Juvenal’s Satire 6 is no longer laughing matter

In his Satire 6, the Roman poet Juvenal (sounds like juvenile) criticizes marriage and women.  Even worse, he’s an extremist.  Juvenal ridicules marriage and women extremely.  Juvenal’s Satire 6 has nothing like the personal abuse that Warner heaps on the monk Moriuht in an eleventh-century Norman Latin text (“you plant kisses on her buttocks. … keep your gums moist with shit.”).  Juvenal’s Satire 6 doesn’t describe vicious physical violence like the violence against men in medieval French fabliaux.  Juvenal’s Satire 6 doesn’t disparage women’s genitals like fabliaux disparage men’s penises.  The main point of Juvenal’s Satire 6 is to dissuade his friend Postumus from marrying.  Juvenal declares early in the satire:

And yet, in our day and age, are you preparing an agreement and contract and wedding vows?  Are you already having your hair combed by a master barber and have you perhaps already given her finger your pledge?  Well, you used to be sane, all right.  Postumus, are you really getting married? [1]

The satire ends with references to how wives kill their husbands — double-headed axes, knives, poisons, etc.  Juvenal failed to dissuade his friend Postumus from marrying.  Postumus (sounds like posthumous) apparently died.  Today readers tend to be more comfortable with men’s deaths than with Juvenal’s satire of marriage and women.

old hinny (offspring of female donkey and male horse)

Juvenal’s Satire 6 begins with an ironic description of a primitive, golden age.  It’s a time of pastoral cold, constraint, stink, gloom, viciousness, and ugliness:

the era when a chilly cave provided a tiny home, enclosing the fire and hearth god and herd and its owner in communal gloom, when a mountain wife made her woodland bed with leaves and straw and the skins of her neighbors, the beasts. … she offered her paps for her hefty babies to drain, and she was often more unkempt than her acorn-belching husband. [2]

At least that acorn-belching man wasn’t dead or forcibly separated from his children.  Moreover, the mountain woman didn’t rape the man like the mountain woman did to the Archbishop of Hita, lost and looking for directions in the countryside.  And even if she had raped him, he probably wouldn’t have had to pay child support like raped men do today.

Juvenal had great appreciation for women’s strong, independent sexuality.  From the introductory theme of chastity, Juvenal moves on to describe the “moment of pure Woman”:

The shout is repeated in unison from the entire grotto: “Now’s the time! Send in the men!”  If her lover’s asleep, she’ll tell his son to put on his hood and hurry along.  If that’s no good, there’s an assault on the slaves.  If there’s no prospect of slaves available, they’ll pay the water delivery man to come in.  If they can’t find him and there’s a deficit of humans, not a moment passes before she voluntarily offers her arse to be tupped by a donkey. [3]

Juvenal’s reference to a donkey reconfigures the donkey figure in Semonides of Argos’ bestiary of women, written more than 2500 years ago:

Another type is from a drab, gray ass;

She’ll do her work all right, and won’t complain;
but then she eats all day, all night — she eats
everything in sight, in every room.
And when it comes to sex, she’s just as bad;
she welcomes any man that passes by. [4]

While male donkeys readily mate with female horses to produce mules, female donkeys are much less willing to mate with male horses.  But human sexuality is socially constructed to be different from animal sexuality.  Any statement indicating, by what is said or what is not said, that male sexuality is different from female sexuality is essentially sexist and must be forcefully suppressed.  Female sexuality should be understood as the same as male sexuality, only stronger and more independent, because it’s always been suppressed.

While men’s sexuality has never been suppressed, men have had their testicles cut off.  Some men today geld themselves in the hope that doing so will make today’s ideal woman favor them more.  Juvenal indicates that such a strategy worked for some men in ancient Rome:

Some women are delighted by un-macho eunuchs with their ever gentle kisses and their unfulfilled beard — and there’s no need to use abortion drugs.  The height of their pleasure is when a crotch that’s already ripe with the blood of youth and its black quill is taken to visit the surgeons.  So it is that the testicles are allowed to drop and told to grow first and then, once they make two pounds in weight, Heliodorus {a surgeon} tears them off, to the loss of the barber and no one else.  … You can let a eunuch sleep with his mistress, Postumus, but don’t entrust your Bromius to a eunuch that’s no longer soft and needs a haircut. [5]

The mature eunuch with his heavy equipment would be too big for Postumus’ boy-friend Bromius, but not too big for Postumus’ wife, who apparently also enjoyed donkeys.  Men, even if you are gifted with two-pound testicles and hung like a donkey, don’t allow your testicles to be torn off to satisfy women’s demands for un-macho eunuchs.

The idea that Roman men enjoyed reading to each other work like Juvenal’s Satire 6 is laughable.  Juvenal probably wrote his satires about the year 100, but they were largely unknown until the fourth century.[6]  Work like Juvenal’s Satire 6 discomforts men much more than it does women.  Juvenal wrote:

I’m making all this up, am I, letting satire put on tragic high heels?  I’ve exceeded the legal limits of my predecessors and I’m ranting with rotundity worthy of Sophocles a grand song that’s new to the Rutulian hills and the Latin sky?  If only this were really nonsense! [7]

Juvenal’s Satire 6 became widely read only with historical distance.  That Juvenal’s Satire 6 isn’t widely read today is deeply troubling.

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[1] Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 25-8, from Latin trans. Braund (2004) p. 235.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are trans. id.  Translations of Juvenal’s Satire 6 are available online by A.S. Kline (2011) and by G.G. Ramsay (1918).  Courtney (1980), a massive commentary on Juvenal’s satires, is fully available online.  Braund (1992) points out that Juvenal’s primary orientation in Satire 6 is dissuading men from marriage, not attacking perceived faults of women.  Augustus’ laws encouraging marriage suggests that elite Roman men were reluctant to marry.

[2] Id., ll. 2-7, 11-13.

[3] Id. ll. 328-334.

[4] Semonides of Argos, Catalog of Women, ll. 42, 45-9, from Greek trans. Diane Arnson Svarlien (1995). Here’s an alternate translation by Wm. Blake Tyrrell.  With an insightful analysis of this poem, Konstan (2014) concludes:

Semonides’ poem is less a critique of the vices of wives than a satire on the fatuousness of husbands.

That understanding is similar to one wave of literary analysis of Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.

[5] Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 366-78. I’ve adapted the English translation slightly to make the sense clearer. On a eunuch serving as a relatively safe instrument for a wife’s adultery, Anthologia Latina 97 (R108), trans. Kay (2006) p. 122. Similarly Terence, Eunuchus 665f; Martial 6.67; Ambrose, Hexameron, 5.3.9.

[6] Braund (2004), introduction, p. 29.

[7] Id. ll. 634-8.  After much academic posturing and positioning, Toscano (2013) challenges the “settled view of Attic Greek male homosociality that was entirely blind to or unmoved by female desire.”  If only this wasn’t really nonsense!  Id., p. 35, romantically concludes:

Though it is difficult to penetrate the inscrutable gazes of the figures in Attic vase paintings, nevertheless, in the spaces in between them — in the gap between possibility and fulfillment — may be caught a fleeting glimpse of female desire.

In more enlightened times, female desire was well-recognized.

[image] Old hinny (offspring of female donkey and male horse) in Oklahoma, U.S.  Thanks to Ragesoss and Wikipedia.


Braund, Susanna H. 1992. “Juvenal — Misogynist or Misogamist?” The Journal of Roman Studies. 82: 71-86.

Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Courtney, Edward. 1980.  A Commentary on the Satires of Juvenal. California Classical Studies 2 (2013 reprint). Berkeley, CA.

Kay, N. M. 2006. Epigrams from the Anthologia Latina: text, translation and commentary. London: Duckworth.

Konstan, David. 2014. “Laughing at Ourselves: Gendered Humor in Classical Greece.”  In Anna Foka and Jonas Liliequist, eds. Humour, Gender and Laughter Across Times and Cultures. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

Toscano, Margaret M. 2013. “The Eyes Have It: Female Desire on Attic Greek Vases.” Arethusa. 46 (1): 1-40.

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