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The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Juvenal
 
Historian
The last great Roman satirist, Juvenal (c.55 – 127 AD) became famous for his savage wit and biting descriptions of life in Rome.

The invisible man

Little is known of Juvenal’s life beyond his satire. His name only appears once, in a poem written to him by his friend, Martial.

It is believed that Juvenal was born to a prosperous family in central Italy. After military service, it is thought that he began a career in the Roman civil service under the Emperor Domitian, where he failed to gain promotion.

Bitter and twisted

Stuck in this rut, he grew bitter and turned to satire. His first piece, in which he claimed that court favorites had too much say in the promotion of officers, caused trouble. His property was confiscated and he was banished to Egypt.

In 96 AD, after Domitian was murdered, Juvenal returned to Rome. With no money or career, he struggled to survive and was forced to live on the reluctant generosity of the upper classes.

The Satires

Between 100 and 127 AD, he published five books containing 16 satiric poems. The Satires, as they became known, attacked cruelty, foolishness and the corruption of Roman society.

The most famous of these works was the third satire. In this, a man is leaving a Rome he finds crowded and full of foreigners to live in a small, sleepy provincial town: Juvenal contrasts the corruption of the city with the older, simpler way of life still found in the countryside.

Savage humor


Juvenal was the most savage of all the Roman satirists. He wrote of his work that “indignation creates my poetry.” He took aim at women, homosexuals, intellectuals and the nobility. In the fourth satire, he tells how the Emperor Domitian summoned his top advisers to solve a ludicrous problem – how to cook a fish too large for any pan.

Together, the 16 satires paint a vivid picture of the Rome he knew, its people, their lives and the everyday sights and sounds. He pinpoints their weaknesses with unflinching accuracy. Although brutal at times, Juvenal’s writing brings Rome to life and some of his phrases – such as “bread and circuses” and “Who shall guard the guards?” – are still used today.


Where to next:
Emperors - Titus & Domitian
The Social Order in Ancient Rome – Plebeians


 
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The Roman Empire - In The First Century