Juvenal and Persius/Life of Juvenal

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The Life of Juvenal

The only certain evidence as to the facts of Juvenal's life is to be found in casual allusions in his own Satires; such external authorities as there are possess only an uncertain value, and do not even give us the dates of his birth and death. The following passages give us what certain landmarks we possess:—

(1) Sat. iv. 153 refers to the murder of the Emperor Domitian, which took place upon the 18th of September, a.d. 96. Sat. ii. 29-33 contains a gross attack upon Domitian.

(2) Sat. i. 49, 50 mentions the recent condemnation of Marius Priscus for extortion in the province of Africa. That trial, made famous by the fact that the younger Pliny was the chief prosecutor, took place in January, a.d. 100.

(3) The allusion to a comet and an earthquake in connection with Armenian and Parthian affairs in Sat. vi. 407 has been held, with some probability, to refer to events in the year 115.

(4) Sat. vii. begins with a prophecy that bright days are in store for literature, since it has now been assured of the patronage of Caesar. The probability is that the Caesar thus referred to is Hadrian, who succeeded Trajan in the year a.d. 117. The attempts to prove that Trajan was the emperor intended have not been successful. Trajan was by no means a literary emperor, whereas Hadrian was himself a poet and surrounded himself with literary and artistic persons of various kinds.

(5) In Sat. xiii. 17 Juvenal describes Calvinus, the friend to whom the Satire is addressed, as one

qui tam post terga reliquit
Sexaginta annos Fonteio consule natus.

There were consuls of the name of Fonteius Capito in three different years, a.d. 12, 59, and 67. The first date is obviously too early; the year referred to is probably a.d. 67, since in that year, and not in the other two, the name of Fonteius stands first in the Fasti. This would fix Sat. xiii. to the year a.d. 127.

(6) Lastly, in Sat. xv. 27:—

Nos miranda quidem sed nuper consule Iunco
Gesta super calidae referemus moenia Copti,

the reading Iunco, now satisfactorily established for Iunio, refers to Aemilius Iuncus, who was consul in the year 127. Sat. xv. must therefore have been written in the year a.d. 127, or shortly after it (nuper). It will be noted that these dates, supported by various other considerations, suggest that the Satires are numbered in the order of their publication. This view is confirmed by the fact recorded that the Satires were originally published in five separate books; the first book consisting of Sat. i. to v. inclusive, the second of Sat. vi., the third of Sat. vii. to ix., the fourth of Sat. x. to xii. inclusive, and the fifth of the remaining Satires. In the case of Sat. i., however, it seems probable that this Satire, being in the nature of a preface, was written after the rest of Book i.

Such are the only certain indications as to date which can be discovered in Juvenal's own words. They suggest that the literary period of his life (apart from his earlier recitations) was embraced within the reigns of the emperors Trajan (a.d. 98–117) and Hadrian (a.d. 117–138), probably not extending to the end of the latter's reign. And as in Sat. xi. 203 he seems to speak of himself as an old man, we may perhaps, with some certainty, put his birth between the years a.d. 60 and 70.

Other indications of a personal kind are few and insignificant. When Umbricius, on leaving Rome, bids good-bye to his old friend Juvenal, he speaks of the chance of seeing him from time to time when he comes, for the sake of his health, "to his own Aquinum"; from which we may fairly infer that the Volscian town of Aquinum was the poet’s native place. This inference is confirmed by an inscription on a marble stone, now lost, which was found at Aquinum. The stone formed part of an altar to Ceres; and the inscription records the fact that the altar had been dedicated to Ceres at his own cost by one D. Junius Juvenalis, who is described as a Tribune in a Dalmatian cohort, as a duumvir quinquennalis, and a flamen of the deified emperor Vespasian (Corp. Inscr. Lat. x. 5382). It should be added that the praenomen of the donor (D.) was not legible on the inscription, and that only the two first letters of the nomen Junius could be deciphered.

It is not at all certain that this inscription refers to the poet Juvenal. Apart from a very doubtful statement in a Biography which has yet to be mentioned, there is no evidence that Juvenal ever served in the army; indeed, his comments on the army in Sat. xvi., which express a contempt for soldiers very similar in kind to that expressed by Persius, almost forbid the supposition. His writings suggest that he habitually lived in Rome, and make it improbable that he could at any time of his life have lived long enough in Aquinum to enable him to gain and fill the important positions mentioned in the inscription. The most we can infer is that he belonged to a family of repute in his native town, and was himself therefore fairly representative of the higher circles of provincial life.

In Sat. xi. we find Juvenal in Rome, offering to his friend Persicus a frugal banquet to which his Tiburtine farm was to contribute a fat kid, with other farm produce, pears, grapes, and apples, together with asparagus gathered in the intervals of her spinning by his bailiff's wife.[1]

A passage in xv. 45 records the fact that Juvenal had visited Egypt:—

luxuria, quantum ipse notavi,
Barbara famoso non cedit turba Canopo;

—a positive statement which cannot be put aside because in his fifteenth Satire the poet makes a geographical mistake as to the proximity of Ombi to Tentyra, nor yet made too much of in connection with the statement in the Biography falsely attributed to Suetonius, to the effect that Juvenal had been sent into Egypt in his old age as a form of banishment.

That Juvenal had received the best education of his time and had been trained in the moral principles of the Stoics is apparent from the whole tenour of his teaching. The statement in xiii. 121–123 that he had not studied the doctrines of the Cynics, Epicureans, or Stoics seems only to refer to the more philosophical parts of those systems.

There are three passages in the poet Martial (Epp. vii. xxiv. and xci. and Epp. xii. xviii.) in which Juvenal is named—if we presume, as seems certain, that the Satirist is the person there mentioned. These epigrams show that the two poets lived on terms of friendship and familiarity with one another, but they throw no light upon Juvenal's personal history and career. In the epigram vii. xci. written in a.d. 93, Juvenal is styled facundus, an epithet which implies that by that time Juvenal's reputation, either as a declaimer or as an author, was established; while in xii. xviii. Martial contrasts his own peaceful and happy life in a rural district of Spain with the noisy, restless life led by Juvenal in the Suburra. As Martial's twelfth book was written and collected between the years 102 and 104, that date would correspond pretty closely with that estimated above for the beginning of Juvenal's literary activity. As Mr. Duff puts it, "the facts go to prove that Martial ceased to write about the time that Juvenal began."

Amid the scanty external evidence as to the life of Juvenal, it is necessary to pay some attention to the statements made in the old Biographies which are attached to many of the ancient manuscripts of Juvenal. Early scholars were inclined to attribute these Biographies, or at least the oldest of them, from which the others were copied, either to Suetonius, the author of the Lives of the first Twelve Caesars, or to Valerius Probus, a distinguished grammarian of the second century. It is now generally admitted that there is no ground for these attributions, and that in all probability the earliest of them, from which the others were evidently copied with some difference of detail, are not older than the fourth century a.d. For all that, they seem to represent, more or less, an ancient tradition, and it is worth while considering how far some of their statements seem probable in themselves, and fit in with our other sources of information, or present improbabilities which cannot be accepted.

The oldest and best form of the Biography is as follows :—

Vita D. Junii Juvenalis.—Iunius Iuvenalis, libertini locupletis incertum est filius an alumnus, ad mediam fere aetatem declamavit animi magis causa quam quod se scholae aut foro praepararet. Deinde paucorum versuum satyra non absurde composita in Paridem pantomimum poetamque [eius] semenstribus militiolis[2] tumentem [hoc?] genus scripturae industriose excoluit. Et tamen diu ne modico quidem auditorio quicquam committere est ausus. Mox magna frequentia magnoque successu bis ac ter auditus est, ut ea quoque quae prima fecerat inferciret novis scriptis:

quod non dant proceres, dabit histrio. Tu Camerinos
Et Bareas, tu nobilium magna atria curas?
Praefectos Pelopea facit, Philomela tribunos.

(vii. 90-92.)

Erat tum in deliciis aulae histrio multique fautorum eius coltidie provehebantur. Venit ergo Iuvenalis in suspicionem, quasi tempora figurate notasset, ac statim per honorem militiae quamquam octogenarius urbe summotus est missusque ad praefecturam cohortis in extrema parte tendentis Aegypti. Id supplicii genus placuit, ut levi atque ioculari delicto par esset. Verum intra brevissimum tempus angore et taedio periit.

The first sentence of this Life contains no information that we are not prepared to accept. Nothing is more probable than that Juvenal had long practised himself in the art of declamation, and only embarked on publication when his reputation was established, and he felt confident of success. His recitations would at first be delivered to select coteries of congenial friends, in whose company he would forge out and perfect his biting epigrams, just as Tacitus is supposed to have done with his famous sententiae. It is quite probable, therefore, that such a passage as that quoted from Sat. vii. may originally have formed part of a private recitation, and have afterwards been incorporated in the more finished edition of the Satire when published. But in explaining the rest of the Life the early commentators were sadly at fault.

The person satirised in the passage quoted in the Life was a dancer of the name of Paris, who had just been mentioned in connection with the poet Statius. "A monstrous thing," says Juvenal, "that after charming the town with his beautiful voice, Statius would have to starve if he did not sell to Paris his unpublished Agave"; Esurit, intactam Paridi nisi vendit Agaven (vii. 87).

Now there were two famous dancers of the name of Paris, to cither of whom the passage in Sat. vii. might apply. The one flourished, and was put to death, in the reign of Nero; while the other met a similar fate under Domitian. The early commentators on the Biography took it for granted, naturally enough, that the Paris mentioned in the Biography was the same Paris that is mentioned by Juvenal himself in Sat. vii. But the dates given above for the life of Juvenal prove conclusively that neither of the artists who bore the name of Paris could possibly have brought about the banishment of Juvenal in the manner stated. The later of the two was put to death in the reign of Domitian; and it has been shown above that the period of Juvenal's literary activity did not begin, and that Sat. vii. was not published, till some years after the death of that Emperor. All attempts to bring the banishment within the period of Domitian 's reign have broken down.

But though the story of Juvenal's banishment as usually told cannot possibly be true, it has been ingeniously suggested that the words of the Biography may be read in such away as to give it some measure of probability. Having stated that Juvenal had scored a success by his Satire against Paris—a Satire evidently declaimed among private friends—we are told that he was subsequently encouraged to insert the passage among his published works. The biography then goes on; Erat turn in deliciis aulae histrio, multique fautoram eius cottidie provehebantur. Venit ergo Iuvenalis in suspicionem quasi tempora figurate notasset. Filled with resentment at this attack, the histrio prevailed upon the emperor to send Juvenal into exile in Egypt under pretence of a military command, where he died shortly after of a broken heart.

Now we are not obliged to translate the words erat tum in deliciis aulae histrio by "The actor [i.e. Paris] was at that time a favourite of the Court." The words indeed would more naturally mean " There was at that time an actor who was a favourite at Court," who resented the attack upon a member of his own profession as an indirect attack upon himself. The words which follow show that the offence did not consist of the personal attack on Paris, but that the attack on Paris was considered to contain a sidelong indirect attack (quasi figurate notasset) upon some other actor. Such an incident is not at all likely to have happened in the reign of either Nerva or Trajan, but it may well have occurred under Hadrian, who became emperor in A.D. 119. Hadrian himself was a patron of actors and artistes of every kind, and he was quite a person who might have taken offence at a supposed insult offered to one of his favourites. The words of Sidonius Apollinaris, in the sixth century, who says of Juvenal irati fuit histrionis exul, show how steadily the tradition of the banishment had maintained itself. There is a certain convergence of dates in Juvenal's life towards the year 119; and though the above explanation can only be looked upon as a conjecture, it presents a story which may not impossibly be true, while the traditional version of the story is demonstrably false.


  1. The idea that Juvenal possessed a paternal estate, distinct from the farm at Tibur, seems to rest upon a misconception of the meaning of vi. 57.
  2. The allusion is to honorary appointments to the military tribunate (imaginariae militiae genus, Suet. Claud. 25), a system instituted by Claudius in order that the holder might obtain equestrian rank. The word militiola means "a trumpery period of military service."