BMCR 2007.03.16

The Function of Humour in Roman Verse Satire: Laughing and Lying

, The function of humour in Roman verse satire : laughing and lying. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (370 pages). ISBN 1429422009 $99.00.

‘Roman verse satire’ is, for us, Horace, Persius and Juvenal (and scraps of Lucilius): a small canon of contrasting texts. Studies of the genre inevitably devote a great deal of attention to the differences between these authors’ works and personae, and have offered various nuanced versions of a basic ‘stop-light’ sequence: Horace (green) is artfully genial, Juvenal (red) is artfully furious, and in the middle Persius (amber) is too earnestly didactic to construct a full persona. Plaza’s book addresses the use of humor in the verse satires, which in practice is closely related to the kind of person the satirist claims to be, but her new approach is to divide satirical humor itself into three types, each addressed separately, and to cover Horace, Persius and Juvenal by rotation under each heading. Each brand of satiric humor is subjected to enthusiastic and imaginative close reading.

Having addressed the theme of laughter in the work of Petronius in a previous monograph,1 Plaza now covers contiguous ground in this study, though she is careful to distinguish laughter from humor (p6-7, p11). This 370-page book visits virtually every corner of the verse satires that the current generation of scholarship has found interesting (the index locorum includes all 40 poems by the three poets, except for some reason Juvenal 8). It brings together a considerable quantity of scholarship, providing further reading in all relevant areas, including humor studies and post-classical satire. In an age when endnotes are still frequently used, Plaza deserves credit for not only providing footnotes, but giving every initial footnote citation in full, with subsequent citations by partial title, which minimizes page-flipping. There are also a full bibliography and a general index.

A series of introductory sections review the scholarship and establish Plaza’s theoretical standpoint, which does not lie within the camp of any humor-theorist or literary critic, though sympathy is indicated for Susan Purdie’s Lacan-influenced approach to the comic.2 Plaza apparently sees humor not as something the author ‘switches into’, whose instances can be separated and catalogued, but as an integral function of the arrogations, allocations and abnegations of power by ‘the satirist’ and other voices.

The book then divides into three parts. The first and longest, ‘Object-oriented Humour’, undertakes to show that every gesture of ridicule contributing to the ‘message’ of the poem constructs the target as ‘high’ and the satirist as the underdog, making a bold attack or retaliation against an object that is ‘raised’ either by external criteria (power, wealth, physical size) or internal (exaggeration, metaphor, elevated tone). The second, ‘Humour Directed at the Persona’, discusses how humor undercuts or otherwise shapes the speaking satirist himself. Horatian self-deprecation is a rich and well-recognized phenomenon. Discussion of Persius (in whom ‘self-irony’ is no longer ‘self-controlled’, p221) in this section is brief, and restricted to establishing that, as Housman and Gowers have argued, Persius 3 is a dialogue between two personalities within a single persona, and stating that both are Persius, and both are ridiculed. (She later remarks that ‘non-aligned’ humor is absent from Persius; books about Roman verse satire as a whole, like this one, sometimes seem to have an air of obligation when discussing Persius.) With Juvenal, self-ridicule is potentially far more widespread: there has been uncertainty over the degree to which the reader’s perspective is meant to differ from, and be amused by, that of the author. Here, and indeed on many points of debate in recent scholarship, Plaza’s answer is that the text contains both possibilities, and in this case that we should laugh both with and at Juvenal’s fulminations. She concludes that most of the textual evidence tells us the persona’s views are ‘endorsed by the author’, but that Juvenal nonetheless — unintentionally — allowed his joke-making to interfere with and subvert his own ideological position (p256). The third and final part of the book addresses ‘Non-aligned Humour’, defending the satirists’ mocking of irrelevant targets by claiming that off-topic humor is a defining feature of the ‘mixed dish’ of satura, and suggesting that diversity of content, and diversions in the direction of ridicule, are how Roman satire-poets achieved a kind of epic-like universality (p302). In fact, Plaza starts and finishes the book by claiming that satire is the link between epic and the modern novel because it encompasses all of life on a mundane level (p4, p337). In the case of Horace, for example, ‘extreme images and positions’ mostly fade on a first reading but leave the reader with ‘an impression of the fullness and richness of life. Simple and modest at first sight, these poems are deeply satisfying as vivid images drawn by a wise artist’ (p261).

Plaza identifies her approach as Formalist, and this is a useful label for some of the features that set this book apart from other recent studies of the verse satirists. She regards the words on the page as the sole object of study, eschewing historicist readings of the satirists, though biographical or other external perspectives are occasionally taken into account.3 A leitmotif of this study is the concept of joking ‘praeteritio’, i.e. that no matter how swiftly retracted a statement might be, how hedged around by irony or sarcasm it is, or how dubious its speaker, it cannot be unsaid and always has its own direct effect, regardless of its other modified or converted effects. With humor, perhaps more than any other theme, the control of meaning is a crucial issue. For Plaza, it is controlled by the authorial persona (especially Horace), but is always ultimately in the hands of the author — admittedly one who deliberately accommodates contrasting views and ambivalence, which it is our task as readers to uncover. Plaza separates the ‘implied author’, as visible from the text, from the unknowable historical author, but as an instance on p140 reveals, this division is not always complete: ‘It is not impossible to read the episode of Tullia’s and Maura’s pissing on the altar of Chastity. . .and laugh with them rather than at them. . .though the historical Juvenal would hardly have appreciated such a reading.’ The text is regarded as embodying the intentions of the author, who may, however, intend to set contradictory readings against one another; ‘reading against the grain’ is thus an inappropriate metaphor, unless the text is regarded as multi-grained.

Plaza not only views satire as part of a larger progression from epic to the novel but also takes a broadly developmentalist attitude to the genre’s contents. She sees continuous evolution in the uses of humor from Lucilius, through Horace and Persius, to Juvenal. No-one would deny that each chronologically successive author both engages with his predecessors and places himself within ‘the tradition’ of Roman verse satire, but for Plaza, our verse-satire texts tell a consistent and self-contained story. For example, after Horace, ‘the role of ‘autobiographical’ information gradually dwindles’ (p221), and Juvenal’s writing ‘feverishly pulsates with the premonition of the impending death awaiting Roman satire’ (p235). In the Epilogue, ‘The Genre Devours Itself’, Juvenal’s fifteenth and sixteenth satires are even blamed for killing Roman satire, rendering any sequel impossible for generations (p341).

Discussing humor in ancient texts (especially as distinct from laughter) depends on assumptions about what is meant to be funny and what isn’t. Plaza states early on that she has not used ‘mechanical criteria’ for identifying humor, but instead has either focused on passages that are ‘fairly obviously meant to be funny’ or, in the case of other passages, explained why they should be considered funny (p12-13). This book undertakes to show that funniness is, or can be made, self-evident. For example, Horace must have thought the pun on rex as a proper name was a good one because he uses it several times (p66), and in the case of Horace’s musa pedestris‘the oxymoron of the walking Muse at Rome is made possible through being funny’. Conversely, the passage in praise of Cornutus in Persius 5 ‘can hardly be called humorous’ because of its ‘sincerity’ (p184n35).

Plaza’s interpretative readings leave little room for criticism on concrete points,4 but if there were one passage that required further work, it would be the concluding section describing ‘non-aligned’ humor in Juvenal. Despite its important placement as the conclusion of the book, this section seems least compelling. It labels most of Juvenal’s satiric targets as ‘monsters’ or ‘monsterlings’ (occupying smaller places in the text), a term which Plaza links to the concept of the monstrum as category-broacher, while playing with postclassical stereotypes of the semantically different ‘monster’. For example, claiming that ‘monsters are usually big, aggressive, and unintelligent’ (p310) allows for a continuation of the concept of satirists attacking from below (now like David versus Goliath), and for the further nuance that ‘monsters’ and ‘monsterlings’ are not necessarily deserving targets. Yet these terms, like the concept of non-aligned humor that they are employed to illustrate, trade inclusiveness for usefulness. The hybrid at the opening of Horace’s Ars Poetica is taken as a point of comparison for (among other things) the leeks and onions of Juvenal 15, the Golden Age cave-dwellers of Juvenal 6, the lizard inhabiting the scrap of land Umbricius dreams of buying in Juvenal 3, Chiron as schoolmaster, and (Virgil’s) Tisiphone (both mentioned in Juvenal 7). These figures and their roles in these poems seem so disparate that the label ‘monster’ does not clarify very much. Even physically ‘normal’ targets such as Crispinus (p308) and cannibals (p309) are included, making it unclear how monsters and monsterlings are to be distinguished from the objects of ‘aligned’ (i.e. moralizing) humor. This section also contains the odd claims that the elephant’s shedding of its overgrown tusks in Juvenal 11 ‘carries overtones of a universe out of bounds, out of its mind’ (p316) and that the figure of the centaur had long been balanced ‘between pathos and ridiculousness’ (p324). The disparate contents of this final section suggest that Plaza’s tripartite division of satiric humor may to some degree have become ‘object-oriented’, ‘subject-oriented’ and ‘miscellaneous’. This undermines the merit of the first two chapters’ treatment of humor by function, seen as the transaction, rather than as currency that can be misplaced or left idle.

This book contains sustained, lively discussion of Horace, Persius and Juvenal, and the relationships between them, building on a great deal of scholarship,5 and for this reason is of significant value to all students of Roman verse satire. About one typing error per ten pages6 and a handful of lexical quirks7 have eluded the proofreaders, but this does not reduce the interest and liveliness of this painstaking and wide-ranging study.


1. Laughter and Derision in Petronius’ Satyrica: A Literary Study, BMCR review by Gottskalk T. Jensson, 2001.09.26.

2. Purdie, Susan, Comedy: The Mastery of Discourse. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf. 1993.

3. E.g. Horace’s Satire 1.2 is described as ‘youngish’ (p57) and his diffident persona is attributed in part to self-consciousness about his physical unattractiveness (p189). The texts are not always the only authority: for example, it is assumed that ‘Juvenal most certainly admired Virgil’ (p322), and that Teiresias’ cynical attitude in Horace, Satire 2.5 (that in Rome all virtue has its price) ‘must be regarded as correct’ (p292).

4. Four small wrangles: Juvenal’s litter-borne forger ‘with his nose in the air ( supino)’ is not in a sneering ‘ von oben‘ posture (p107) but a recumbent one; portrayals of Marsyas are not ithyphallic (p210); Horace’s nono post mense is probably not a metaphor for parturition (p285) since it was thought in antiquity that pregnancy lasted 280 days, i.e. ten lunar months; and whilst Juvenal’s description of the giraffe as diversum confusa genus panthera camelo does make the creature sound like a ‘conundrum’ (p315), it is also a necessary periphrasis for the unmetric camelopardalis.

5. Since this book was written in 2001-2004, its bibliography stops at 2003 and does not include, for example, the Cambridge Companion to Roman Satire (BMCR review by Martha Habash, 2006.08.48).

6. Typing errors: p4 n9 ‘satiresa’, p21n55 ‘Shiesaro’ (Schiesaro), p22 ‘canykered’, p28n55 ‘antiqity’, p32n72 ‘W.’ erroneously inserted, p35n78 rufutatio ( refutatio), p48 bene ( bonum), p65n29 ‘the Gowers’ ‘ (Gowers’), p73 ‘Ithacian’ (Ithacan), p74 ‘prophesy’ (prophecy), p86 in flagranti ( in flagrante), p103 ‘Eupolides’ (Eupolis), p115 ‘nouveux’, p121 ‘pretor’ (praetor), p133n51 ’embarass’, p154 ‘esthetical’ (aesthetical), p160 ‘a’ omitted, p162n196 adulterer ( adulter), p180 ‘two-peakedarnassus’, p182n29 ‘be careful to’ (be careful not to) (!), p196n57 ‘postive’, p184 ‘satires.ersius’, p190 προσδκίαν, p191 ‘not simply drowns’ (does not simply drown), p195 ‘imbedded’, p199n63 ‘the’ omitted before ‘minimalistic’, p223 ‘they Pythagorean’ (the Pythagorean), p234 ‘prophesized’ (prophesied), p250n157 ‘lascivous’, p260n6 ‘West’ misplaced, p261 ‘raging’ (ranging), p262n10 ‘philosohical’, p262n10 ‘Peripathetic'(!), p271 ‘bying’, p284 ‘juxtapposition’, p286 ‘flauting’ (flaunting), p294 his ( hic), p298n80 Horace misplaced, p305 ‘inhereted’, p330 ‘sarcifices’. Formatting is good, except that footnotes sometimes run over the page; a word processor has unfortunately put a line-break inside a two-letter word (p196); and some pages contain a mixture of both ‘u’s and ‘v’s representing the semivowel in Latin quotations (e.g. p33, p42, p120, p312).

7. Lexical quirks: p28n66 ‘rephrasal’, p44 & p103 ‘decoct’ (decoction), p47 ‘practician’ (practitioner), p55n7 ‘dismissingly’ (dismissively), p58 ‘related’ (relatively), p98n97 & p231 ‘cringe’ (flare), p109 ‘forgerer’ (forger), p148 ‘contemptuous’ (contemptible), p157 ‘palindromous’ (palindromic), p173 ‘backside criticism’ (backstabbing criticism), p179 ‘highness’ (height), p181 ‘jingoist’ (jingling), p210 ‘erected’ (erect), p210 ‘in motley’ (in motley apparel?), p223 ‘depravation’ (depravity), p244 ‘admits’ (commits), p269 ‘stealth’ (stealing), p284 ‘gliding’ (eliding?).