BMCR 2007.07.35

Roman Satire

, Roman satire. Blackwell introductions to the classical world. Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2007. xi, 189 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 1405106883. $24.95.

Table of Contents

It’s not an easy thing to write about Roman satire: the genre is as big and slippery as Juvenal’s turbot. But Daniel M. Hooley (henceforth H.) likes Roman Satire, as can be seen on virtually every page, and likes a challenge too: he’s already written an entire book on the satirist Persius. What sets this introductory book apart from others of its kind is its dedication to tackling the perpetually vexing question of satire as a genre—the question that vexed the satirists themselves. The focus is important and interesting, and H. often handles it well. Is it the right question for an introductory book? The question of genre is at times limiting, but that is good as well as bad. On the negative side, the question of genre can be a tad esoteric and of secondary concern to the “clever students of literature” at whom the book is aimed. On the positive side, the question of genre is one of the hotter topics in the discussion of Roman satire now, and the new reader is dropped immediately into a relevant and contemporary discussion. Ultimately, using genre as a limiting factor for his discussion of Roman satire allows H. to present the reader with a current approach that is interesting, important, and manageable. Moreover, H. sees in the issue of genre an ongoing political dialogue among the three major verse satirists, struggling with limitations on what can be said under Imperial scrutiny and hearkening back to Republican days—and satire—when freedom (of speech) was the rule. With that kind of complex generic exploration, Roman Satire goes well beyond any typical introduction to the literature. Satis superque.

After a (too?) brief introduction setting forth the generic question and exploring some of the possible “whys” (7ff.) of satire, H. offers five succinct chapters on the genre: one on each of the three satirists, bookended by a chapter on satire’s forefathers and one on its influence, alternate incarnations, and reception. Each chapter is briskly written and covers all of the essential bases; it focuses more deeply on the generic question in the discussion of individual poems, where relevant, and usually in a subsection too. Each chapter ends with an excellent “Further Reading” list that demonstrates the author’s control over the material across time (if not geography: in the name of reader-friendliness, these lists are entirely limited to Anglophone scholars). In short, each brief chapter is exceedingly readable and works well as an introduction to its subject matter.

The introduction presents the generic question first in its historical context (what did the Romans think satire was?) before moving into some more contemporary questions. Where the Romans were worried about what satire was, H. prefers to ask, “why?” and “how?” Though brief and at times unspecific, the essay goes a long way towards setting the stage for the generic discussion to follow and sets the genre of Roman satire within the context of satire, the mode of expression, as any student would know it. His first chapter, “Beginnings (?),” deals with Ennius and, principally, Lucilius. Considering how often the satirists themselves invoke other forebears, particularly writers of Greek Comedy, the chapter seems a bit limited at first glance, but perhaps that’s the reason for the parenthetical question mark in its title. The limitation proves useful in terms of keeping the scope of this (introductory) book manageable and confined specifically to the hexameter poetry the satirists themselves (at least some of them) called saturae. It also gives pride of place to Lucilius as the father of the genre and clearly sets the stage for H.’s conception of the political program for satire that he sees woven deeply into the generic question. H.’s look at these two forefathers of the genre is generally respectful of the fragmentary nature of what remains of their work. Most of the chapter is given to snippets of Lucilius, establishing how he created the thematic and linguistic parameters of the genre with which the later satirists would interact. His final generic assessment of the work may go a bit far in reconstituting the man and his intentions, but H. never goes much further than other scholars or, for that matter, the later satirists. H. tries to detect in all of Roman satire a constant generic struggle going on with Lucilius that has deep and dark political undertones, and his fleshing out of this early satirist is necessary to make that conceit work. H.’s Lucilius is a product of his Republican times: his freedom of expression stands out as a characteristic of the genre that the later Imperial era satirists will eschew purposefully as a comment on their own times. H. thus attempts to invest the generic concerns of his satirists with political import. Lucilius was free to name names and criticize the power figures of his day. That the later satirists are essentially apolitical in their works and talk about what their satire does and does not do is to be read as a comment on the lack of libertas under the emperors. This idea works well in H.’s masterfully crafted (re-)reading of Horace, but he struggles to carry it through as he would like to with Persius and Juvenal.

H.’s chapter on Horace is clearly the intended centerpiece of the book. By far the longest, it gives a more detailed reading of each satire than will be seen in the subsequent chapters on Persius and Juvenal. This makes sense: having chosen to focus his book on questions of genre, H. logically gravitates to the most generically self-conscious of the three satirists. H.’s reading of Horace is on the whole subtle, layered, and elegant. It’s also quite single-minded in its assertion of a constant generic concern that goes well beyond Horace’s three programmatic satires. No matter what Horace is talking about, he’s also talking about genre. Based on this assertion, H. sketches an architecture for the two books of satires that is compelling and elegant, if at times difficult to swallow fully. This generic master design of the two books often leads H. to some genuinely brilliant readings of the individual poems, and at other times some rather eccentric ones. His look at 1.7, for instance, lends weight and meaning to a satire that has tended to baffle and disappoint. As a part of the entire project commenting on satire and its political viability under the new imperial system, Horace’s bad pun takes on dark portents and generic significance far beyond a weak punch line playing on the word/name “rex.” But when everything in these two books of satires begins to do service for Horace’s supposed generic commentary on the Augustan regime, credibility begins to strain a bit. His summation of 2.8, for instance, takes the generic commentary to the political level and invests (a simile of) Canidia with a great deal of political import as Horace’s own alter ego committing a “dark act” in finally telling “the truth” (84). Overall though, the structuring is ingenious and the reading of Horace an elegant one: it makes some not-so-good poems pretty good, and it makes the two books of satires into an elaborate generic project with political overtones. This elaborate and rather bold reading of the work goes beyond the usual scope of an introductory work, but so much the better: the reader will find himself thinking, arguing, and, most importantly, wanting to read these poems for himself.

After such a tour-de-force reading Horace, the subsequent chapters on Persius and Juvenal are more ordinary. H. continues with (briefer) commentary on each satire, followed by a subchapter devoted to the ongoing issues of genre and their implicit political commentary. These two poets are certainly less generically self-conscious than Horace, and consequently H. has less to say about them in terms of his unifying theme. An expert himself on the intertextuality of Persius’ work with Horace’s,1 H. offers up an interesting conundrum at the end of his chapter on Persius. Horace’s generic commentary on the Augustan regime was that satire had become pretty but silent: H.’s reading of Horace’s portrait of a fussy and tamed Lucilius writing during the Augustan age takes on almost Orwellian power (67). Now Persius’ generic commentary on the Neronian regime is enacted through taking Horace’s project and making it ugly. Persius is certainly up to something in his consistent deforming of Horace’s works, but H. is being perhaps a bit disingenuous in describing Persius’ work as a “dismantling of the great Horatian project for satire” (110). H. himself has previously identified Persius’ Horatian source material as stemming from the Epistles, even the Ars Poetica and the Odes, in addition to Horace’s Satires, and the link with the pseudo-Platonic Alcibiades 1 overshadows the Horatian echoes. In the end, while H.’s reading of Persius is intelligent and often illuminating, he is far less clear on what Persius wants to say about satire and what the political implications of what he is saying might be.

H. seems a bit confounded by Juvenal in his generic discussion, though again he demonstrates himself a sympathetic and sophisticated reader of the poetry. Once more, H. wants Roman satire to say or even do something political, and Juvenal’s programmatic statement that he’ll stick to the dead, who are safe targets, is difficult to reconcile with this. His assertion that “Rome is its past” (139) doesn’t go far in convincing the reader that there is a contemporary political, along with the cultural and artistic, agenda. Any indictment of a society through satire (or anything else) surely carries an implicit political component, but this does little to further H.’s original grand scheme of tying together genre with politics, even covert ones. Even if the larger plan for the generic considerations falters somewhat with these later satirists, H. is unique in including this kind of ambitious and original thinking in a book oriented to a wide audience.

The final chapter, on Menippean satirists and later incarnations of satire, is essentially a well annotated list for further reading, though H. goes into some degree of detail on Petronius, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, and a few of the later English satirists. It’s the kind of chapter expected in this kind of introductory book, and H.’s strength is his inclusiveness in this list of (English speaking) satiric noteworthies. In seeking to track satire into the modern era, H. necessarily departs from his original, self-imposed limitation of dealing exclusively with hexametric satire and instead opts for discussion of satire as we more commonly think of it: as a mode, rather than a genre, that “redraws perspective on the world, channels resistance, reservation, second thought” (169). One would almost have preferred him to maintain his generic conceit in this final chapter, concentrating on the verse satires of Johnson and Pope, the generic theorizing of Dryden, etc. None of this gets missed, but the final chapter is such an (admitted) blur that the reader winds up feeling the need to go back over everything that’s been said and covered in such a small space.

It’s worth ending this review with a comment on H.’s style of writing. Like John Henderson (all the cool satire guys are doing it—except Freudenberg), H. has created a meta-satirical style that adds an interesting experiential dimension to this work. The style is (usually) conversational and brisk, and sometimes downright witty. Like satire. H. peppers his prose throughout with parenthetical words, phrases, even single letters that add layers sometimes of complexity, sometimes ambiguity, and sometimes just a clever little joke. The nuances at times confound meaning: it’s not always easy to tell what H. means. Like satire. On the negative side, H. can resort to style over substance. His discussion of Horace 1.8 offers a good example. H. wants the graveyard scene of this satire to call to the reader’s mind the deaths of Rome’s recent civil wars, to inform the entire poem with this sense of genuine political dread, but the cemetery’s occupants “are said to be merely slaves or the poor (believe it?)” (58). It’s easy to cruise and be in on H.’s nod-and-a-wink, but that little parenthesis absolves H. from proving a rather tendentious conceit for his interpretation of the poem—an interpretation that informs his sketch of Horace’s entire satiric program and even gets referenced in the author’s discussion of Juvenal (139). More often than not, though, H.’s style gives a reader the feeling that this author understands satire on an intuitive, poetic level. It’s fun to read, fun to be “in” on the joke, even fun to be occasionally confounded. In short, the mode is well suited to the genre, and gives the reader that much more preparation for grappling with Roman satire. No better introduction than that.


1. D.M. Hooley, The Knotted Thong: Structures of Mimesis in Persius. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.