Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.12.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.12.09

James Uden, The Invisible Satirist: Juvenal and Second-Century Rome.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015.  Pp. ix, 260.  ISBN 9780199387274.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Phoebe Garrett, Australian National University (


This is an interesting and valuable book. In my view its main value lies in the discussion of Juvenal’s engagement with his literary contemporaries. Unlike the Augustan, Julio-Claudian, or Flavian periods, the post-Domitianic period has so far been underrepresented in studies of the literary environment.1 Researchers working on the other authors of this period (such as Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius) should find this book almost as useful as those more interested in Juvenal, whether or not their author is specifically mentioned. Juvenal’s connections with previous satirists (Persius, Horace, Lucilius) are noted here and there, but are deliberately minimised (p. 11). The author wants to get away from studies of genre and technique and deal more with how this poetry would have ‘played’ in its own context, and therefore wants to engage with other texts of the same era rather than just with previous satirists (pp. 9-12).

It is worth noting that Uden has made the choice to steer clear of approaching the period under question ‘historically’ – what he calls overgeneralising the ‘cultural tendencies of the period’ (p. 9, n. 16) – but instead to compare Juvenal with specific texts (viz: Dio Chrysostom, 13th (ch.2) and 15th (ch.4) Orations; Pliny the Younger (ch. 3)); he also brings in Lucian, Tacitus, Epictetus, and Favorinus, Polemo, and Phlegon of Tralles. So the analysis of Juvenal’s engagement with ‘second-century Rome’ is really of his engagement with second-century literary texts.

This study does not claim to be a complete study of all the Satires: the poems which receive attention here are 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 12, and 15. The rationale for choosing these poems is not explained except to say that they range across the chronological spectrum of Juvenal’s career (p.20). Satire 15 is addressed in the ‘epilogue’ which stands in for a conclusion. An appendix discusses the dates of Juvenal’s first book.

The unifying theme of these studies of Juvenal’s poems is the poet’s ‘invisibility.’ His invisibility (the lack of a coherent persona, sometimes the lack of any persona, and occasionally the deliberate allusion to this lack) and the ‘restlessness’ of the poems are taken to represent the feeling that the second-century Roman might have had of being ‘invisible’, uprooted amidst all the change of the past two centuries. In the author’s own words, ‘[t]he overarching preoccupation of Juvenal’s Satires is the loss of any firm sense of what Rome now is, in an Empire at its greatest historical expanse’ (p.1). Uden sees the motifs of invisibility and connected themes, such as disguise and pretence, as comments on the social environment of second- century Rome, a time when the Empire took in far more people from different groups than ever before, when social status was far less rigid than it had been, and ‘when the boundaries between Roman and non-Roman were being redefined’ (p.1).

The invisibility of Juvenal is treated as a deliberate allusion to Roman society, specifically as a proponent of the themes we see in other contemporaneous texts. Part of the message of this book is that Juvenal is engaging not only with Latin texts, but also with Greek, and specifically with the so-called ‘second Sophistic.’ In the author’s own words, ‘[t]his study takes as one of its central premises that Juvenal crafts his satura, with a keen awareness of this sophistic milieu … Indeed, the very evasiveness of Juvenal’s rhetorical self-presentation, his poetic invisibility, is legible as a Roman response to Greek sophistic identity games’ (p.10). At times it seems that the ‘invisibility’ theme has fallen by the wayside in favour of a more general discussion of the themes of the poems; at others the reading of ‘invisibility’ seems a little forced, such as when we are supposed to see that ‘this self-conscious focus on speech and disguise seems destined to prompt questions about the real speaker, the poet himself’ (p.65). In general, however, I am convinced of the message that it is worth reading Juvenal as not ‘merely the last in a sequence’ (p.11), but with a view to showing, in my particular favourite turn of phrase: ‘that the poems have resonances with their contemporary and cultural worlds – resonances that have been underplayed in the past by a scholarly focus on Juvenal as generic epigone, poeticized declaimer on ossified themes, or ironic self-parodist’ (p.14).

Chapter 1 deals with Sat. 1, and specifically the ‘openness’ of the references to people in the poem due to a ‘crisis of criticism.’ The author claims it is important that, in view of the Domitianic age just passed and the fear of informers, names are deliberately left vague and ‘open.’ When everyone is afraid of being thought an informer (accusator, delator), the poet leaves his identifications open to interpretation, but the audience might come to their own conclusions about which specific individual, if any, is meant. As comparanda the author uses the previous satirists as well as Epictetus and Tacitus. Uden’s discussion of which Fronto we are talking about (p.26-7) is a bit surprising in view of his argument elsewhere (p.39) that the identification of Fronto is not as important as the openness of the reference, the possibility that the audience will make the identification for themselves (and, in fact, the importance that it is they, not the poet, who do so).

With Chapter 2 the book moves on to poetic invisibility and the cultural trends of the second century, reading Dio Chrysostom Oration 13 and Juvenal 2 and 9, to show ‘how the speaker of these texts is rendered deliberately inscrutable’. In these poems, Juvenal supposedly ‘draws attention to his own invisibility through a thematic emphasis on disguise, secrecy, and manipulation of identity’ (p.53). These themes are connected with the Sophists’ interest in self-promotion, public identity, and self-concealment, as well as the goal of ‘disorientation from time and place’ (p.55).

Chapter 3 moves from a comparison with Greek text to an analysis of Greek themes in Roman texts, specifically in Pliny’s Epistulae, as compared with Juvenal Sat. 3. Pliny’s references to Greek institutions, and in particular the competition between the Latin recitatio (declining in popularity) and Sophistic practices (increasing in prestige), show the lines blurring between Greek and Roman as well as the increasing value of Greek culture in this period. Chapter 4 continues the discussion of engagement with Greek culture and/or the Second Sophistic by comparing Juvenal Sat. 8 on the value of nobility with Dio Chrysostom’s 15th Oration. Uden argues that the two texts come to much the same conclusion, that virtue is the true nobility (p.132). In the next section, the themes of 8 are linked with ‘Hadrianic’ issues of the bounds of the Empire and government of provinces.

Chapters 5 and 6 deal with philosophy and religion, important themes under Hadrian, and in particular Sat. 10 and its theme of discomfort with cynicism, a philosophical trend gaining popularity at Rome in the time of Juvenal, and Sat. 12 on religion. The philosophy of the voice of Sat. 10 is contested, and Uden proposes that it is ‘distinctly and specifically Cynic’ (p.147). With a Cynic voice the poem attacks Cynicism, but also the usual themes of wealth and ambition. In the latter part of Chapter 5, the issue of ‘discontinuity’ in Juvenal is examined through the lens of Sat. 10, which presents inconsistent views of themes dealt with in other poems. The author prefers to see these changes as discontinuities in the poet’s speaking voice rather than as an evolution of ideas over time (p.170). Moving on in Chapter 6 to Sat. 12, the ‘discontinuity’ of Juvenal continues with another poem on religious themes—in fact, a ‘religious critique’ (p.178). Religious sacrifice is likened to ‘legacy-hunting’. Uden argues that the ‘Horatian’ voice of Book 4 corresponds to an increase in Augustan themes under Hadrian (p.182).

Instead of a conclusion, an ‘epilogue’ finishes the discussion by bringing in Sat. 15. The epilogue brings up the issue of the change in Juvenal’s writing over the range of the poems, and argues that the changes in Juvenal correspond to changes in Rome itself over those thirty years, and that the inconsistencies within Sat. 15 ‘capture contradictory impulses in Hadrianic visions of Empire’ (p.204). Sat. 15 is taken as representative of the themes of the book, bringing together the discussion. It brings out the conflict between the wish to find differences between peoples and the position the Empire now finds itself in, unable to draw those lines. Polemo and Phlegon of Tralles are briefly mentioned as other examples of a dialogue of sameness and difference in Rome. The final part of the book is an Appendix on the dates of Juvenal’s first book, placing it between 100 and 101 CE, in considerable part due to evidence from Martial.

This is a thought-provoking book which will find appreciative readers not just with specialists in Juvenal but also amongst scholars of Greek and Latin literature of the early second century. The book has been carefully produced and exhibits very few errors, none of them worrying.


1.   Exceptions are a few studies of Plutarch, e.g. Judith Mossman (ed.). 1997. Plutarch and his Intellectual World. London; Philip A. Stadter. 2015. Plutarch and his Roman Readers. Oxford.

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