Juvenal was foulmouthed, cynical, and embittered, his mind a veritable cesspool of wealth-envy and entitlement. But he was a keen observer of the human condition, and the effete, decadent Rome he satirizes is eerily similar to modern America. There is truly nothing new under the sun. Could Juvenal’s satirical commentary on his own time serve as a cautionary tale for our own?
Probably not. "We’re an empire now -- we create our own reality…"
Or do we?
Composed in the first century AD,(and mangled over time), this collection of satires has to be read to be believed. Juvenal, in my opinion, was hardly an admirable character, but he was damned good at what he did. And did it with a vengeance. The date of its authorship notwithstanding, Satires is a vicious, razor-sharp poem-as-polemic, a vitriolic lampoon; not only of the effete, decadent cesspool that was first century Rome, but of human nature in general.
Juvenal’s rogues’ gallery of deviants, drunks, ersatz tough-guys, nouveau riche vulgarians, greedy merchants, street thugs and decadent aristocrats is as familiar to the modern eye as to the ancient – and as contemptible. His satires fairly radiate scorn and loathing for their objects; scorn and loathing rendered all the more acid and effective by their author’s attention to detail and choice of verbiage. It’s tempting to say that Juvenal renders perversion and peccadillo alike in loving detail – but "shockingly unflattering detail" is far more accurate. His idiom of choice -- quite appropriately -- is likewise shocking and unflattering.
I’ve heard Dante referred to as “the master of the disgusting,” and rightly so – to a certain extent. Skilled though he was, he couldn’t hold a candle to Juvenal, whose gutter language and revolting imagery are as hilarious as they are nauseating. Moreover, like Dante, Juvenal possesses a rare gift: the ability to make “a silk purse from a sow’s ear” – or, more accurately, from an entire pigsty and its occupants. In other words: Juvenal takes the repulsive and sickening, and through some twisted alchemy of his own, renders them strangely beautiful.
Making gold from lead or other base metals is one thing – making it from “bulldagger” gladiators; cross-dressing, homosexual Ceres cultists; cheating wives; husbands who double as “political pimps”; and oily, favor-purchasing foreign merchants is another entirely.
And yet Juvenal succeeds admirably.
We're in serious trouble, boys and girls...