Juvenal and Persius/The Satura of Rome

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The Satura of Rome

The classical passage on Roman Satura is to be found in Quintilian, Inst. Orat. X. i. 93-95;—

Satura quidem tota nostra est, in qua primus inisignem laudem adeptus Lucilius quosdam ita deditos sibi adhuc habet amatores ut eum non eiusdem modo operis auctoribus sed omnibus poetis praeferre non dubitent ...

After comparing Lucilius with Horace, he proceeds to say;—

Multum et verae gloriae quamvis uno libro Persius meruit. Sunt clari hodieque et qui olim nominabuntur. Alterum illud etiam prius saturae genus, sed non sola carminum varietate mixtum, condidit Terentius Varro, vir Romanorum eruditissimus. Plurimos hie libros et divitissimos composuit, perilissimus linguae Latinae et omnis antiquilalis et rerum Graecarum nostraramque, plus tamen scientiae collaturus quam eloquentiae.

To this we may add the testimony of the grammarian Diomedes (fourth-fifth century), p. 483;—

Satura dicitur carmen apud Romanos, non apud Graecos, maledicum et ad carpenda hominum vitia archaeae comoediae charactere compositum, quale scripserunt Lucilius et Horatius et Persius; at olim carmen quod e variis poematibus constabat satura nominabatur, quale scripserunt Pacuvius et Ennius.

And again;—

Satura carmina multa simul et poemata comprehenduntur.

Comparing the above passages we learn that there were several kinds of composition known by the name of Satura;—

(1) The Satire of Lucilius, Horace, and Juvenal;

(2) An earlier form of Satire founded by Terentiua Varro, of which the characteristic feature was that it was non sola carminum varietate mixtum; and

(3) The kind distinguished from the Varronian kind by the preceding definition, and more particularly described by Diomedes as having been used by Pacuvius and Ennius, and defined as carmen quod e variis poematibus constabat.

But even so we have not reached the earliest form of Satura, which was of a dramatic kind. In recounting the history of the importation of dramatic games from Etruria into Rome in consequence of a pestilence in the year B.C. 364, Livy tells us (vii. 2) how the ludiones imported from Etruria danced Tuscan dances of a not ungraceful kind to the music of the pipe, but without words or gestures; how the native youth imitated these performances, adding to them the jocular bandying of verses amongst each other with appropriate gesticulations; till at last, improving upon these early efforts, non, sicid antea, Fescennino versu similem incompositum temere ac rudem alternis iaciebant; sed impletas modis saturas, descripto iam ad tibicinem cantu, motuque congruenti peragebant. Hence the introduction of the drama some years afterwards (B.C. 240) by Livius Andronicus qui ab saturis ausus est primus argumento fabulam serere, i.e. construct a play with a regular plot.

We thus see that the name of Satura was originally given to a rough musical performance of a semidramatic kind, being developed it would seem from the rude banterings in extempore verse or otherwise of the Italian youth, who were famed for the antiqua et vernacula festivitas with which they used to pelt each other in times of village festivals and rejoicings.[1]

Of the Satires of Pacuvius we know nothing, except from the above-quoted passage from Diomedes; but of those of Ennius (B.C. 239-169) we know enough to give us a good idea of what they were. Porphyrion speaks of the fourth book of his Satires, Donatus of a sixth, each Satire forming a book in itself; and some few fragments of them remain. One deals with astrologers and interpreters of dreams, another with female license; and Quintilian tells us that one of his Satires took a dramatic form;—ut Voluptatem et Virtutem Prodicus, ut Mortem et Vitam quas contendentes in satura tractat Ennius (Inst. Orat. ix. ii. 36). Thus Ennian Satire seems to have consisted of a variety of poetical pieces, composed in various metres, on various topics drawn from daily life, occasionally employing dialogue, and written with a certain humour and sprightliness of style.

The Satura of the learned Varro (B.C. 116-28), as we have already seen, contained prose as well as verse (non sola carminum varietate mixtum), and according to the statement put into his mouth by Cicero (Acad. 1. ii. 8) they were written in imitation of the Greek philosopher Menippus;—

El tamen in illis veteribus nostris, quae Menippum imitati, non interpretati, quadam hilaritate conspeximus, multa admixta ex intima philosophia, multa dicta dialectice.

So too Aulus Gellius II. xviii. 10;—

Alii quoque non pauci fuerunt qui post philosophi clari exstiteruut. Ex quibus ille Menippus fuit cuius librum M. Varro in Saturis imitatus est, quas alii Cynicas, ipse appellat Menippeas.

Now Menippus was a Cynic philosopher of Gadara (fl. circ. B.C. 60), who from the character of his works was distinguished by the epithet σπουδογελοῖος, i.e. "serio-comic," in consequence of the humorous style in which he expressed himself, one of his aims being to ridicule the folly and trifling of the pseudo-philosophers of the day.[2]

The slight fragments preserved of Menippus are not enough to enable us to judge of his style; but from sundry notices of him in Lucian we may gather that his Satires were written in prose,[3] that they frequently introduced dialogue, and that they embraced a large variety of topics, including especially the ridicule of false philosophers. Varro's Satires gained the name of Menippea, as Cicero informs us, from their general likeness to those of Menippus in style and subject. Both emploved dialogue, both discoursed on many subjects, and both conveyed instruction in a humorous and playful form.

Varro was the most voluminous of writers (πολυγρφώτατος, Cic. Epp. ad Att. xiii. 18); he himself computed that he had written 490 books. Of these it is obvious, from the number of times they are quoted by writers down to the beginning of the fifth century, that the Menippean Satires were the most popular. There seem to have been no less than 150 of them, each in a separate book; the grammarians Aulus Gellius (A.D. 117-180) and Nonius Marcellus (fourth century?) cite fragments of at least 82 of the Satires. The titles, of which many have been preserved, are enough to show the variety and humorous character of their contents, which covered many different subjects, social, philosophic, and political. Among them are the following; Ὑδροκύων, apparently an attack upon the Cynics, the "Prohibitionists" of their day; Τρικάρανος, "the three-headed monster," perhaps an attack upon the First Triumvirate; Περὶ ἐξαγώγης, on suicide; Γνῶθι σεαυτόν; Ὄνος λύρας, the ass who pretends to a taste for music; Δὶς παῖδες οἱ γέροντες; Tithonus, on old age; Τοῦ πατρὸς τὸ παιδίον (the subject of Juvenal's fourteenth Satire); and Pransus paratus, which seems to have suggested the lines of our modern poet,

Serenely full, the epicure may say
"Fate cannot harm me, I have dined to-day."

We now come to the last and greatest form of Satura, which has stamped its name on the history of literature and the world, the Satire of Lucilius and Horace, of Persius and of Juvenal.


  1. For these extempore rustic effusions, full of coarse and pungent wit, see Virg. Geo. ii. 385-395, and Hor. Epp. i. 147-167. Having regard to the evidence afforded by these passages, and by the passage from Livy quoted above, it is not possible to accept the statement of Prof. H. Nettleship that "Lucilius was the first writer who impressed upon the Satura that character of invective which it to a great extent preserved in the hands of Horace, Persius and Juvenal" (Lectures and Essays, second series, 1895). On the contrary, it would seem that personal abuse formed the essence of the first beginnings of Satura.
  2. We may compare this with the subject of Juvenal's second Satire.
  3. Probus indeed (ad Virg. Ecl. vi. 31) says that "Varro's Satire was called after Menippus; quod is quoque omnigeno carmine saturas suas expoliverat; but among the many passages in which Menippus is mentioned by those who must have known his writings there is no hiut that he ever wrote in verse.