Frontispiece depicting Juvenal and Persius, fr...
Frontispiece depicting Juvenal and Persius, from a volume translated by John Dryden in 1711 via Wikipedia

Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenali, c. 55-130 CE) was a Roman satirist whose sharp, critical eye gives a reality check to those who uncritically glorify ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt as examples of a mythical ‘golden age.’

The ancient world was typically corrupt, hypocritical and cruel, with large numbers of miserable have-nots (slaves and the over-taxed poor) at the whim and mercy of a tiny group of often tyrannical rulers.

As for sacred temples, Juvenal writes that they are frequently used as meeting places for casual hetero- and homosexual sex. To the “provincial” Naevolus he says:

It’s not so long, I recall, since you used to hang around the temples of Ceres and Isis, or Ganymede’s little shrine
In the temple of Peace, or Cybele’s secret grotto
On the Palatine Hill – all such places are hot-spots for easy women.
You laid them by the dozens then, and (something you don’t mention)
More often than not you would have their husbands, too (Juvenal, The Sixteen Satires, trans. Peter Green, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974, p. 195).

And his take on the Roman state religion’s feast days is just as controversial:

What feast-day’s so holy it never produces the usual quota
Of theft, embezzlement, fraud, all those criminal get-rich-quick schemes,
Glittering fortunes won by the dagger or drug-box? (Ibid., p. 249).

Juvenal’s vivid and piercing portrait of ancient Rome might be more relevant to some contemporary cultures than Voltaire‘s equally powerful satire, Candide, even though the latter is nearer to the present, chronologically speaking.

Contemporary scholars don’t know if Juvenal really stood behind his criticisms or, instead, was simply writing about some of his contemporaries who viewed things as he wrote them.

While Juvenal’s mode of satire has been noted from antiquity for its wrathful scorn towards all representatives of social deviance, some politically progressive scholars such as W.S. Anderson and later S.M. Braund have attempted to defend his work as actually a rhetorical persona (mask) taken up by the author to critique the very attitudes he appears to be exhibiting in his works.¹

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juvenal#Modern_criticism_and_historical_context_of_the_Satires


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