Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis)

Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis) (ca. A.D. 55-ca. 140) Roman poet and satirist A social critic who took a wittier approach to imperial license than found in the biographies of his contemporary PLUTARCH, Juvenal mocked the vices of the Roman emperor Domitian's rule with venomous verses. Details of the author's life are conjectural. The son or ward of an Iberian freedman or country squire, he was a native of Aquinum (present-day Aquino near Monte Cassino, Italy), southeast of Rome. He appears to have been an attorney after service as a military tribune on the Adriatic Sea in Dalmatia (present-day Croatia). Although he apparently circulated on the fringes of respectability due to his combative personality and invectives against the powerful, the emperor Vespasian allegedly elevated him to flamen (high priest). Under Domitian (ruled A.D. 81-96), Juvenal incurred banishment to Syene (present-day Aswan, Egypt) in A.D. 93 for maligning an actor. After his recall to Rome in A.D. 96 during Nerva's short reign, he launched a literary career by writing 16 SATIRES, perhaps to support himself after Domitian's confiscation of his inheritance. With extremes of vituperation and obscenity, his verses targeted corrupt politicians, homosexuals, Greek immigrants, Jews, sadists, gladiators, gluttons, con artists, and male and female prostitutes. He is believed to have retired to an estate at Bilbilis (present-day Calatayud, Spain) and died in his 80s.

Juvenal's reactionary verse yields flashes of rhetorical greatness. Like SENECA, he excelled at succinct jewels of wisdom, some as short as two- word phrases, for example:

✵ a sound mind in a healthy body

✵ a rare bird

✵ Nobody becomes wicked overnight.

✵ Who's watching the watchmen?

✵ Revenge pleasures the narrow mind.

✵ Every neighborhood has its Clytemnestra.

✵ Morality is the only nobility.

For contrast, he held up the old aristocracy and their traditional values as models of behavior and mourned their eclipse in an iniquitous age. His often-vitriolic comments show that he harbored jealousy and resentment toward upstarts, cosmopolites, and poseurs who seized the spotlight and curried favor with the palace elite.

Juvenal bore a grudge against Domitian for curtailing civil liberties and for besmirching Rome's ruling dynasty through outrageous acts. In a graphic condemnation, the second book of Juvenal's Satires (ca. A.D. 127) calls the emperor “an adulterer stained by a union worthy of the tragic stage” (Juvenal 1992, 10), a charge citing Domitian's incest with his 27- year-old niece Julia Flavia, whom he murdered with an abortifacient. According to Juvenal in Satire 10, the decadence of the imperial family encouraged citizen apathy: “The people cast off its worries, when we stopped selling our votes” (88). The satirist concludes his 10th satire of Roman complacency with a cynical summation of Romans being bought with panem et circenses (bread and circuses, 89), a tragic replacement of principles by food for their bellies and tawdry amusements for their minds.


Hooley, Daniel M. Roman Satire. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007. Juvenal. The Satires. Translated by Niall Rudd. Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 1992.