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The Cambridge Companion to Roman Satire

The Cambridge Companion to Roman Satire

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by Kirk Freudenburg

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Satire as a distinct genre of writing was first developed by the Romans in the second century BCE. Regarded by them as uniquely 'their own', satire held a special place in the Roman imagination as the one genre that could address the problems of city life from the perspective of a 'real Roman'. In this Cambridge Companion an international team of scholars provides a


Satire as a distinct genre of writing was first developed by the Romans in the second century BCE. Regarded by them as uniquely 'their own', satire held a special place in the Roman imagination as the one genre that could address the problems of city life from the perspective of a 'real Roman'. In this Cambridge Companion an international team of scholars provides a stimulating introduction to Roman satire's core practitioners and practices, placing them within the contexts of Greco-Roman literary and political history. Besides addressing basic questions of authors, content, and form, the volume looks to the question of what satire 'does' within the world of Greco-Roman social exchanges, and goes on to treat the genre's further development, reception, and translation in Elizabethan England and beyond. Included are studies of the prosimetric, 'Menippean' satires that would become the models of Rabelais, Erasmus, More, and (narrative satire's crowning jewel) Swift.

Editorial Reviews

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"...this volume proves to be a worthy companion. Each author hands the traveler on to the next author, never isolating the reader but always providing connections by which to find a way back and to make the current scenery familiar. Egressum magna me accepit Freudenburg Roma hospitio magno ..."
Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Many contributors, not just those assigned to talk about satire's beginnings, are determined to make something of fragmentary pasts which might be more conveniently ignored...Roman satire is well accompanied by this collection." —Phoenix: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada

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The Cambridge Companion to
Cambridge University Press
0521803594 - The Cambridge Companion to - Roman Satire - Edited by Kirk Freudenburg


Introduction: Roman satire

Origins: Lucilius

Near the beginning of the tenth book of his Institutes, midway through a list of readings recommended for the orator in training, Quintilian, Rome's most prolific theorist of rhetoric after Cicero, takes a tendentious step towards satire's terrain by claiming that this particular genre can be accounted "totally ours."1 The claim is tendentious because extreme, and true only in a highly qualified sense. For ancient critics had long since sought to establish the genre's Greek pedigree by tracing its development past its most obvious early practitioners in Republican Rome (Ennius and Lucilius, both of whom wrote in the second century BCE) all the way to fifth-century Athens. Claims of satire's Greek provenience, although they could easily be stretched to an opposite extreme, are defensible and seem to have at least some narrow basis in fact.

Horace, writing more than one hundred years before Quintilian, was aware of both extremes. Perhaps to goad those in his audience who adamantly defended the idea that satire sprouted entirely from Roman soil, but perhaps also to mimic those who wanted to believe that any good thing in Roman literature just had to come from the Greeks, Horace went so far as to assert that Lucilius did not a whit more to invent satire than to rework the meters of Greek Old Comedy ("having changed only their meters and rhythms," mutatis

pedibus numerisque, Sermones 1.4.7). Referring to Aristophanes, Eupolis, and Cratinus, the three canonical comedians of fifth-century Athens, Horace says "Lucilius relies on them entirely" (hinc
pendet Lucilius
, Sermones 1.4.6).2 So much for satire's being at all "ours," let alone "totally" so.

Actually, when Quintilian makes his famous claim, just a few years before the publication of Juvenal's first book, he does not say satura tota nostra est ("satire is totally ours"), although he is often quoted that way. He says satura

tota nostra est ("satire at least/if nothing else is totally ours"). His particularizing and emphatic quidem matters, for it is emotionally charged; a way of breathing a sigh of relief, midway inside a long list of Roman generic enterprises, all modeled after Greek precedents, themselves reviewed earlier in the same book, and saying "here, for once, and just this once, we Romans have something, at least this one thing that we can claim as our own and not derived from the Greeks." That is the fuller tale told by Quintilian's not-so-innocent quidem. It announces that we are now inside a pleasant myth,
nostra est
, one that was taken very seriously in some sectors, it seems, already a century and a half before in Horace's day. And clearly there were critics in Quintilian's day, too, who took the basic gist of this assertion a good deal more seriously than he himself did. For before he can make any significant headway into his discussion of satire's best practitioners and habits at Institutes 10.1.93 Quintilian must first dispute the rankings of certain critics who, still in his own day, stubbornly maintained (he is annoyed with them) that Lucilius was not just Rome's first writer of satire, and a very fine one at that, but Rome's greatest writer of all time, in all genres - not Ennius, not Horace, not Virgil: Lucilius!

Failing to make Quintilian's list in the late first century CE is Quintus Ennius (239-169 BCE), the poet usually accounted Rome's first writer of satire. Best known to us as the author of the Annales, Rome's finest national epic before the Aeneid, he is well represented in a number of genres where he merits mention by Quintilian as an author worthy of study.3 The great majority of these poetic enterprises Ennius modeled directly after Greek precedents. But in among his lesser-known efforts there have survived a few scant remains of a four-book collection of poems that he entitled saturae. That title, the plural form of Latin satura (with each book apparently comprising one satura), is unknown before Ennius, and has been the subject of much debate.4 Apparently it derives from the Latin adjective satur, meaning "chock-full." It seems, then, that Ennius used the term to designate his poems as things chock-full of this and that ("miscellanies"), for what little remains of them (a mere thirty-one lines of verse) suggests that they have far more in common with collections of Hellenistic occasional poems, such as Posidippus' grab-bag of epigrams known as Soros, "The Pile," or Ennius' own Hedyphagetica, "Delicatessen," than they do with the later poems of Lucilius and Horace that go by the same name.5 For this reason it is perhaps best not to refer to them as "satires" at all. That is their title, but not really their genre. Satire, in that sense, "our" sense, had yet to be invented.

Quintilian knew of the existence of these pre-Lucilian "satires."6 But he carefully sidesteps mentioning them in his review of satire by claiming that "Lucilius was the first to achieve distinction" in satire. Not, in other words, the first to write satire, but the first to do it well. This is in keeping with Horace, who had named Lucilius his chief predecessor in the genre (Sermones 1.4 passim), even calling him satire's inuentor "discoverer/ innovator" (Sermones 1.10.48), and "the one who first dared to compose poems in this manner" (Sermones 2.1.62-3), even though he, too, was certainly aware that, in addition to Lucilius, "certain others" (quibusdam aliis, Sermones 1.10.47) had preceded him in satire.7 Like Quintilian, he does not think they merit mentioning by name. For Horace, Ennius is an epic poet, linked to satire as a frequent target, never as a writer of satires.

Later scholars, such as Porphyrio in the second century and Diomedes in the fourth, are less reticent about Ennius' role in the history of Roman satire.8 Although they make explicit room for Ennius (and for his nephew Pacuvius, also a writer of saturae in the Ennian manner, not a line of which survives) in their studies of satire, they are always quick to draw a hard and fast line between what counted for satire before Lucilius, and what became of it after him. Typical is Diomedes, who defines satire as (GLK I.485):

a poetic work belonging to the Romans [apud Romanos] that now, at any rate, is written to abuse and to attack the vices of men in the manner of old comedy, the sort that Lucilius wrote, then Horace, then Persius. But in a former time a poetic work that consisted of a smattering of different poems was called satire, the sort that Pacuvius and Ennius wrote.

The great divide here, as in every account of satire's history in Rome, is Lucilius. Before him, the story goes, the genre existed in a certain Ur-fashion, and it possessed certain elements that it would retain throughout its history, such as variety, comic situations, and low diction, fables, autobiography, lively dialogue, and so on. But it did not have the basic elements that Lucilius permanently attached to the genre as its most pronounced and consistent features: namely, personal abuse and social criticism. Such innovations, Diomedes suggests, did not spring fully armed from Lucilius' head, but came to him by way of precedents in Greek Old Comedy. Obviously, this is to give the Greeks a good deal of credit for Roman satire. And yet, inside his reference to the genre as something practiced specifically apud Romanos we can detect telltale traces of an alternate ideal, that of the genre's being exceptionally and/or completely Roman. Or in Quintilian's words, "totally ours."

Quintilian wants us to believe this about satire, so he leaves Ennius and Pacuvius unmentioned. He has to. To include them in his account would severely compromise his idea (one that had been bandied about for more than a century) of the genre's Roman indigeneity, for this is an idea that cannot survive Ennius' notorious philhellenia, his status as a semigraecus ("half-Greek"), and the fact that his literary career focused so heavily on adapting Greek literary precedents (especially epic, tragedy, comedy) into matching Latin forms. In the end, if this genre is to be defended as entirely Roman, that defense has to be put in terms of what Lucilius did to it, not how Ennius first developed it.

But the problem of satire's being unproblematically Roman, whether we take Quintilian's deeming it "entirely ours" to refer to the genre's origins or to its developed habits, is not simply a matter of specific social desires having inched their way into the criticism of satire from the outside. Rather, the overstatement of the genre's Romanness is a direct consequence of the way that satire was made to speak by Lucilius, and the social and political uses to which he put it. For Lucilius' genre-chartering performance (his thirty books of satires) is, from start to finish, an aggressive overstatement of what it means to be a genuine Roman in second-century Rome. His performance is, in great measure, deeply conditioned by a crisis in Roman identity that came with Rome's second-century economic and imperial successes, especially its subjugation of Greece, and the city's wholesale "translation" of Greek cultural materials and habits into the lives of the Roman elite.9 And it is from within that rapidly globalizing cultural milieu, with so much burgeoning Roman invention consisting of rapid "translation" from the Greek, that Lucilius "first dares" to impress his audience with his being comfortable in his own, home-made, south Italian shoes. As Fritz Graf points out in his contribution to this volume, rapidly giving way to forces of modernization (= Hellenization) in this period are certain traditional instruments of social control that the Roman upper classes had long employed to shame themselves into behaving properly. Lucilius' brand of extra-legal verbal violence may well have drawn on certain of these dying, and utterly Roman, institutions (especially that of conuicium facere) to produce a voice skeptical of the law, capable of judging for itself, and full of regret for the loss of native values and old Roman ways.10 It is precisely this manner of angry nostalgia for all that has been lost that Juvenal will bring back to life in direct imitation of his preferred model, Lucilius.

However much his satires may owe to the Greeks, and that is demonstrably quite a lot, and however Hellenized and high-brow Lucilius may have been in his personal life, the overall impression his poems make is that of being proudly home born. Their romanitas explodes off the poet's every page not by chance, but because that is largely their point, and how they mean to impress us. And that is one reason among many why the likes of Ennius and Pacuvius come in for such rough handling in these poems, and why, in turn, they get elided from so many ancient surveys of satire.11 Catherine Connors (in this volume) points out that allusions to epic are not mere decorative enhancements: they are ways of defining, and reflecting on, the poet's political world. Lucilius parodies and pokes fun at Rome's epic poets not just because they were famous, and wrote infelicitous lines of poetry from time to time, but because doing so establishes the speaker as an authentic, unmediated Roman, unimpressed by two of the hottest and best paid of the city's second-century Hellenizers. Criticizing them, in other words, is not the point of Lucilian satire. It is a necessary means towards a different end: the performance of the poet's free-speaking, rugged, and utterly Roman self. That performance speaks "the satirist" into existence (his first appearance as such), marking him as "his own" creation in a vast sea of translations and imitations. And it structures criticism of satire for centuries to come, figuring it as a question of Roman self-possession, "ours" versus "theirs."

But if, as I have suggested, the underlying question posed by Lucilius in his poems is "what have we Romans to say for ourselves anymore?" the answer he gives is the vehicle through which he puts the question: his satires. Both in their formal design and in their content, poems of "his" kind stand in sharp opposition to the Greek-inspired poems-for-hire of Ennius, Pacuvius, and their ilk. Much the same can be said for satire's problematic relationship to the "alien wisdom" of Greek philosophy. Roland Mayer (in this volume) points out that Greek philosophical teachings, though ever present in Roman satire as materials that both structure and lend weight to the satirist's ethical and political arguments, are just as commonly deployed for purposes of parody and ridicule. The satirist keeps his distance, warily regarding his relationship to Greek philosophy, as to Greek things generally, as one of "ours" versus "theirs." But that should not deceive us. These poems, from Lucilius onwards, draw heavily on Greek precedents, especially diatribe, iambic poetry, and Greek Old Comedy. Many scholars, both ancient and modern, have seen this. Lucilius is demonstrably no hater of all things Greek. Rather, he plays one from time to time, as he has to, to place himself at a healthy, critical distance from his society's philhellenic enthusiasms. His first satire of his first book (it may have been the entire first book) begins with what looks like a xenophobic rant, attacking not Greeks per se, but Roman enthusiasms for all things Greek. These enthusiasms, he has the gods in heaven complain, found Romans wearing underwear from Lydia and racing to buy up all sorts of gorgeous, Greek luxuries. Even the most mundane of practical items, mere lamps and bed-feet, were called by their Greek names, luchnoi and klinopodes. The silliness and snobbery of it all sends the poet into a righteous Roman rage.

This poem is a genre-defining first act. Later satirists, most famously Seneca (ca. 4 BCE-CE 65) in his Apocolocyntosis, remind us of it repeatedly and programmatically, as if to demonstrate what they can and, more importantly, cannot do while performing within Lucilius' clearly marked terrain. This is a generic space that stubbornly resists being reoccupied, plowed under, or improved. Strangely, it remains always fundamentally his, guarded by Lucilius as if by the former owner's jealous ghost (a nasty curmudgeon who does not take kindly to strangers).12 Each satirist after Lucilius, by moving onto his terrain, is set with the challenge of speaking the way he once did. But none does. None can. Instead, by reminding us of the vast differences that separate Lucilius' free-wheeling "then" from their own restricted "now," Rome's post-Lucilian satirists produce radically different senses of the Roman self, in versions of Romanness that speak to, send up, or otherwise (satirically or perfectly) suit the times in which they themselves live.13

Post-Lucilian poses: Horace, Persius, and others

Like Lucilius, Horace was a south Italian, by reputation independent and rough around the edges. He wrote poems about life in the Big City, dwelling especially on its characters, trials, and annoyances. His poems treat us to the perspective of an outsider looking in, someone not altogether impressed. They complain. They gossip and criticize. And, above all, they urge us to laugh. Resemblances between the two authors, for the most part, stop here. For as Emily Gowers indicates, Horace projects a far different sense of himself in his "Conversations" than Lucilius did in his searingly nasty satires. He speaks in softer, more cautious tones, telling us that he means well by his criticisms, that he intends only to tell the truth, and that no one need take offense. Satiric poems, he tells us, are a touchy business, and hard to get just right. Like party-goers, they are fun to be around, but they sometimes get out of line and make everyone cringe from embarrassment and fear.14 The way Lucilius did. Get them completely "soused" (another meaning of satur) and they turn nasty and belligerent, losing their feel for the finer qualities of irony, allusion, and fair play. But friends who are both direct in their criticisms and sensitive to the company at hand (besides being aware of their own deficiencies) comport themselves differently. They open up to one another in clever and revealing ways by drinking "just enough" (satis) and knowing when to stop.15

Horace's introduction of bad characters (drunken, belligerent, malicious) into the theorizing of good satire draws heavily on Greek rhetorical theories that treat criticism and jest as matters of gentlemanly comportment.16 These theories insisted that jokes and critical jabs had to be used with utmost care because they were direct and open expressions of one's nobility and worth. Certain men of high standing, operating within certain highly delimited, ritualized contexts - such as the orator in his peroration, or the censor in issuing his decrees - were expected to rail at vice and, when called for, to belittle and poke fun. Doing so spoke to the speaker's innate nobility, and to his having the full legal wherewithal to practice a rite that few could access. But there were many others who practiced less savory brands of humor in the ancient Greco-Roman world: the pratfallers and facial contortionists of the mime stage, parasites in their cups, buffoons of farce, scandal-mongers and levelers of anonymous lampoons.17 These degraded sorts had served as handy points of reference for rhetorical theorists since Plato, helping to define the gentleman by way of what he was not: namely, the low-bred "other" who veers overboard in jest because he is by nature extreme, backbiting, licentious, and crass.18 Thomas Habinek points out that the satirist's self-performance depends on his staging these figures, repeatedly and in bold colors, as objects of ridicule, parody, and "play." For to play with them this way is to articulate the satirist's own sense of fair play. And that, Habinek insists, comes not from handbooks and literary traditions, but from social practices of long standing, mostly of a non-literary sort. Told this way, satire "belongs to the history of practices as well as to the history of texts," and it can thus be studied as much for what it does (its social life, especially in the area of self-production) as for what it says.

Dovetailing with Habinek's study of satire's social life are Fritz Graf's essay on satire's ritual analogies (see above) and two studies of satire's bodily rhetoric. In the first of these, Alessandro Barchiesi and Andrea Cucchiarelli look at how satirists figure their works in bodily terms, thereby inviting us to step into the role of amateur physician/satirist and, as it were, to read their works for signs of life. The satirist's own body thereby becomes a shorthand for the values to which he holds, and a means for our envisioning his work as a set of bodily expressions. The second essay in this set, by Erik Gunderson, moves from the literary figuring of satire's bodies to the psychic costs and benefits of watching them misbehave. So many bad characters, he shows, are caught in flagrante between satire's permissive sheets. What is the point of their being staged for our viewing, especially when satirists offer no compensating models of bodily pleasures properly buttoned down? The point, Gunderson suggests, is not simply to define the sexual parameters of the élite Roman male and to declare him satire's, and his society's, regrettable winner - this is where so much scholarship on bodies in Roman literature is stuck. Rather it is a means of our desire's watching theirs, and thus of having one's cake while eating it. In satire we watch the forbidden acts of others who are happily abandoned to their desires. The speaker demands that we share in his disgust at their lack of moral conscience and self-control. We do that. And yet with him we relish the act of repudiating them - Roman satirists do not just refer to bad behavior, they leer at it, and wallow in it. Watching the satirist watch takes us into a world of forbidden, compensatory pleasures, where losing one's hegemony never felt so good.

Throughout the history of the genre satirists define themselves in contrast to these degraded others who fail to make the grade of "real Romans" by being, in turns, too prurient and cheap, malicious, too superficial, complacent, or droll.19 Horace attempts to redefine satire as the carefully controlled straight talk of an Epicurean friend, someone rather far down the social scale, but noble at heart. Lost in transition are the effusiveness of Lucilius, and his indifference to caution, decorum, and tact. Lucilius had targeted some of the most powerful of Rome's political elite, strafing them in piques of glistening rage. This would become the stuff of legend, Lucilius as the tooth-and-nail attacker, a partial truth that accrues to him as myth to hero. In her essay, Frances Muecke provides a much fuller account of what Lucilius' poems were about. But it is primarily his aggression, and his failure to check himself in any situation whatever, that his legend privileges (making failure, of a certain kind, the key to his success). Horace, in turn, targets type-characters, unnamed fools, and persons of no particular account.20 Much closer to the bottom of the social ladder's acceptable range than to the top, Horace could not afford to make enemies. Again as Gowers points out, his guarded speech is both a condition of, and commentary upon, his vulnerable place within Roman society (a freed slave's son and fighter for "freedom's" losing cause at Philippi). Whereas Lucilius had played censor for all of Rome, thus filling an open slot on the Roman library's Latin shelves that corresponds roughly to the poets of Old Comedy on the Greek side (again see Muecke), Horace avoids the political fray. He privatizes the satirist's censorial gaze by routing its observations back on himself, telling on others, but only as a means of self-improvement, just as his father once taught him.21

According to his legend, Lucilius chastised not folly generally, but fools, wherever he saw them. He was reckless, named names, made enemies. Horace struggles to adapt this set of expectations to his own restricted situation in the company of powerful men. The mismatch of "genre" to "poet" is palpable throughout his Sermones. But the clearest evidence of satire's having taken an abrupt turn towards guardedness and introspection in Horace is seen not just in the poet's lack of political aggression, but in his use of his stylus's eraser end. Lucilius, Horace complains, never erased anything from his thoughts or from his page. But why should he? His thoughts were his page. He wrote whatever came to mind not just because he was unimpressed by Greek-style refinements, but because he could get away with stating his opinions bluntly. He was exceedingly rich, powerful, and well connected, and that luxuriance of self-possession and political wherewithal crams his pages chock-full. It makes them "satire." Horace does not have that political luxury, so he introduces an aesthetic refinement that the genre previously did not know or respect: the use of the eraser. Horace packages personal self-limits as aesthetic refinements expressed "in conversation" that keeps within strict bounds of decorum, in tone, topic, meter, and so on.22 For certain of Lucilius' advocates in the first century BCE this move towards controlled expression was totally unacceptable. Lucilius' metrical and social brusqueness they considered inviolable. Such ruggedness spoke to his being impressively self-confident, a "real Roman" who had refused to measure himself in terms set by the Greeks. But Horace would have us regard Lucilius' brand of unchecked expression as out of date and in need of reform.23 His scaled-down chats poke fun at big-talkers generally, taking special aim, on three separate occasions, at the man who had invented the genre itself as a kind of big talk: Lucilius. But the odds of Horace's having his way with the genre are unfavorable, for the "improvements" he introduces to satire are all too easily read in reverse (from aesthetics to socio-politics), as failures of the self. In Dryden's famous assessment, the "temporizing" adjustments of "a well mannered court slave . . . who is ever decent, because he is naturally servile."24

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Kirk Freudenburg is Professor of Latin and Chair of the Department of the Classics at the University of Illinois. His previous publications include The Walking Muse: Horace and the Theory of Satire (Princeton University Press, 1993) and Satires of Rome: Threatening Poses from Lucilius to Juvenal (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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