Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.02

Kirk Freudenburg, Satires of Rome: Threatening Poses from Lucilius to Juvenal.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001.  Pp. xviii, 289.  ISBN 0-521-80357-8.  £47.50 (hb).  ISBN 0-521-00621-X.  £17.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Llewelyn Morgan, Brasenose College, Oxford (
Word count: 2381 words

As Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, so Roman verse satire, according to Kirk Freudenburg, is a footnote to C. Lucilius, who gave it its classical form and dominated its subsequent history. For us the peculiar irony of this situation is that it leaves some of Rome's most distinctive and influential artistic achievements, the hexameter poetry of Horace, Persius and Juvenal, marginalia to a master text which is no longer much of a text at all. For his successors, though, Lucilius set a standard which was made particularly hard to meet by the insistently public orientation of his writing. To Cicero and his contemporaries Lucilius encapsulated certain core cultural values, libertas above all: one of Atticus' favourite sayings was Lucilius on the socially resentful praeco Granius: Granius autem/ non contemnere se et reges odisse superbos, 'Granius now/ knew his own worth and hated arrogant bigshots' (609-10 W). The subjects of Octavian and his successors who chose to write in a genre which enshrined libertas in an era after the demise of elite libertas were thus making it hard for themselves, and the core of Freudenburg's project is to expose the deep anxiety about the political dimension of their Lucilian inheritance which is such a defining feature of satire. There is more at work here, Freudenburg insists, than the familiar dynamics of genre; when the inventor of a genre also emblematizes Rome's republican identity, 'the "genre question" is a question of the Roman self' (p. 4).

Satires of Rome takes the reader on a selective tour of the extant genre of verse satire, with the problematic relation of the three poets to the Lucilian Ur-text always the underlying concern. Freudenburg's treatment of Horatian satire thus aims to establish that when Horace sets out to imitate Lucilius, 'he never quite gets it right. Instead he manages to look very different, like someone trying, but clearly not up to the task of delivering, the Lucilian goods' (p. 100). That failure to be a convincing Lucilius, furthermore, is not an incidental feature of the works but a fundamental dynamic. These are poems which 'perform the activity' of compliance with the social and political pressures of the early Augustan period, and by manifesting the strains of fitting satire to circumstances it does not suit offer 'a searing commentary, a "real satire" on the way old freedoms get lost and power ultimately gets its way' (p. 117). Establishing this involves some very close analysis of Horatian poetry, and a (necessarily) paranoid reading strategy, since in obvious respects Freudenburg is searching for what isn't there. Thus Maecenas is unveiled as the unseen Svengali directing the antisocial behaviour at Nasidienus' dinner party in 2.8, and the good/bad carmina pun at the end of 2.1 is taken very seriously indeed, laughter which camouflages nothing less than Augustus' subversion of the rule of law.

The intense introspection of Persian satire, again, has the effect of taking us further and further from satire's natural, public realm, and yet Nero can still be seen there if you look hard enough, Freudenburg suggests, in the 'belly' of Persius' prologue, for example, 'master of art and briber of talent', or as the instigator of the dissipated contemporary literature which is the target of Satire 1. Satire 6, on the topic of inheritance (a telling preoccupation of the satirists, perhaps), is read as a commentary on Persius' troubled role as inheritor and bequeather of the genre. Juvenal, meanwhile, is interrogated as a satirist in a timewarp, who has restored the vehemence and expansiveness of Lucilian satire but consistently aims it at targets who have been dead for decades. Juvenal's satires are not so much attacks on their stated targets, it turns out, as attacks on such self-justifying attacks, 'a parodic shakedown of the whole indignation industry' (p. 239) of post-Flavian Rome. Juvenal 5, like Persius 6, is read as a veiled commentary on Juvenal's inadequacy as inheritor of the Lucilian mantle, or rather lanx satura, the capacious platter of Lucilian satire, to which Juvenal comes as close as the malnourished client Trebius to the culinary splendours served up to his patron Virro. At all stages Freudenburg insists upon the involvement of the audience in this process of self-mortification. Reading satire is 'self-diagnostic', its ideological contradictions forcing readers to analyse and critique their own responses. Thus, in the case of Persius, 'The poems find us out' (p. 136).

Freudenburg's overarching argument is a convincing one. He is surely not alone in feeling that there is something missing from Horace's urbanity, Persius' introspection and Juvenal's anachronism which is intrinsic to satire truly worthy of the name. It is impossible to imagine Horace, Persius or Juvenal being cited, as Lucilius is by C. Trebonius (Cic., Fam. 12.16.3-4), as precedents for a public assertion of libertas in the face of tyranny. And much as the satirists may turn necessity to their advantage--libertas compellingly redefined as a condition of the individual soul in Horace 2.7 and Persius 5, for example--the totalitarian context manages to make itself felt, and the satirists themselves cannot conceal a hankering for the simplicitas of satire's early days. Freudenburg gives proper weight to the persistent attempts of commentators on Persius, however misguided, to see the text as directed against Nero: the ghastly pastiche of contemporary poetry at 1.99-102 was by Nero, according to the scholia, and the ancient life recounts how Cornutus altered the text of Persius 1 to expunge an attack on Nero. Both nonsense, of course (pace Sullivan; Freudenburg leaves the possibility open), but evidence all the same of a 'readerly habit' (p. 90) of expecting satire to attack prominent public instances of vice. By virtue of everything that Lucilius stood for, the reader of satire is 'ideologically ready and generically set-up (by P.'s naming these poems Saturae)' (p. 171) to expect Nero to be there. Half a century later Juvenal's composition of satires consistently located in a previous generation is as eloquent an indictment as one could ask for of satire's incapacity to regain that original Lucilian immediacy.

The argument is enlivened by some impressive close analysis, for example a fine reading of Horace's (ironically competent) attempt at epic verse at 2.1.13-15 (horrentia pilis/ agmina) in the light of Lucilius' spoof (horret et alget) of a jejune line of Ennius (pp. 87ff.), and a perceptive interpretation of Horace's assessment to Trebatius of Lucilius as 'better (melioris) than either of us' (2.1.29) in terms of social hierarchy as well as morality: as Freudenburg shows, Horace consistently reminds us of the chasm which separated Lucilius' social status and his own. Elsewhere we find a rather brilliant suggestion, issues of quantity notwithstanding, that Persius gets further than hitherto appreciated into his shattering revelation about Rome, nam Romae quis non-- (1.8), since his continuation, A SI fas dicere, carries a hint of his eventual conclusion: 'ass's ears (auriculas ASIni), who doesn't have them?' (1.121). A long discussion of Persius' 'ejaculating eye' at 1.18 (pp. 162-6) brings out well the truly bizarre and discomfiting quality of much Persian imagery, and he is strong also (pp. 206-8) on Persius' brilliant denial of a definitive ending to his collection through the image of the proverbially indefinable soros ('Mark a period where I should stop,/ and there he is, Chrysippus, the man who puts a limit to your pile,' 6.80). A suggestive interpretative turn on Juvenal's difficile est saturam non scribere locates the sentiment firmly in the time of which Juvenal is speaking, the reign of Domitian, when 'not being able to write satire' was indeed hard to bear (p. 213), leading into a powerful essay on the guilt-fuelled martyrology so prevalent in Trajanic Rome, an obsessive compensation for the deafening silence, the non scribere, at the time when the events were actually taking place. There is much more of the same. Freudenburg possesses a lively and imaginative critical mind, and there is plenty of such thought-provoking material to be enjoyed here.

That said, he is not one to let evidence stand in the way of a neat idea, or turn of phrase, and while this can make for a diverting read it also seriously diminishes the cogency of much of what he says. A case in point is his treatment of Persius' allusion to the dream episode of Ennius' Annales (p. 197). Persius refers to Ennius the epicist as Maeonides Quintus pauone ex Pythagoreo, 'Quintus Homer by Pythagoras' peacock' (6.11). It is undeniably tempting to interpret quintus, with Freudenburg, as an ordinal as well as a praenomen, 'Homer no. 5', which would be a typical Persian intensification of Lucilius' alter Homerus, if we can interpret that as pejorative (as we surely can): 'Homer no. 2'. But there are big problems with this interpretation of Persius, and much Skutsch in the way, all of which is completely overlooked by Freudenburg in favour of pure unqualified assertion. There are other instances of poor or non-existent argumentation, and more serious omissions. For example, the movement at pp. 136-8 from Freudenburg's opinion (acknowledged as such) that Persius' choliambic prologue is indeed a prologue rather than an epilogue (the MS evidence is inconclusive), to remarks on the force which the prologue (now treated unequivocally as such) derives from its 'notorious detachability' from the rest of the collection, is hopelessly circular. Elsewhere in the discussion of this poem Nero is introduced by means of a highly tendentious and (at the least) massively simplistic reading of Callimachus' Iambus 1, a poem 'taking on Ptolemy and an eager crew of poets and philosophers' (p. 141); and Nero modelled his own activities on Ptolemaic promotion of the arts, so... Most outrageous of all, though, is Freudenburg's discussion of the almost certainly spurious opening lines to Horace 1.10 (pp. 66-7). They are treated here as an unproblematic component of Horace's self-presentation, the only gesture in the direction of acknowledging their doubtfulness being at best glib and at worst incoherent: 'perhaps spurious, but designed to counterbalance the subscriptio at the poem's end'. The same cavalier attitude to detail and accuracy is evident in remarks like, 'Satire has been in hiding since Persius!' (p. 212), flatly contradicted by his own footnote two pages later (p. 214 n. 7, 'Of the three satirists thought to have been active during the Flavian period...'). Carelessness of this kind would be less objectionable were not Freudenburg himself so aggressive in his criticism of other, more meticulous scholars. 'The commentaries do hash through available options ad nauseam,' he writes dismissively (p. 134); another piece of scholarship is 'egregiously smug' (p. 128 n. 10); and towards the end of an argument for the inevitable presence of Nero in Persius' satire, which has in fact made some pretty conventional philological moves (citing Tacitus and Dio for details of Nero's behaviour at the Juvenalia, for example, by way of reconstructing a contemporary response to the performer of 1.15-18), Freudenburg has recourse to theoretical justification of his interpretative practice: 'what role do we play when we read? What hat do we wear? Compliant Neronian? Hermeneutical control freak and future president of the American Philological Association? ' (p. 171). Beneath the sophisticated veneer this is pretty unsubtle stuff: 'If you share my reading, fine; if not, you're a stiff.' Freudenburg has chosen his genre well. When it comes to stigmatizing his opponents he could give any ancient satirist a run for his money.

But the most pervasive weakness of this book concerns Lucilius himself. In his determination to establish the inadequacy of Lucilius' successors, Freudenburg consistently exaggerates the adequacy of Lucilius' work. But it was satire that Lucilius invented, and satire is an inherently corrupt form. To attribute 'noble rage' (p. 276) to Lucilius, or even a 'noble horse' (p. 61), or to see Horace's simple meal in 1.6 (cf. Lucilius' praise of sorrel at 200-2 W) as a point of departure from the Lucilian model, is to mischaracterize Lucilian satire, which was already shapeless, seedy, and in contravention of every rule of literary propriety. A telling illustration might be the sewer-fattened 'blotched Tiber river bass' served to Trebius at Juv. 5.103-6, which Freudenburg takes as emblematic of Juvenal's peculiar degradation in comparison to Lucilius (pp. 272-3). But in fact the fish turns out to have a long satirical pedigree, all the way back to Lucilius' 'Tiber catillo caught between the two bridges' (603 W), catillo ('plate-licker') for 'bass' being glossed by Macrobius, 'because it hunted out excrement along the banks.' Above all, the recognition that the persona projected by Horace or Juvenal is often distinctly sleazy is a point of connection with Lucilius, by no means the opposite, and it must be wrong to conclude that whatever strictures are forthcoming from such a character are ipso facto untrustworthy (p. 17, p. 249): the Juvenalian voice is disreputable and compelling simultaneously and hence surely the essence of his satirical appeal and power: these poems do indeed 'find us out'. Finally, the immediacy of Lucilian satire itself can be exaggerated. 'Satire is a genre which must engage with the present', Freudenburg asserts (p. 237), with some justification. Lucilius was writing his satires from c. 129 to c. 101 (p. xii), and Lucilius' targets tended to be the enemies of 'his closest and most powerful friend, P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus' (p. 19). The further detail that Scipio Aemilianus died in 129 may lead us to doubt satire's capacity at any juncture of its history to fulfil the ideal of unequivocal freedom of speech it undoubtedly professed. In short, there are revealing differences between Lucilius and his successors, but they have much more in common than Freudenburg allows. If we choose to refer that shared element to 'genre', then genre remains the crucial dynamic in verse satire, even after the influence of contemporary circumstances is factored in, as it certainly needs to be.

This is a book on an important topic by a perceptive and articulate critic. It is rich in ideas and an unusually entertaining read. It will raise hackles, sometimes to constructive effect; but its style of argument has a cavalier and, yes, smug quality which will often simply irritate. That, and Freudenburg's failure to give adequate consideration to C. Lucilius, the key figure in the history of the satirical genre as well as in his own argument, significantly diminish the book's value.

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