Roman frieze

“Tarnished poetry for the Iron Age: Juvenal answers M. Aper”
Charles Stein (UCLA)

In this paper I argue that Juvenal justifies his satire by responding to criticisms against poetry like those the rhetor M. Aper makes against tragedy in Tacitus’ Dialogus de Oratoribus (5.3-10). In the Dialogus Aper asserts that oratory is better than poetry by claiming, first, that writing poetry is antisocial while giving speeches is philanthropic, and second, that while oratory is a sharp and powerful weapon, poetry is blunt and useless language.  Although Aper’s recently retired colleague, the tragedian Curiatius Maternus, rebuts these points in the Dialogus (11-13), neither character completely resolves the tension between oratory and poetry.

This tension, I argue, falls to Juvenal to resolve. In his programmatic first satire Juvenal finds himself in Maternus' place, forced to justify his decision to write poetry in a dangerous world.  Juvenal responds directly to Aper's two claims, fashioning streetwise poetry in the heart of Rome, born not from the faraway placid spring of Helicon, but from his own bitter heart.  Juvenal also brandishes his verses as a weapon, singling out among his targets poets of tragedy and epic for their starry-eyed devotion to the Golden Age.  Juvenal's poetry is forensic and aggressive.

A close examination of Aper's criticisms and Maternus' responses, which represent what a traditional tragedian or epicist of Juvenal's generation would say, makes clear just how much Juvenal subverts traditional poetic expectations and demonstrates how different Juvenal's satire is from earlier poetry--especially that of his predecessors in satire.

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