In his second satire, the first after the programmatic introduction of Satire 1, Juvenal places in the middle of the poem a striking comparison between the contagioof immorality in Roman society and the spreading of a single instance of scabies and porrigofrom one pig throughout the whole herd and of discoloration (livor) transferred from one grape to the whole bunch, by the mere act of looking at the infected one (2.77-81):
acer et indomitus libertatisque magister,
Cretice, perluces. dedit hanc contagio labem
et dabit in plures, sicut grex totus in agris
unius scabie cadit et porrigine porci
uvaque conspecta livorem ducit ab uva
This image, focused on the “unmasculine” activities of Roman aristocratic males, like Creticus (the “champion of libertas” in his “see-through” toga), who should know better—such as the man marrying his male bride in the Valley of Quirinus or Gracchus appearing in the arena as a retiarius—sets up the strategy for the satirist’s attack on the representatives of Roman vice in the rest of the corpus: that Roman virtues are effectively dead among the contemporary inhabitants of the city of Rome.
Much has been written about the allusions to the realm of the dead in Satire 3, yet less attention has been paid to the pervasive presence of death in Satire 2. The poem ends with an imaginary scene in the Underworld, as the great heroes of the Republican past—Curius, the Scipios, Fabricius, Camillus and the fallen at Cremera and Cannae—contemplate the recent (and inferior) arrivals from the satirist’s day. As Allen Miller has argued, Juvenalian satire is much concerned with sterility and in Juvenal we see “the end of the line” not only in terms of the Roman elite male but also in terms of the genre of satire itself. The agricultural images of contagion in Satire 2—among pigs and grapes—only serve to emphasize the point, placed as they are amid settings more conventionally associated with production and fertility. Alba Longa, after all, was founded after an encounter with a fecund sow.
This paper argues that satire and plague are frequent companions in the potent literary tradition which arises from the Juvenalian version of satire. The notion of the plague allows the satirist to graft his moralizing and corrective urges onto a recognized “natural” phenomenon, while reminding the reader that death cannot be shut out or prevented from seeping through the porous borders of Roman subjectivity. As in The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allan Poe, or Babylon, by the post-Soviet Russian satirist Viktor Pelevin, the message is that that death is “always already” inside and that satire is its messenger.