BMCR 2008.04.14

Making Mockery. The Poetics of Ancient Satire. Classical Culture and Society

, Making mockery : the poetics of ancient satire. Classical culture and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xiii, 294 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9780195309966. $55.00.

Rosen is not claiming too much when he speaks of the “broad sweep” of his coverage of ancient satire (243), and he is claiming too little when he disavows any “high theory” (16). The elaboration of a high-level theory of satire in fact enables him to bring together in one book a remarkable array of poets. (For the use of the word “satire” and for other terms, see 17-23, 120 n. 7, 207.) Somewhat in the spirit of the satirists whom he has studied for many years, but without mockery, he delights in challenging the experts in the areas that he traverses. His critiques of others, arising from his uniquely broad perspective and from his new way of looking at “their” authors, will provoke discussion. The experts will have to defend themselves. Any lone reviewer will lack the learning to speak for all of them. What follows is an attempt to bring out the main findings of Rosen’s book and here and there to suggest an alternative idea.

Rosen’s introductory chapter is entitled “The Dynamics of Ancient Satirical Poetry.” The “dynamics” are those “that arise[s] between a poet and an audience when fictional modes and marked language . . . are used to represent moments of satirical mockery” (22). “Fictional” is the key word here. In the theory of the comic in Greek and Roman literature, in particular comic mockery (19), that Rosen will develop, fictionality is central: poetic mockery, despite the use of the first person singular and the apparent signs of historicity, is fictional (20; 39 n. 62: “central claim of this book”). Rosen has a subsidiary theme, which is psychological and/or anthropological. “One of the premises of this book is that an understanding of what constitutes a poeticized act of mockery or satire — how real mockery is transformed into fictionalized mockery and represented as comic form — is essential to a full appreciation of its specific, historically-bound manifestations” (15; his emphasis). Rosen writes a section entitled “The Mimetic Object: The Originary Moment of Mockery,” in which the first three of four “mimetic modes” begin with a “hypothetical original event of abuse” (23-27).

In Chapter 2, Rosen analyzes two myths as paradigms of mockery, Iambe and Demeter, and Heracles and the Cercopes. Viewing these myths through a structuralist lens, he sees them as foundational in Greek thought for the fictional status of abusive poetry. Iambe mocks (as the name Iambe suggests, while lines 202-204 of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter are rather vague about what she says) the grieving Demeter, and thus restores her to good humor. “We might . . . say . . . ,” Rosen argues, “that she does not so much mock Demeter as she assumes the role of a mocker, which is to say that she represents mockery in a mimetic performance” (53; his emphasis). “The episode . . . illustrates just how self-conscious and artificial comic mockery actually is” (54). In a variant of the myth, known mainly from Clement ( Orph. frag. 52 = 395 F Bernabé), not Iambe but a certain Baubo, an autochthonous Eleusinian, is the one who cheers up Demeter. Baubo does so by exposing her genitals. Demeter is amused, not scandalized, because again the myth is about the difference “between a lived reality and a fictional reality, a distinction Demeter must implicitly internalize for her laughter to make sense” (55).1 In the other myth Rosen analyzes, the Cercopes do not say anything. They laugh at Heracles’ hairy buttocks as they hang upside-down on a pole that he is carrying. He starts to laugh, too, and releases them. (Again the sources are late and difficult. See Rosen’s n. 39 for a survey. Did the story originate, one wonders, to explain the iconography?). Rosen compares this myth with the one about Iambe or Baubo and Demeter. While he finds a fundamental similarity, he also sees in the Cercopes a paradigm related to his subsidiary theme. Through this myth Greeks “addressed the question of how confrontational and aggressive speech and action can at times be destructive and sociopathic, and at other times — especially when poeticized — humorous and entertaining” (64).

In his third and fourth chapters, Rosen focuses on two Homeric characters, Thersites and Odysseus. Concerning the former, Rosen poses the question of who is blaming whom in Iliad 2.211-77. Is Thersites figured as a blame poet, as Gregory Nagy argued in The Best of the Achaeans ? Or is he, rather, the object of blame, receiving, as he does, the rebukes and blows of Odysseus? Appealing to the dynamics of satire and mockery as established in his first two chapters, and observing that Thersites does not have a just cause, Rosen concludes that he is the blamed, not the blamer in this scene. To back up his conclusion Rosen uses the conflict of Paphlagonian and Sausage-Seller in Aristophanes’ Knights as a paradigm case. “Satire, by definition, requires claims of legitimacy on one side, and imputations of illegitimacy on the other; … in the end, one of the two [characters] must be portrayed by the poet, however jocularly or disingenuously, as the moral ‘victor'” (81 n. 29; cf. 88). One could reconcile Nagy’s and Rosen’s views by observing that Thersites’ conduct at Troy in the time before the incident in Book 2 does indeed figure him as a blame poet, as Nagy said, but he lacked the good sense to keep quiet in a moment of crisis and deserved what he got from Odysseus, which for Thersites amounted to a reversal of role (Nagy, 262). This explanation is encouraged by Rosen’s ensuing discussion of Thersites in the Aethiopis as indeed a “true” satirist. It seems that Thersites mocked Achilles for falling love with Penthesilea. Achilles flew into a rage and killed him. Calling attention to evidence that suggests that the murder had repercussions in the Greek camp, where it was judged a sacrilege, Rosen compares the death of Thersites with the death of Aesop (also the result of mockery). In both cases, that of Thersites and that of Aesop, the target overreacted and failed to abide by the rules of the game for blame. In the final section of the third chapter, Rosen looks at the Boston “Thersitoktonos” vase and plausibly suggests that it was at a symposium that Thersites was killed, thus as wrongfully as possible.

In Chapter 4, Rosen turns to the Odyssey and discusses Odysseus as satirist in two episodes, the visit to the Cyclops and the fight with Irus. He proposes a new reading of the former episode as in fact a “commentary on the dynamics of comic and satirical behavior” (121). Distinguishing between Homer’s framing narrative and Odysseus’ narrative to the Phaeacians, Rosen explores Odysseus’ self-characterization in terms of dolos (9.19), a trait often associated with the trickster, who in turn is associated with “performers who mock, satirize, or otherwise engage in comic blaming” (128). The basis of Odysseus’ satiric project lies in 9.172-76, where he proposes to find out if the Cyclopes are capable of hospitality to strangers or are lacking in justice. What has to be understood on Rosen’s reading is the completion of Odysseus’ thought: if they are unjust they will have to undergo condign satiric treatment. In the end, however, whatever his success vis—vis the Phaeacians, Odysseus in the framing narrative becomes “something of a satirist manqué, deficient in the one area which . . . defines the true satirist, . . . his ability to convince his audience . . . that his blaming . . . is morally justified” (141; cf. 170-71). In the Irus episode, Odysseus again overcomes an apparently stronger opponent, after ironic pretense of satiric abjection, this time with an audience, namely the suitors, which takes amusement in the outcome. As in Chapter 3, Rosen pursues his subject forward in time, and discusses a rehabilitated Odysseus in Euripides and the dithyrambist Philoxenus (141-59) and also a rehabilitated Cyclops in Theocritus. The moral ambiguity that Rosen found in Homer’s version of the episode disappears in Euripides. Further, Odysseus is demonstrably Aristophanic and Hipponactean, and the poetics of satire are overt in the final lines of the play. Then in Philoxenus’ Cyclops (before 388 B.C.E.) Odysseus becomes fully satirical. The introduction of the nymph Galatea into the plot leads on to her roles in Theocritus Idylls 6 and 11. In the latter, the Cyclops himself evinces qualities of the satirist — blame, self-pity, sense of superiority (166).

Rosen’s discussion of Odysseus in Chapters 3 and 4 prompts a reflection on the relation of this character to the subsidiary theme referred to at the beginning of this review. Rosen shows how Odysseus, figured as a satirist by Homer, is a case for his theory of satire. But in the episodes analyzed by Rosen, Odysseus always goes beyond speech. He beats Thersites, he blinds the Cyclops, and he breaks Irus’ jaw. Odysseus seems then not to be a good case for the emergence of satire out of potential physical conflict. On Rosen’s terms, one would have to say that the Homeric Odysseus is incompletely figured as a satirist. He always resorts to physical violence. (Rosen once includes “physical violence” in a list of “satirical tropes” [185], but the violence of Odysseus is not a trope.) Achilles in Iliad 1, whom Rosen does not cite, is the perfect satirist (1.101-222).2

Chapter 5 turns to another Hellenistic poet, Callimachus. Rosen discusses Iambi 1, 13, and 4 in that order. He intends to overturn the common opinion about the kind of iambus that Callimachus was writing. According to this opinion, the Hipponax who appears from the underworld in Ia. 1 has come as the spokesman not of the harsh vituperation for which he was known until then but of a milder version of iambus. Rosen argues that Callimachus wanted to recover Hipponactean iambus in order to authenticate his own iambic program. For a decision between Rosen and the common opinion, much depends, as Rosen says, on the interpretation of lines 3-4: “[I have come] . . . bearing an iambus that does not sing of the Bupalean battle” (177; Rosen’s trans.). (Bupalus was the archenemy of Hipponax.) Rosen comments: “Presumably, the iambus he bears still offers makhé, only not one that involves Bupalus” (177). One could, however, equally well infer from Hipponax’ words that he means: “I am bearing not an iambus that sings the battle with Bupalus but another iambus,” i.e. whatever it is that he will sing today in Alexandria.3 (Though Rosen may be right that Hipponax continues with an abusive address to the scholars, it does not follow that this particular address lies within the kind of iambus defined as “Bupalean.” How insulting is kephoi“stormy petrels”? If this translation is correct, could the reference be to the “wild, plaintive cry” of this bird, and could Hipponax be asking the scholars to quieten down?4 The other “invective touches” that Rosen finds in Ia. 1 are also difficult to establish.) Hipponax is no longer the iambist defined by his hostility toward Bupalus, as Archilochus was defined by his toward Lycambes, and Semonides by his toward Orodocides. A line not cited by Rosen also points to a new Hipponax. Before he recounts the fable about the Seven Sages, the iambist says: “write down my speech” (31). It is difficult not to be reminded of Callimachus with his tablet on his knee in the prooimion of the Aitia (fr. 1.21-22). Hipponax seems to be well aware that he is speaking in times in which the Muse has learned to write. His injunction about writing is not one that he could have given in his own times, if one assumes that oral performance and aural reception were then normal. As for the moral of Hipponax’ fable, i.e. humility (and thus an end of quarreling), Rosen explains it as the “comic irony of satire,” i.e. the satirist’s claim that he only wants peace while he compulsively persists in blame (179-81).

Rosen’s ensuing discussion of Ia. 13 brings it into line with the conclusion of his discussion of Ia. 1, that Callimachus has through his Hipponax not repudiated vituperative satire but sought authority for his own iambic battle with the scholars. “Callimachus did not intend his ‘modernized’ version of the iambus to look or feel radically different from an archaic iambus . . . ” (188). The fourth is the longest of the Iambi and will be the best test of Rosen’s approach to Callimachus. In this poem, Callimachus addresses a certain Simos, who, one knows from the Diegesis, has intervened in a quarrel between the poet and a rival, and tells Simos a fable. It concerns a dispute between two trees, a laurel and an olive, on Mt. Tmolus. A nearby bramble that intervenes and tries to reconcile them is rebuked by the laurel for presuming to speak as if she is one of them. As the preserved first line of the poem shows, it is in particular Simos’ implicit claim to equality with Callimachus and his rival that prompts the fable. The poem breaks off as the laurel is rebuking the bramble. Rosen characterizes the quarrel between Callimachus and his rival as “a neikos between rival poets” (197; cf. 199), but the neikos comes from the laurel and is directed at the olive (lines 7-8). As for satire in Rosen’s sense, the olive is unfailingly polite, while the laurel, who is vituperative, is the satirical one. As everyone, including Rosen, agrees, the olive wins the contest. Ergo the satirist loses. If Ia. 4 is an “allegory of satire,” as Rosen calls it, then it is an allegory of satire that fails. Further, the laurel is the one who rebukes the bramble standing for Simos. The message of the fable to Simos is, then, something like: if you intervene in a quarrel of persons like me and my rival, you are presumptuous and you also run the risk of getting the same treatment that the bramble got from the boorish laurel. The message is thus double-edged, cutting against both Simos and Callimachus’ rival. If, further, the laurel is characterized as specifically Hipponactean, then satire here loses in the form of one its most famous exponents.5

It is difficult to believe, with Rosen, that the poem is only about blame of Simos (“sole purpose,” 199) and is a plea for uninterrupted wrangling on the part of the rivals, for a kind of paradise of satire (“‘closed’ world of the poetic neikos,” 205). Why did Callimachus spend ninety or so lines developing the differences between the trees, before the intervention of the bramble which stands for Simos? Rosen is aware of the difficulties of his interpretation, which he would rescue by arguing that the olive is a repressed satirist; “her initial calm demeanor was repressing a groundswell of indignation” (203). He takes her use of the birds who speak for her, a fable-within-a-fable, as a satirical device (203). But there is no other example in iambus of a fable-within-a-fable. The olive’s device is symmetrical with Callimachus’ own move in using a fable in Ia. 4 and, for that matter, with that of the new Hipponax in Ia. 1. Rosen implies that fables are specifically iambic. But the fable is not attested for Hipponax. The most famous archaic fable occurs not in iambic poetry but in Hesiod ( Op. 202-12). Fables are attested also in melic poetry (Ibycus fr. 342 Page and Timocreon fr. 734 Page). Simonides referred to a fable (fr. 514 Page). So did Theognis (347-48) and Solon (fr. 11.5-6 W) in elegiac couplets.

Juvenal Satire 9, the main subject of Ch. 6, is climactic in Rosen’s survey of satiric texts. Not only does it deploy “virtually every trope we have come to associate with poetic satire and mockery from Homer to Horace” (217) but it is also about satire, it is the consummate allegory of satire. The basis of this interpretation of the poem is Naevolus, a downcast gigolo whom Juvenal, at the outset, has once again encountered on the street. Juvenal and Naevolus enter into a conversation (the dialogue structure is unique among the satires of Juvenal). Juvenal sympathizes with Naevolus’ complaints about the stinginess of his wealthy patron. Rosen concentrates on details that characterize Naevolus as a poet, beginning with Juvenal’s comparison of Naevolus’ appearance to that of the defeated Marsyas in lines 1-2 (225-28) and on details of Naevolus’ complaints about his patron that characterize him as a satirist in particular (229-35). In short, the gigolo, in many ways an unsavory character, stands for the Juvenalian satirist himself. This finding radically destabilizes the satire. Juvenal has broken the reader’s moral compass. “In the end, it becomes almost impossible to decide who is the actual target of blame” (217). All that is left is comedy (242; cf. “relentless drive toward comedy,” 218).

In Rosen’s analysis, the moral ambiguity of the satire is the result of the reader’s inability to choose between the two voices that he or she hears, that of the speaking poet (i.e. Juvenal as a speaker or persona in the dialogue) and that of Naevolus (218). Rosen proceeds to make a good critique, apropos of Roman satire, of the notion of persona (219-23). One could conclude from his critique that there is in Satire 9 a third voice or a third point of view, that of the implied poet.6 A reader’s experience of the eight Satires preceding the one in question would contribute something to the picture of this third poetic person. If it is possible to think in terms of three, not two, attitudes, then one of these attitudes can be understood as a morally driven irony lying behind the comedy, and Rosen’s interpretation will be reconcilable with much of the common opinion concerning this Satire.

In the final section of this chapter, Rosen turns to a comparison of Satires 9 and 5. In his summary of the parallels between the two poems, Rosen is likely to be right that the Virro named in each of them is the same person. That the Virro of Sat. 9.35-37 is Naevolus’ patron, as Rosen assumes, is much less certain.7 Trebius, however, is certainly a parallel to Naevolus, and Rosen is consistent with himself in the moral questions that he raises about this character.

One of the several virtues of this book is intellectual honesty. In his final chapter Rosen faces head-on the question that has been building up during his discussion of his various satirists. Could any ancient audience have understood satire in the sophisticated way in which Rosen understands it, i.e. could there have been at least one component of ancient audiences that grasped satire’s fundamental fictionality, self-irony, and elusiveness (244)? He goes directly to the ancient text that might have seemed to present the strongest case against him, namely, Critias’ blame of Archilochus for his various shameful self-revelations (B 44 δ and shows that, carefully read, it does not have to be understood as a blanket condemnation of Archilochus based on a literalist biographical reading. What Critias objects to, taking the aristocratic point of view, is not, Rosen argues, shameful behavior as such but loss of face. Critias did understand that “a poet could adopt stances, discourse, create fictions even, which no self-respecting Athenian kaloskagathos could sanction for himself” (251). What Critias has lost, Rosen usefully points out, is the historical context in which he could more easily have distinguished the real Archilochus from this poet’s persona of the moment. Rosen shrewdly speculates on how Critias would have reacted to Cratinus’, a contemporary’s, self-portrayal as a drunkard in Pytinê — with more sophistication than in the case of Archilochus (252-54). What increases the probability of Rosen’s view is that Critias was also a dramatic poet: see TrGF 43 (Rosen cites for the fragments of Critias only D-K). Rosen proceeds to a discussion of mimesis in Republic 2 and 3, pointing out that some details of Plato’s comments on comedy leave open the possibility of “good poetry with bad content” (260). Rosen convincingly shows subtleties in this passage on the poets which are usually overlooked. He concludes with a discussion of critical reaction to Plato in Hellenistic authors.

This is an unusual book in several ways. It deals with both Greek and Roman literature. It integrates iconography into a text-centered discussion. It shows knowledge of a correspondingly vast secondary literature. Most impressive to the present reviewer, it develops a theory out of its analyses of a wide variety of poems and passages, and thus shows how theory is possible within a philological and historically organized discourse. Rosen has overturned many apple carts. The vendors will not simply be able to pick up their apples and go about their business. They will have to stop and think.


1. For an exhaustive study of the sources for Baubo and a new interpretation of her obscene gesture, see Apostolos L. Pierris, The Emergence of Reason from the Spirit of Mystery (Patras: Institute for Philosophical Research, 2006), Vol 1, pp. 255-392, 535-42.

2. See Antonio Aloni, “La performance giambica nella Grecia arcaica,” Annali On line Lettere (Unife) 1.1 (2006) 84-85, 91.

3. Cf. the translation by Markus Asper, Kallimachos Werke (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2004) 207: “(ich) bringe einen Jambus mit, doch keinen Kampfgesang gegen Bupalos.”

4. For this description of the cry, which is attributed to Audubon, see Old and Sold.

5. For suggestions concerning a Hipponactean laurel see Lowell Edmunds, “Callimachus, Iamb 4: From Performance to Reading,” in Antonio Aloni, Alessandro Barchiesi, Alberto Cavarzere, ed., Iambic Ideas: Essays on a Poetic Tradition from Archaic Greece to the Late Roman Empire (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 84-86.

6. For the implied poet see Ch. 4 (“Persona”) in Lowell Edmunds, Intertextuality and the Reading of Roman Poetry (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

7. Edward Courtney, A Commentary on the Satires of Juvenal (London: Athlone Press, 1980) 424: the identification of Virro with Naevolus’ patron is “quite uwarranted.”