Chapter 26. Juvenal: The Burning Poet

It is fitting that we should end our survey with Juvenal, for his savagery and artistry mark a culmination of Roman satire. For Gilbert Highet, “The Roman Juvenal was the greatest satiric poet who ever lived.” [1] Though bitterness and venom characterize Juvenal’s poetry, [2] its intent was highly moral and didactic; the good satirist reproves and teaches. [3] In Juvenal we find many of the standard themes of blame: like Starkaðr, he rages against old age; [4] the misery of poverty is a constant theme; [5] like Starkaðr, he excoriates the lower classes and foreigners rising above their proper level. [6] Satire 6 is a massive misogynistic manifesto, Juvenal’s longest satire, and, many think, his masterpiece; Satire 1 starts out with the theme of poet satirizing poet. The archaic theme of poet satirizing his stingy patron is found in the fifth satire. [7]
Thus, it is entirely appropriate that a persistent tradition of embittered exile should be attached to the vita of the poet. Even if he was not exiled—and, just as in the case of Naevius, some scholars deny that the exile ever took place [8] —such a story would be a necessary topos in the life story of a dominant satirist. The exile is not explicitly attested in the satires; Sidonius, born in AD 430, clearly refers to an exile that may be Juvenal’s, but he does not mention Juvenal by name. After mentioning Ovid, he refers to another poet, who “later, in a similar disaster, blown by a gust from the noisy public, was banished by an irritated actor.” [9] The sixth-century Byzantine chronicler John Malalas is our first explicit attestation for the exile. He wrote:
ὁ δὲ αὐτὸς βασιλεὺς Δομετιανὸς ἐφίλει τὸν ὀρχηστὴν τοῦ πρασίνου μέρους τῆς Ῥώμης, τὸν λεγόμενον Πάριδα. περὶ οὗ καὶ ἐλοιδορεῖτο ἀπὸ τῆς συγκλήτου Ῥώμης καὶ Ἰουβεναλίου τοῦ ποιητοῦ τοῦ Ῥωμαίου, ὡς χαίρων εἰς τὸ πράσινον. ὅστις βασιλεὺς ἐξώρισε τὸν αὐτὸν Ἰουβενάλιον τὸν ποιητὴν ἐν Πενταπόλει ἐπὶ τὴν Λιβύην, τὸν δὲ ὀρχηστὴν πλουτίσας ἔπεμψεν ἐν Ἀντιοχείᾳ τῇ μεγάλῃ ἐπὶ τὸ οἰκεῖν αὐτὸν ἔξω τῆς πόλεως.
The emperor Domitian loved the dancer known as Paris from the Green faction in Rome; he was reproached for this by the Senate at Rome and by the Roman poet Juvenal, for favoring the Green faction. The emperor banished the poet Juvenal to Pentapolis in Libya, but enriched the dancer and sent him to Antioch the Great to live there, outside the city.
John Malalas Chronicles 10.49 [10]
Aside from this one reference, only the vitae attached to the scholiasts and manuscripts, contradictory and unfactual as they often are, attest explicitly to the poet’s exile. Trying to piece together a historically convincing Juvenalian exile from the scholiast lives is a problematic task; however, a rough consensus can be obtained. [11] Following is the most common version of the Vita:
D. Iunius Iuuenalis, libertini locupletis incertum est filius an alumnus, ad mediam fere aetatem declamauit animi magis causa quam quod se scholae aut foro praepararet. deinde paucorum uersuum satura non absurde composita in Paridem pantomimum poetamque eius semenstribus militiolis tumentem genus scripturae industriose excoluit; et tamen diu ne modico quidem auditorio quicquam committere ausus est. mox magna frequentia tantoque successu bis aut ter auditus est, ut ea quoque quae prima fecerat inferciret nouis scriptis … erat tum in deliciis aulae histrio multique fautorum eius cottidie prouehebantur. uenit ergo Iuuenalis in suspicionem, quasi tempora figurate notasset, ac statim per honorem militiae quamquam octogenarius urbe summotus est missusque ad praefecturam cohortis in extremam partem Aegypti tendentis. id supplicii genus placuit, ut leui atque ioculari delicto par esset. uerum intra breuissimum tempus angore et taedio periit.
Junius Juvenalis, the son or adopted son (this is not established) of a rich freedman, was a declaimer until about middle age, more as a hobby than because he was preparing himself for a career as a professional declaimer or barrister. Then he composed a satire of a few verses, quite wittily, against the pantomime dancer Paris and his librettist, who was vain because of trivial six-month military appointments, and proceeded to devote himself to this style of writing. Yet for a long time he did not venture to entrust anything even to quite a small audience. Subsequently he gave readings a few times to packed audiences with such success that he inserted into his later writings his first composition also [Satire 7.90–92 is quoted]. At that time there was an actor who was a court favourite, and many of his fans were being promoted daily. Therefore Juvenal came under suspicion of making indirect attacks on the times, and, although in his eighties, he was removed from Rome by a military appointment and sent to take command of a cohort on its way to the remotest part of Egypt. This kind of punishment was decided upon so that it might match his trivial and humorous offence. However within a very short time he died because of vexation and disgust.
Vita Ia [12]
There are many variations. Most of the lives have the poet exiled to Egypt; however, two send him to Britain. [13] Seven lives have him exiled by Nero (a chronological difficulty, to say the least, as Juvenal was born (perhaps) around AD 60, and Nero became emperor in 54); four have him exiled by Domitian. [14] He usually dies in exile, though in two lives (Ib and IIIb) he dies in Rome after the exile. One (IIIb) also has the charming detail, patently unfactual, that he returned to Rome and found that Martial was no longer there—so he died of “sadness and vexation” (tristitia et angore instead of the more usual angore et taedio). Another life (IIa) has him die when he learns why Domitian exiled him; another has him die because he missed Rome’s games and festivals (IIIc). The emperor sometimes exiles Juvenal with the intent of killing him: “enraged because of this [Juvenal’s satirical lines on Paris], when he could find no other occasion for contriving Juvenal’s death, he made him, under the pretext of an honor, military prefect against the Scots, who were making war against the Romans, so that Juvenal would be killed there.” [15] Thus the theme of exile and execution is combined; as we have noted, exile is always a form of death. (Many prefer death to exile, as in the cases of Socrates and Cicero.) [16]
The exile is always a military appointment, but it is always a pretext for getting rid of the poet: we find such phrases as sub obtentu, sub praetextu, and sub specie used. It is worth noting that apparently the emperor needed a pretext; in fact, two lives make it explicit: “he did not dare to punish a man of such great prestige publicly.” [17] The poet is a force to be reckoned with, even by an emperor. But the poet is conquered by pure political power, as often happens.
Virtually all of the lives agree that the specific cause of the exile was verse addressed against Paris, a pantomime in favor with the emperor, [18] accusing the histrio of having power to distribute military appointments. This short epigram theoretically was later incorporated into Satire 7 (lines 90–92). The emperor suspects that Juvenal “had criticized the times,” [19] and the exile follows. The detail remains, but variants surround it. In Ia, Juvenal satirizes Paris and his “poeta,” librettist. In one scholiast (IIa), Paris buys the verses and sings them as his own. However, in IIb Juvenal merely attacks the vice and luxury of Rome, said to be at a record low point of degradation. Vita V speaks of Paris’s hatred for the poet; Codex Barberinus is uncertain whether the hatred of the poet or the emperor caused the exile. (Incertum profecto id Paridis pantomimi odio … an ipsius imperatoris offensa factum sit.) In IIb, Paris is the worst kind of informer (delator … pessimus), and uses his influence to have Juvenal shipped away.
As E. Courtney notes, we have a mixture “fantastical elements” with elements that have some degree of plausibility. [20] It is impossible to separate fact from fiction with certainty. Highet, however, accepts the historicity of the exile story, reconstructing a historical life thus: Juvenal was quite well-to-do, well educated, and started a military career, but was not promoted. Though he curried the favor of Roman nobles, he saw the unworthy promoted while he languished. Thus he wrote a satire on the topic of unworthy advancement, mentioning Paris, dead in disgrace some nine years. In Highet’s view, “The suspicious Domitian took this as a covert attack on the probity of his administration, and exiled Juvenal to Egypt [not under the pretext of a military appointment], confiscating all his considerable property.” [21] The poet returns to Rome eventually, and experiences the humiliating life of a poverty-stricken client. His embittered satires are now written, under Trajan and Hadrian. The poet comes into a modest sum of money, and ends his days less embittered than he might have been, though the keynote of his writing is still a savage contempt for humanity.
If the exile is historical, and the poet was exiled by Domitian (or Trajan) to Egypt, then we would also have the exile theme in Juvenal’s poetry, for satire fifteen attacks the customs of Egypt. [22]
In Satire 1.149–157, Juvenal reveals an important aspect of his satire: he will satirize by name only those who have died. Satirizing the living is too dangerous, as he had come to know, possibly, from harsh experience:
omne in praecipiti vitium stetit. utere velis,
totos pande sinus. …
… cuius non audeo dicere nomen?
quid refert dictis ignoscat Mucius an non?
pone Tigillinum, taeda lucebis in illa
qua stantes ardent qui fixo gutture fumant
et latum media sulcum deducit harena.
All vice is at its acme; up with your sails and shake out every stitch of canvas! … [Lucilius says] “What man is there that I dare not name? What matters it whether Mucius forgives my word or not?”
But just describe Tigellinus [the favorite of Nero] and you will blaze amid those faggots in which men, with their throats tightly gripped, stand and burn and smoke, and you trace a broad furrow through the middle of the arena. [23]
Thus if the poet satirizes by name, he will be publicly burned, as were early Christians, accused by Nero of arson. [24] The Christians were scapegoated for the great fire in AD 64; [25] the truthful satirist will be killed just like these unfortunate sufferers. We remember that one unparalleled statement has the Greek pharmakos killed by fire. [26] The image of the burning poet is a symbol of imperial repression that lives on in the poetry of one more exiled poet—whether Juvenal was exiled in historical or mythical reality. [27]


[ back ] 1. Highet 1961:2.
[ back ] 2. Cf. Satire 1, esp. line 45, where his “fevered soul burns with wrath” (siccum iecur ardeat ira). Anderson 1964; Braund 1988.
[ back ] 3. See Highet 1961:163.
[ back ] 4. 10.188–288.
[ back ] 5. Satire 7, on poverty of the literary life; 3.152–153; Satire 5; for many more references, see Highet 1961:359.
[ back ] 6. 4.32; 1.24–30.
[ back ] 7. See above, ch. 2 (Aesop and the Delphians); ch. 7 (Simonides).
[ back ] 8. Notably Strack 1880; cf. Wilson 1903:xvi–xvii; Hild 1884; Vahlen 1923:181–201; further bibliography in Strack 1880:33; and in Wilson 1903. Courtney suggests that because Juvenal’s writings were long out of fashion, “nothing was known about his life when he again came into fashion, and resort was made to inference and fabrication” (1980:9).
[ back ] 9. Sidonius Apollinaris Poems 9.271–273: … qui consimili deinde casu / ad volgi tenuem strepentis auram / irati fuit histrionis exul (trans. Highet 1961:23), cf. Courtney 1980:6.
[ back ] 10. Text in Dürr 1888:20. Translation Jeffreys et al. 1986:139.
[ back ] 11. See Dürr 1888:22–30. I will use Dürr’s system of numbering when referring to the lives.
[ back ] 12. Trans. Courtney 1980:6, text in Clausen 1959:179; Dürr 1888:22.
[ back ] 13. Vita IV; scholiast, codex Bibl. reg. 1.
[ back ] 14. See Strack 1990:27.
[ back ] 15. Vita IV, my trans. qua ex re commotus, nulla alia occasione reperta struendae mortis in Iuvenalem, sub honoris pretextu fecit eum praefectum militis contra Scotos, qui bellum conta Romanos moverant, ut ibi interficeretur Iuvenalis. Vita IIa also hints that Domitian was seeking his death; cf. IV cod. Omnib.: hoc modo poetae mortis instruendae opportunitatem invenit (“In this way he found a means for bringing about the poet’s death,” my trans.).
[ back ] 16. See above, ch. 15; also chs. 22; 25.
[ back ] 17. Vita IIa: cum tantae auctoritatis virum publice punire non auderet … Cf. IIc.
[ back ] 18. Or his lover, according to John Malalas.
[ back ] 19. E.g. Vita IIb: quod iste sua tempora notasset, fecit eum exulare.
[ back ] 20. Courtney 1980:7.
[ back ] 21. Highet 1937:506.
[ back ] 22. Cf. Highet 1961:151–152. The centerpiece of satire fifteen is a revolting account of feudal omophagia.
[ back ] 23. Trans. Ramsay. Variant readings: gutture /pectore; deducit / deducis. These lines are problematic in their details, though the main image and thought are clear enough.
[ back ] 24. Cf. Green 1967:192n26, on the tunica molesta ‘shirt of pitch’.
[ back ] 25. Tacitus Annals 15.44.
[ back ] 26. “Finally they burnt him with fire” (τέλος πυρὶ κατέκαιον, Tzetzes Chiliades 5.737). Cf. Bremmer 1983b:317; Gebhard 1926:3, with bibliography. Some scholars have accepted this detail, but most have been skeptical of it.
[ back ] 27. On the tightening of Roman censorship under emperor and imperial bureaucracy, see Highet 1961:55; Sullivan 1985:153.