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Juvenal (ca. 55 or 60 - ca. 130)  
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Around 1450, Ugolino Pisiani commented: "Juvenal, Persius, Martial, and others should not be publicly read and taught, but kept for private study--so that knowledge can be increased without contaminating young men."

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, English readers interested in Juvenal had available J. E. B. Mayor's Thirteen Satires of Juvenal (1880-81, many reprints), C. H. Pearson and Herbert A. Strong's Thirteen Satires of Juvenal (1892, many subsequent editions), J. D. Duff's Fourteen Satires of Juvenal (1899, often reprinted, at least until 1970), or S. G. Owen's Thirteen Satires of Juvenal Translated into English (1903).

But Juvenal wrote sixteen satires. For reasons of prudery and censorship, the Second, Sixth, and Ninth satires, all crucial for exploring Roman attitudes toward sex and sexuality, were systematically excised from his oeuvre.

For purposes of glbtq history, the Second Satire is especially important. It offers a revealing glimpse into attitudes toward a certain kind of homosexual activity in ancient Rome, at least from the perspective of a satirist; it is also an important document for a supposed law restricting homosexual intercourse (the Lex Scantinia) and for the history of sexuality, offering evidence that counters (extreme) constructionist claims. The Ninth Satire gives a picture of homosexual abuse of the traditional patron/client relationship.


We know little about Juvenal's life. Even his date of death is speculative: not before 127 and possibly as late as 140 C. E. He was a contemporary of Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Martial (with whom Juvenal was friends and exchanged letters), but they never refer to his poetry.

Juvenal was born in Aquinum (later the birthplace of St. Thomas Aquinas), about eighty miles south-east of Rome and near the monastery of Monte Cassino, between 55 and 60 C. E. His family was well-to-do and successful, but Juvenal failed to enter the administrative or military service of the emperor Domitian (81-96 C. E.). His first satiric verses, attacking Domitian and his court, were born from the bitterness of career disappointment.

Domitian was not to be trifled with. He, for example, impregnated his niece Julia and coerced her into an abortion, as a result of which she died (all the while he was promoting a national standard of purity). Scholars generally refer to Domitian's rule as a "reign of terror." Juvenal was duly banished to Egypt (or, as some ancient biographies have it, Scotland or Ireland, which is unlikely), where he lived in abject poverty, acute fear, and profound disappointment.

In 96, after Domitian's assassination, Juvenal returned to Rome, where he gradually recovered from his exile, helped probably by a gift from a patron of the arts. He eventually lived comfortably on a farm at Tibur (now Tivoli).

Constructed from the internal evidence of his poetry, Juvenal's personality is described by his biographer Gilbert Highet: "harsh and cruel yet timid and evasive, indignant about the past, withdrawn from the present, despairing of the future, lonely and defeated, furious at first and gradually growing resigned in pessimism, brilliant and cultured but poor and embittered, whose fierce denunciations and harsh broken laughter we can hear from every page of Juvenal's satires."

Peter Green, Juvenal's recent English translator, contends: "Juvenal is a writer for his age. He has (in spite of his personal preoccupations) the universal eye for unchanging human corruption . . . . He crystallizes for us all the faults and weaknesses we have watched gaining strength at Rome through the centuries."

Juvenal's sixteen satires span the reigns of Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian. They were published in five books, approximately between 110 and 130. The Second Satire and the Ninth Satire focus on homosexual activity. The Sixth Satire is a virulent attack against women, accusing them of virtually all the vices imaginable, but, maybe surprisingly, lesbian activity does not feature prominently.

The Second Satire

Juvenal begins his Second Satire attacking practitioners of same-sex sexual activity for cant and hypocrisy: "I hear high moral discourse / from raging queens who affect ancestral peasant virtues." These "philosophers" are hypocritical because they conceal their passivity behind the mask of masculinity and learning. They display skin that teems with hair but whose depilated buttocks are as smooth as baby-skin; moreover, they have anal warts, something they got from having (too much) passive intercourse. Romans should therefore not trust these Socraticos cinaedos ("Socratic bottoms").

Juvenal wants to unmask men who behave like women. Hispo (whose name means "shag"), for example, has surrendered his social power by succumbing to penetration--the ultimate failure of Roman honos and virtus: Hispo subit iuuenes ("Hispo submitted to young men"). Rabun Taylor stresses Hispo's erotic confusion: "The intentionally ambiguous meaning of the verb subeo, which can also mean 'to enter' or 'to assault' on the one hand, or 'to submit to' on the other, suggests that Hispo's two illnesses are the compounded results of the active and passive roles."

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Frontispiece from an edition of John Dryden, et al., The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis and of Aulus Persius Flaccus (London, 1711).
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