BMCR 2016.11.48

Roman Satire and the Old Comic Tradition

, Roman Satire and the Old Comic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. x, 302. ISBN 9781107081543. $95.00.


The devoted reader of Aristophanes experiences a sense of familiarity in reading Roman satire, and vice versa. The two genres, despite having thrived in different periods, share an involvement in the vices of contemporary literature and society. As a result, the reader with a critical ‘eye’ on the modern world relates to the sensitive voices of these authors. The pertinence of the two genres however, goes beyond that. Both Horace ( Sat. 1.4.6) and Persius (1.123-5) acknowledge the significance of Old Comedy in the emergence and development of their genre, while Diomedes (4 th cen.) describes Roman satire as a genre written in the manner of the Old Comedy.1 This has not gone unnoticed.2 But this is the first time that a study has been dedicated entirely to how the Old Comic tradition influenced the writings of the Roman satirists.

There are basic differences between the two genres that naturally affect their development, and this is a caveat explicitly and often pointed out by Ferriss-Hill. In particular, she stresses how the appropriation of many literary forms by satire and the different socio-political circumstanceshave distinguished the two genres (pg. 242). An element also stressed throughout is the relationship between society and literature, and its embodiment in the criticism both receive from the poets.3 Whereas Horace and Persius acknowledge the influence of the Old Comedy and aspire to write something equivalent, Ferriss-Hill recognises how Juvenal differs from this and rather relies on his predecessors. It is a well argued thesis that—along with satire’s differences from Old Comedy and the link between society and literature—constitutes the conditions of the book’s methodology. As expected, these are set out in the book’s introduction. In this first part, Ferriss-Hill outlines the theoretical framework of her research, and simultaneously epitomizes of what we know so far about the relationship between the two genres. The overall approach enriches the characteristics attributed to satire today.

The next chapter engages with the theory of the persona. After all, it is the poets who need to criticise their society:

difficile est saturam non scriber. nam quis iniquae
tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se? (Juv. 1.30-1).

Six features are attributed to the poets of Old Comedy and Roman satire. The format of treatment is as simple as examining how each one of the features applies firstly to Old Comedy and next, to Roman satire, but the discussion itself is a sophisticated and innovative application of established theories. The common features of the comic and the satirical personae —perhaps inherited from the former by the latter—result in analogous attitudes reflected in their poetics and criticism, the subject of which make up the rest of the book.

The poet’s self-presentation as “abject” (Ch. 1) paves the way for the next chapter, on “Defensive Poetics”. What the reader will find most interesting here—and partially where the book’s contribution lies—is the introduction of the term “literary response” for the poetics under discussion, standing as an equivalent to the previously used “disclaimer of malice”, differing only in an emphasis on its poetic side. Of course, Callimachus’ Τελχῖνες have a prominent role in this discussion. The “literary response” is elaborated through a discussion of the development of “defensive poetics” from the Old Comedy and its reception by the satirists. Thus, for example Horace and Persius adapt “abject poetics” to their times in order to form their own “literary response” and present the audiences they reject (?).

The development of poetics from Aristophanes to the satirists has an immediate effect on the latter’s “Literary Criticism”, which is the subject of Chapter 3. Literary criticism once again accords with moral/social criticism, and is divided into two sections: criticism “of the poet’s own genre” and “of other genres”. Although the former would be expected to have a more prominent place in Old Comedy in contrast to Roman Satire, Ferriss-Hills helps to overcome the problem by suggesting that what the satirists lack in contemporary rivals, they achieve in a diachronic criticism of their genre. And where the satirists’ comments on their predecessors are ostensibly positive, they hide morsels of criticism. It is however in the second section of the book (“criticism of other genres”) where attacks become more explicit, the connection with the Old Comic tradition is strengthened, and the criticism of other genres becomes revealing for the character of both comedy and satire. Ferriss-Hill proves that the parallelism of personal and literary criticism and its consequent humorous effects are the means of this attack.

Unavoidably, as Ferriss-Hill admits, the focus must be on the ‘victims’ of the criticism in both genres, who thus claim their rightful place in the book, completing the whole picture. Once again, it is important to stress that Ferriss-Hill understands the two genres as situated on a continuum, which is effective for the ongoing development of the satiric elements and the role of the “Old Comic tradition” in it. This chapter, being the last of the main thesis, presents exactly that: how comedy’s “mockable personae ” (p. 217) have been inherited, Romanised, and eventually developed by the satirists. Not surprisingly, ὀνομαστί κωμῳδεῖν is found in the core of the section. Other personae included here are those based on occupations, e.g. the actor or the gladiator. Finally, this chapter also addresses “language criticism”. Speech patterns and Graecisms among many transgressions become reasons for criticism and offer opportunities for such criticism.

By drawing on examples of—often abject—poetic personae, aspects of criticism, satirical models, concepts, poetics and practices, ‘literary responses’, characters, and finally, laughter from Aristophanes to the Roman satirists, Ferriss-Hill guides the reader through parallel readings and intertexts, to finally arrive at her conclusion. This last part of the book aims not only to put in a nutshell the main points of the thesis, but to expand on them. Ferriss-Hill leaves the reader with the conclusion that the Old Comic tradition is evident not only in programmatic manifestations of Roman satire, but “in its fabric throughout”. The reader is left with a stimulus; Ferriss-Hill’s thesis encourages a second reading of Roman satire as a Latin parabasis and agon with fresh perspectives and new directions.

Each one of the arguments that are put forward in this book, apart from being effective overall, has merits in its own right, because they are based on the author’s close reading of a plethora of passages with appropriate commentary. The catalogue of the discussed passages is long, and in most cases the comments offer an insight shaped within the theoretical framework that the book proposes. Only in a few cases might the reader feel that these comments are speculative, or that they go beyond their relevance to Old Comedy. But these cases only prove the inevitable effect of reading Roman Satire: thorough engagement with the text evokes numerous searches for a hidden truth. The conclusions that follow each chapter are helpful for the reader, as they recapitulate the basic argument each time and in their aggregate form the whole thesis. The editing and presentation of the book is excellent, with a couple of minor slips, which do not reduce its overall quality.4

It is in satire’s nature to make us question the true character of the genre. The self-presentation of the satirist, filtered through a careful collection of intertwined poetic references, contemporary mockery, and caricatures, results in a challenging genre. This book equips its reader with the tools for approaching the genuine character of the genre. It does not only benefit the student of Roman satire. The reader of Old Attic Comedy is offered new insight into the genre’s reception in antiquity.5 At the same time, the influence of Old Comedy on the understanding of Roman satire, as influenced at its core by elements inextricable from its function, promises a fruitful investigation of the development of the genre beyond antiquity. Overall, it is a thought-provoking work and a valuable contribution to current studies of both Roman satire and of Old Comedy.


1. Diomedes, Ars Grammatica III, p. 485, in Keil, H. (ed.), Grammatici Latini, vol. I (rep. in Cambridge Library Collection), Cambridge 2009.

2. Van Rooy only ‘partially’ addresses the relationship between the two genres: Van Rooy, C.A., Studies in Classical Satire and related Literary Theory, Leiden 1966, 144ff.

3. The author’s previous discussion on the matter: J. Ferriss-Hill, ‘ Talis Oratio Qualis Vita : Literary Judgments as Personal Critiques in Roman Satire,’ in R. Rosen, and I. Sluiter (eds.), Aesthetic Value in Classical Antiquity, Leiden 2012, 365-91.

4. I have only picked out a problematic font for the Greek characters on p. 136 and a lack of punctuation on p. 145.

5. With a recent volume on its reception in Rome: C. Marshall, and T. Hawkins (ed.), Athenian Comedy in the Roman Empire, London; New York 2015.