Juvenal devotes an entire book (Book II) to the follies and crimes of women...or to be more accurate starts off with a harangue at the ills of marriage having heard that Postumus a friend of his is contemplating marriage. The guns are soon lowered on anything female in sight and we follow the satirist’s line of fire as he piles barrage upon barrage never failing to miss a target.
|l. 63-4 |
'Tuccia vesicae non imperat'
But no, all fall under his merciless high epic cleaver and in the process undermining the vantage point of the misogynist itself and it is this that makes me sense that earlier readers (Dryden for one – who wondered what had happened to Juvenal that had turned him so much against all womanhood) and some moderns are mistaken if they take Juvenal or indeed his constructed persona of the outraged equestrian jade at face value branding him in the process as a class ‘A’ Gender-war-criminal. Perhaps this less enlightened, black and white view has tended to diminish as modern scholarship focusses more on the concept of the Juvenalian satiric persona and its role in the presentation and development of the satires.
Its worth reproducing a part of Dryden's Argument to the Sixth Satyr by way of illustration of the extent and limit of his understanding. Its very perceptive as far as it goes but Dryden still appears to miss the possibility that it could be a conscious effort rather than an accidental result on Juvenals/his constructed persona's part which results in the reverse of its ostensible aim, that of the denigration and damnation of womankind and all her works. The underlinings are my own.
|l.481 'verberat atque obiter faciem linit'|
So much for Dryden. I can wholeheartedly recommend you to read the whole of the Argument as well as his Englishing of the Satyr itself. It flows well and sparkles as it fills the glass, ageing into an extremely fine vintage.
Satire VI starts off innocently enough with Juvenal’s ‘credo’ of a time where chastity and simplicity existed on the earth before the silver age (Hesiod’s ‘Arguron Genos’ the second of five ages of man), the time he tells us when the first adulteries took place, once the gods and the female divinities of chastity and modesty had fled the human world. The fact that it is a credo indicates that even this stock Alexandrian epyllonic mythic framing is already pretty suspect in Juvenal’s eyes and worth a quick sneer a la Johnny Rotten. Things go downhill pretty fast from there. Juvenal considers that his friend Postumus has gone mad and suggests some easier methods of self- destruction but Postumus counters that even the well-known gigolo Ursidius is getting hitched.
This is the blue touch paper for Juvenal and what ensues is a coruscating display of outrages – in high epic style. Readers must have recognised many of the allusions, some of them pretty obvious such as Messalina, the wanton and debauched wife of Claudius with her clandestine part-time job at the brothels and stews of Rome by night, but others, although they must have raised a laugh amongst the in-crowd of the time, are somewhat lost to us. Actors, gladiators, dancers, lyre players, teachers of all things (god forbid!) Greek and other names and allusions to figures now obscured by the clouds of time add a touch of obscurity, no doubt compounded by the often corrupted text. The sections referring to gladiators (The 'O' Passage and l.370/373A-350) are particularly difficult to unpack and interpret.
The translation I am reading (The Loeb translation of Susanna Morton Braund 2003 HUP), although quite often innovatively accurate fails in my opinion to catch of the double or even other layers of meaning hinted at throughout the text (I am thinking for example of the senator’s wife Eppia l.82 ff. who prances about on deck copping a feel of the sailor boy’s hard ropes! L.101 ‘haec inter nautas et prandet et errat per puppem et duros gaudet tractare rudentis’). Braund puts it more tamely as ‘handling the rough ropes’ but for me this doesn’t convey the full implication of ‘duros….rudentis’. But then again perhaps I am getting carried away again on an over inspired cloud of translucent chiffon! Juvenal can tend to do this to me…don’t get me started on the many references to swords, practice posts and grunting of female wannabe Murmillones!
Throughout VI, the satirist displays a mastery of rhetorical technical devices, literary allusions and socio-historical references which his educated audience must have revelled in and found levels of amusement which are regrettably lost to us. That notwithstanding, a lot of the force and majesty of the satire can still shine through and Juvenal uses a wide range of poetical and linguistic devices, alliteration, assonance, chiasmus and other clever arrangements which add colour and spice to this crushing bravura performance. The satire is so relentless and forceful that he takes things right to the possible limit of satire…up to the ramparts where his indignation and disgust can find no more space in which to flail and hack….like the roadrunner he has run out of tarmac at the end of the satire and it squeals to an end with the terrible and debased image of the botched poisoning of a husband aided by a swift stab of steel – ‘ferrum est quod amant’. It is no surprise then that he has to start off on a different tack with the next Satire having mined this vein to its roots.
|l.76-7 'accipis uxorem de qua citharoedus Echion aut Glaphyrus fiat pater..'|
By pushing the Satire to its limits and beyond and, as its perverse internal logic dictates, undermining its own theoretical foundations, has Juvenal escaped such accusations of mere misogyny? If this is plausible then can we in any way sympathise with him in his subtle praise by vitriolic yet ironic damnation? If his subtle conceit is successful, what in turn does that imply for the role and purpose of his particular form of satire? If there is no clear moral instruction on offer what can we expect to take away from a deeper reading of Satire VI?