BMCR 2006.08.48

The Cambridge Companion to Roman Satire

, The Cambridge companion to Roman satire. Cambridge companions to literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvi, 352 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0521803594 $29.99 (pb).

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Table of Contents

When traveling a long and varied road from its murky beginnings to its uncertain end one hopes for knowledgeable and interesting companions to lead one through the mud, side roads, and indiscernible paths. The Cambridge Companion to Roman Satire (CCRS, henceforward) provides such companions. Satire, perhaps more than any other genre, needs these companions, as it is a long, winding, branching road that sometimes blurs into obscurity. Like Horace’s trip in Sermones I.5, which covered a lot of ground, CCRS’ scope is huge. Many of the writings are general and basic enough for the novice adventurer while others (or portions of them) are specific and innovative enough for the specialist or seasoned traveler. In general, the writings pull no punches, are often in the vernacular, and are direct in speech like Satire itself. Latin quotations are kept to a minimum and are translated when employed. Each chapter includes a “Further Reading” which is extremely valuable, for it generally includes the best commentaries, editions, and translations, plus major books and articles about the texts.

The book consists of a lengthy introduction by the editor, Kirk Freudenburg (henceforward F.), 17 chapters by various authors on various topics, a conclusion, a “key dates” section, a full bibliography, and an index. F. sets out the goal of this book in his acknowledgments, that it “… intends to serve its one most important purpose not as Roman satire’s last word, but as a stalwart companion to those setting out to explore for themselves the genre’s various regions, its topographical contours, and even its final frontier” (xiii). CCRS does just that. F. gently gets us started and then hands us off to another worthy companion, who, in turn, hands us off and so on. The reader does not feel pushed along but rather gently guided into places exciting and perhaps, unfamiliar.

In his Introduction: “Roman Satire”, F. examines satire’s beginnings and the early satirists, Ennius and Lucilius. F. presents in broad terms Lucius’ innovations, including his own romanitas, and his style. In discussing the genealogies of satire, F. discusses who was included in this volume and why, all the way through the “Elizabethan brat-pack”. He concludes the chapter with a brief view of the history of scholarship on satire.

CCRS is divided into three parts. Part I: “Satire as literature” includes the first nine chapters that cover Rome’s main satirists and their references to epic and philosophy.

C. 1: “Rome’s first “satirists”: themes and genre in Ennius and Lucilius” by Frances Muecke, presents an excellent, panoramic view of the beginnings of the genre. She begins with Ennius and Lucilius, what Greek genres and themes influenced them, and more importantly what they did with these Greek influences. This essay is a lucid and general introduction to these authors.

C. 2: “The restless companion: Horace: Satires 1 and 2″ by Emily Gowers. Gowers begins by addressing the unsatirical quality of Horace’s Satires. She interprets Horace’s books through the lens of the political situations in post-republican Rome, which colors his satires. She also discusses his brand of satire, which she calls “calculated refinement” (53), and the autobiographical references in his works. She gives less attention to Book 2, which she calls a “rewriting of book I” (58). She also treats the two frameworks for book 2: the symposium and the Saturnalia. This essay masterfully provides a basic framework within which to understand better Horace and his writings.

C. 3: In “Speaking from silence: the Stoic paradoxes of Persius”, Andrea Cucchiarelli fittingly begins his discussion with “Persius is hard to read. He wants it that way” (62). He then expounds on what makes him so difficult: his imitation of Horace and Stoic philosophy, which are incongruous. He discusses at length the pervasiveness of the imitation of Horace in Persius’ satires, describing Horace as the “lens” through which Persius looks at the satire that preceded him (63). He also focuses on Satire I in depth, exploring the meanings of decoctius and the imagery of the author telling his secrets into a leaky hole, i.e., his book of satires. Cucchiarelli includes in his discussion Persius’ upbringing and social status in Neronian Rome, and what Stoic philosophy meant to his circle of friends and to himself. He explains the basic Stoic doctrine that there was a “direct and natural” connection between words and things (71) before describing typically Stoic language. He then examines the Callimachean lens through which Persius also shapes his satires. This essay, as you can see, is a full platter but Cucchiarelli has taken a very dense, confusing author and explained lucidly the reasons for his difficulty.

C. 4: Victoria Rimell, in “The poor man’s feast: Juvenal”, describes Juvenal’s style and tone and how they differ from Horace and Persius. She then looks at themes: empire, appetite, rhetoric, vernacular, carnivalesque role swapping, how the victim is usually the villain, and how the satiric persona is both an ally and adversary. Like Juvenal’s own writings, the scope is broad but unlike Juvenal, it lacks the depth that we find in other essays in CCRS. There are fewer footnotes in this work, and it tends to generalize more than the other chapters. This is the least satisfying of all the essays in this companion. Furthermore, numerous typos and awkward wording detract from its content.1

C. 5: “Citation and authority in Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis” by Ellen O’Gorman. This is one of the most titillating chapters in the corpus. She first looks at how this work fits or doesn’t fit into the genre of satire. Looking at various scenes, she examines how the characters within the work interpret quotations and how we as readers are to interpret the exchanges between characters. She focuses specifically on an exchange between Claudius and Hercules in which both quote Homer, examining which uses the more proper quotation to express his precise meaning. She looks at other passages too, in which sometimes the inability to convey precise meaning is a comment on the power of speech.

C. 6: In “Late arrivals: Julian and Boethius”, Joel Relihan traces the Greek origins of Menippean satire, transmitted from Menippus to Varro to Lucian. He then offers a definition of Menippean satire based on what the aforementioned authors all have in common, namely the narrator’s self-parodying. He also looks at Julian, Lucian’s influence on him, and how Menippean satire took two paths after Lucian. He convincingly argues that Menippean satire in late antiquity needs to be appreciated for its “dynamics, its different emphases, and its long and multi-form influence” (113). After summarizing (thank you!) Julian’s Caesars and Boethius’ Consolation, he identifies how Julian’s work is similar to and different from Lucian, and how Boethius’ can be considered satiric. This essay is very well written by the leading authority in this area and assumes (probably correctly) that most of us have not read (lately) these texts and certainly never fully appreciated the satiric elements in them.

C. 7: “Epic allusion in Roman satire” by Catherine Connors. This is a fascinating chapter. Connors begins by pointing out how prevalent epic is in satire partially due to the sharing of metres but also because each satirist uses it “to define his poetic project and its political dimension” (123). After reviewing the political situation and the social standing of Lucilius, Horace, Seneca, Persius, and Juvenal, respectively, and how they affected each one’s writings, she then examines how a passage from Ennius’ Annales is used later by Seneca, who possibly borrowed it from Lucilius, to make fun of epic (Ennius’ Romulus was in heaven; Seneca has him eating turnips in heaven). She also explains how Horace, Persius, and Juvenal each use epic allusions for various purposes, and often to retell Rome’s history.

C. 8: Roland Mayer’s “Sleeping with the enemy: satire and philosophy” discusses how Romans in general viewed with skepticism philosophy because it was Greek and was a rival to the mos maiorum. He notes that sometimes philosophy is the butt of the satirist’s humor and at other times was digested and incorporated into it. The catalyst of this was diatribe, which was readily adopted by the satirists because its aim was to persuade and was conversational in diction. Mayer also then looks separately at what Lucilius, Varro, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal do with philosophy and cautiously concludes: “There can be no tidy conclusion to an analysis of the wary relation between Greek philosophy and Roman satire” (158).

C. 9: Victoria Rimell, in “The satiric maze: Petronius, satire, and the novel”, poses the question of how the Satyrica can be considered “satiric.” After offering a brief description of the text as we have it,2 and what we think we know of the author, she then examines whether the Satyrica should be labeled novel, satire, or Menippean satire. She asks whether defining it as Menippean risks becoming an end in itself. She then focuses on elements of verse satire within the work and questions the usefulness of trying to label this work under a single genre. Labeling it Menippean satire is one possible frame for reading it, she concludes.

Part II: Satire as social discourse. This section is the most innovative and provocative of the three.

C. 10: “Satire as aristocratic play”, by Thomas N. Habinek, masterfully examines satire as play. The author gives two characteristics as play, and then elaborates how play led to certain social practices and later to an evolved literary genre, satire. After citing several scholars’ views of the playfulness of satire and the role that ludus played in Roman culture, he looks at what it means that satire identifies itself as play for the satirist. He concludes by reminding the reader how important a role play has played throughout the ages.

C. 11: In “Satire in a ritual context”, Fritz Graf begins with the origins of satire, discussing both what the ancient authors and the modern evolutionists consider its origins. He introduces a fascinating discussion of the Roman social practices of cursing, public shaming, and lampooning, which were the instruments of social control under which satire was born. He concludes that it was more of a general social inclination that was responsible for satire than any neat derivation from these Roman social practices.

C. 12: “Satire and the poet: the body as self-referential symbol” by Alessandro Barchiesi and Andrea Cucchiarelli. The authors pose the question, “What happens when the satirist describes and reflects on himself and his body in his works?” Because satire is marginal and the satirist is often on the outside looking in, the satirist has an urge to define his satires in both poetic and social terms. Often the satirist uses his own body as a literary expression. The authors focus on Lucilius, Horace (especially I.5), Persius, and Juvenal. Juvenal is the odd man out here, for he strove for an objective voice and therefore did not reference his own body. The authors, in this stimulating essay, demonstrate that the poets’ inclusion of their own bodies in their works differentiates them from their predecessors and also further reconfigures the genre.

C. 13: In “The libidinal rhetoric of satire”, Erik Gunderson discusses the “desire to talk about desire, and the perverted pleasures of reproaching perverts” (224). He examines the “satiric retelling of libidinal histories that satire claims are others’ stories” and “the libidinal economy governing the drive to talk about perverted drives” (224). His focus is on passages from Juvenal mostly and Persius. He explores a passage in Juvenal 2, where the immoral bodies (and not the mouths of men discussing morals) reveal the truth. After examining numerous passages in Juvenal, Gunderson concludes that male sexuality finds happiness only in a sort of domination, and that in satire all passive participants are perverts, and there are no good men. This essay presents a stimulating topic but is easily the most difficult to comprehend in this collection. Gunderson’s perspective asks a lot from the reader and the presentation of the material and the explanations appear, at times, cumbersome and clich├ęd.3 In addition, he discusses specifically Juvenal and Persius only but makes sweeping statements about satire that perhaps don’t apply to the writings of other satirists. Part III: Beyond Rome: satire in English letters. These essays justify the inclusion of English writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in this volume.

C. 14: “Roman satire in the sixteenth century” by Colin Burrow. In case the reader wonders why a book on Roman satire includes English writers, Burrow fittingly commences his essay by stressing the importance of comparative literature: one gains a better understanding of what Roman satire is by understanding what it is not like or not quite like. He looks at whether or not satire is entirely Roman, and notes that what unites Horace, Persius, and Juvenal is that they were all Roman writing in “the most Roman of literary kinds in the ancient world” (246). One problem for post-classical writers is that Roman satire is very Roman, and the reason why Horace, Juvenal, Martial and Persius had little influence prior to the sixteenth century was because their Roman satire didn’t fit with chivalric values. He then examines why Horace, then Juvenal and Persius, and then Horace again were influential at different times during that century and into the next. He recognizes that what binds all of these satirists together is that new customs and new forms of corruption give authority to each new poem.

C. 15: Dan Hooley’s “Alluding to satire: Rochester, Dryden, and others” focuses on a lesser known writer who spent most of his life in Charles’ court, the Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot (1648-1680). Hooley calls his writings “perhaps the most intriguing meditations on the dynamics of language and authority in the Restoration” (262). Hooley concentrates on Rochester’s “Allusion to Horace” in which Rochester plays the role of Horace and attacks Dryden as Horace’s Lucilius. Before this, Ben Jonson had assumed the role of Horace. Hooley examines the multi-referential allusions in the title and work that indicate “almost cruelty in the wit” (265). He ends by tracing the influences on Dryden’s Discourse of Satire (1693) and Johnson’s London and The Vanity of Human Wishes.

C. 16: “The Horatian and Juvenalesque in English letters” by Charles Martindale. Martindale begins this essay with an excerpt from Gunn’s “An Invitation” and discusses assimilation of authors by those who have never read the original authors. By 1700 Juvenal and Horace were constantly linked as a pair. He examines why there were many writers aspiring to be the English Horace but few or any for the English Juvenal.4 He ends by commenting on the decline of the genre (e.g., it was omitted from the Oxford Book of Latin Verse of 1912), and prompts the reader to ponder what manifestations satire will take in the twenty-first century.

C. 17: In “The “presence” of Roman satire: modern receptions and their interpretative implications”, Duncan Kennedy attempts to define satire and concludes that trying to find a link from the past to present based on formal characteristics might be more frustrating than anything. What he suggests is that if the adjective, “satirical”, occurs more often than “satire”, then perhaps we are currently more comfortable dealing with satire as a mode rather than as a genre or a form. He then looks at how certain theorists interpret satire, and he runs through the general theories at length of Frye and Bakhtin. In response to Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, Kennedy introduces a rebuttal in the form of two men who lived carnivalesque lives in the sixties, Ira Einhorn and Charles Manson, as discussed in Bernstein’s Bitter Carnival. This chapter will prompt the reader to revisit standard theories concerning satire and to question how they work with satire as a mode.

Conclusion: “The turnaround: a volume retrospect on Roman satires” by John Henderson. Henderson comes in as a brisk, lively, plain talking guide who asks us to glance back at our journey, reminding us of what we should have seen and experienced. He nicely sums up many of the main points raised in this volume. Beginning with the definition of satire and approaches to it, he then runs through at a fast clip Ennius, Lucilius, Horace, Persius, Juvenal and their contributions. He ends by emphasizing the importance of including post-classical satire in this volume.

In sum, this volume proves to be a worthy companion. Each author hands the traveler on to the next author, never isolating the reader but always providing connections by which to find a way back and to make the current scenery familiar. Egressum magna me accepit Freudenburg Roma hospitio magno …

[For a response to this review by Victoria Rimell, please see BMCR 2007.01.16.]


1. The places where commas or “and” need adding, for instance, are numerous.

2. The author describes as fact how the trio of Giton, Ascyltus, and Encolpius are “lured into Quartilla’s brothel, where Encolpius offends the goose sacred to Priapus …” (p. 161). We are not sure of the nature of Encolpius’ offense in his encounter with Quartilla. See the recent work of G. Jensson, The Reflections of Encolpius. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 2, Groningen, 2004. There are also numerous places where additional commas, periods, and quotation marks would improve the reading. Also, the author’s name needs to be added to footnote 6, p. 163.

3.Here are two quotations from his essay: “Somehow the jagged rhetoric of satire hopes to put Humpty Dumpty back together again” (p. 227); “… and the author becomes the author of his own authorization in being seen by authority adopting an authoritative position” (p. 234).

4. Martindale should offer a translation of the Latin quoted from Juvenal 10.166-67.