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Summus Minimusque Poeta: Silent Epigram in Juvenal Satire 1.1-30

Catherine Keane

Washington University in St. Louis

This paper examines intertextuality between Martial’s Epigrams and the opening of Juvenal’s first Satire, aiming not just to define its effects on Juvenal’s representation of Rome, but to rethink its implications for his self-presentation and poetics. The beginning of Satire 1 is saturated with images and jokes reminiscent of the world constructed in the Epigrams. It picks up where Martial (either near the end of his career, or already dead) left off while also promoting an image of Juvenal as a solitary literary rebel. This paradox should be recognized as an important part of Juvenal’s initial self-presentation and construction of satire. I show that by tapping into Martial’s representation of his own work and reception, Juvenal poses as Martial’s rival and appropriator at once.

The satirist, who claims he has been waiting a long time to speak (1.1), would appear to have spent this interlude getting to know the Epigrams backwards and forwards. In the first thirty lines, numerous complaints and jokes recall poems of Martial on similar subjects, including irritating poets (cf. Ep. 3.44, 3.45, 3.50, 10.70), the uselessness of mythological poetry (cf. Ep. 4.49 and especially 10.4, echoed in several ways throughout Satire 1), and various garish occurrences in a depraved Rome. Among the first exempla Juvenal offers to show Rome’s sorry state are a rich former barber and the flamboyant Egyptian Crispinus, both featured in the Epigrams (7.64, 8.48, 7.99). Indeed, the whole of Satires Book 1 owes much to the Epigrams, even seeming to construct entire poem “plots” on jokes of Martial’s.

The extensive intertextuality between the two poets deserves more analysis than it has received. Scholars have offered only catalogues of correspondences (Wilson; Colton), visions of the two men working together (Nettleship; Highet), and brief, if inspired, attempts to understand differences in their moral ideas and personas (Mason; Gérard; Anderson; Fitzgerald; Santorelli). The difficulty of dating Juvenal’s early career – was he publishing before Martial’s death (Pasoli), or a decade after it (Braund)? – has probably inhibited exploration of bigger questions. But Juvenal’s inaugural performance is too fascinating a case to gloss over.

Juvenal introduces his work as a singular and overdue response to the contemporary literary scene. He does not acknowledge the flourishing genre of epigram, or Martial’s work – instead bemoaning the proliferation of virtually all other poetic genres (epic, comedy, elegy, tragedy; ll. 2-14). But in this deafening scene of literal poetic echoes and its rhetorical frame, Martial’s voice comes through in special ways. Juvenal’s complaint about never-ending poetry recitals imitates Martial (3.44 et al.). Ironically, it also recalls Martial’s self-deprecating running joke about his own poetic excesses (at least ten instances in seven books). Finally, I argue, Juvenal exploits Martial’s representation of his work as a nearly endless supply of texts that can travel, be consumed, repurposed, and plagiarized, and even escape notice as texts in their smallness and their realism. This idea is especially meaningful in a passage that represents exposure to poetry as a catalyst for new poetic creations (Henderson 1999). At a climactic point, Juvenal also enigmatically muddles questions of provenance with the statement “you can expect the same stuff from the greatest and smallest poets” (expectes eadem a summo minimoque poeta, 1.14).

Thus, while Juvenal does not point to epigram as one of the offending genres that have created the need for satire, he represents them as making their own, unique kind of noise and influencing his perspective. Previously treated as unremarkable overlap with another “realistic” poet familiar with the same sights, points of contact with Martial are better understood as Juvenal’s deliberate configuration of satire as a genre that both uses the Epigrams – for their content and their model of authorial self-presentation – and erases them. In this rich opening sally, Juvenal finds a way to convert Martial’s “small” but pervasive poetics into his own “big” creation.

Session/Panel Title

Getting the Joke

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