Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.08.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.08.41

David H. J. Larmour, The Arena of Satire: Juvenal’s Search for Rome. Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture, 52.   Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.  Pp. xi, 356.  ISBN 9780806151564.  $34.95.  

Reviewed by Christine Schmitz, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster (


Departing from the fairly well-worn questions and queries of the persona theory, which have dominated the scholarly study of Juvenal for a considerable time, Larmour challenges his reader with a completely new approach to Juvenal’s Satires. On the dust jacket the publisher claims nothing less than that The Arena of Satire is the “first comprehensive reading of Juvenal’s satires in more than fifty years”.

Four chapters with allusive, multidimensional headings (1 “Satires from the Edge”, 2 “Beyond the Pale”, 3 “The Arena of Satire”, 4 “Melting Down the House”) are framed by a comprehensive introduction and concise conclusion. In his introduction Larmour reveals what is meant by the subtitle “Juvenal’s Search for Rome”: Larmour’s approach to Juvenal’s Satires focuses on the continuous and, in the end, futile “search for anchors of stability to which the Roman male subject might affix his identity” (5). This idea best suits the character Umbricius: “In Sat. 3, Umbricius heads to Cumae […] in search of a more authentically Roman lifestyle” (59, n. 19). Larmour’s concept of Juvenal’s search for an uncorrupted Rome does not fit all Satires, though. More convincing is his presentation of how such genuine Roman values and social institutions as amicitia (with particular reference to Satires 5 and 9), virtus, nobilitas (Satire 8) and frugalitas (Satire 11) have been eroded in the present.

Chapter 1 (54-104) describes the first poem as a guide for the interpretation of the following 15 satires. It is claimed that in the programmatic satire Juvenal’s satirist-narrator introduces himself as a marginal character.1 Larmour spends a considerable part of his first chapter (cf. 88-101) focusing on the one instance where he believes the satirist to be physically threatened. At Juv. 1.155-7, the satirist faces the prospect that his charred body will be dragged across the arena, and Larmour claims that the only way to avoid this fate is to become an editor. Yet, in Satire 11, Juvenal has his satirist make a very unusual appearance as host, thus turning the satirist’s disembodied voice into “a person with a body”.2

In chapter 2 (105-62), Larmour considers the crossing of boundaries. He compares not only the spatial (e.g. the city and periphery, different regions of the Empire), but also the figurative boundaries of gender identity through explorations of “unmasculine” men and “unfeminine” women (105). Accordingly, Satires 2 and 6 become the main focus of his research, grounded in Jonathan Walters’ seminal paper Making a Spectacle: Deviant Men, Invective, and Pleasure (1998). While Walters’ paper treats only Satire 2, Larmour extends Walters’ concept of the transgression of boundaries and his use of the fashionable metaphor of the “arena of punishment” (364) to all of the Satires.

Like the book itself chapter 3 is entitled “The Arena of Satire” (163-230) and is thus marked as its core. It explores the connections between Juvenal’s Satires and the arena as a space within the city but goes on to treat the arena as a metaphor, since for Larmour the arena “offers a productive analogue to the operations of Juvenalian discourse” (173). Larmour regards Juvenal’s ‘Arena of Satire’ as linked with the physical space and its spectacles and gladiatorial combat through three principal themes: “1. Display and Punishment of the Body, 2. Containment and Borders, 3. Consumption and Excretion” (198).

In chapter 4 (231-94), Larmour systematically addresses the later Satires (10-15). He continues to focus on the satirist’s nostalgic search across Roman space and time for a putatively pure Romanitas. Larmour convincingly analyzes Juvenal’s representation of the Roman cityscape, zooming in on monuments and spaces throughout the poems. He sketches the aim of his own approach in this chapter thus: “to show how statues, ornaments, furniture, and other solidifying items participate in the undoing of permanence by the forces of change and transitoriness in the satirical world” (12).

This book’s conclusion, “The Plague of Satire" (295-320), offers some case studies which attempt to identify Juvenalian features in the works of later satirists, from Jonathan Swift and Evelyn Waugh to contemporary writers such as Russian novelist Victor Pelevin and Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh. After a concise conclusion (295-305), Larmour continues seamlessly into a brief survey of several later satirists, who – in his opinion – have developed Juvenal’s trademark features in their writings. The link connecting them is “an interdependence of the topographic and the somatic, which is quintessentially Juvenalian” (13). Some of these examples of “modern Juvenalians” of the 20th and 21st centuries seem chosen somewhat randomly and the links between them quite vaguely associative.

In his comprehensive bibliography (321-42), Larmour refers to the new publication (2015) on Juvenal by Uden but not to that by Keane of the same year.3 An index locorum has been integrated into his quite heterogeneous general index (343-56), in addition to an Index rerum, nominum, verborum.

Larmour convincingly identifies the “rhetoric of exemplarity” as the essential feature of Juvenal’s satiric technique (esp. 9, 199). Like the spectacle of the arena, the vivid vignettes of Juvenalian satire provide a rapid succession of arena-style entertainment. The constant reference to the amphitheatre as ubiquitous phenomenon of Roman cultural life can be found in other writers as well (as Larmour himself shows, 177-89) – especially in Lucan’s epic.4 The arena undoubtedly provided the satirist with colourful imagery and it constitutes a crucial element in Juvenal’s satire, a fact Larmour illustrates by many examples. His sophisticated work compels readers to be sensitive to the language of the amphitheatre and overtones of gladiatorial combat, as well as amphitheatrical or gladiatorial imagery and analogy in certain scenes. For me, the central value of his study is his revelation of the pervasive theme of spectacle in Juvenal’s satire. Larmour’s approach of applying the arena as a conceptual model and framework to all of the Satires does not convince, however.

The numerous different roles of the satirist/speaker are presented throughout (see index s.v. “satirist”). Larmour shows him – above all – as satirist-flâneur wandering along the streets of Rome. He also links Juvenal’s poetic role to that of an editor (cf. e.g. 155) who produces textual spectacles (by reenactment) for the entertainment of the reader. The perception of the flâneur aimlessly walking the streets of the city is incompatible with the well-organized producer of games (editor). The combination of editor and aimless satirist would only work if Larmour had located these roles at different levels of reading or in different passages. Especially problematic is that he assigns the satirist the role of the punisher/avenger, cf. e.g.: “the satirist must always set up targets that he then tries to ‘punish’ or ‘kill’ with his rhetorical weaponry” (199). Trying to link arena and satire, Larmour assumes a close connection between satire and physical violence. Yet he does not manage to successfully detect this quintessential aspect of the satirist’s role as punisher in Juvenal’s text.5 What we encounter in Juvenal’s text is a display of vice, degeneracy and folly, of villains and frauds, of miscreants and deviants – quidquid agunt homines … nostri farrago libelli est (Juv. 1.85-6) - defined by the satirist as his programmatic subject matter. One wonders if the metaphor of the theatre as an analogy for satire 6 may not play as prominent a part in Juvenal’s panoramic satire as that of the arena. Contrasted with the more common metaphor of the theatre, the key element of Larmour’s ‘Arena of Satire’ is the element of punishment. Larmour sees in Juvenal’s Satires a spectacle of laughter and punishment; in his conception the rehabilitated Etruscan phersu 7 is the best example of the satirist’s role and function. For a sense of his position see p. 210: “Rather than worry excessively about distinguishing the putative persona(e) in the text, we should rather acknowledge in Juvenal’s satirist the significance of a probable remnant of this masked organizer of tortures”.

Larmour, in general, seems more interested in the sociopolitical aspects and in particular in the “visual machinery of the Roman arena and its presentation of ideologically laden signs to a mass audience” (164) than in an unbiased interpretation of individual Satires. As a result, one learns more about the Roman arena in Larmour’s monograph (particularly on 163-98) than about Juvenal’s Satires. Larmour’s ‘Arena of Satire’ is one possible approach but not the only one; it is legitimate, but limited.

This richly footnoted publication has been carefully produced, but Larmour does not always apply the careful scrutiny in his close readings that a scholarly reader might wish for.8 Yet, all in all, this is a stimulating, thought-provoking book despite its author’s limited view through an ‘amphitheatrical lens’, and Juvenalian scholars will find much – not in Juvenal’s, but – in Larmour’s own ‘Arena of Satire’ to stir their interest.


1.   “The liminal positioning of the speaker as he introduces himself – whether at the crossroads, on the doorstep, or at the city gates – is a self-conscious gesture of marginalization” (10); see also 77. Nevertheless, the central position of the crossroads (cf. medio … quadrivio, Juv. 1.63f.) does not work in this context. To support his argument regarding the liminal positioning of the satirist Larmour draws upon Juv. 1.95-126 claiming: “We hear nothing from the speaker in this scene, as he is pushed aside and silenced” (78). Yet, the speaker is present inasmuch as his biting judgement intrudes on the freedman’s words at Juv. 1.104f. natus ad Euphraten, molles quod in aure fenestrae / arguerint. Surely, this is not what the actual speaker would say.
2.   Cf. Catherine Keane, Juvenal and the Satiric Emotions, Oxford; New York, 2015, 150.
3.   James Uden, The Invisible Satirist, Oxford; New York, 2015. Keane (as in n. 2). Larmour’s work might have also benefitted from Wendy J. Raschke, “Imperium sine fine – Boundaries in Juvenal”, in Fritz Felgentreu/Felix Mundt/Nils Rücker (eds.), Per attentam Caesaris aurem: Satire – die unpolitische Gattung? , (Tübingen 2009), 131- 47. Although one might not share Walter Kißel’s often old-fashioned attitudes towards new approaches of literary theory, his research report (Lustrum 55, 2013, Göttingen 2014) provides a detailed overview of the relevant literature dealing with Juvenal published between 1962 and 2011.
4.   Cf. Matthew Leigh, Lucan. Spectacle and Engagement, (Oxford, 1997), Index s.v. amphitheatre.
5.   Larmour proceeds rather brutally to show how in Juv. 1.21 (edam) the satirist is depicted in the role of the arena editor as producer of spectacles. At first he connects the verb with the related noun editor: “In using this verb, Juvenal appears to be casting himself as an editor, who is going to give us a show, a series of spectacula” (70). Here edere is endowed with a meaning which it does not have in the given context (cf. TLL 91.7-9). In the next step the role of editor is additionally connected by Lamour with that of ultor (71).
6.   Cf. especially Juv. 14.256-8, see also Christine Schmitz, Das Satirische in Juvenals Satiren, Berlin; New York, 2000, 21f. Images of the theatre are everywhere to be found, which Larmour does not challenge (see Index s.v. theater, stage). Re: Juvenalian theatre or the amphitheatre cf. Catherine Clare Keane, “Theatre, Spectacle, and the Satirist in Juvenal”, Phoenix 57, 2003, 257-75, esp. 260.
7.   Cf. his extensive discussion of the theory that the Latin word persona was derived from, or at least cognate with, the Etruscan figure Phersu (esp. 209, n. 154).
8.   Here only one example: Larmour (243) does not acknowledge the antithesis concerning the servants in Satire 5, for Gaetulus Ganymedes (Juv. 5.59) cf. Schmitz (as in n. 6) 253. There are a few typos, but they do not hinder understanding, such as “Perisus” (193) for Persius, “Corcyrian” for Corycian (241, n. 27) or procures for proceres, 50. There are also some issues regarding the syntax: Read Mauri (Juv. 5.53) instead of Maurus (243), castora (Juv. 12.34) instead of castor (245), fremitu[s] (Juv. 14.247) 284, hianti<a> (Juv. 15.57f.) 286, inclinatus for inclinatis (Juv. 15.63) 286. Further corrigenda: Meister, Karl [von has to be erased], Die Hausschwelle in Sprache der [for und] Religion der Römer (335); Ovid, Fasti 1.700 read erat (thus fitting the metre) instead of est (289).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010