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 {basia des natibus. … stercore genzivas atque habeas himidas}.”).[1]  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.  No, not at all. The main point of Juvenal’s Satire 6 is merely to dissuade his friend Postumus from marrying.  Juvenal declares early in the satire:

Nonetheless, you’re preparing an agreement, contract, and wedding vows
in our day and age? Already you’re arranging to have your hair combed
by a master barber, and perhaps you’ve given her finger your pledge?
Well, certainly, you were once sane. Postumus, are you really getting married?

{ Conventum tamen et pactum et sponsalia nostra
tempestate paras iamque a tonsore magistro
pecteris et digito pignus fortasse dedisti?
certe sanus eras. uxorem, Postume, ducis? }[2]

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:

Then a chilly cave
provided a little home. The fire and hearth god
and herd and masters were enclosed in shared gloom.
Then a hill-betty wife spread out her woodland bed with
leaves and straw and the skins
of wild-beast neighbors, …
The wife offered her breasts to her mighty infants to drink,
and often she was rougher than her acorn-belching husband.

{ … cum frigida parvas
praeberet spelunca domos ignemque laremque
et pecus et dominos communi clauderet umbra,
silvestrem montana torum cum sterneret uxor
frondibus et culmo vicinarumque ferarum
pellibus, …
… potanda ferens infantibus ubera magnis
et saepe horridior glandem ructante marito.}[3]

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”:

Then is the moment of pure woman.
In unison the shout is repeated from all the grotto:
“Now it is fated! Send in the men!” If the wife’s adulterer is asleep,
she’ll order his young son to put on a hood and hasten.
If that’s not possible, an assault is made on the slaves. Lacking hope
of slaves, she’ll approach the water-delivery man. If he has been
sought and men are still lacking, no moment by itself
takes less time than for her ass to get positioned to be mounted by a donkey.

{ tum femina simplex,
ac pariter toto repetitus clamor ab antro
“iam fas est, admitte viros.” dormitat adulter,
illa iubet sumpto iuvenem properare cucullo;
si nihil est, servis incurritur; abstuleris spem
servorum, veniet conductus aquarius; hic si
quaeritur et desunt homines, mora nulla per ipsam
quo minus inposito clunem summittat asello. }[4]

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 dusty-gray donkey
used to repeated blows. When forced and threatened
she consents to all tasks and does acceptable work.
But then all day and night she eats;
at hearth and inner room she eats.
Likewise, too, regarding sex:
she accepts any partner that comes along.

{ τὴν δ᾽ ἐκ σταδαίης καὶ παλιντριβέος ὄνου,
ἣ σύν τ᾽ ἀνάγκῃ σύν τ᾽ ἐνιπῇσιν μόγις
ἔρεξεν ὦν ἅπαντα καὶ πονήσατο
ἄρεκτα: τόφρα δ᾽ ἐσθίει μὲν ἐν μυχῷ
προνὺξ προῆμαρ, ἐσθίει δ᾽ ἐν ἐσχάρῃ:
ὁμῶς δὲ καὶ πρὸς ἔργον ἀφροδίσιον
ἐλθόνθ᾽ ἑταῖρον ὁντινῶν ἐδέξατο. }[5]

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 uncombative eunuchs with always soft
kisses and hopelessness of having a beard —
and skill with abortion isn’t necessary. Such women’s pleasure
is at its very height when a groin ripe with a young man’s heat
and with black pubic hair is dragged to the surgeon.
Thus they first wait for the body’s orders to grow
testicles, then after the testicles have reached two pounds,
Heliodorus the surgeon rips them off, only to the beard-shaver’s loss.
The slave-dealer’s boys are ravaged by a real and wretched
debility, shamed by the sack and chickpea that remains.
In contrast, conspicuous and notable to all from afar,
he whom his lady-lord made a eunuch enters the baths. He can
challenge Priapus, guardian of vine and garden. He may sleep
with his lady-lord, but Postumus, even when your Bromium is hard and
shaving, don’t entrust him to the eunuch.

{ Sunt quas eunuchi inbelles ac mollia semper
oscula delectent et desperatio barbae
et quod abortivo non est opus. illa voluptas
summa tamen, quom iam calida matura iuventa
inguina traduntur medicis, iam pectine nigro.
ergo expectatos ac iussos crescere primum
testiculos, postquam coeperunt esse bilibres,
tonsoris tantum damno rapit Heliodorus.
(mangonum pueros vera ac miserabilis urit
debilitas, follisque pudet cicerisque relicti.)
conspicuus longe cunctisque notabilis intrat
balnea nec dubie custodem vitis et horti
provocat a domina factus spado. dormiat ille
cum domina, sed tu iam durum, Postume, iamque
tondendum eunucho Bromium committere noli. }[6]

The mature eunuch with his heavy equipment would be too big for Postumus’ boy-friend Bromius post-puberty, 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 uncombative 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.[7]  Work like Juvenal’s Satire 6 discomforts men much more than it does women.  Juvenal wrote:

So, I’m faking this; satire putting on the high boots of tragedy,
one presumes, and I’ve gone beyond the legal limit of my predecessors.
Open-mouthed, I’m drunkenly raving poetry of Sophocles
unknown to the Rutulian hills and Latin sky?
If only what I’ve written were nonsense!

{ Fingimus haec altum satura sumente coturnum
scilicet, et finem egressi legemque priorum
grande Sophocleo carmen bacchamur hiatu,
montibus ignotum Rutulis caeloque Latino?
nos utinam vani! }[8]

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

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Moriuht, vv. 468, 472, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from McDonough (1995) pp. 104-5. Warner wrote Moriuht in Rouen early in the eleventh century.

[2] Juvenal, Satires 6, vv. 25-8, Latin text from Braund (2004) p. 235, with my English translation, benefiting from that of id. All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are similarly sourced.  Translations of Juvenal’s Satires 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 Satires 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.

[3] Id. vv. 2-7, 9-10.

[4] Id. vv. 328-334.

[5] Semonides of Argos, Catalog of Women (Fragment 7 from Stobaeus, Anthology), ll. 43-9, Greek text and English translation (modified) from Gerber (1999) pp. 308-9. Here are alternate translations by Wm. Blake Tyrrell (2001), by Diane Arnson Svarlien (1995), and by J. M. Edwards (1931). 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.

[6] Juvenal, Satires 6, vv. 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.

For “pectine nigro” in v. 370, Kline has “dark plectrum” and Braund, “black quill.” Courtney cites Pliny, Natural History 29.26, “pubes of women are exposed to public view {pectines feminis quidem publicati}” and the Greek “comb {κτείς}.” Courtney (1980) p. 269. See also Pliny, Natural History 18.296, “with comb held in hand {pectine manuali},” and Pontano, “To Elisius Gallutius {Ad Elisum Gallutium}” 2.2.25, “naked pubes and slender hips {nudo pectine, nudulisque coxis}.” In context, public hair seems to me the best translation.

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

[8] Juvenal, Satires 6, vv. 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.

Gerber, Douglas E, ed and trans. 1999. Archilochus, Semonides, Hipponax. Greek Iambic Poetry: From the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries BC. Loeb Classical Library 259. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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.

McDonough, Christopher J. 1995. Warner of Rouen. Moriuht: a Norman Latin poem from the early eleventh century. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

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

3 thoughts on “Juvenal’s Satire 6 is no longer laughing matter”

  1. Dude get a grip, I understand your inferiority complex makes it seem as if the world is against you but please consider looking within to see how you present yourself draws the ire of others. Your views make this informative and interesting article useless, please gain some perspective in the world before you speak on it.

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