Roman Satire: the Satires of Q. Horatius Flaccus and the Satires of D. Junius Juvenalis

The Romans sometimes get grief for "copying" everything from other cultures. The Romans were masters at taking what worked from different cultures they encountered, adopting it, and adapting it to Roman use. The Latin epic, The Aeneid, though a masterpiece, would not be possible without Homer's Iliad, Odyssey, and the works of other Greek authors. Latin lyric poetry, such as Catullus and Horace produced, was very much modeled on Greek originals. Though in one literary area, the Romans claim inventor status—satire. We have the output of three great satirists, all of whom lived and wrote in the 1st c. CE: Horace (Q. Horatius Flaccus), Persius (A. Persius Flaccus) and Juvenal (D. Junius Juvenalis). We will not discuss Persius—his six satires are tough going even for committed classicists, and are really more Stoic screeds posing as satire.

The origins of satire are unclear. It is thought that the term may very well have come from the phrase "lanx satura" ("full platter"), which suggests a "miscellany," or "assortment." And the earliest satires were likely not the harsh works we now think of as satire. The two books of satires of Horace are very much a smorgasbord of humorous observations—think of some humorous columnist from the newspaper like Erma Bombeck—rather than any sort of critical slam on politics and morality. You can check them out for yourself in Sidney Alexander's translation of The Odes and Satires of Horace. If you're expecting biting commentary on his world by Horace, you will be disappointed. Horace was the son of a freedman (an ex-slave) who had managed to attain the equivalent of middle class respectability with the assistance of the Emperor Augustus and his friend, Maecenas. There was no chance of Horace biting the hand that fed him so well. But if you want some pretty funny and very clever observations on the human condition by one of the greatest of Latin poets, take some time to read Horace's Satires.

The library has two poetic translations available: The Satires of Horace, trans. A.M. Juster is available in an electronic format, while The Complete Odes and Satires of Horace by Sidney Alexander is available in book form. A prose translation, Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, translated by H. Rushton Fairclough, is available with Latin text on facing page.

If you want something a lot harder-hitting, with an edge, check out the Satires of Juvenal. Juvenal grew up in a much harder age. Unlike the emperor Augustus, who was good to his friends and was stable and sane, and whose praises were sung by Horace and Virgil, the emperor Domitian, under whom Juvenal lived and suffered exile, was paranoid and who could be quite harsh—some think the poet Statius, for instance, did not die a natural death, but may have been helped on his way because he failed to please the emperor. Though Juvenal wrote his satires under one of the great emperors, Trajan, his sufferings under Domitian, and the laxer morals of the late 1st and early 2nd c. CE, resulted in a harsher tone and much more biting humor in his work. Think Lewis Black in a toga. It is Juvenal's prominence as a writer of satire that changed the face of satire from that point on. Gone was the gentle ribbing of human foibles we saw in Horace. In its place, we have the harsh railings of Juvenal at the moral cesspool where he finds himself. There are 16 satires surviving, though there may have been others. "Satire 16" breaks off, which suggests that Juvenal may have died (let me be emphatic -- he was NOT killed by Trajan) without completing the work.

Samuel Johnson, the great English scholar and dictionary author, wrote a couple of versions of Juvenal—"London," based on Juvenal's "Satire 3" which attacked Rome, and "The Vanity of Human Wishes," which is a version of Juvenal's "Satire 10." The English poet, John Dryden, did a translation of Juvenal in rhymed couplets. You can find nice modern translations in our catalog—that of Rolfe Humphries, who is one of my favorite translators, and a newer prose translation by Susanna Morton Braund with Latin on the facing page. Braund's translation also includes the six satires of Persius, a Stoic who used satire to advance his philosophic position.

But you may also want to check out what Dr. Johnson did with his "London" poem and what he did with Juvenal 10 in "The Vanity of Human Wishes" or even check out Dryden's translations of "Juvenal".