BMCR 2021.07.37

Gender and sexuality in Juvenal’s Rome: Satire 2 and Satire 6

, , Gender and sexuality in Juvenal's Rome: Satire 2 and Satire 6. Oklahoma series in classical culture, volume 59. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020. Pp. xiv, 164. ISBN 9780806164885 $29.95.


Writing a book like this for the #MeToo generation was always going to be a brave venture. Satire 6 (which the authors call (p.ix) a ‘monster’ in more ways than one) is offensive towards women, while Satire 2 attacks any deviation from heterosexuality. It is to the authors’ great credit that they neither shy away from, nor try to explain away, problems encountered by modern readers. The book’s blurb promises a ‘fresh and student-friendly translation of two of Juvenal’s most provocative poems’ and tells us that ‘the poems compel readers to critique the discourse of gender stereoptypes and misogyny’. These two objectives — of translating poetry and also using it as a basis for more general discussion of social values and mores — are married very well in this expertly written volume.

Most of the book (roughly 120 of its 164 pages) is taken up with explanation rather than translation. The introduction (by Sarah H. Blake) looks at what we know of the life and the textual transmission of Juvenal, before moving into wider discussion of Roman social attitudes. She guides us clearly and succinctly through Juvenal’s predecessors in verse satire before approaching the key issue of persona theory, teasing out the links between satire and rhetoric and noting the difficulties of equating the speaker of the text with its author. Wider fields of gender expectations in ancient Rome are then discussed — a world where both norms and deviations remind us of the phallocratic nature of Roman society, where terms for deviance were used as expressions of political power and vituperation, and where women could both be idealised as matronae and vilified as meretrices. A splendidly informative section on ‘Marriage and Morality: from Republic to Empire’ gives a lively account of the legal situation faced by a Roman wife, reminding us that for all the masculine dominance and sentimental elevation of the univira, women could (and did) divorce and remarry. Sarah Blake eloquently analyses the moralising tropes of ancestral tough austerity being undermined by dangerous luxury. She also suggests that the Augustan leges Juliae could be seen as an attempt by the emperor to be seen to be reversing the destabilisation of the family — a bid to persuade Romans that he was restoring the republic between the sheets as well as in the senate-house. Domitian later took this to desperate lengths — burying a Vestal alive and having her lovers beaten to death — but in all cases the reason for the panic was a perceived increase of female liberty in imperial women, which was hardly surprising in a world ruled by a family rather than by a political faction. On the other hand, women had been given literary power long before Juvenal: the elegists’ figure of the puella shows the masculine ideology of dominance being willingly dismantled in favour of servitium amoris. Juvenal and his audience (she suggests) have it both ways: women are condemned as disgraceful, while at the same time their sexual behaviour is mined for a prurient combination of ‘fascination commingled with disgust’ (p.24). This is all excellent pedagogical material for students beginning to grapple with the oddities and the inconsistencies of Roman society, and it leads neatly into a clear and enthusiastic analysis of each of the two satires translated here. Satire 2 ‘takes aim at Roman men who deviate from traditional norms of masculinity’ and is described and discussed for the exuberantly offensive text which it is—a masterpiece of rhetorical élan which manages to disguise its author even as it exposes his targets. Satire 6 (‘Women. You can’t live with them… Full stop’ (p.27)) is a ‘long and unanswered monologue’ which ‘amplifies all the previous literary misogyny as if through a megaphone’ (p.28). The discussion here sets the scene for the translation and also gives the reader all due trigger-warnings, conveying a good sense of why this text matters, despite (or because of) the views being presented. The introduction concludes with a short and snappy account of the ‘Afterlives of Juvenal’ which also acts as an apologia for the book as a whole: modern forms of misogyny and homophobic/transphobic ideas sometimes claim classical texts such as this as ‘authority and validation’ and Sarah Blake asserts powerfully (p.36) that ‘understanding the mechanisms of misogyny and gender inequality both ancient and modern remains an important task for… anyone who wants the world to be a safer place for women, girls, those who identify as LGBTQ2S, and at-risk men and boys’. The book ends with a bibliography which points readers to a wide range of (anglophone) secondary sources where further discussion can be found.

The text translated is that of Clausen’s OCT, and Chiara Sulprizio (hereafter ‘S.’) omits lines marked as spurious in that edition. The translation certainly succeeds in conveying the sense of the Latin in a form of English which speaks directly to a modern audience. Look for example at 2.61-3:

tu nube atque tace: donant arcana cylindros.
de nobis post haec tristis sententia fertur?
dat veniam corvis, vexat censura columbas.

‘So, girl, get married and stay quiet, because secrets will get you some big, shiny stones.
Yet even after all this, they still pass judgement on us?
Such a verdict favors the crows and faults the doves.’

The snappy imperatives in the Latin are perfectly captured, the exotic cylindros are well unpacked for quality and size and the one-line sententia of line 63 is elegantly rendered into a balanced statement, with the legal flavour of the Latin well picked up in the translation.

Towards the end of Satire 6 the speaker is using theatrical names for rhetorical effect and the translation here matches the Latin closely:

illam ego non tulerim quae computat et scelus ingens
sana facit. spectant subeuntem fata mariti
Alcestim et, similis si permutatio detur,
morte viri cupiant animam servare catellae.
occurrent multae tibi Belides atque Eriphylae
mane, Clytaemestram nullus non vicus habebit.

‘But the woman who plots a heinous crime and coolly and calmly commits it—
that I could never tolerate.
They witness Alcestis’ experience, the fate of her husband—if
they got a chance at a switch like that,
they’d want to use their husband’s death to save the life of a puppy.
So many of Belus’ granddaughters and Eriphyles will cross your path in the morning
and no neighbourhood will go without its Clytemnestra.’

The English runs rhythmically and smoothly, keeping the pace and the force of the Latin and even using ‘c’ alliteration to match the hissing sibilants of the original. sana (stressed in its enjambement) is rightly expanded into ‘coolly and calmly.’ spectant subeuntem, where the women — like the audience in the theatre — ‘watch’ Alcestis ‘undergoing’ the fate which rightly belonged to her husband, is perhaps less vividly conveyed (‘witness Alcestis’ experience’), but the translation of 654 perfectly places the puppy in the English (as in the Latin) as the bathetic climax of the line, and the double negative of nullus non is well rendered with ‘no…will go without.’

Some versions of ancient texts modernise ancient names into either generalities or else well-known  recent equivalents of ancient characters, but this is something which Sulprizio rarely does. Where she does so, the results can be breathtaking and hilarious, as at 6.74 (p. 106), where Chrysogonus (whose name means ‘Golden Gonad’ as the note explains) is given the soubriquet “Ol’ Blue Balls” in reference to ‘the legendary singer Frank Sinatra, whose nickname was “Ol’ Blue Eyes”.’

Sulprizio provides excellent guidance for the reader who needs help in understanding the many references in the text to history, mythology, society and politics. The explanatory notes do a wonderful job of making this ancient text accessible to a modern audience and also adumbrate areas where further discussion is needed. We are alerted to places where the text and/or the meaning is uncertain (e.g. 6.O7-13), to places where a further layer of innuendo may be present in the Latin (e.g. 2.133) and above all to the essential background information (e.g. on the Gracchi (p.49), on Messalina (pp.109-110), the dowry (pp.112-113), the Bona Dea (pp.128-9)) along with some acute literary comments (e.g. p.51, pp.61-2).

Translating Juvenal also takes courage, especially when it comes to the obscenity. Earlier translators would euphemise unpleasant words such as cinaedos: for Nahum Tate in the 17th century these men were ‘Rakehells’, for Ramsay in his 1918 Loeb translation they were ‘reprobates’. In the 20th century translators had more license to shock, and so in 1963 Creekmore calls them ‘buggers’, Green opts for ‘fairies’, and Braund (in the revised Loeb) uses the term ‘pathics’. Times have changed again and so, while the translator is honour bound to convey the full force of the original, there is an aversion to language which in other contexts would be unprintable. In the case of cinaedos Sulprizio opts for the modern derogatory term ‘faggot’ (at 2.10 and 6.O3) but in both places explains and excuses the use of the word in her notes.  Elsewhere she does not shy away from the full force of the Latin (caveat lector) and uses some primary obscenities even when the Latin does not (e.g. ‘piss-pot’ for the neutral word scaphium at 6.264). The translation uses modern American slang, so that women ‘barf’ (6.101, 6.431), both sexes ‘twerk’ (2.21, 6.322), a ‘boy-toy’ has ‘gotten buff’ (6. 378) and doctors cut haemorrhoids from your ‘butthole’ (2.12).

This little book punches well above its weight. It will make a splendid resource for students on college courses at undergraduate and graduate level, many of whom will know no Latin, and I would be amazed if these Latinless readers were not inspired and encouraged by it to start learning the language for themselves to get more from this inexhaustible and fascinating text.