Timeless Juvenal

Juvenal (Iuvenalis) has most certainly gained along the centuries the fame of being one the most sarcastic and caustic writer of all times. He is definitely disgusted and irritated by the diffused decadence of Rome during the Flavian ruling dynasty (69-96 A.D.). Juvenal is annoyed by the vices that characterised those years, and that to a certain extent can be considered as originated more by human nature rather than by the unbridled dissolution of that peculiar depraved society.


Juvenal spares nobody in his 16 satires: nobles, merchants, women, homosexuals, intellectuals or supposed so…, the mob itself, and above all those gold diggers who would do anything to climb within the Empire bureaucracy and get any parasite assignments, are victims of his disdain and invectives.

Strong words of condemnation against the effeminate and dissolute behaviours, a shame or even a sin compared to the glorious and irreproachable past; conducts that keep contaminating the Roman republican spirit:

Quid prodest…effigies quo
tot bellatorum, si luditur alea pernox
ante Numantinos, si dormire incipis ortu
luciferi, quo signa duces et castra mouebant?
cur Allobrogicis et magna gaudeat ara
natus in Herculeo Fabius lare, si cupidus, si
uanus et Euganea quantumuis mollior agna,
si tenerum attritus Catinensi pumice lumbum
squalentis traducit auos emptorque ueneni
frangenda miseram funestat imagine gentem?

Thus his compositions contain a kaleidoscopic harvest of chronicle on early Imperial Rome, and strike hard even its political fundaments, as for example against Emperor Claudius’ wife, the famous Messalina who reportedly used to leave at night the imperial palace under disguise (apparently a blond wig and a bogus name “Lycisca” were not enough, though…) in order to linger in low profile brothels of Subura (the Red Light district of ancient Rome) offering her favours:

…respice riuales diuorum Claudius audi
quae tulerit. dormire uirum cum senserat uxor,
sumere nocturnos meretrix Augusta cucullos
ausa Palatino et tegetem praeferre cubili
linquebat comite ancilla non amplius una.
sed nigrum flauo crinem abscondente galero
intrauit calidum ueteri centone lupanar
et cellam uacuam atque suam; tunc nuda papillis
prostitit auratis titulum mentita Lyciscae
ostenditque tuum, generose Britannice, uentrem.
excepit blanda intrantis atque aera poposcit.

Thanks to his writings Juvenal is also the “father”of timeless expressions, which again confirm his wisdom and that human nature has not changed one bit since then. As when he suggested that the best political instrument for a monarch to gain consensus and stability is keeping the mob by his side with very simple remedies like bread and circus:

…nam qui dabat olim
imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se
continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
panem et circenses.

Furthermore when it comes to laws and rules he wonders about the accountability of those who are supposed to enforce it:

audio quid ueteres olim moneatis amici,
‘pone seram, cohibe.’ sed quis custodiet ipsos
cauta est et ab illis incipit uxor.

Juvenal himself must have recognised he had no chance to live according to these scornful unacceptable rules and consequently to achieve any higher position. He was aware to be unable or unwilling to compete with this incredible amount of shallow people, praising and begging their patrons within their sycophantic role of clientes in order to obtain some little power or just an easier life. Juvenal most definitely must have felt left out of this profligate society, being a rather not very successful lawyer, still linked to those values of honesty and hard work emblematic of his countryside background and criticises and scorns the new metropolitan fever for easy life and uncontrolled consumes. Yet he strives in showing a different, steadier and genuine life style, but remains unheard:

orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano

His discouragement is palpable as he himself admits that someone with his character, beliefs and principles may be easily considered in his days both silly and anachronistic, and his disposition and views would not gain any favour or esteem among the metropolitan “clientes based” and corrupted Rome:

Probitas laudatur et alget

I guess people of such moral and intellectual stature are normally destined to be alone as the may become a very uncomfortable example for those who can instead live without so many scruples.

Subscribe Social Bookmark

Law’s supremacy in ancient Greece

It may be probably hard for moderns to profoundly and comprehensively understand the actual innovation consequent to the adoption of Laws in the ancient Greek world after the numerous tyrannies the Greeks πολεις had to undergo, where there was no other way out but revolution to regain their freedom; although it must be added that not always tyrants were bad monarchs.


Approximately around the V century B.C. the power of the law became supreme, individuals were in the first place considered as citizens – free citizens but bound to the law, because it was to this very same enforced rules that they owe their personal freedom. As Aeschylus in his The Persians proudly depicts within the scene when the Queen of Persia Atossa wonders about the people her son Xerxes is fighting:

ATOSSA – And who is shepherd of their host and holds them in command?

CHORUS – To no man do they bow as slaves, nor own a master’s hand.

And again Herodotus perfectly stigmatises this supremacy of the law when narrating Demaratos describing to Xerxes the character of Leonidas and the Spartans before the famous battle of Thermopiles:

“the Lacedemonians are not inferior to any men when fighting one by one, and they are the best of all men when fighting in a body: for though free, yet they are not free in all things, for over them is set Law as a master, whom they fear much more even than thy people fear thee”.

Nowadays we are used to a stated set of constitutional principles and then to their descending laws, codes, decrees and regulations. We are not surprised by their continuous enrichment or by their ever changing content to comply with the evolution of economic transactions as well as with the demands deriving from a more complex and globalised society – or more simply we hardly complain of their flexibility to any new political and lobbyist need. Although they influence many actions and aspects of our lives, we feel the laws far, detached from us as we do not directly enforce them or control that they are respected. In Athens – and to a certain extent also in several other πολεις of that age – things were quite different: participation was everyone’s prerogative as the principles of a representative democracy were still to come. As Theseus proudly explains to the Theban Herald in Euripides’ The Suppliants

“Sir stranger, thou hast made a false beginning to thy speech, in seeking here a despot.
For this city is not ruled by one man, but is free.
The people rule in succession year by year, allowing no preference to wealth, but the poor man shares equally with the rich.”

It is very important to point out though that this situation was principally due and limited to a very much reduced political population: only citizens, male and adult could actively participate to the government of the πολις, thus excluding women, the very many foreign residents and of course the slaves. Additionally those who lived in the countryside, formally entitled to participate to the assembly meetings, were often discouraged by the disturbance of leaving their farm and face a travel in order to reach town. Finally, many just passively participated to the decisions of the assembly as they were not bold enough or not rhetorically endowed to take the stand.

After tyranny the need for durable and solemn laws became a fundamental pillar upon which to build a new set of values for the new generations; the fusion of ancient wisdom and modern demands was meant to produce a set of invariable and non ephemeral rules, duties and rights to be enforced and respected by the entire population. This supremacy of the laws has many examples and these are not only relegated to Athens. For instance Herodotus narrates that Maiandrios who although chosen as the successor of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, resigned abdicating his powers to the people to be exercised under the safeguard of the laws:

μο, ς στε κα μες, σκπτρον κα δναμις πσα Πολυκρτεος πιττραπται, κα μοι παρχει νν μων ρχειν. γ δ τ τ πλας πιπλσσω, ατς κατ δναμιν ο ποισω· οτε γρ μοι Πολυκρτης ρεσκε δεσπζων νδρν μοων ωυτ οτε λλος στις τοιατα ποιει. Πολυκρτης μν νυν ξπλησε μοραν τν ωυτο, γ δ ς μσον τν ρχν τιθες σονομην μν προαγορεω.

[To me, as you know as well as I, has been entrusted the sceptre of Polycrates and all his power; and now it is open to me to be your ruler; but that for the doing of which I find fault with my neighbour, I will myself refrain from doing, so far as I may: for as I did not approve of Polycrates acting as master of men who were not inferior to himself, so neither do I approve of any other who does such things. Now Polycrates for his part fulfilled his own appointed destiny, and I now give the power into the hands of the people, and proclaim to you equality before the law.]

Within the range of century almost all over the Greek world legislators like Dracon and Solon in Athens or the mythical Lycurgus in Sparta, Zaleucus of Epizephyrian Locri and Charondas of Catana – started to produce laws. More likely they contributed to the process, which seems to be a more sedimentary and cooperative one: most of these laws embodied principles and precepts which were already part of any Greek moral patrimony. Some of them were enrichments of renowned Delphian traditions; others were to a certain extent formulated after the famous Seven Wise Men teachings rearranged and improved with a more practical approach meant to create judicious habits.

In fact Aristotle in his Ethics conceived the laws as generated by prudence or reason and a necessary premise for stability, since even though some actions might contrast with men’s natural inclinations – especially against other members of a community – they are endured and felt right and applicable because is the law that compels them:

δ νμος ναγκαστικν χει δναμιν, λγος ν π τινος φρονσεως κα νο. κα τν μν νθρπων χθαρουσι τος ναντιουμνους τας ρμας, κν ρθς ατ δρσιν· δ νμος οκ στιν παχθς τττων τ πιεικς. ν μν δ τ

Thus the law together with enforced habitude mitigates men’s impulses and compels them to a wiser and more social behaviour. Ultimately, what was actually new is that these laws were said to be neither dictated by nor ascribed to any God; they were a genuine product of human minds, had gained social acceptance and were meant just for the good of the community. Since their first appearance the law gained more and more credibility reaching eventually the status of spine of any form of govern, being this oligarchy or democracy.

As Theseus again proudly affirms in Euripides’ The Suppliants

“… when the laws are written down, rich and poor alike have equal justice,
and it is open to the weaker to use the same language to the prosperous when he is reviled by him,
and the weaker prevails over the stronger if he have justice on his side…”

Most certainly this is the best social achievement anyone could expect when living within any community.

πλθος δ ρχον πρτα μν ονομα πντων κλλιστον χει, σονομην

[the rule of many has first a name attaching to it which is the fairest of all names, that is to say “Equality”] Herodotus

Subscribe Social Bookmark

Tibullus: the poet of love and melancholy

At the very dawn of imperial Rome, an age of often pretentious cultural circles, arid encomiastic poetry, depraved customs and clientele-oriented writings Albius Tibullus outstands with his anchoretic lifestyle and a sincerely uninterested to fame and power attitude. Scarce information have survived about his background and life – even his praenomen is unidentified, nevertheless his poetry, harvested in Corpus Tibullianum (3 books of elegies whose last one is more likely ascribable to his patron Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus’ literary circle, as well as a Panegyricus Messallae), can assist us in portraying the main features of this romantic, melancholic and ascetic author. With Tibullus compositions elegies, which technically just identify verses written by following a precise metric (one hexameter followed by one pentameter) have almost become a sort of synonym of tenderly melancholic poetry and thus a genre.


Tibullus’ is a world of small things, sweet and reliable. He cherishes the stability and the benefits of a quiet countryside life based on being contented of what he has and not demanding for more. Resting under a tree or by a little river, far away from the city mob, leading amiably his herds and finally having a nice rest at night are his life’s pleasures, and if the Gods will assist and protect him he cannot ask for more:

Iam modo iam possim contentus vivere parvo
Nec semper longae deditus esse viae,
Sed Canis aestivos ortus vitare sub umbra
Arboris ad rivos praetereuntis aquae.
Nec tamen interdum pudeat tenuisse bidentem
Aut stimulo tardos increpuisse boves,
Non agnamve sinu pigeat fetumve capellae
Desertum oblita matre referre domum.
At vos exiguo pecori, furesque lupique,
Parcite: de magno est praeda petenda grege.
Hic ego pastoremque meum lustrare quotannis
Et placidam soleo spargere lacte Palem.
Adsitis, divi, neu vos e paupere mensa
Dona nec e puris spernite fictilibus.
Fictilia antiquus primum sibi fecit agrestis
Pocula, de facili conposuitque luto.
Non ego divitias patrum fructusque requiro,
Quos tulit antiquo condita messis avo:
Parva seges satis est, satis requiescere lecto
Si licet et solito membra levare toro.

Nonetheless Tibullus is not simply an ascetic poet praising country life (or rather a refugee from the morally decadent Roman society), he is truly shy and reserved, a naturally susceptible soul but capable of tenderness even for his herds:

Non agnamve sinu pigeat fetumve capellae
Desertum oblita matre referre domum

Tibullus, so sensitive, is clearly also an adoring lover, emotional and sweet as when he romantically treasures the moments spent under the blankets with his sweetheart while the storm outside is tapping on the roof:

…and the storm
That pelts my thatch breaks not my rest,
While to my heart I clasp the beauteous form

Of her it loves the best.

Tibullus melancholic mood pervades his verses, especially those referred to his misfortunate love stories. Delia (according to Apuleius probably the Hellenistic transliteration of Plania – Δήλος=planos) is his principal – albeit not the only one with Nemesi (Revenge – obviously a pseudonym) – inspirer and the protagonist of his first book of elegies. His inclination to sorrow, drama and melancholy are portrayed in sublime verses as those when he dreams of being mourned by his beloved when he will be dead:

With thine own arms my lifeless body lay
On that cold couch so soon on fire!
Give thy last kisses to my grateful clay,
And weep beside my pyre!
And weep! Ah, me! Thy heart will wear no steel
Nor be stone-cold that rueful day:
Thy faithful grief may all true lovers feel
Nor tearless turn away!
Yet ask I not that thou shouldst vex my shade
With cheek all wan and blighted brow:
But, O, to-day be love’s full tribute paid,
While the swift Fates allow.
Soon Death, with shadow-mantled head, will come,
Soon palsied age will creep our way,
Bidding love’s flatteries at last be dumb,
Unfit for old and gray.

Tibullus praise of a search for a protected, cosy retreat in the countryside where he can be quietly happy with his darling might have been disdained by many – if not all – of his contemporaries, and probably even moderns may label him with mediocrity and cowardice. Contrarily it is admirable his courage in refusing consistently the affected literary fashions, his poetry lacking of redundant mythological references and Alexandrine erudite allusions.

His is steadily scornful of the ethical dissolution of Roman ancient values and prefers unashamedly the aurea mediocritas:

My small, sure crop contents me…

Furthermore Tibullus shows no interest or greed at all for any political assignment or position and its consequent easy riches:

Non ego divitias patrum fructusque require

How many people would actually have been – and even nowadays be – bold enough do formulate these choices and endure them without any sincere regret?

Subscribe Social Bookmark

Myth and rationality

Much has been said, discussed and written about myth, its origins and its development, especially – but not exclusively – Greek and then Roman; as well as many are the scientific, sociological and psychological approaches that scholars, scientists, artists, philosophers and thinkers have adopted for its interpretation and explanation.


Interesting are the etiological attempts to describe and justify myths and the ethnographical analysis of the relationship between myth and nature, or myth and magic for instance has brought forth fascinating results from the anthropological point of view, some of which to a certain extent could be also applicable for interpretation to other communities; as Bronisław Malinowski noticed by observing the culture and death rituals of the inhabitants of Trobriand Isles:

“There is very often a myth at the bottom of a certain system of magic, and a myth is always local…
In all Kiriwinian [the natives] magic a great role is played by myths, underlying a certain system of magic, and by tradition in general…. The ancestral names mentioned in the several formulae form therefore one of the traditional elements so conspicuous in general. The mere sanctity of those names, being often a chain linking the performer with a mythical ancestor and originator, is in the eyes of the natives a quite sufficient prima facie reason for their recital. Indeed, I am certain that any native would regard them thus in the first place, and that he would never see in them any appeal to the spirits, any invitation to the baloma [spirit] to come and act; the spells uttered whilst giving the ula’ula [fee paid for the magic] being, perhaps, an exception. But even this exception does not loom first and foremost in his mind and does not color his general attitude towards magic.”

Notwithstanding these efforts, researches and achievements the whole question is still to be considered only partially solved as Arnaldo Momigliano clearly wrote:

“Queste opere vogliono chiarire il tessuto delle credenze religiose dei greci: ma il loro rapporto con lo sviluppo della filosofia e del pensiero scientifico Greco è ancora dubbio. Alla semplice domanda “perché Apollo” io confesso in tutta innocenza di non aver mai trovato una risposta”.

It is remarkable to notice that not all this production belongs to the modern age, as this intriguing topic has started quite soon to attract attempts to its own rationalisation. In the beginning of Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus stroll through the outskirts of Athens, nearby the river Ilissus, and lie down in the shade under a huge old tree. This outdoor enchanting scenario is minutely described, something unwonted for that kind of compositions and in that age, possibly just in order to stimulate the commencement of the following dialogue on myth and its origins:

PHAEDRUS: I should like to know, Socrates, whether the place is not somewhere here at which Boreas is said to have carried off Orithyia from the banks of the Ilissus?

SOCRATES: Such is the tradition.

PHAEDRUS: And is this the exact spot? The little stream is delightfully clear and bright; I can fancy that there might be maidens playing near.

SOCRATES: I believe that the spot is not exactly here, but about a quarter of a mile lower down, where you cross to the temple of Artemis, and there is, I think, some sort of an altar of Boreas at the place.

PHAEDRUS: I have never noticed it; but I beseech you to tell me, Socrates, do you believe this tale?

SOCRATES: The wise are doubtful, and I should not be singular if, like them, I too doubted. I might have a rational explanation that Orithyia was playing with Pharmacia, when a northern gust carried her over the neighbouring rocks; and this being the manner of her death, she was said to have been carried away by Boreas. There is a discrepancy, however, about the locality; according to another version of the story she was taken from Areopagus, and not from this place. Now I quite acknowledge that these allegories are very nice, but he is not to be envied who has to invent them; much labour and ingenuity will be required of him; and when he has once begun, he must go on and rehabilitate Hippocentaurs and chimeras dire. Gorgons and winged steeds flow in apace, and numberless other inconceivable and portentous natures. And if he is sceptical about them, and would fain reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy will take up a great deal of time. Now I have no leisure for such enquiries; shall I tell you why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous.

Thus when asked about the right location of the myth of Boreas – as its truth is rather meekly questioned to Phaedrus – Socrates proves he knows the traditions and myths as every man of his times was supposed to, moreover he actually finds those mythological stories and characters lovely and fascinating and yet their creation and strenuous enrichment and update a very painstaking job, besides rather worthless to him whose main interest is human nature investigation:

“And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me. For, as I was saying, I want to know not about this, but about myself: am I a monster more complicated and swollen with passion than the serpent Typho, or a creature of a gentler and simpler sort, to whom Nature has given a diviner and lowlier destiny?”

Apart from stating his true exploratory interests, Socrates, son of Athens of V century B.C. plainly shows this innovative – though having forerunners among some older Ionian thinkers – tendency to analyse myths under a different perspective, more ethic and aimed at rationality. This new horizon widens right in concomitance with the sunset of the classic Greek culture, a very critical phase of a civilisation that by some means had lost quite a few of its moral and ethical pillars and started seeking for new ones. To a certain extent this stage is not so distant from our own days where a palpable lack of certainties and the consequent spasmodic and ill-concealed quest for new steady points of reference is repeatedly creating new, though often ephemeral, true or false yet necessary myths. Decidedly I am inclined to believe in accordance with Jung that, regardless the level of rationality achieved even by modern societies, myths are still a considerable essential element of psychological and social stability. Ultimately, as an acute author whom I love has brilliantly stigmatised:

“el mito no solo explica el mundo, el mito ha de ser tambien cruel como la vida misma, para que los hombres tengan conciencia de su precaria humanidad y no se ilusionen”

Subscribe Social Bookmark