GUEST COLUMN
Juvenal: A Pagan & A Prophet of Sorts

April 2013By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

At the start of the second century A.D., the Roman satirist Juvenal lashed out against the vices of his decadent countrymen in sixteen satires. In “Satire VI,” here cited in John Dryden’s translation, he exposed the rampant lust of Roman women and showed that this vice was undermining the native culture and aborting a large part of the next generation of Romans.

He starts off by saying that, long ago, when human beings lived in caves, there was “that thing called chastity on earth.” The world was fresh and young, and women, “rough as their savage lords who ranged the wood,” nursed their robust children at their breasts. Even as late as the Second Punic War, when Hannibal stood at the gate, Roman wives were “poor, and therefore chaste”; they worked all day and slept but little. Since then, wealth has proven a worse enemy than Carthage by destroying the Romans’ “plain simple manners.” Ever since poverty has fled, “no lustful postures are unknown.”

The satirist wonders why his friend Ursidius, a rich old bachelor and a known lecher, suddenly wants to marry. Why doesn’t he hang himself instead or leap into the Tiber? Ursidius says he longs for a son to whom he can leave his fortune. Well, is he so far gone in madness, Juvenal asks, as to hope to find a girl in this “lewd town” whom her father dares welcome with a kiss — so much do Roman women’s kisses smack of lust? Sure, it’s possible that there might be a virgin in a lone valley somewhere, but as soon as she comes to Rome, goes to the theater, and sees actors performing sexual acts onstage, she’ll be like the rest. Inevitably, Ursidius’s longed-for heir will be the son of his bride’s lover.

Besides, the satirist continues, Ursidius must know that only dairymaids and cooks are still bringing children to birth and raising them. Elite women prefer to prevent conceptions or have abortions:
You seldom hear of the rich mantle spread
For the babe born in the great lady’s bed:
Such is the power of herbs; such arts they use
To make them barren, or their fruit to lose.
But thou, whatever slops she will have bought,
Be thankful, and supply the deadly draught:
Help her to make manslaughter: let her bleed….
Juvenal invites his friend to look around in public places to see if there is one woman on the crowded benches whom he can safely marry. Even if she’s chaste at their wedding, she’ll soon have lovers. Then his nuptial bed will become a scene of nightly combat as she, conscious of her own guilt, accuses him of having affairs with the servants. When he sees her weep, he will foolishly believe that her love is sincere. What, then, if he catches her in the act of adultery — will she then be shamed into silence? No, for there is “nothing bolder than a woman caught; / Guilt gives them courage to maintain their fault.” She’ll insist on her equal right to sexual pleasure and argue that both she and her husband should “for their private needs provide.”


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