BMCR 2018.09.02

Making Men Ridiculous: Juvenal and the Anxieties of the Individual

, Making Men Ridiculous: Juvenal and the Anxieties of the Individual. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018. xii, 224. ISBN 9780472130665. $75.00.


Christopher Nappa’s lucid and engaging study concerns Juvenal’s obsession with what he sees as a growing degradation of élite Roman masculinity and manliness. However, the behavior of the ‘proper Roman male,’ as Nappa shows, was also inextricably bound up with class and wealth, and this means that most of Juvenal’s memorable characters and vignettes imply a critique of far more than just Roman manhood. Nappa is careful to note that the ‘exploration of Roman identity’ and the ‘critique of Roman elite ideology’ (7) that he sees at work in Juvenal’s satires need not necessarily reflect a conscious and systematic authorial agenda, but may just as likely be a ‘side-effect rather than a goal of the poems.’

I will return to this theoretical conundrum below, but for now we may describe Nappa’s ‘Juvenal’ as a very particular character-type, whoever the historical Juvenal might have been. Some might call this a ‘persona,’ but Nappa knows too that this mostly just kicks the interpretive can down the road—only one person can create a persona, and that has to be an author; so we are back to the same problem when we try, as we must, to explain how (and what) a given persona came to be. Like most satirists of all eras, this Juvenal rants against the rich and powerful, not so much because he disapproves of wealth and power, but because he would like access to such things himself. Nappa points out the particular, very Roman, twist in Juvenal’s case. Juvenal sees himself as one of the wealthy élite—not an actually poor, downtrodden ‘man of the people’ vel sim —who bears all the hallmarks of inherited Roman privilege and status, but frets about the threats to his own masculine autonomy from wealthier and more powerful men of his own class, themselves corrupt and in various ways unmanly. It has to be said, as Nappa himself is aware, that Juvenal’s anxiety about masculinity and social status as such will hardly come as a relevation; even a cursory reading of Satires 2, 6, and 9, e.g., would make that much quite clear without very deep analysis. But the value of Nappa’s study is that he is able to follow this anxiety about masculinity, and all its associations, as a persistent and ramifying thread running through the entire corpus. After reading Nappa’s book, it does not seem overly reductive or simplistic to say that everything Juvenal rants about in his satires in one way or another points to a nexus of anxieties about gender, wealth, and social status. Nappa’s Juvenal is an even more singularly obsessive character than we might already have thought.

In the first chapter, ‘The Failed Satirist and the Failed Man,’ Nappa offers an extended commentary on the programmatic Satire 1, in order to show how, while ostensibly about poetics, the poem is as much about social issues as about bad public recitations. Indeed the three famous exempla that Juvenal mentions in 1.22-30 to explain why ‘difficile est saturam non scribere’ are all related to gender and social status, which, as Nappa makes clear in subsequent chapters, Juvenal continually links to manliness: the eunuch who takes a wife; Mevia chasing animals in the arena; and the foreigner Crispinus, once a barber in Rome, but now ostentatiously rich. The other characters in Juvenal’s rogues’ gallery of Satire 1 function as variations on similar themes, and have left Juvenal feeling excluded from the status and wealth he deserves by upstarts who have abandoned traditional Roman virtus and all that entailed. Particularly interesting and persuasive is how Nappa relates this general feeling of exclusion and failure to what he calls a failed Lucilian project. Juvenal announces at the opening of the poem (20) that he wants to become a new Lucilius, but in the closing lines of the poem he says that, because of the dangers of attacking living people, he has chosen to limit his satire to those already dead. The exact significance of this claim has been long debated, but Nappa links the failure to achieve true Lucilian libertas to a failure of masculinity itself: ‘in a society in which full possession of manhood is based on the premise of individual autonomy, realization that autonomy is gone is, in essence, an admission of failed masculinity’ (57). Juvenal is, then, ‘unmanned’ at the end of Satire 1 by virtue of his concession that he does not have the libertas to say what he wants with impunity.

Chapter 2 concerns images of the body, deployed by Juvenal ‘as a way of thinking through the relationship between the external world and the individual’ (61). By this point in the book, it will come as no surprise to read that Juvenal’s bodies are all about Roman masculinity, which Nappa see as fundamentally about ‘autonomy,’ i.e., control over one’s person, physical and moral, in all aspects of life. Juvenal certainly offers plenty of bodies of all sorts across his Satires for us to contemplate, seldom admire, and often cringe at. Nappa’s discussion here sets out to show that for Juvenal the body is typically a gauge of where one stands in the Roman social hierarchy. Here we find lively analyses of beaten, deformed (e.g., by age or disease) or destroyed bodies. One of Umbricius’ main complaint in Satire 3 about living in Rome, for example, is how physically dangerous it was. His description of the frenzied crowd of clientes scrambling for the attention of the dives (3.238-50) ends with Umbricius hit on the head and trampled to the ground. All the bodies described in this chapter—their transformations and deformations—reflect, according to Nappa, the various anxieties about status and gender that undergird so much of Juvenal’s satires.

Chapters 3 takes on the specifics of ‘class betrayal’ in Juvenal, with discussion in particular of Satires 8, 2, 11 and 5, in that order. In his treatment of Satire 2, with its description of a same-sex male wedding, Nappa finds the social dynamics as important as the more obvious issues of gender inversion. To begin with, Gracchus’ husband—a horn player, cornicen —would have been of low social status, possibly even a slave. This would have been taboo enough, as Nappa points out, but Gracchus’ fondness for gladiatorial fighting, too, is a mark of the class betrayal that Juvenal seems to be objecting to here. Nappa locates similar instances of class betrayal in Satires 5 and 11, where two abject characters, Trebius and Rutilus, respectively, are portrayed as chumps at the hands of wealthy hosts who misuse and dishonor their élite social status.

Satire 6 has been well studied especially by scholars interested in Roman gender relations, but Nappa’s spin on such familiar topics in Chapter 4 offers a variety of insights and readings that support well his larger argument. His main point in this chapter is that the poem is as much about the ‘unmanning’ of the Roman élite male as it is about attacking women. All of Juvenal’s examples of disreputable women paraded in Satire 6 in one way or another, once again, highlight the increasing de-masculinizing of the Roman élite male and point to a world in which élite women not only have debarred and emasculated Roman men, but threaten to obliterate traditional Roman culture altogether by producing ‘un-Roman imposters’ (165).

Discussion of Satire 6 carries over into the final Chapter (5), which is largely concerned with economic status and its relation to masculinity. One of Nappa’s own statements best sums up the thrust of this chapter: ‘…perceptions of virility and possession of wealth go hand in hand’ (170). Nappa spins out this idea with a compelling reading of Satire 9, which occupies the second half of the chapter. This poem, through its sordid tale of the down-and-out gigolo Naevolus and the miserly, effeminate patron Virro, is seen by Nappa as ‘an indirect critique of autocracy,’ with Augustus’ problematic Julian laws looming in the historical backdrop. Virro, in Nappa’s terms, was trying to live a respectable life that appeared to align with Augustan moral ideology—a wife, kids, wealth, status— but it was all for show; he was in fact heterosexually impotent and had to rely on Naevolus to father his children for him. Juvenal’s satire here, then, attacks not so much—or not only, at any rate— the sordidity of Virro’s and Naevolus’ lives, but the fact that ‘manhood, a fundamental characteristic of the proper, elite male, is itself liable to be bought, sold, and traded’ (189).

Satire 9, in particular, brings up some of the larger theoretical problems, to which I alluded earlier, that always seem to trail satirical literature, especially when we start to ask why someone might write such poetry in the first place. Perhaps a more urgent question might also be, for whom was Juvenal composing his satires? If his audience was largely the same Roman male élites he ridicules and scorns throughout his satires, as was likely, what is the nature of the laughter he hopes to elicit from them? He would hardly have wanted to offend them, since his success will depend on their affirmation of his poetry. If we could know who was laughing at what in the audience, we might be better able to gauge the tone and ‘seriousness’ of Juvenal’s ranting throughout his work, both of which seem always just out of reach in satire. Any reader of Juvenal notices immediately how often he undoes his own self-righteousness and indignation, whether through self-mockery, outrageously graphic language, and an obvious delight in describing the vices he supposedly deplores (on which, see further below). Such literary strategies do not necessarily undermine the kind of argument Nappa wants to make, which does not quite rely on assumptions about Juvenal’s intentions. But if Nappa wants to locate in Juvenal layers of free-floating anxiety about threats to masculinity in early Imperial Rome, as I think he has successfully done, it would have been helpful to confront somewhat more aggressively the ways in which these layers are mediated by the fact that Juvenal was ultimately a satirist. Satirists work in a world of distortion and comedy, and any cultural critique they may have to offer is rarely, if ever, delivered straight-up and ‘accurately.’ Irony is not always easy to gauge in satire, but there are enough obviously ironic moments in Juvenal to make it clear that, at least sometimes, the main goal of such moments is to amuse with the absurdities and incongruities that arise from them.

For the most part, Nappa is aware of these issues, but now and then there appears to be some incompatibility between his stated desire in the Introduction to set aside a ‘historical Juvenal’ and his attempt to use the poems for what seems to be a largely historical argument about first-century Rome culture. Nappa summed up this tension well himself with an unanswered question at the end of Chapter 3 (126), speaking of Juvenal’s reprehensible targets: ‘Juvenal may deplore the things they do, but, if that is his only motive, why the detailed and loving rehearsal of their vices? Just as he leers over the sexual misdeeds he began to retail in the first Satire, so too does he envy the freedom, the anarchy, these betrayers of class represent.’ This tantalizing topic is not pursued, but if nothing else, it seems to me that the figure of a satirist who also revels in the very vices he censures might at least add some tempering nuance to the ‘anxieties’ we might otherwise want to extrapolate from his rants. In writing this way, after all, Juvenal is adopting a stance common to many other satirists (closest to hand, one thinks of Persius, e.g., but there are analogues across the entire history of satire). So the answer to Nappa’s question, ‘why the loving rehearsal of vices?’ may simply be that sometimes, at least, Juvenal wanted to reveal his anxieties to be faux -anxieties, and that his aim was fundamentally comic rather than moralizing.

If Nappa has perhaps undertheorized Juvenal for my taste, he has gone far to illuminate with detail and sophistication the interaction of social forces that shaped and complicated masculinity in Juvenal’s Rome. Most significantly, he has demonstrated persuasively that most, if not all, of the many specifics of Juvenalian satire in some way point to a self-consciousness and, ultimately, anxiety about masculinity. Somehow, in Nappa’s hands, this does not make Juvenal into a dull and predictable one-trick pony, as I feared it might at the beginning; instead, it delineates more clearly than others have just how absurd, comic, and crazily obsessed Juvenal wanted the ‘Juvenal’ of his Satires to come across. Nappa also deserves high praise for his clear, no-nonsense, prose. The scholarship is thorough and well assimilated into the argument, but never distracts from the book’s trajectory, which remains clear and focused throughout. Juvenal still remains a hard sell for some, but scholarly interest in him is high at the moment, and Nappa’s study deserves a prominent place among the recent monographs and commentaries that continue to enrich our understanding of this enigmatic and controversial poet.