Saturday, February 01, 2020


A World Out of Joint

Juvenal, The Sixteen Satires. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Peter Green, 3rd ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. xxxi-xxxii:
Yet though Juvenal regarded enough capital to qualify for Equestrian status as the summum bonum, he never indicates in any way that he would consider working to obtain it. Juvenal was a bred-in-the-bone rentier, with all the characteristics of his class: contempt for trade, indifference to practical skills, intense political conservatism, with a corresponding fear of change and revolution; abysmal ignorance of, and indifference to, the economic realities governing his existence; a tendency to see all problems, therefore, in over-simplifed moral terms, with the application of right conduct to existing authority as a kind of panacea for all ills.

His particular dilemma, like that of many another laudator temporis acti yearning for some mythical Golden Age, is that he is living by a set of moral and social assumptions that were obsolete before he was born. The only occupations he will recognize are those of the army, the law and estate-farming. He is as rigidly and imperceptively snobbish about trade as any nineteenth-century rural squire, and with even less justification. Highet (1954, 136) offers a sharp run-down on his position:
Since his ideal is the farm which supports its owner in modest comfort (or the estates which make a man a knight), he does not realize that Italy now lives by imports. And he will not understand that the Greco-Roman world was built up by the efforts of the shrewd, energetic, competent men who made harbours, highways, aqueducts, drainage-systems, and baths; who cleared the forests and set up the trade-routes; who exchanged the products of the far parts of the globe and ventured on innumerable dangerous voyages.
All he can see in the immense commercial activity of his day is a frantic scrambling after quick profits, stupid luxuries, or wheat to keep the rabble quiet. He is ready to admire Trajan's splendid new harbour at Ostia, but the socially inferior men who built and planned it elicit nothing from him but a quick, dismissive gibe about making money out of privy-contracts — 'These are such men as Fortune, by way of a joke, / will sometimes raise from the gutter and make Top People' (Satire III 39-40). His ideal is not so far from that of Naevolus, the ageing homosexual gigolo (IX 140-46): a small country home bestowed by some wealthy patron; 'A nice little nest-egg at interest / in gilt-edged stock'; a life of cultivated idleness, the Victorian 'genteel sufficiency'. 'What can I do in Rome?' cries Juvenal's friend Umbricius, in a famous and much-quoted section (41 ff.) of Satire III; and the reader is so carried away by the rhetorical brilliance of the passage that it never occurs to him to answer, briefly: 'A useful job of work' (cf. Marache 1989, 17). Nor, indeed, does it occur to Juvenal.
Id., p. xxxix:
Like so many writers who feel that the world they inhabit is out of joint, Juvenal is continually harking back to the distant past: the Golden Age before Saturn's fall, the semi-mythical period that followed Rome's foundation by Romulus, the early Republic of Livy's zealously Imperial propaganda. He never loses an opportunity to contrast the thrift, abstemiousness, simplicity, patriotism and moral rectitude of the good old days with the selfish hedonism and social flux he sees all around him. (The topic is well discussed by Winkler, ch. ii, 'The Good Old Days in Juvenal's Satires', 23-58, though I do not share his conviction that the poet's attitude to the Golden Age was one of total cynical mockery: a clever writer will often subvert what half his mind yearns for.) This well-worn rhetorical device had been done to death by almost every Roman poet since the close of the Republic; but Juvenal's handling of it deserves attention on at least two counts.

To begin with, from his point of view there was a great deal of truth in it. The trouble with literary commonplaces, especially when they are sedulously imitated from one generation to the next, is that we tend to write them off as mere stage-properties. But the two or three centuries before Juvenal's lifetime had radically transformed Roman civilization and mores; a vast and sudden influx of wealth had corrupted former standards of behaviour and promoted reckless ambition; the Republic, however venal and inefficient, had been replaced by a despotism, however benevolent and enlightened; the average Roman citizen had lost effective political power; foreign upstarts had obtained a stranglehold on some of the most influential positions in the Empire; such members of the old aristocracy as had survived the Civil Wars and subsequent Imperial purges were, very often, taking refuge in hell-raking or philosophical quietism. Juvenal, as they say, had a case.
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