BMCR 2019.06.06

Juvenal’s Global Awareness: Circulation, Connectivity, and Empire. Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies

, Juvenal’s Global Awareness: Circulation, Connectivity, and Empire. Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. vi, 190. ISBN 9781138125308. $140.00.


San Diego’s 2012 Fourth of July Fireworks did not go to plan. A show that was supposed to provide eighteen minutes of entertainment erupted in some fifteen seconds. While at first puzzled, spectators were ultimately delighted by the improbable density of the fifteen-second show. Juvenal scholarship has come to resemble those fireworks. The hum of attention given to Juvenal has given way to a relative explosion of scholarship devoted to the Satires, with three monographs published in a recent twelve-month span.1

Enter Osman Umurhan, who uses the theoretical toolkit of “globalization” to highlight the variegated representations of empire in the Satires. He convincingly proves that modern ideas about global connectivity can enrich our discussions of literature produced under and responding to the Roman empire of the first and second centuries C.E. Globalization and empire go hand in hand: a central authority that “exerts political and military influence upon its subjects” (11) not only expands the reach of the empire, but also creates the framework and infrastructure through which interconnection can take root. Juvenal’s awareness of this interconnection, his “ecumenical sensibility” and “global awareness,” are shot through the Satires. Juvenal comes to terms with the inevitability of change under globalization. To Umurhan, Juvenal’s perception of this increased connection matters more than debates about the actual level of globalization in antiquity and modernity.

The various theoretical concepts are well laid out in an introductory first chapter (“Introduction: Geography, empire, and globalization”). Foremost is globalization itself, an intensification of interaction between localities facilitated by an increased flow of information, goods, and people. As Umurhan rightly cautions, globalization is not a single thing, and his later chapters thread together different processes that collectively constitute it: interconnection intensifies as the empire increases its territorial expanse; technological change and faster communication erase distance and change one’s perception of time (“time-space compression”); external goods and people penetrate localities and degrade an implicit link between “culture” and a fixed place like Rome (“deterritorialization”). Umurhan then segues into a reading of Satire 1 to tether these concepts to the specific images of motion that we see in the Satires. Juvenal’s desire to “tear across the plain” ( decurrere campo) where Lucilius once roamed is a perfect example. The Campus Martius, with its monuments, its hustle and bustle, and its connections to the Pomerium, is a site at which globalization, Roman imperialism, and economic exchange all converge.

Chapter 2 (“Culture and globalization: Satires 1, 3, 6–7, and 9”) investigates the tension that emerges between the “physical and cultural endurance” (38) of the city of Rome and the flow of goods and people facilitated by empire. The proliferation of movement vocabulary in Juvenal constantly underlines the threats that the influx of people and things into Rome poses to inherited institutions. Umbricius’s complaint that “the Syrian Orontes has poured into the Tiber its language, customs, and slanted strings…” (3.62–3) is a representative example of this movement imagery. Umbricius’s preceding gripe, “I cannot endure, my countrymen, a Greek Rome—although what portion of the dregs is Achaean” (3.60–1), encapsulates perfectly Juvenal’s tendentious response to deterritorialization and its uncoupling of culture (Greek) and locality (Achaea).

In the second half of the chapter, Umurhan zeroes in on Satires 1 and 7 and two particularly important institutions that are disrupted by these global flows into Rome. In Satire 1, the proper execution of the sportula fails when a non-Roman freedman jumps the queue and takes up a prime location by the patron’s door, thus physically dislocating Roman clients from their expected position. In Satire 7, those Romans who make a display of everything foreign embody the disintegration of Roman norms of identity-formation. The Roman Tongilius, with his predilection for Thracian boys and his gaudy rhinoceros-horn flask, is illustrative. In both Satires, Umurhan emphasizes the physical spaces in Rome where the renegotiation of inherited values takes place.

Chapter 3 (“Food and globalization: Satires 4, 5, and 11”) is all about food—where it is from, how it is served, and to whom. Food has an uncanny ability to evoke the territorial expanse of the empire and the threats that globalization poses to its spatial integrity. The fish of Satire 4 and the alternate cenae of Satires 5 and 11 show how food and its different origins bring about social and cultural differentiation. Particularly fine is Umurhan’s spatialized reading of the rhombus fish, the platter commissioned to contain it, and the imperial fishponds from which it purportedly escaped. The space that fish, platter, and fishpond occupy both evokes metonymically the full expanse of the empire and deploys ethically charged language of overextension to critique the morally deleterious effects of Domitianic excess.

The cena of Satire 5 systematically contrasts foods marked for their foreign origin, which are destined for patrons, with the dirty sewer-fish of the Tiber that clients are forced to eat. Here, the globalizing undercurrent of these different foods produces the breach of a banquet’s traditional etiquette. In response, Juvenal’s humble dinner of Satire 11 promises a meal of decidedly local fare that generally evokes an idealized past anterior to globalization. Not all here is of the Golden Age, though. The presence of some foreign fruits in Juvenal’s proposed menu hints at a middle path in which global flows can be incorporated into a successfully “reterritorialized” meal rooted in Rome and the present.

The human body is the food of Satire 15, which is the sole focus of Chapter 4 (“Globalization and the periphery: Satire 15”). The shift to Egypt offers a new perspective on the processes of globalization that had in earlier Satires been located in Rome. Umurhan traces the many thematic resonances between Satires 1 and 15. Most importantly, in Satire 15 Juvenal wrestles with the idea that satire as a genre—whose martial valor is the stuff of Satire 1—cannot cope with the circulation of moral decay across Rome’s ever-expanding territory. Satire might not be adequate to deal with moral failings shared by Roman patrons and Egyptian cannibals alike. Ultimately, Rome’s rampant incorporation of the foreign is one small step removed from Egypt’s cannibalism. If Rome continues along the same path, it “would simply eat itself, its institutions and empire alike, out of existence” (126–7).

Umurhan continues this discussion of the spread of bad behavior in Chapter 5 (“Globalization and the army’s circulation of empire: Satire 16”), which devotes considerable attention to the only partially extant sixteenth satire. The army is integral to Rome’s empire. But given the long literary history of soldiers behaving badly that Umurhan lays out, the soldier as a vehicle for territorial expansion cannot be extracted from his constitutive role in the dissemination of vice. The faults of the soldier are the faults of the project of imperialism, and just as the soldier brings about the empire, so too will he effect its demise. This image of the soldier sits rather strangely with the valorized Lucilian warrior-satirist. Sandwiched between these two valences of the soldier, Juvenal wonders just what place satire occupies in the flow of moral dissolution from center to periphery and back again.

In a brief epilogue (“The rhizome satirist”), Umurhan asks what “cognitive map” best gets at the satirist’s own position of flux under globalization. Umurhan brings to light our implicit reliance on a dendritic metaphor that creates spatial hierarchies of center and edge and a temporal procession from origins toward ends. To Umurhan, the theoretical potential of the rhizome—the horizontal root system of bamboo and ginger that allows plants to shoot up buds at various points within its network—holds real promise.2 The rhizome is itself a network; it is a centerless system that is always in the process of replenishing. It belies the genealogical image of a tree’s root system. All the Satires are in this ongoing “middle,” and their wandering heterogeneity is evoked by the root network of the rhizome. Juvenal is mobile; he can pop up, like a tuber, in the city of Rome or in Egypt. The end of the Satires is not an end, it is an “interval.”

Umurhan shifts our collective theorization from Juvenal (as author, historical actor, or persona) to the Satires itself. A rhizomatic Satires avoids an essentialized reading of Juvenal’s moralizing agenda or biographical background, instead focusing on Juvenal’s interest in peoples, places, and things that are metonymic of empire. Critically, Umurhan makes quite clear the connection between globalization and the recent resurgence of xenophobia, racism, and isolationism, all of which are uncomfortable but vital frames for our discussion of Juvenal.

Structurally, Umurhan’s decision to avoid complete coverage of every Satire and instead to prioritize the different manifestations of globalization across the Satires is a smart choice. But some discussion of Satires 13 and 14 might have helped Umurhan clarify the gaps between Rome’s globalizing networks of trade and the extent of its empire. Umurhan’s globalization tends to prioritize Juvenal’s representation of the empire and the interconnections within it. But as material evidence and texts like the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea make clear, trade networks that brought goods from much farther afield are also important for interconnection across the ancient world. The scope of these networks might help clarify just how ecumenical Juvenal’s “global” awareness is. As an example, I would have enjoyed some discussion of 14.277–83 and its claim that Romans will travel to the Pillars of Hercules and beyond, “wherever the hope of gain calls” ( quocumque vocarit spes lucri). It hints at Juvenal’s different responses to networks created for trade and those created for the expansion and then maintenance of provincial borders.

This potential clarification notwithstanding, Umurhan delivers a new and entirely welcome reading of the Satires. He succeeds admirably in walking a fine line: making a coherent argument for heterogeneity is no mean feat. Above all, the command of theory on display sets Umurhan apart; he is able to trace the historiography of different theoretical concepts with rare clarity. He offers a model for the considered and productive application of postcolonial concepts from which all those interested in Roman Imperial literature could benefit.


1. 2015–2018 has seen the publication of quite a few monographs that survey the Satires : Uden, J. 2015. The Invisible Satirist: Juvenal and Second-Century Rome (Oxford); Keane, C. 2015. Juvenal and the Satiric Emotions (Oxford); Larmour, D. 2016. The Arena of Satire: Juvenal’s Search for Rome (Norman, OK); Geue, T. 2017. Juvenal and the Poetics of Anonymity (Cambridge); Nappa, C. 2018. Making Men Ridiculous: Juvenal and the Anxieties of the Individual (Ann Arbor), the latter two of which are published too recently to be incorporated into Umurhan’s argument.

2. Particularly important is the theorization of the rhizome in Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari. 1980. Mille Plateaux (Paris).