Tuesday, June 29, 2004


A Taste of Juvenal

The Roman satirist Juvenal is not the easiest Latin author to read. A commentary is useful, often essential. But his poems are filled with clever sayings, crotchety opinions, nuggets of wisdom, and curious parallels to modern life which have interest even for those with little Latin. I've culled a few of these for your amusement.

There was an immigration problem in ancient Rome, and Juvenal opposed the influx of foreigners. He wrote (3.62): The Syrian Orontes has long since flowed into the Tiber. (iam pridem Syrus in Tiberim defluxit Orontes.) We might paraphrase this in contemporary terms as: The Mexican Rio Grande has long since flowed into the Potomac.

Juvenal thought (10.80) that the degenerate Roman populace was concerned with two things only, bread and circuses (panem et circenses). A modern equivalent might be food stamps and reality TV shows.

The scandal at Abu Ghraib prison recalls Juvenal's question (6.347-348): Who will guard the guards themselves? (quis custodiet ipsos custodes?)

One of the best and pithiest statements of what we should pray for is Juvenal's phrase (10.356): a sound mind in a sound body (mens sana in corpore sano).

One could almost say that Juvenal predicted the modern craze for blogging in this sentence (7.51-52): An incurable itch to write takes hold of many people (tenet insanabile multos scribendi cacoethes).

Surrounded by moral degeneracy, Juvenal exclaimed, "It's difficult not to write satire" (difficile est saturam non scribere, 1.30) and "Indignation creates my poetry" (facit indignatio versum, 1.79).

The corporate greed and rampant consumerism of our age are summed up in Juvenal's expression (3.183-184): Everything at Rome comes with a price tag. (omnia Romae cum pretio). Considering the power that lobbyists wield today, we might also paraphrase: Everything in Washington is for sale.

Juvenal even disapprovingly described a same-sex marriage, in a passage too long to quote (2.117-142). It wasn't an isolated incident, because his contemporaries Martial (12.42) and Tacitus (Annals 15.37) mentioned the same sort of thing.

So many modern parallels come to mind when reading Juvenal that we're almost forced to the conclusion that human nature hasn't changed all that much over the past couple of millennia.

In case this taste has whetted your appetite for more, I recommend the essay by Roger Kimball entitled Lessons from Juvenal, the lively translation of Juvenal's satires by Peter Green in the Penguin Classics series, and Gilbert Highet's book Juvenal the Satirist. And don't forget Dr. Johnson's imitations of two of the satires, the third (as London) and the tenth (as The Vanity of Human Wishes).

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