Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.20


Susanna Morton Braund, The Roman Satirists and Their Masks. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1996. Pp. xiii + 66. ISBN 1-85399-139-2.


Reviewed by Catherine Keane, University of Pennsylvania.

The Roman Satirists and Their Masks is an introductory study of persona types in satire and their poetic functions within the genre. Over the past several decades, work in Roman satire has embraced the idea that the satirists use personae or masks to voice their complaints about society, rather than speaking "from the heart." Braund has made this point convincingly in the case of Juvenal in her earlier study Beyond Anger (Cambridge, 1988) and in a new commentary on Book 1 (Cambridge, 1996), but in this new book she introduces readers to the use of personae throughout Roman satire. Students are encouraged to appreciate the continuity and common themes in the genre, as the book is organized thematically rather than chronologically. Braund discusses all four canonical Roman satirists side by side in almost every chapter. These elements of the book herald a new stage in the development of the persona theory: while studies employing this theory have usually been confined to single poems or authors, Braund's book encourages us to expand the scope of this work to the whole genre.

The Classical World Series, of which this book is a part, advertises itself as a concise but informative introduction to Greek and Roman culture, aimed at students and teachers from secondary school to university. The series dictates the form of Braund's book: all passages from the satirists are presented in translation only, several chapters are prefaced with illustrations, and at the end of the book can be found discussion questions, a brief bibliography, and a glossary of (mainly literary) terms. Presumably this book is meant to be read alongside full texts or translations, as the questions in the back encourage further exploration of the topics covered.

In terms of presentation, The Roman Satirists and Their Masks complements Braund's earlier introductory work, Roman Verse Satire (Greece & Rome: New Surveys in the Classics No. 23, Oxford, 1992). As the author reminds us in the preface, her earlier book was a chronological study of the major satirists framed by discussion of past and present scholarly work on satire. Here, Braund effectively inverts that format by placing a brief description of the satiric canon in the Introduction and arranging the main discussion according to types of persona and images of the satirist and his society. In fact, most of the book is basically an expansion of the paragraph on "satire as drama" in the Introduction of Roman Verse Satire. Braund studies the various components of the "performance" that is satire: roles of the speaker or speakers, the relationship between satire's content and the reality that it pretends to describe, and interaction between "performer" and audience.

In the Introduction, Braund describes the social circumstances of literary production in Rome, hinting that amicitia will play a thematic role in satire. She then relates the ancient theories about satire's origins and gives short accounts of the lives and works of Ennius, Lucilius, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal. Chapter One, "The Masks of Satire," lays out the background for the image of the satiric narrator as dramatic persona. The persona theory originated in Alvin Kernans The Cankered Muse (New Haven, 1959), and W. S. Anderson applied it to the Roman genre in a series of important articles (collected in Essays on Roman Satire, Princeton, 1982). Instead of documenting this development in scholarship, however, Braund convincingly locates the terms for her discussion in ancient sources, stressing the importance of drama in Roman rhetorical theory and of rhetoric in literature. The chapter concludes with an illustrative point-by-point comparison of Cicero's precepts in de Inventione with passages from Juvenal's sixth Satire, where the persona is particularly concerned with arousing indignation. Chapters Two, Three, and Four explore different types of satiric persona, respectively the "Angry," the "Mocking," and the "Smiling." The structure of each chapter consists of general description of the persona in question, followed by a selection of appropriate passages with brief commentary. Braund does not proceed chronologically through the satirists in each case but rather chooses the most suitable passages for discussion, as each satirist does not employ the whole range of personae. In Chapter Two, Persius and Juvenal provide the examples; in Three, it is Horace and Juvenal, and in Four, Horace alone. Lucilius, due to the fragmentary condition of his text, is brought in mainly in discussion of the later satirists' descriptions of him.

Chapter Five, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, introduces other common models for the satirist that influence his persona, including the images of satirist as "hero, saint, judge, preacher, doctor, surgeon, cleanser, and detective" (p.30). Braund does not have room to investigate manifestations of all these models, but divides the passages she quotes (from all four satirists) into the categories of favorable and unfavorable imagery. The chapter closes with a quotation from the 1601 Whipper Pamphlets, which portrays the satirist as "chimney-sweep", getting dirty himself as he cleans up his environment. Chapter Six, "The Satirist as Authority Figure", considers a number of popular issues in past an current satire studies -- realism, rhetoric, generic borrowing, and historical accuracy -- through the lens of the persona theory. The study here of the subject matter of satire is clearly informed by the collection of essays Satire and Society in Ancient Rome (Exeter, 1989), of which Braund was co-editor. This chapter's conclusion is that we can gain insight into "central concerns in Roman society" (p.51) only by challenging the authority of the satirist, rather than accepting it blindly. Finally, in Chapter Seven, "Satirists and Their Audience", Braund discusses the dynamics between satirist and reader, as determined by the form of each poem (e.g. monologue, dialogue, or letter).

I should stress that each chapter really serves as an introduction to an element or set of issues in satire, rather than an analysis. No chapter is longer than ten pages, and each is guided by questions intended to promote further study. Most of the selections of text are passages that have frequently been drawn into discussion of satiric tone and program, such as the programmatic statements in Juvenal 1 and Horaces consultation with Trebatius in 2.1. Braund's contribution in assembling them in this form is her implication that these commonly cited statements are more complex than has generally been assumed and that the student who pursues the issues concerned will find them expressed in many forms throughout satire.

At the same time, Braund is able to introduce the reader to a number of ancient sources and current critical issues. The new student of satire will learn not only about the style of the canonical satiric texts, but will also, for example, get a glimpse at the components of Roman education, the elements and types of oratory, and the influence of the epic tradition on satire. In addition to providing this social and literary historical context, Braund refers frequently to English Renaissance and Modern satire; these references suggest both that these genres have shaped our perception of the Roman satirists and that critical exploration in those areas can further our understanding of the Roman genre.

As far as treatment of the individual satirists is concerned, Braund tends to draw on Juvenal for material more often than on the others, although Juvenal's satiric personae are certainly rich and varied. The fragments of Lucilius cannot offer us as much, but his posthumous image as inventor of the genre offers a paradigm of the fearlessly vehement satirist. Braund explains this special role of Lucilius in the development of the persona in the beginning of the Chapter on "The Angry Satirist" (p.11).

I notice only a few gaps in the presentation of material. In the Introduction, the descriptions of the satirists' lives and works are somewhat unbalanced. The section on Lucilius deals mainly with elements of his Saturae, but the following section on Horace is almost exclusively biographical. The material on Persius and Juvenal is a more helpful blend of biography and literary evaluation. A more consistent treatment of the satirists here, with variation only in the case of nonexistent or spurious biographical material, would be appropriate. Also on the subject of Horace's oeuvre, Braund includes the Epistles among Horace's works of hexameter satire; a fuller discussion of this generic overlap might keep a new reader of satire from being confused about ancient notions of generic boundaries. My remaining criticisms are still smaller. First, references to modern forms of satire are to British media alone; readers in America and elsewhere will have to imagine more familiar counterparts on their own. Second, Braund stresses (p. 9) that our modern notion of rhetoric (implying insincerity) does not match that of the Romans. While there is some truth to this point, in a way the rest of the book encourages us to see manifestations of Roman-style rhetoric in use around us today; readers may thus prefer to see the ancient-modern distinction as weaker. Finally, for readers interested in critical trends outside Classics, I would add to Braund's suggestions for further reading Dustin Griffin's Satire: A Critical Reintroduction (Lexington, KY, 1994), which asks many of the same questions Braund does but applies them to satire of many cultures and periods.

The Roman Satirists and Their Masks lives up to the standards set by the author's rich previous work, this time in a very accessible introduction to the genre. Braund has accomplished the task of bringing the persona theory, the approach to satire as self-conscious performance, into a study aimed at readers new to the genre. The set of questions that she poses throughout the book indicates the progress that has been made in satire studies in the last several decades, and provides timely encouragement for a broader application of the persona theory.