BMCR 2006.10.35

Figuring Genre in Roman Satire

, Figuring genre in Roman satire. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (182 pages).. ISBN 9780195346022 £29.99.

Keane, in Figuring Genre in Roman Satire, looks at the satiric poetry of Horace, Persius, and Juvenal in a generic frame. The satirist is an observer of society, but not a passive, objective, or unaffected observer. Each of the satirists in turn constructs a programme in which there are four key elements in the satiric position, namely performance, criticism, litigation, and teaching. These elements are then deeply woven into the fabric of each poet’s satiric corpus. After an introduction identifying and articulating these four satiric functions in the programmes and contents of the satirists’ works, each of the chapters that follow deals with how one of these key elements manifests itself in the work of the three successive satirists.

The satirists, firstly, present themselves as performers and themselves perform in their satire, but they also observe other performers in society. Keane is good at showing the prevalence of performance-related motifs in the satires and their sometimes subversive directions. The resemblance, for example, between the Horace who does not recite in public and the actress Arbuscula who applauds herself at home ( Sat. 1.10.76-77, pp. 19-20) is dealt with very elegantly. However, there are things that do not seem to have their deserved emphasis. The Socratic role of Horace in the second book of satires, for example, should remind us of the dramatic nature of the Platonic dialogues (and indeed the role-playing element of Socratic irony). More of an emphasis on declamation — definitely a performance art — is deserved in the account of Juvenal, and more awareness of the sophistication of some of Juvenal’s games with the satiric persona and audience expectation. Petronius, too, should have been brought into the account. In a study in which Roman verse satire is considered as a genre and in which performance is important, Petronius (whose Satyrica belongs to a different genre and who is even more multiply and persistently obsessed with performance at every level) should have made an appearance as a control.

Keane has suggestive things to say also about the second topic, criticism. She draws attention to the images of violence in satire, in the history of satire, and satire’s images of itself. She points out that the satirists perpetrate and suffer violence. She observes well how the duality of victim and oppressor is increasingly questioned in satire. Under the flag of Lucilius, the satirists criticise, but other people inside the satires make criticisms too — often with questionable or unsatisfactory motives — and sometimes of the satirist himself. Keane could have gone further here. Sometimes, I would add, Horace and Juvenal tempt us to make unguarded and unsatisfactory criticisms. They tempt us to indulge in — to reveal, perhaps to ourselves — our own defensive aggressions. On the other hand, it remains true that Horace does not do much attacking really, and this can be explained in other ways. Perhaps, for example, burdened with a Lucilian programme which allowed him to do things he wanted to do as a writer but also enjoined certain other things too, Horace sidesteps those parts of the programme he still has to mention in order to reap the other benefits. A different, but analogous, case could be made for Juvenal. There is perhaps too much credence in the satiric professions of critical spirit, which shows up also in the (to my mind) tenuous connection between an advanced literary genre and primitive notions of magic (which would not, in any case, sufficiently exclude other genres such as Greek Old Comedy and Greek Iambic from the picture).

Thirdly, the satirist is like the man who uses the law to punish miscreants, but, embarrassingly, within the satires, especially Juvenal’s, the law often fails in its purgative task. Moreover, the satirist is himself exposed to the danger of legal action because of his satire. Keane is, again, good on ambivalences here. Satire hovers (or purports to) between legality and illegality, but real criminals (in Juvenal 13) despise the law (small wonder, given the lawyers’ performance and education in Juvenal 7). I would have welcomed more on Horace’s idea of the law of nature (and its relation to reason, and to human law) in Book 1.1-3 here.

Finally, the satirist is a teacher, and one who has himself been taught. Teaching, however, in various guises and showing varying degrees of successs, is also thematic within the satiric corpus. In Horace there is a parallelism between the development of the pupil from recipient of instruction to morally independent and autonomous agent — the pupil outgrows the teacher — and the development of the satirists’ instructive postures as the poet moves back from his sermonizing role in Book 1 to being the target of others characters’ Horatian sermonizing. Keane rightly gives some credence to Horace’s interlocutors in Book 2; near the end of the book ( Sat. 2.7) even a slave, she observes, who learned from a doorman can get the better of Horace (p.169). As regards Persius, perhaps more could have been done with the diatribe tradition, but Juvenal’s inverted picture (teachers are inadequate, but vice is taught very successfully) is well brought out. Keane nicely observes the teacher as a failed poet in the seventh satire (p.133) but misses, I think, how that kind of teaching actually generates poets who produce that kind of poetry.

Keane’s book is primarily concerned with looking at the three poets in the light of the generic context. In this it follows the emphasis of Freudenberg’s Satires of Rome 1 but offers a much more soundly argued and nuanced picture, and one less dependent on the single and problematic strand of satire as criticism. It presents a picture of Roman verse satire as, like other genres, highly concerned with itself (perhaps we need some scale applied: not all genres are equally self-referential, or self-referential in the same ways). In both of these respects, Keane contributes to our understanding of how Roman poetry works. She demonstrates that the four key motifs identified and dealt with have a very considerable importance in the history of Roman verse satire. In addition, the overall proposition prompts many illuminating observations about how programmatic motifs are tested, questioned, and perhaps subverted in individual passages. Keane is also revealing about differences in the ways in which these strands appear in the corpora of the three poets. However, it is not so clear that what she has demonstrated shows a generic unity that binds the work of the three satirists together.

There are strong connections between performance, moral criticism, legal action, and teaching, and there is a good case for seeing their presentation and interactions in Roman verse satire as programmatic. However, it is not the only part of the programme. Satire, like elegy, defines itself in part as different from epic, and its concern with other genres (perhaps especially in Horace and Juvenal) is strong. The idea of genre is of fundamental importance, and I should like to have seen more guidance about how Satire works as part of the larger generic field.

Underlying Keane’s idea of the satiric genre is the concept of evolution. Under each of her four headings the poets in question play with sometimes uncomfortable similarities between themselves and the people they observe in their poems, and this leads to dynamic changes as the body of work of each satirist proceeds. In addition, there are pictures in Horace and Juvenal of the growth of human civilisation, law, and morality, which seem to provide a context for the evolution of satire. Moreover, satire’s pictures of performance, criticism, the law, and teaching develop from satirist to satirist as each fits into the social conditions of his own age. Thus, for example, Juvenal implicitly depicts himself as facing in the conditions of his day a greater satiric challenge than his predecessors: what there was for them to criticise was so much more trivial. It follows from this analysis that the relationship between the four key elements, and their importance relative to each other in the respective satirists, changes with time. Thus, it is argued, while Horace, Persius, and Juvenal are very different from each other, there is nonetheless a clear generic unity behind the evolutionary process, a unity provided by the use of these four key elements as measuring-sticks and compass points.

My concerns here centre on the implications of the concept of generic evolution. Secondly, while the application of the idea of evolution allows for differences between the members of the species — and Keane is good on how the three poets differ — it also buys too heavily into the idea that satire is one thing, that its function in its purest form is something all satirists, no matter when, try to fulfil in whatever way their circumstances allow them. There is always a tension between what the genre has done before, and where the new contributor wants to do with it. A poetic corpus is not like, say, a lion. It is not the genetic product by birth of another lion, nor reared by its parent. As regards Roman verse satire, after Lucilius there is rather a space for a list of names in which a poet may enter himself, but there are few prescribed criteria for being recognised other than ones the putative satirist can pretend to try to follow — naming names and criticising people like Lucilius. But Persius uses very few names, and criticising people is (arguably) not what either Horace or Juvenal is about. The generic programme can be seen as an excuse for writing something new and different, and individual satirists can be as genetically different as cats and dogs, although both can be categorised for some purposes as ‘domestic animals’.

In conclusion, whether or not one agrees with Keane’s underlying propositions about Roman verse satire, her argument reveals important elements in the tradition of Roman verse satire, and much (accurate) detail of very considerable interest and value.


1. Freudenburg, K., Satires of Rome: threatening poses from Lucilius to Juvenal (Cambridge University Press, 2001).