"Perhaps more than any other writer, Juvenal (c. AD 55-138) captures the splendor, the squalor and the sheer energy of everyday Roman life. In The Sixteen Satires, he evokes a fascinating world of whores, fortune-tellers, boozy politicians, slick lawyers, shameless sycophants, aging flirts and downtrodden teachers." -- Juvenal, The Sixteen Satires, Penguin Classics, Third Edition.
Note: An excellent, unabridged reading of the Satires is available from Audible.com.
"[Juvenal was] known primarily for the angry tone of his early Satires, although in later poems he developed an ironical and detached superiority as his satiric strategy," according to the Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed. revised). "...virtually nothing is known of his life...the absence of dedication to a patron in Juvenal's Satires may suggest that he was a member of the elite. The few datable references confirm Syme's assessment that the five books were written during the second and third decades of the 2nd cent. AD (or later), at about the same time as Tacitus was writing his Annals."
Comment: Juvenal is my favorite Roman poet. Earthy, cynical, outraged, comically obscene, his poetry seems strangely modern and I can sympathize with his disgust at the corruption, stupidity and perversity of the world he lived in. In that regard, human nature being what it is, very little has changed over the last 2000 years.
Juvenal coined the phrase "bread and circuses" to describe the political system of Rome in his day, a system which still exists in modern America, a country where at least half the population is receiving some form of government benefits and tens of millions of plebs work themselves into a lather over mass sports spectacles like the Super Bowl every year. (And if you think we're all that different from the mobs who attended the gladiatorial fights and animal hunts at the Colosseum, it should be noted that gladiator-like mixed martial arts arena fighting has seen a surge in popularity.) Juvenal attended the games in Rome and he could be particularly acerbic about the degeneracy, excess and status-seeking of some of the spectators:
"To go to the games, Ogulnia hires dresses, attendants, a carriage, cushions, a baby-sitter, companions, and a little blonde slave-girl to carry her messages. Yet what's left of the family plate, down to the last salver, she'll hand out as a present to some smooth athlete. Many such women lack substance [wealth] - yet poverty gives them no sense of restraint, they don't observe the limits." -- Satire VI.
Note: I've copied these passages in prose form in order to save space.
If Juvenal could see the crowds at a modern Super Bowl, he'd probably have a heart attack. An impoverished aristocrat -- at least when he was writing the early satires -- he was highly indignant about the way he was shoved aside to make way for wealthy low-lives at the games:
"The hardest thing that there is to bear about wretched poverty is the fact that it makes men ridiculous. 'You! Get out of those front-row seats,' we're told. 'You ought to be ashamed - your incomes are far too meager! The law's the law. Make way for some pander's son and heir, spawned in an unknown brothel; yield your place to the offspring of that natty auctioneer with the trainer's son and the ring-fighter's brat applauding beside him!'" -- Satire III.
Like so many other Romans, Juvenal's poverty reduced him to depending on a wealthy patron for the necessities of life. The second-class treatment he received at the hands of this patron didn't do much to improve his mood, especially when he considered the profligacy of his "betters:"
"...when has there been so abundant a crop of vices? When has the purse of greed yawned wider? When was gambling more frantic? Today men face the table's hazards with not their purse but their strong-box open beside them...Isn't it crazy to lose ten thousand on a turn of the dice, yet grudge a shirt to your shivering slave? In the old days who'd have built all those country houses, or dined off seven courses, alone? Now citizens must scramble for a little basket of scraps on their patron's doorstep." -- Satire I.
Juvenal's Rome was a behavioral sink, a decadent and dangerous city where whores, criminals and morons rose to the top and lorded it over the ordinary citizens who probably counted themselves lucky if they could make it through the day without being robbed or stabbed to death. Most of the population lived in hazardous tenements run by greedy landlords who were only interested in swindling the tenants crammed together in fire-trap buildings that could collapse or burn to the ground at any minute:
"...here we inhabit a city largely shored up with gimcrack stays and props: that's how our landlords postpone slippage, and -- after masking great cracks in the ancient fabric -- assure the tenants they can sleep sound, when the house is tottering. Myself, I prefer life without fires, without nocturnal panics. By the time the smoke's reached the third floor -- and you're still asleep -- the heroic downstairs neighbor is roaring for water, shifting his stuff to safety. If the alarm's at ground-level, the last to fry is the wretch [on the upper floor] among the nesting pigeons with nothing but tiles between himself and the weather." - Satire III.
Juvenal was the Hunter Thompson of his day, ranting about everything from the mobs on the street and the degenerates in high office to the promiscuity of Roman women and the grotesque spectacles of the theater and games. Later in his life, he apparently came into some money and mellowed a little -- but not much. He was essentially a conservative, but unlike Tacitus, who focused on the moral decline of Rome, Juvenal describes in lurid detail the day-t0-day life of the average citizen. I don't have the space to give more than a few quotes from the Satires, but they're full of juicy details and your view of ancient Rome will never be quite the same again after you read them. Highly recommended.