Thursday, October 17, 2019


Christine Schmitz, Juvenal. Studienbücher Antike, Band 16. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2019. Pp. 248. ISBN 9783487157412. €22,00 (pb).

Reviewed by John Godwin, Shrewsbury, UK (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This excellent book is the perfect introduction to Juvenal, intended for 'students and teachers of Classics' as well as readers in other subject areas. All texts are translated into clear German, and Schmitz goes out of her way to clarify her argument and explain terminology in a manner which is at once helpful and inviting to a student reader—although the discussion of verbal effects in Latin would probably go over the heads of a reader who knew no Latin. Schmitz tells readers what they will find if they read Juvenal, and also makes a persuasive case for why reading him is so gloriously enjoyable.

The first section (11-43) looks at the man behind the work. Schmitz weighs up the arguments for and against the persona theory which was the dominant view of the relationship between author and 'author' in the latter half of the twentieth century but which is now being heavily qualified and developed.1 When Juvenal says 'we', is he speaking for his own group or is this just a pose to add persuasive power to his rhetoric? Juvenal does hand the microphone to others (Umbricius in 3, Naevolus in 9) and he also adopts different roles for himself (host in 11, friend in 12)—and yet they all end up sounding like Juvenal, suggesting that the relationship between author and his voice is going to be complex rather than any simple hand-on-heart outpouring of personal feelings: as she puts it, the satirist is a shadowy figure in his own text (p. 22). Schmitz proposes (p. 25) a middle way between the extreme autobiographical reading of (say) Highet and the extreme persona reading, presenting 'ein satirisches Rollen-Ich, das auch autobigraphische Momente enthalten kann.' Juvenal is, for one thing, a poet speaking as a poet in a literary tradition—and so his language is anything but natural and the text is obviously a construct. The verse is his, but the indignatio is (perhaps) put on—the pretence that anger makes verse as instantly as the snappy words facit indignatio versum (1.79) would suggest is obviously not true. The apparent spontaneity is 'inszeniert', and Schmitz helpfully discusses the view of Juvenal as dramaturge, the ring-master of the circus around him (e.g. 4.1-2). The persona theory has been found useful to distance the author (and thus his readers) from the politically incorrect and rabidly xenophobic views expressed in the poetry, but (as Schmitz points out (p. 32)), this is all anachronistic assumption of what Romans may or may not have found (un)acceptable.

Section 2 (pp. 44-71) deals with Juvenal and the genre of verse satire, giving the essential facts about his predecessors and how he places himself in the tradition of Lucilius, Horace and Persius. This could have been relatively humdrum material but Schmitz spreads the net wider and takes the opportunity to look at what she calls the generic polyphony of Juvenal and his 'literary and metapoetic' stance. Her analysis of the word satura for instance—always a good place to start—is lively and ends with a tentative and witty definition of the Juvenalian form as 'eine deftige Mischkost'. A tiny phrase (1.164 multum quaesitus)—is opened up into a much wider debate on the poet's literary self-awareness and ironic stance. Juvenal's (ab)use of tropes from other poets is well-known but is here clearly and coherently demonstrated with key examples from such devices as: recusatio, paraklausithyron, epic diction and tragic motifs. This polyphony is often seen in the bathetic drop from the 'sublime to the everyday' (p. 62): 6.634-40, for instance, implicitly tells us that what was the stuff of Sophoclean tragedy is now everyday life,2 and this move is expressed in the style as much as in the simple meaning: 'gewaltige Verbrechen verlangen eine gewaltige Darstellung' (p. 67). Juvenal has it both ways: he makes full use of the persuasive power of epic and tragedy while still stressing that his themes are not simply dead myths and legends (a contrast which goes back to 1.1-18).

Section 3 (pp. 72-161) is the longest part of the book and offers brief summary readings of each of the sixteen individual satires in turn. For several of the satires (2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 14) Schmitz also adds a more detailed literary analysis of a short passage. This poem-by-poem detail is essential in any introduction to the poetry and (again) could have turned out as something of a routine exercise, but Schmitz has her own take on every poem and brings each one deftly to life. A few highlights (out of many) are: Umbricius in Satire 3 is seen as a reverse Aeneas, leaving Rome for Cumae (whereas Aeneas left Cumae for Rome): this tiny point is by no means essential to the understanding of the poem but lets the reader glimpse the writer at work in his poetic tradition. The putative parody at work in 4 is well discussed—pinning the joke on Statius is not really adequate—and she neatly smooths over the structural problems of this poem. The description of Satire 6 brings up the misogamist/misogynist persona issue again and Schmitz wisely warns (p. 106) against assuming that the poem is an 'Ausdruck eines konservativen Zeitkritikers namens Juvenal'. For one thing the women depicted are often literary and/or historical archetypes—although one could riposte that Juvenal is using any ammunition available to make his point, as with Lucretius' use (1.80-101) of Iphigenia as an exemplum. Satire 7 ought to be a strong candidate for an autobiographical reading with its depiction of the rotten life of poets, but in fact it satirises pathetic clients as much as stingy patrons. Schmitz looks at the crumbling statues of ancestors in Satire 8 and makes this poem memorable in her reminder of Juvenal's concluding remarks that we are all descended from peasants.3 Naevolus in Satire 9 is presented as a defrauded worker and also as abandoned lover (p. 127), and Juvenal both humours and mocks the deluded fool. In 13 the usual themes of consolatio are radically rewritten for the topsy-turvy world in which lost money causes more grief than dead people. Schmitz is especially good at restoring coherence to poems which have been written off in the past as disjointed and poorly structured: 14 seems to be unsure whether it is about education or auaritia but is in fact all about one thing, namely the social havoc which auaritia causes and how this only multiplies as new generations imbibe it with their mother's milk. Even the inordinate length of 14, she suggests interestingly, is itself an expression of nil satis est. The 'digression' in 15.65-71 is in fact part of the argument: J., as often, masks his formal design with apparent conversational flippancy.

Section 4 (pp. 162-177) looks at social criticism in Juvenal, focussing on themes such as clients and their patrons, the life of luxury and the cena. The same question crops up again—is this man a reliable narrator? Obviously the satirist uses the weapons of 'exaggeration and generalisation' (p. 162), and yet his literary construct must have some relationship with the world it purports to describe: and (as always) the narrative voice is itself subject to critical judgement and may be the target as well as the medium of the satire.

Section 5 (pp. 178-202) examines 'Juvenal's virtuoso technique' at work. Juvenal is, she reminds us, an artistic poet and for him 'the choice and placing of words are of greatest importance'. In this light she examines verbal artistry such as oxymoron and the satirical use of παρὰ προσδοκίαν utterances: hyperbole is well discussed, Schmitz showing both simple verbal forms of the device and also the more complex satirical use of universal generalisations involving mythical references (such as the overblown 6.656) and the cumulative use of exempla. From the overstated to the undersized, Schmitz next discusses the poet's use of diminutives: the Eppia passage (6.82-113: pp. 189-90) is revealing, as the narrator both focalises and satirises the woman's affection for her gladiator hunk Sergius with the amusing diminutive Sergiolus—a diminutive which is all the more amusing as this muscle-bound man is in fact getting on in years (6.105-6). Schmitz (rightly) argues against other recent commentators' more literal and biological understanding of ocellus here and sees it as 'Ausdruck emotionaler Verbundenheit'. She points out that the objective truth of the fighter's face—rubbed raw with his helmet and with a huge lump on his nose—is ironically contrasted with Eppia's idealising view of her man and his 'darling little eye', conveyed in the language of love-elegy and thus adding a further parodic twist to the satire. Schmitz analyses the verse technique with enthusiasm and with her own virtuosic authority, in such cases as the bathetic use of golden lines to describe what is anything but golden (e.g. 11.80), and the wonderful use of elision at 3.207 where the word opici eats verbally at the divina carmina as the mice nibble the books. Enjambement is shown to be a powerful satirical tool (e.g. 15.10-11) as the word emphasised is often as surprising as a punch on the nose. Metrical effects are everywhere if you know where to look, and Schmitz points out some striking ones: elision (e.g. 12.18 where the nube una becomes a single item) and the use of spondaic rhythm (e.g. 10.332-3).4

The final section (pp. 203-232) looks at the reception of Juvenal, beginning with the manuscript tradition and ending with Asterix. The sections on the manuscripts are a model of clarity, and the quick tour of Juvenal's imitators and admirers over the last sixteen centuries has some faces which are familiar (Johnson, Dryden, Victor Hugo) and some less so (Konrad von Hirsau). The command of secondary literature is very impressive and there are twelve pages of invaluable bibliography. There is a Stellenregister but no general index.

In summary this is a splendid introduction to Juvenal and ought to be placed into the hands of anybody wondering why increasing numbers of us are spending years of our lives reading this poet. The book is superbly proof-read and produced. It is a hugely helpful and warmly written guide to one of the most interesting poets in Latin: anyone who reads it will certainly want to read more.


1.   As shown for example in James Uden's The Invisible Satirist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) and Tom Geue's Juvenal and the Poetics of Anonymity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
2.   As he does in a different way at 15.30-32.
3.   Add to the bibliography: John Henderson: Figuring out Roman Nobility: Juvenal's Eighth Satire (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997).
4.   One could add to the bibliography on Juvenal's poetic skills the essay 'Juvenal the Poet' in Richard Jenkyns Three Classical Poets: Sappho, Catullus and Juvenal (London: Duckworth, 1982).

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