Satire VI – Juvenal – Ancient Rome – Classical Literature
(Satire, Latin/Roman, c. 115 CE, 695 lines)
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“Satire VI” (“Satura VI”) is a verse satire by the Roman satirical poet Juvenal, written around 115 CE. The poem laments what Juvenal sees as the decay of feminine virtue, and uses a series of acidic vignettes on the degraded state of female morality (some would say a misogynistic rant), purportedly to dissuade his friend Postumius from marriage. It is the longest and one of the most famous (or infamous) of his sixteen satires.
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The poem opens with a parody of the golden age myths and of the Ages of Man (in the Golden Age no one feared a thief, the Silver Age marked the first adulterers, and the remaining crimes arrived in the Iron Age). The goddesses Pudicitia (Chastity) and Astraea (Justice) then withdrew from the earth in disgust. He questions his friend Postumius’ plans for marriage when there are alternatives, such as committing suicide or just sleeping with a boy.
Juvenal then relates a series of examples of why women and marriage should be avoided. He describes the notorious adulterer, Ursidius, who wants a wife of old-fashioned virtue, but is insane to think he will actually get one. He then gives examples of lustful wives, such as Eppia, a senator’s wife, who ran off to Egypt with a gladiator, and Messalina, wife of Claudius, who used to sneak out of the palace to work at a brothel. Although lust may be the least of their sins, many greedy husbands are willing to overlook such offences for the dowries they can receive. He argues that men love a pretty face not the woman herself, and when she gets old, they can just kick her out.
Juvenal then discusses pretentious women, and claims he would prefer a prostitute for a wife over someone like Scipio’s daughter, Cornelia Africana (widely remembered as a perfect example of a virtuous Roman woman), since he says virtuous women are often arrogant. He suggests that dressing and speaking Greek is not at all attractive, especially in an older woman.
He then accuses women of being quarrelsome and of tormenting the men they love in their desire to rule the home, and then they just move on to another man. He says that a man will never be happy while his mother-in-law still lives, as she teaches her daughter evil habits. Women cause lawsuits and love to wrangle, covering their own transgressions with accusations of their husbands’ (although if a husband catches them at this, they are even more indignant).
In days gone by, it was poverty and constant work that kept women chaste, and it is the excessive wealth that came with conquest that has destroyed Roman morality with luxury. Homosexuals and effeminate men are a moral contamination, especially because women listen to their advice. If eunuchs guard your wife, you should be sure they really are eunuchs (“who will guard the guards themselves?”). Both high- and low-born women are equally profligate and lacking in foresight and self-restraint.
Juvenal then turns to women who intrude into matters that pertain to men, and are constantly blathering gossip and rumours. He says that they make terrible neighbours and hostesses, keeping their guests waiting, and then drinking and vomiting like a snake that has fallen into a vat of wine. Educated women who fancy themselves as orators and grammarians, disputing literary points and noting every grammatical slip of their husbands, are likewise repulsive.
Rich women are uncontrollable, only making any attempt to look presentable for their lovers and spending their time at home with their husbands covered in their beauty concoctions. They rule their households like bloody tyrants, and employ an army of maids to get them ready for the public, while they live with their husbands as though they were complete strangers.
Women are by their nature superstitious, and give complete credence to the words of the eunuch priests of Bellona (the war goddess) and Cybele (the mother of the gods). Others are fanatic adherents of the cult of Isis and its charlatan priests, or listen to Jewish or Armenian soothsayers or Chaldaean astrologers, and get their fortunes told down by the Circus Maximus. Even worse, though, is a woman who is herself so skilled at astrology that others seek her out for advice.
Although poor women are at least willing to bear children, rich women just get abortions to avoid the bother (although at least that prevents the husbands from being saddled with illegitimate, half-Ethiopian children). Juvenal contends that half of the Roman elite is made up of abandoned children whom women pass off as those of their husbands. Women will even stoop to drugging and poisoning their husbands to get their way, like Caligula’s wife, who drove him insane with a potion, and Agrippina the Younger who poisoned Claudius.
As an epilogue, Juvenal asks whether his audience thinks he has slipped into the hyperbole of tragedy. But he points out that Pontia admitted to murdering her two children and that she would have killed seven if there had been seven, and that we should believe everything the poets tell us about Medea and Procne. However, these women of ancient tragedy were arguably less evil than modern Roman women, because at least they did what they did out of rage, not just for money. He concludes that today there is a Clytemnestra on every street.
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Juvenal is credited with sixteen known poems divided among five books, all in the Roman genre of satire, which, at its most basic in the time of the author, comprised a wide-ranging discussion of society and social mores, written in dactylic hexameter. Roman verse (as opposed to prose) satire is often called Lucilian satire, after Lucilius who is usually credited with originating the genre.
In a tone and manner ranging from irony to apparent rage, Juvenal criticizes the actions and beliefs of many of his contemporaries, providing insight more into value systems and questions of morality and less into the realities of Roman life. The scenes painted in his text are very vivid, often lurid, although Juvenal employs outright obscenity less frequently than does Martial or Catullus.
He makes constant allusion to history and myth as a source of object lessons or exemplars of particular vices and virtues. These tangential references, coupled with his dense and elliptical Latin, indicate that Juvenal’s intended reader was the highly-educated subset of the Roman elite, primarily adult males of a more conservative social stance.
At 695 lines, “Satire 6” is the longest single poem in the collection of Juvenal’ “Satires”, nearly twice the length of the next longest, and makes up the whole of Book 2. The poem enjoyed great popularity from late antiquity to the early modern period, being looked on as a support for a wide array of chauvinistic and misogynistic beliefs. Its current significance rest in its role as a crucial, although problematic, body of evidence on Roman conceptions of gender and sexuality. Juvenal sets his poem in direct and deliberate opposition to the sophisticated, urban version of Roman women seen in the poems of Catullus and Propertius, and also to the simple rustic woman of the mythical golden age.
Although frequently decried as a misogynistic rant, the poem is also an all-out invective against marriage, which Rome’s decaying social and moral standards at that time had made into a tool of greed and corruption (Juvenal presents the options available to the Roman male as marriage, suicide or a boy lover), and equally as an invective against the men who have permitted this pervasive degradation of the Roman world (Juvenal casts men as agents and enablers of the feminine proclivity toward vice).
The poem contains the famous phrase, “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“But who will guard the guards themselves” or “But who watches the watchmen?”), which has been used as an epigraph to numerous later works, and refers to the impossibility of enforcing moral behaviour when the enforcers themselves are corruptible.
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- English translation by Niall Rudd (Google Books): http://books.google.ca/books?id=ngJemlYfB4MC&pg=PA37
- Latin version (The Latin Library): http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/juvenal/6.shtml