The betrayal of the satirical textNeohelicon


Péter Hajdu
Social Sciences (miscellaneous) / Law / Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


The betrayal of the satirical text

Pe´ter Hajdu

Published online: 21 March 2013  Akade´miai Kiado´, Budapest, Hungary 2013

Abstract Literary scholars use various methods to undermine and reject explicit declarations of the Roman verse satire. This paper argues that not only do these scholars develop some strategies to avoid facing uncomfortable messages, but that the satirical text also offers an opportunity to subvert its own utterances. Although the dialogic nature of literature (and language in general) always offers opportunities for subversive interpretations that refuse to accept the proclaimed ideas at face value, the satirical text has a special feature, since it tends to say what it says with some ambiguity. The paper calls this the betrayal of the satirical text, which through the very act of (humorous) textualization opens the gates for opposing or subverting interpretations. The second part of the paper analyses Satires 1.7 by Horace, underscoring how various implications of the poetic discourse create opportunities to undermine the proffered ideas. A text that seems to try to stabilize Roman elite identity may lead to a retracing of the boundaries between Romans and aliens, the elite and the pariahs.

Keywords Satire  Horace  Satires 1.7  Dialogism  Juvenal

Juvenal’s third satire contains a series of terribly xenophobic utterances that make many readers of today feel uncomfortable. Recent interpreters of the text tend to emphasize, however, that the unacceptable ideas are not uttered by the poet directly, but by a character of the scene staged in the satire. He is called Vmbricus, whom the poet (another character in the mini-drama) quotes. Significantly, the poet cites only his farewell speech, and does not seem to agree with him completely. And even if he

P. Hajdu (&)

Institute for Literary Studies, Center of Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Arts and Sciences,

H-1118 Me´nesi u´t 11-13, Budapest, Hungary e-mail: 123

Neohelicon (2013) 40:47–57

DOI 10.1007/s11059-013-0171-3 did, Vmbricius is not represented as a clear-minded figure of exemplary morals; therefore readers should not accept his ideas. They are rather supposed to criticize the stupidities this stupid character puts forth (Braund 1988, pp. 11–15; Hooley 2007, pp. 117–118; see also Staley 2000).

Satires make quite frequent use of second grade speakers. Or perhaps the satirical speaker should always be regarded as a second grade speaker. Even if he is not given a name different from that of the author, we can suppose that he is playing a role on an imaginary stage (Braund 1996).1 The persona of this satirical speaker and the implied author should be differentiated. Let us suppose that the text is aware of staging a disagreeable person, then we can conclude that it does not expect the readers to be as indignant as the speaker is, but, rather, to laugh at the speaker. In such interpretations the satirical persona is regarded as an alazon, to use Northrop

Frye’s terminology (Frye 1957, p. 172).2 He is a boasting, impertinent figure, running everybody down, while being at least as ridiculous as the target of his criticism.

While Horace seemed to focus on the stabilization of his own group identity, and this was definitely an aristocratic male identity, the (more or less fictitious) persona

Juvenal’s satires staged no longer belonged to the highest elite. The first-person speaker says he needs very little daily support (while Maecenas is said to have supported Horace with one or two rather expensive estates), and he gives the impression of hating all the foreigners because of the rivalry in the everyday struggle to make a living. Although mockery and abuse flow freely in Juvenal’s satires, which is rightly described as the consequence of the routine of rhetorical education, the targets and the contents of the abuse cannot be accidental. What is a real scandal in Juvenal’s eyes is the presence of newcomers who might be extremely rich and have the right to live among ‘‘real’’ Romans and compete with them. There is no problem with the existence of others, as long as they play the role of a passive mass to be exploited. Even if they are present in the city of Rome, supposing they are somewhere lower down on the social hierarchy, their different habits and clothes can be discussed with some light mockery. However, when the problem of their rights and social prestige arises, extreme hostility may be expressed. It is the first time the Greeks are attacked because they are Greek—in Rome (Rudd 1986, p. 184). The Juvenal of the first satire and the Vmbricius of the third agree in that regard. Since ‘Greek’ does not mean ethnicity here, but more or less Hellenized people from the eastern parts of the Mediterranean, it rather expresses xenophobia in general. It is easy to see in this attitude some anachronistic discrepancy: in

Juvenal’s times more than half of the senate was recruited from the eastern provinces. A petty client should not have been so exclusive in his hunt for possible patrons (Rudd 1986, p. 188). Therefore it is easy to see both the second grade 1 For the theatrical (aspect, theme, character, topic?) in the satire see especially Keane (2006), pp. 13–41. 2 It must be emphasised that we are only making use of Frye’s terminology, while in his analysis of ‘‘the mythos of winter: irony and satire’’ the option of the satirist as an alazon never appears, while he mentions that alazons are frequently attacked in and by satires: ‘‘the satirist may employ a plain, common-sense, conventional person as a foil for the various alazons of society. Such a person may be the author himself or a narrator’’ (Frye 1957, p. 226). 48 P. Hajdu 123 speaker Vmbricius and the satirical persona as problematic or ridiculous. But does that make the xenophobic discourse unreal or non-credible?

In the sixth poem of his first book of satires, Horace appears to narrate his personal life history. The speaker seems to do his very best to create the impression that he is identical to the poet. He speaks of his father, the calamities of his early life, and his friendship with Maecenas. For centuries it was easily accepted as a completely honest autobiography. It became a commonplace in the 20th century that self-representation is not identical with the self; therefore ‘‘honesty’’ is neither accepted nor looked for in a poem any more.3 In this particular poem Horace declares three times that his father was a freedman.4 This declaration of the family’s social status became one of the most fixed biographical details in Roman literary histories ever.