Juvenal and Persius/Persius and Juvenal Compared

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Persius and Juvenal Compared

The great difference between Persius and Juvenal is this, that Persius was a poet of the closet, a student, a recluse, full of youthful enthusiasm, living in a retired atmosphere under the shelter of loving female relatives, and with no knowledge of the outside life of the world beyond what could be gathered from the lectures of his Stoic instructors. His world is not the living world of Rome, but the world of books; his incidents, his characters, are chiefly taken from Horace, whose virile expressions he delights to serve up in some novel and recondite form, or from the stock examples of the Schools.

Juvenal, on the other hand, is a realist of the realists; he grapples with the real things of life, and derives all his inspiration from the doings of the men and women of his own day. He belonged to the generation which had suffered from the enormities of Caligula, Claudius and Nero; he had probably himself witnessed the concluding and worst phases of the reign of Nero, and had lived through the whole of the gloomy tyranny of Domitian. He thus knew what Rome was in the period of her worst corruption. Impregnated with the moral teaching of the Stoics, he was no mere repeater of the commonplaces of the Schools. An ardent admirer of the simple and hardy virtues of ancient Rome, he holds up a mirror to every part of the private life of the Rome of his day, and by the most caustic and trenchant invective seeks to shame her out of her vices. He was thus eminently fitted on the ground of personal experience to describe the manners of Imperial Rome at the period of her worst corruption, and long practice had put in his hands a weapon which enabled him to castigate them with matchless power and severity.

Juvenal's pictures are doubtless exaggerated; all brilliant rhetoric is more or less overstrained, and the peculiar doctrines of Stoicism naturally lent themselves to paradox and exaggeration. But apart from Stoicism, there are certain fundamental prejudices in Juvenal's mind which, though honestly entertained, and natural in one who was always looking back to the worthies of old Rome for examples, are pressed upon us with a frequency and an emphasis which seem excessive. His belief in the virtue of primitive times; his hatred of the foreigner, especially one coming from Greece and the East; his tirades against wealth and the wealthy, and his suggestion that wealth is always acquired by unworthy means; his laudation of mere poverty; his incapacity to see any object in trade except that of self-enrichment, or any value at all in humble or menial occupations, however useful to the community (Sat. iii. 71-2)—all these ideas belong to what we may call the old Roman part of Juvenal's prepossessions. They serve to account for the singular want of proportion which is to be observed in some of his moral judgments, and they have to be reckoned with in estimating the value of his censures.

With these modifying elements in view, it has often been asked, How far can we depend upon the denunciations of Juvenal as presenting a faithful picture of the Rome of his day? His sincerity cannot be questioned. It is impossible, as we read through his satires, not to feel that he speaks what in his conscience he believes to be the truth, and appraises everything and everybody in accordance with the standard of morality which he has accepted as his guide in life. His pictures of Rome, and of life in Rome, are so vivid, so full of characteristic detail, that they carry with them a conviction of their fidelity; while his shrewd knowledge of human nature, and the truly noble lines on which he lays down some of the great principles of human conduct—many of them in harmony with the best ideas of modern times—make us feel a general confidence in his moral judgments.

But we have more than internal evidence to rely upon. The poet Martial, who was a contemporary and friend of Juvenal, lived through the very period from which Juvenal's sketches are taken. His epigrams deal with the same topics of social life which form the staple of Juvenal's satires. The Rome of Martial is the Rome of Juvenal. He describes, in the minutest detail, the same vices and the same manner of living; and the correspondence between them acquires a double force from the fact that the two authors looked at these same things from a totally different angle. Juvenal was a moralist; he regarded the vices and follies of his day as affording material for reprobation; Martial looked upon the same facts as affording material for quips and epigrams. Juvenal hardly ever casts off the attitude of a preacher; Martial gives an identical picture of Roman life without a touch ot moral indignation.

But although we cannot but accept Juvenal's account of the corruption of his day as true in the main, it does not follow that it was true of all Rome, and that there was no reverse side to the picture. We know from Pliny, Seneca, and other writers, that there were many quiet, thoughtful and well-conducted homes in Rome, in which a high level of morality was reached, which had no share in the corruptions of the time, and were preparing the ground for that period of philosophical reflection and moral regeneration which distinguished the second century. We may, therefore, console ourselves by the reflection that the castigations of Juvenal, though justified on the whole, referred mainly to what might be called the seamy side of Roman life—a side to which some parallel may be found in our own boasted centres of civilization.

Juvenal was no politician; he never casts an eye on the political conditions of his day. He is as blind as Persius to the effects on Roman life and character of the loss of public freedom. Though a passionate admirer of the Republican heroes ot old Rome, he never expends a sigh upon the downfall of the Republic; he has none of the belated and despairing republicanism which inspires the sonorous hexameters of Lucan. He does not hesitate to dwell on the crimes and vices of individual emperors; but he accepts their rule as a matter of course. He never connects the autocratic character of the government with the degradation of the Roman people which he deplores. He is essentially the moralist of private life; perhaps the only distinctly political observation that can be discovered in his satires is when he declares that Rome was free in the day's when she called Cicero the "Father of his Country";

Sed Roma parentem,
Roma palrem patriae Ciceronem libera dixit.

(viii. 243-4.)