Reading satire two thousand years after it has been written is complicated. I was recently listening to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast about satire and he contends that there’s a certain brilliance in good satire that allows the thematic contact to be embraced by both ends of a political spectrum. For example he offers the Colbert Report. Both liberals and conservatives loved the Colbert Report for exactly opposite reasons. The liberals laugh at how ridiculous the conservative stooge is while the conservatives sit back and admirably give Colbert credit for lambasting the degenerate liberals.
The brilliance is that it’s evenly accessible. The complication is that the truth is ambiguous.
Many of the reviews that I’ve read on “A Gallery of Women” take the bait and jump onto the platform that Juvenal was a rabid misogynist, excoriating the declining morals of the Roman citizenry. While this is definitely what the narrator is doing, to attribute this position to Juvenal misses the brilliance of satire.
I think (based on my very limited knowledge) as a cat plays with a ball of yarn, he is playing with a ball comprised of the Augustan social laws and in particular the Justinian law of marriage.
A little background:
“In 18 B.C., the Emperor Augustus turned his attention to social problems at Rome. Extravagance and adultery were widespread. Among the upper classes, marriage was increasingly infrequent, and many couples who did marry failed to produce offspring. Augustus, who hoped thereby to elevate both the morals and the numbers of the upper classes in Rome, and to increase the population of native Italians in Italy, enacted laws to encourage marriage and having children (lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus), including provisions establishing adultery as a crime.” (http://www.unrv.com/government/julianmarriage.php)
Perhaps for the 500 years predating the demise of the Roman Republic, Rome had been trying to figure out this whole marriage thing. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus was from one of the oldest and most powerful families in the Roman Republic and offers us this little gem:
"If we could survive without a wife, citizens of Rome, all of us would do without that nuisance; but since nature has so decreed that we cannot manage comfortably with them, nor live in any way without them, we must plan for our lasting preservation rather than for our temporary pleasure.”
In “What to do with a Fish” we see Juvenal’s scathing critique of the inefficacy of the political system, in particular the senate. The fishermen are unsure of how to proceed after catching a huge and enigmatic fish. Nothing like this has ever been seen before and as the divine and august ruler from heaven shouldn’t all enigmatic fish by default be property of the Caesar? The citizenry immobilized with fear at the thought of committing some impropriety, wait with baited breath as the senators debate the pros and cons of large fish. Then after much debate and pontificating about all things piscivorian, no conclusions are made. Large boxes are suggested and a guard of potters are encouraged to stand at the ready to fashion earthenware vessels for cooking all future gigantic fauna.
Juvenal is writing during the Pax Romana, in an era of unprecedented peace and wealth and there is an incongruous melding of the Augustan social laws and the reality of the inefficacy of the moralizing political system.
In his Protesilaus Euripides claims: “whoever, lumping them together, finds fault with all women collectively is stupid and unwise.”
And as if taking his cue, Juvenal’s narrator takes his role as the rabid moralizer, finding fault with even the Penelopes of this world that sit quietly by waiting with chaste anticipation for their husbands to return.
“Not one from all these crowds strikes
you as worthy to wed?”
Let her be beautiful, gracious, wealthy,
fertile and spread
Noble ancestors through her halls,
let her be more chaste by far
Than any disheveled Sabine maid who
stopped the war,
Indeed a rare bird on this earth, as rare
as is a black swan.
But who could endure a wife who had
all the virtues known?
I’d much rather a wife used to
rural ways, than you,
Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, if
with your true
Great virtues you bring a haughty
pride and count with these,
As part of your dowry, your father’s
triumphs. I beg you please,
Spare me your Hannibal, spare me your
Syphon who fell
In his own camp- may all of Carthage
and you go to hell!
His poem opens with a nostalgia for by gone days prior to the scourge of society; this infestation of adultery and loose morals. The only historical era when women behaved themselves and chastity “lingered still on earth” was the epoch of cave dwelling. Think Cro-Magnon man, with lots of hair and guttural languages. Unlike these women of nobility that cry at the death of a sparrow, these real women skinned animals and slept in beds of leaves and twigs. They bore their breasts to suckle their young, while belching from a diet of acorns. They were unkempt and rugged and with no mirrors had no vanity. [1-16]
Ah. Those were the good old days.
But then Astrea withdrew to heaven with Chastity by her side and it’s been a downhill slump into moral decay ever since.
As a foil, and to slightly ground our talking head of rage, the narrator attempts to dissuade his friend Postumus from marrying. Anything would be better than marriage:
“What Fury, what
servants are driving you mad?
Can you let a termagant boss you when
rope is so easily had?
And so many windows open on dizzy
leaps and the hight
Of the Aemillian bridge so handy?
Even suicide would be better than the hell that is marriage, where the husband is destined to hate his wife sixteen out of every twenty-four hours.The rest of the poem discusses the minimal pros and vast cons of marriage as an institution and women as a sex.
The problem, is that women are so categorically unfaithful; ready to run off with a lover at the drop of a hat. And the Julian Law of Marriage which rewards the production of legitimate children is a farce. It is more likely little Johnny will have the color of an Ethiopian or resemble the husky Euryalus or some other gladiator. Women are fools for gladiators, and as anecdotal evidence to support this claim the narrator offers the wretched Eppia, the senator’s wife that ran off with an athlete. Left house and home to follow to the far ends of the earth a guy with muscles.
“A woman, if faced with danger for
just and honest cause,
Is afraid, her breast with terror
freezes, her legs are straws,
Trembling, and won't support her.
But if she’s doing a bold
And wicked thing, her courage never
fails. To be told
By her husband to board a ship is
cruelty; she gets sick
From the smell of bilge and rocking
skies. But firm as a brick
Is her stomach is she’s eloping with
a lecher. She’d vomit
All over her husband if he were there,
but now, far from it,
She eats with the crew, strides down
the deck, and even enjoys
Hauling and coiling rough wet ropes
with the sailor boys.”
The more a man is good and desirable as a husband the less beneficial by far will be his wife.  So there’s really no point in trying. Even if you were to marry a “good” woman, there’s no certainty she won’t turn into a Hellenomaniac and become obsessed with Greek culture and language. Profanity and obscenity is always so much worse when whispered with a bad accent into the ear of a lover.
Or what if she exploits her husband’s generosity and imposes a system of tyranny? Under the Julian law the husband was not allowed to sell or parcel out any part of his wife’s dowry without her permission and consent. In the unlikely case that the husband chastised his wife, she could always leave him and take her dowry with her. This had the potential to create a system where men would put up with increasing levels of debauchery in order to retain property.
You’ll never address
A gift if she says no, never sell
things if she objects,
Never buy anything unless she consents.
And she will select
Your friends for you and turn your now
aged friend from the door
That saw his beard first sprouting.
Although the entire corps
Of pimps and trainers are free to draw
up wills as they please,
And gladiators have the same right,
your helpmeet sees
That you list as heirs more than one
rival of your own.
Women are cruel and litigious. They are quarrelsome and frivolous. With one anecdote after another the narrator makes his claim that women have few if any redeeming qualities. Class is irrelevant, both upper and lower class women have one primary agenda: to seek, kill and destroy the men in their life with calculated cruelty and subjugation.
Halfway through the poem the foil asks: How did we get here? Where did these monsters come from? The narrator responds with the view that poverty has kept women in check for generations, it is only now in the era of Pax Romana that luxury and boredom have given birth to unfettered depravity.
Long ago the humble state of wives
of Latium forced
Them to be chaste. Long hours of
toil, short hours of sleep,
Hands chafed and calloused by Tuscan
wool, the closer sweep
Of Hannibal toward the city, husbands
on guard for Rome
On the Colline tower, kept vice from
polluting the modest home.
Now we suffer the woes of long peace.
Luxury, more savage
Than war, has smothered us, avenging
the world we ravage.
The narrator then as one would expect waxes xenophobic. It’s not just luxury that has saturated our women with moral decay it’s also all those foreigners with their filthy oysters and Falernian wine…
Interestingly, Rebekah Merkle makes a similar claim (minus the xenophobic part) in her book Eve in Exile and the Restoration of Femininity. She argues that luxury and boredom have created a species of pinterest obsessed disgruntled housewives and the bygone era of choice is that of the pioneers when women were too busy building sod dwellings and herding cattle to spend time thinking about whether or not they were legitimate or valuable.
Her take away is ultimately that women are legitimate and valuable (because they are made in the image of God) so they should be the best housewives they can be because that is their best contribution to society. Only instead of battling the siren call of adultery, Merkel battles the siren call of Feminism and her proscribed solution looks strikingly similar to that of Xenophon.
The Augustan Marital Legislation of 18 BC made the claim that there was nothing better than a wife that was modest, domestic and a good manager and child bearer. The ideal Matrona of the Roman Republic was a stay at home mom.
In a similar way, Merkel does the same thing that Juvinal does in jest. She picks an era to glorify and then demonizes everyone along the way that doesn’t fit into her ideal conception of “woman” (read: housewife).
I think Juvenal is actually more honest. The cavewomen belching acorns are a hilarious ideal to uphold, but between the lines of misogyny and misogamy there is a kernel of truth: illegalizing morality is going to do little to make any contribution to moral change. The Pax Romana world is filled with just as much corruption and evil and the world preceding it. There is no political solution to the depravity of men and women.