevitable movement toward violence and, ultimately, cannibalism. In particular, Juvenal’s concluding barb that, to these two Egyptian communities, “anger and hunger are equal and alike (pares sunt et similes ira atque fames),” reiterates the poem’s coordination of satiric anger and cannibalistic hunger and makes clear that the poem’s interest in satire is triggered by, and not limited to, the initial etymological wordplay.

After establishing the felicity of a metageneric reading of the poem, I situate Satire 15 in the wider Juvenalian corpus and argue that Satire 15’s teleological movement from anger to insult to violence is articulated in the same language used in the early satires for satiric abuse. More specifically, key vocabulary like tuba, ardeo, ira, and lacrima link the barbaric association of hunger, satire, and violence in Satire 15 with the programmatic concatenation of anger, satire, and martial conflict in Satire 1. In this conception, this episode of an Egyptian fight which ends in cannibalism, and the subsequent commentary on humanitas and civitas it provokes, become a way for Juvenal to meditate on satiric abuse, the anger upon which it depends, and the violence to which it leads.

I conclude that, when coupled with the poem’s lengthy emphasis on the history of community-formation through totemic opposition (one community is ibis-worshipers, another snake-worshipers), an assimilation of satire with violence reemphasizes rather than calls into question the societal value of satiric abuse. Satire, just like violence between communities, is as important in defining one’s own community as it is in ridiculing another’s. Satire 15 presents a distillation of satire, anger, and violence that superficially critiques them but simultaneously reinforces their absolute necessity for intracommunal empathy and fellow-feeling.

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Insult, Satire, and Invective

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