Juvenal, Satires 1 and 5, selections

commentary by Colette Creamer and Janis Lee

Satire 1 lines 132-146:
In this section of the poem, Juvenal describes the gluttonous eating habits of a great and powerful man, in comparison to the poor treatment of his “clients.” Juvenal satirizes these excessive practices, ultimately pointing out that these habits will only lead to an untimely death.

(132) The weary, veteran clientsA client in the Roman tradition was someone who paid reverence, honor, and respect to a more powerful upper class citizen. In return, these upper class-citizens, or “patrons”, would offer protection and occasionally food and entertainment. Here, the clients are waiting at their patron’s door hoping to receive an invitation to dinner; instead, they receive a sportula, or a gift of food or money from the patron to his client. Sportula were dispersed during one of three times during the day: a morning payment at the salutatio, at the mid-day baths, or at dinner. The practice of giving sportula was a staple of the Roman patronage system, and was essentially a mark of the patron’s grandeur.

(132) Vestibules: This refers to the entrance corridor from the street to the interior of a Roman house

(133) The longest hope of man is for dinner: Even though they have waited for a long time, hoping for dinner, the clients have received nothing from their patron; they depart from his porch hungry.

(134) A vegetable stalk and fire is to be bought: Caulis, or vegetable stalk, may refer to the stalk of a cabbage or some kind of herb. Vegetables were a staple food for the lower class (Courtney). The clients, having received an exceptionally meager amount of money for their day’s sportula, depart from the patron’s porch so that they can go buy cabbage and fire to make their own dinner (Madan). This is contrasted to the extremely sumptuous meal of “best dishes of the forest and food of the sea” that the host eats by himself inside.

(136) The king of these things… on empty couches: King here refers to the host of the party, rather than an actual king (Duff). Whereas normally a Roman dinner would consist of several Romans, either friends or clients, reclining on couches around a table, this patron has failed to invite any friends or clients so that he can eat his luxurious meal by himself (Madan).

(139) Soon there will be no such thing as a parasite… excess: The Latin parasitus refers to a cliens (Courtney), a man of lower class/social standing who was supported in exchange for service/obligation by a man of higher social standing, or “patron.” Parasites, if they were lucky, could be invited to their patrons’ fancy dinners in exchange for favors or respect. However, the patron is so greedy that he hasn’t even invited parasites; however, not even a parasite could stand such gluttony.

(141) Whole boars: Boars were considered a high luxury in Ancient Rome. It became popular to serve whole boars at extravagant dinner parties (Madan).

(141) take off your clothes: strip for bathing, which normally took place before the dinner. Eating before taking a bath was considered crude; here, Juvenal is critiquing the glutton’s practice of sumptuous pre-bath eating, hence the “undigested peacock” being brought into the bath (Madan). Peacocks were also extremely expensive, reportedly costing around 50 denarii (Hardy). Juvenal accentuates the social faux pas of eating before bathing by pointing out the luxurious nature of the meal.

(143) sudden deaths… without having made a will: The result of the bath, (implied: the result of the gluttony) is death, which came too early for one to even leave a will behind. In Roman law, intestacy (the state of having died before making a will) granted the estate of the deceased in a certain order to his natural heirs. It was common to put off creating one’s will as long as possible in order to keep up flattery and attention from legacy-hunters.

(145) new and not sad story… led by irate friends: The story of this death is circulated through dinner conversations. The friends are angry at not having received anything due to the lack of will. Ducitur, “is led,” refers to the ancient Roman practice of carrying forth a corpse to its burial.

(145) which is to be applauded: Roman funerals were quite unlike the funerals we are accustomed to today. Here, Juvenal describes the practice of an Ancient Roman funeral procession as to be applauded, referring to the loud nature of the procession. The wealthier the deceased was, the flashier their funeral procession would be. These wealthy processions frequently featured professional mourners, such as hired women who beat their breasts, wailed loudly, and pulled their hair; mimes who would ride atop a chariot, wearing the deceased’s clothes and a mask of their face; and musicians, such as flautists.


Satire 5 lines 1-75:
Again, Juvenal insults the excessive lifestyle of nobility, who leave their poorer counterparts to consume much poorer meals. He critiques the patron-client relationship by commenting upon the patron’s tendency to offer a much poorer menu to his client, while he himself consumes luxurious things. Juvenal makes a point of asking whether the client is willing to put up with such humiliations, which other men would not stand.

(3) Sarmentus: Sarmentus was a freedman of M. Favonius, who was killed at Philippi; Sarmentus later became a favorite of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome (i.e. Caesar, of the “unequal tables”). According to a scholiast, he illegally assumed the dignity and privileges of a higher class. He was accused of this crime, but nothing ever came of it. (Duff)

(3) unequal tables of Caesar…: refers to Augustus’s practice of making distinctions between his dinner guests (Duff). Trebius has to swallow injustices from his patron which even Augustus’s lower class attendants, such as Gabba (his jester) and Sarmentus, wouldn’t endure.

(4) cheap Gabba: Gabba was a jester at the court of Augustus (Duff).

(8) Is there nowhere… rug of reeds?: Juvenal describes where a beggar might be found and raises the life of the beggar above the one of a parasite. Begging was very common throughout Ancient Rome (Hardy). The word “crepido”, here translated as “bridge,” can also mean the steps of a great house or public building and so indicates any public spot where beggars might stand.

(18) so that a third pillow… is not neglectedHere Juvenal discusses the lecti, or couches, that the Romans used when they dined. There were usually three people to one couch, with each person having a cushion.

Reconstructed Roman bone lectus in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(23) cold wagons of lazy Bootes: A constellation near Ursa Major, which was also known to the ancients as “the Wagon”. “Lazy Bootes” refers to the neighboring herdsman constellation which appears to drive the “wagon”; Juvenal means that Trebius would be forced out of bed at the crack of dawn, early enough such that you could still see Bootes and his wagon (Duffy, A New and Literal Translation).

(24) Wine which oily wool…: The wool being discussed here is wool with sheep sweat still in it. It was soaked in vinegar or oil and used as a poultice – the wine here is being shown as too terrible to even make poultices.

(25) Corybant: Corybants were armed dancers who worshiped the Phrygian goddess Cybele (the “Great Mother of Gods”) with loud drumming, frenzied dancing, and orgies. Here, Juvenal is poking fun at the raucous nature of the dinner by comparing a dinner guest to one of these ecstatic attendants.

(31) grapes trampled during…: The Social Wars, a war waged between the Roman Republic and several cities and tribes in Italy, lasted from 91-88 B.C. The trampled grapes here refer to wine from the Social War era, meaning that it is almost 200 years old.

(36) Thrasea and Helvidius: Thrasea Paetus and his son-in-law Helvidius Priscus were two politicians who opposed the rule of the emperor Nero. The men they are celebrating, Brutus and Cassius, are two of the politicians who overthrew Julius Caesar, which explains why they are described as wearing crowns on Brutus and Cassius’ birthdays; they are celebrating fellow “lovers of liberty.” They also, evidently, had good taste in wine (Duff).

(38) wide cups… amber: The “wide cups overlaid with amber” are described in the original Latin as “Heliadum crustas.” The Heliades are the daughters of Helios, god of the Sun, and sisters of Phaethon, another sun-related deity. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses 10.262, after Phaethon’s death, the sisters changed into poplar trees; their tears became amber, which was continually distilled from their branches.

(45) youth… Iarbus: “The youth preferred to Iarbus” here refers to Aeneas, who made Iarbus jealous when Dido fell in love with Aeneas. It is possible that the reference is meant to hint at the speaker’s jealousy over the riches shown on the goblets given to the upper-class guests, like Iarbus was jealous over Dido. Juvenal frequently refers to people and places in a roundabout manner giving some historical or mythological details about them, perhaps to further satirize the ridiculousness of the dinner.

(47) chalice… shoemakerThe cup with four spouts refers to a type of cup associated with a man called Vatinius, who served as a jester to Nero and entertained him with lavish shows of gladiatorial games. He also served as a magistrate and shoemaker in Beneventum. Allegedly, the cups were named after him in reference to his long nose.

(50) boiled-down water: The “boiled-down water” refers to Nero’s invention to have water boiled to purify it and then put into a glass covered with snow to cool it down. The purpose was to drink something that was cold as ice, but without all the impurities ingested by actually drinking snow. Allegedly, this drink could sometimes be more expensive than wine (Woods).

(54) Whom you would not want to run into in the middle of the night: illustrates Plutarch’s statement that meeting Ethiopians was considered an omen of coming evils. Section 48 of Plutarch’s Life of Brutus relates a “very famous story” about an Ethiopian who appears before the gates of a camp and is consequently cut to pieces by soldiers because they find his appearance ominous (Hardy).

(56) flower of Asia: The flower of Asia here refers to the most handsome slave from Asia (Courtney), who would have been very expensive to buy; Martial alleges that 100,000 sesterces, or even twice that amount, were paid for such delicate slaves (about $1,200) (Duff).

(59) Gaetulan Ganymede: Ganymede was a Trojan prince that Zeus kidnapped and made into his lover and cup-bearer. Here, Juvenal is comparing the Gaetulan cupbearer to the mythological character Ganymede, as was common in Roman literature (Courtney).

(71-72) extended bread… tender and snowy…: There was a gradation in the types of bread allowed to each social class, based on their wealth. Despite lesser nutritional value, people tended to prefer fine white bread over grainy wheat bread. In the Roman world, wheat was the most important grain; Romans achieved a finer wheat product by removing the bran from the wheat flour. Here Juvenal warns the addressee to not steal the whiter and more tender bread – he says the theft will be noticed and the bread ordered to be returned.


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