Chapter 20. “Wounded by Tooth that Drew Blood”: The Beginnings of Satire in Rome

“Satura quidem tota nostra est,” wrote Quintilian. “Satire is entirely ours [Roman].” [1] Thus blame in verse, of a certain type, was a characteristically Roman genre, despite some influence from Hellenistic Greek poetry. [2] Cicero, in the Tusculan Disputations, tells us that “Cato, that most authoritative author, said in the Origins that our ancestors had this custom at feasts, that they would sing to the flute, one after another, the praises and braveries of outstanding men, as they were reclining,” but soon after this he speaks of “poems made for the injury of someone else” in archaic Rome. “The Twelve Tables show that songs used to be written already at that time, because they made it illegal for a song to be written to injure someone else.” [3] Valerius Maximus adds this important passage:
Maiores natu in conuiuiis ad tibias egregia superiorum opera carmine comprehensa pangebant, quo ad ea imitanda iuuentutem alacriorem redderent. Quid hoc splendidius, quid etiam utilius certamine? … Quas Athenas, quam scholam, quae alienigena studia huic domesticae disciplinae praetulerim? Inde oriebantur Camilli, Scipiones, Fabricii, Marcelli, Fabii.
Our ancestors, in feasts, accompanied by flutes, would compose poetry on the outstanding deeds of distinguished men, by which they would make the youth more eager to imitate those works. What is more splendid than this, what indeed more useful in battle? … What Athens, what school, what foreign studies shall I prefer to this native custom? From this arose the Camilli, the Scipiones, the Fabricii, the Marcelli, the Fabii.
Valerius Maximus 2.1.10, my trans.
Thus narrative poetry, as martial paraenesis, is central to archaic Roman culture; it also seemingly has an aspect of ancestor worship in it.
Though this passage speaks only of praise, martial blame would have been an inextricable component of the poetry, as we have seen in the martial paraenesis of the Iliadic Agamemnon and in Tyrtaeus. [4] We find comparable praise and blame expressed in Roman funeral ritual: according to Pliny, the Romans kept wax portraits of their illustrious ancestors around the house, along with accompanying spoils of battle, pedigrees, archives, and statues—“so that the houses continued to triumph eternally even after they had changed masters.” But a specific purpose of all this praise of deeds of ancestors was martial blame: “This was a powerful stimulus, when the walls each day reproached an unwarlike owner for having thus intruded upon the triumphs of another.” [5] Polybius describes the Roman funeral, where men wore these masks in procession, and where the funeral orator recaps all of the illustrious deeds of the deceased’s ancestors. [6] So we see that praise, blame, and cult of martial ancestors linked together.
The laws of the Twelve Tables, referred to above, show the power of blame in early Rome: Qui malum carmen incantassit … ([He or she] who has chanted an evil song … [will be punished]). [7] Elsewhere, Cicero quotes the Twelve Tables as saying, si quis occentauisset ([He or she] who has sung a satire against someone [will be punished], Cicero On the Republic 4.10.12). Some scholars believe that this is a variant reading for the same law, and that occentassit should be the correct reading; others believe that the word occentassit is connected with a different law or a different section of the law. In any case, this word places the offense in the realm of personal attack, slander, and verbal abuse. Festus explains: “Our ancestors used to say ‘he has sung an abusive song’ [occentassit] for what we say now, ‘he has made a convicium,’ because it is done openly and with a certain clamor, so that it can be heard at a great distance. Which is held to be shameful, because it is not thought to be done without cause.” [8]
With incantassit, we have more of an occult context: the connection will be with incantatio ‘incantation, enchantment’. However, it would be a mistake to separate satirical destructive language from magico-religious destructive language too completely, as often curses used abusive language. This kind of attempted separation can result from imposing neat modern categories—magic and religion versus literature—on the archaic mind. James Boykin Rives writes, “we should see ‘magic’ and ‘slander’ not as exclusive alternatives, but as points on the same spectrum.” [9]
The punishment for breaking this law was capital, as supporting texts show us. Cicero writes:
Nostrae contra duodecim tabulae cum perpaucas res capite sanxissent, in his hanc quoque sanciendam putauerunt, si quis occentauisset siue carmen condidisset, quod infamiam faceret flagitium ue alteri. Praeclare; iudiciis enim magistratuum, disceptationibus legitimis propositam uitam, non poetarum ingeniis habere debemus, nec probrum audire nisi ea lege ut respondere liceat et iudicio defendere.
Though our Twelve Tables attached the penalty of death only to a very few offenses, yet among these few this was one: if any man should have sung a satire against someone [occentauisset], or have composed a satire [carmen] calculated to bring infamy [infamiam] or disgrace [flagitium] on another person. [10] Wisely decreed. For it is by the decisions of magistrates, and by a well-informed justice, that our lives ought to be judged, and not by the flighty fancies of poets [poetarum ingeniis]; neither ought we to be exposed to hear calumnies [probrum], save where we have the liberty of replying, and defending ourselves before an adequate tribunal.
Cicero On the Republic 4.10.12, ap. Augustine City of God 2.9 [11]
Considering the role of invective in Cicero’s career and death, this is a highly ironic passage; he assumes that a system of justice will be just.
Horace (Epistles 2.1.139–155) offers a useful historical outline of Roman blame:
Agricolae prisci, fortes paruoque beati,
condita post frumenta leuantes tempore festo
corpus et ipsum animum spe finis dura ferentem,
cum sociis operum et pueris et coniuge fida
Tellurem porco, Siluanum lacte piabant,
floribus et uino Genium memorem breuis aeui.
Fescennina per hunc inuenta licentia morem
uersibus alternis opprobria rustica fudit,
libertasque recurrentis accepta per annos
lusit amabiliter, donec iam saeuus apertam
in rabiem coepit uerti iocus et per honestas
ire domos impune minax . Doluere cruento
dente lacessiti , fuit intactis quoque cura
condicione super communi; quin etiam lex
poenaque lata, malo quae nollet carmine quemquam
describi: uertere modum, formidine fustis
ad bene dicendum delectandumque redacti.
The farmers of old, a sturdy folk with simple wealth, when, after harvesting the grain, they sought relief at holiday time for the body, as well as for the soul, which bore its toils in hope of the end, together with slaves and faithful wife, partners of their labors, used to propitiate Earth with swine, Silvanus with milk, and the Genius who is ever mindful of the shortness of life with flowers and wine. Through this custom came into use Fescennine licence [Fescennina licentia], [12] which in alternate verse poured forth rustic taunts [opprobria rustica]; and the freedom, welcomed each returning year, was innocently gay, till jest, now growing cruel [saevus], turned to open frenzy [apertam in rabiem] and stalked amid the homes of honest folk, fearless in its threatening [impune minax]. [13] They who were bitten by tooth that drew blood [cruento dente lacessiti] were stung to the quick, and even those untouched felt concern for the common cause; and at last a law was carried with a penalty, forbidding the portayal of any abusive strain [malo carmine]. Men changed their tune, and terror of the cudgel [formidine fustis] led them back to good and gracious forms of speech. (trans. Fairclough, adapted)
According to Horace, then, Roman blame thus started from light-hearted ritual abuse at harvest festivals; this became more and more abusive and political, and was turned against the aristocracy. Society, even those who were not attacked, saw it as a major problem, and the Twelve Tables law was passed against it, after which poets had to be more civil and even entertaining.
Like many historical outlines, this one is suspect. Certainly, these “eras” shaded into one another; violent personal abuse surely coexisted with ritual abuse from times immemorial. [14] And “damaging” poetry postdated the law of the Twelve Tables, as our examples of exiled Roman poets will show. But even if this is not a strictly chronological schematic outline, all of the poetic phenomena described in it probably existed. It is valuable as a witness to the cultural situation that brought about the perceived need for punitive poetic legislation, the Twelve Tables laws. These laws, of course, explicitly suggest the trial of the poet and his punishment, execution by clubs. Horace portrays the satirical poets unsympathetically; yet their crime was attacking the aristocracy (honestas … domos), perhaps as representatives of the lower classes. Someone who had less identification with upper classes might view the satirists more sympathetically. The fact that an aristocratic satirist like Lucilius could go unscathed legally [15] may show that this law, like many laws, prosecuted selectively, legislated against the politically oppressed. [16]
While abuse and blame were not always expressed metrically, they were always an important part of Roman society, even under the emperors. “Rome, said Cicero, was a maledica civitas; slander was a national pastime.” The full Ciceronian passage is worth quoting: “[Caelius had not departed from the right way] How do we know? There were no expenses, no financial loss, no borrowing. But there was gossip. How many are there who can escape that, especially in such a slanderous state?” [17] The virulence of Cicero’s oratorical abuse, a keynote of his most prominent speeches, from the For Roscius Amerinus to the Catilines, the For Caelius, the Verrines and Philippics, was one of the sources of his popularity, legal effectiveness, and political power. [18]
Thus, poetic/verbal abuse was a well-attested phenomenon in ancient Rome. And the companion theme, the exiled or executed poet, is attested at the beginnings of Rome’s literary history, in Naevius, and continues through the Empire, with such a poet as Ovid, and into Silver Latin, with Juvenal.


[ back ] 1. Quintilian 10.1.93. Of course, Quintilian was well aware of the Greek satiric tradition. He was using the word in a limited, technical sense, of a certain Roman satirical genre, the satura. However, there was a strain of satire that was characteristically Latin. See Coffey 1976:3–23; Knoche 1975:3–16; Hendrickson 1927.
[ back ] 2. See Knoche 1975:4–5 for a discussion of the Greek element in Roman satire.
[ back ] 3. Trans. Warmington, revised, Grauissimus auctor in Originibus dixit Cato, morem apud maiores hunc epularum fuisse, ut deinceps, qui accubarent, canerent ad tibiam clarorum virorum laudes atque virtutes … XII tabulae declarant, condi iam tum solitum esse carmen, quod ne liceret fieri ad alterius iniuriam, lege sanxerunt (Tusculan Disputations 4.2); cf. Hendrickson 1925:125; Duff 1960:54; Cicero Brutus 19.75; Varro, quoted by Nonius Marcellus, p. 76, assa uoce pro sola.
[ back ] 4. See above, ch. 11; ch. 17 (poet as warrior section).
[ back ] 5. Pliny Natural History 35.2; trans. from Lewis and Reinhold 1966 1:483, triumphabantque etiam dominis mutatis aeternae domus. erat haec stimulatio ingens, exprobrantibus tectis cotidie inbellem dominum intrare in alienum triumphum.
[ back ] 6. Polybius 6.53.1–54.2.
[ back ] 7. Pliny Natural History 28.2.17; possible variant reading, incantassit: occentassit. See Ernout 1966:119; Marmorale 1950:53, with bibliography; Pugliese 1941:22ff. (further bibliography); Momigliano 1942; Fraenkel 1925; Usener 1901; Warmington 1936:474.
[ back ] 8. Festus 190 (p. 181 Müller), ‘Occentassit’ antiqui dicebant, quod nunc convicium fecerit dicimus, quod id clare, et cum quodam canore fit, ut procul exaudiri possit. quod turpe habetus, quia non sine causa fieri putatur. The emphasis on the justice of the satire is a familiar theme. OLD defines convicium as ‘angry noise, clamor, uproar; insulting talk, abuse, reproof, mockery …’ See Ernout 1966:119; Marmorale 1950:53, with bibliography; Pugliese 1941:22ff. (further bibliography); Momigliano 1942; Fraenkel 1925; Usener 1901; Warmington 1936:474; Lewis and Crawford 1996:677–679 (in a thorough reconstruction of the Twelve Tables with their most important testimonia); Rives 2002.
[ back ] 9. Rives 2002:285, cf. Momigliano 1942:120. For the curse containing elements of abuse, see Watson 1991; for blame, curse, and spell, ch. 17, above, on Lugh in battle, and on the glám díchenn.
[ back ] 10. Some critics regard the second clause as Cicero’s explanation of si quis occentauisset. Rives 2002:282–283, following Fraenkel, suggests that the second clause was part of the original law, which contained three clauses. Lewis and Crawford reconstruct this law (VIII, 1) as qui malum carmen incantassit … occentassit carmen cond …
[ back ] 11. Trans. Dods, adapted. Some critics regard this as a restatement of the Pliny passage; others see two different laws, one against sorcery, one against slander. See Momigliano 1942:121. Other statements on capital punishment for slander: Horace Epistles 2.1.154 (see below in text); Scholiast (“Cornutus”) ad Persius Satires 1.123, cautum est ut fustibus feriretur qui publice invehebatur (“It was laid down that, if anyone was found to be uttering a slander in public, he should be clubbed to death”), trans. in Warmington 1938:475, adapted.
[ back ] 12. See Brink 1982:191 for Fescennine abuse.
[ back ] 13. For the sense of honestas … domos, see Brink 1982:194.
[ back ] 14. Archilochus is the first great abusive poet of Greece, and his family was associated with the worship of Demeter, which had a large element of ritual abuse. Perhaps familiarity with ritual abuse would equip a poet for abuse of wider application. There is also an element of ritual abuse in Sappho (the epithalamia), see app. A below. Fescennines were used in marriages and triumphs, to avert evil—Adams 1982:4; Duff 1960:59. Cf. the ritual mockery in the Nonae Capratinae, Plutarch Camillus 29; Bremmer and Horsfall 1987:82.
[ back ] 15. See Wiseman 1985:132, a valuable discussion of the sanctions against slander in Rome.
[ back ] 16. For further on this passage, see Braund 2004:413–414.
[ back ] 17. Wiseman 1985:134; Cicero For Caelius 38: Quid signi? Nulli sumptus, nulla iactura, nulla versura. At fuit fama. Quotus quisque istam effugere potest praesertim in tam maledica civitate?
[ back ] 18. See below, ch. 22. For surveys of Roman blame, see Koster 1980; Opelt 1969, a collection of texts; Elliott 1960:100–129; Ward 1973:131.