The Roman art of satire

Yesterday I picked up one of my favourite books, an old Loeb edition of the satires of Juvenal and Persius.  I don’t quite remember where I got it.  I seem to think that I found it somewhere in the west country, perhaps in a second-hand bookshop on a trip to Minehead.  Anyhow it sits on my shelves, and from time to time I reread the Juvenal in English, and look intermittently at the Latin.

I’ve never been able to get into the Persius, however.  Yesterday, for the first time, I managed it.  I actually read and enjoyed all six satires.

I don’t know why I’ve found Juvenal so much more accessible.  It can’t be the translator, since it’s the same one.  But somehow the style of Perseus, even in translation, is harder to read.

As I read, I saw a reference to the satires of Lucillus, in 30 books, and a thought flashed across my mind that I ought to get hold of these.  But then I remembered that Lucillus is lost, and his satires, so adapted to the age of Roman freedom, are not to be had.

The translator, living in a free age, made the point that the end of the Republic and the establishment of an autocracy had a ruinous effect on literature.  Instead of dealing with real things, and making an impact thereby, as was the case in the days of liberty, an ever more frivolous stylistic concern took its place.  For who could say what he really thought, when the First Citizen frowned?  Wealth and a lack of freedom led directly to self-indulgence.  People who are free  take responsibility for their actions, and the state will prosper or suffer accordingly.  But if you have no power, why be responsible?

I found myself wondering about the lack of literature in our own days, and the rottenness that we see everywhere.

Crispinus once again! a man whom I shall often have to call on to the scene, a prodigy of wickedness without one redeeming virtue; a sickly libertine, strong only in his lusts, which scorn none save the unwedded. …

To-day I shall tell of a less heinous deed, though had any other man done the like, he would fall under the censor’s lash: for what would be shameful in good men like Seius or Teius sat gracefully on Crispinus. What can you do when the man himself is more foul and monstrous than any charge you can bring against him? — Juvenal, Satire 4.

What indeed?


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