ca. A.D. 60-130
Juvenal was a poet of the early Roman Empire. His biting satires expose the folly and vices of ancient Rome and provide fascinating insights into the manners and morals of his time. His work, composed over a 30-year period, influenced numerous writers of later eras, especially the English satirists of the eighteenth century, such as John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift.
Juvenal was born in Aquinum, a town about 70 miles southeast of Rome. Little is known of Juvenal the man, and he reveals little of himself in his poetry but his fierce opinions. He may have served in the Roman army and may have held a position as a local judge. His masterful writing style suggests that he was educated in rhetoric*. He probably came from a middle-class family, since members of the upper class generally were not poets, and poor people usually were not educated. He wrote the 16 Satires, which are organized into five books, during the period from about A.D. 100 to 127. The works from this period followed the reign of the hated emperor Domitian and coincided with the reigns of the enlightened emperors Trajan and Hadrian. Their reigns were marked by peace and prosperity, and many writers of the time took advantage of the liberal atmosphere to criticize their leaders.
The Satires are famous for their bitter irony*, humor, and rhetorical brilliance. Nothing escapes Juvenal’s critical eye. “Whatever men do,” he announces in his first satire, “their fear, their rage, their pleasure—all these will make up my little work.” His sense of indignation is significant as he writes about the struggle of Rome’s poor to acquire adequate food and clothing, the excesses of Rome’s wealthy citizens, and the general sordidness of life in the imperial* capital.
Juvenal probably never married or, if he did, had an unhappy relationship. In Book 2 of the Satires, he tries to persuade a friend not to marry by vehemently criticizing Roman wives.
Other books take a less cynical but equally indignant tone as Juvenal attacks the relationship between clients and patrons*, the worthlessness of the rich, crime and punishment, money and greed, bad parenting, and, finally, anger itself. Throughout the Satires, Juvenal uses sharp questions and striking, often violent images to grab the reader’s attention. His phrases, such as the famous mens sana in corpore sano (“a healthy mind in a healthy body”), are still universally quoted. The word juvenalian has become a synonym for “indignant.” (See also Horace; Rome, History of; Satire.)
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking and writing
* irony use of words in such a way that they convey the opposite of the usual meaning
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* patron special guardian, protector; or supporter