The Body was Never Found: Loss of Identity in Two Poems of Juvenal

Christopher Nappa

University of Minnesota

Two remarkable images in Juvenal's satires have attracted attention individually, but have more to tell us about the nature of Juvenal's social criticism when read in tandem. One is the well-known passage in the third satire in which a man walking home through Rome's crowded streets is crushed when the contents of a mason's cart fall onto him (3.257-61); the other is the cannibalistic murder of a man in Egypt (15.77-92). While the two scenes would seem to differ from one another in most ways, there are some important similarities. In each case an uncontrolled crowd is involved in the destruction of a lone man. Also, in each case the man's destruction is complete: the man in satire 3 is not only killed by the falling blocks of stone, he is crushed so utterly that there are no physical remains; in Egypt, the cannibals in the mob not only kill their victim and consume his flesh, they even eat the bones and suck the gore and blood out of the mud where the man died.

By examining the two scenes together, we can see an important aspect of Juvenal's thought: individuals who run afoul of society (urban Rome, a hostile Egyptian village) are annihilated by it. This goes further than the conventionally stated idea that Juvenal's poetry reflects the alienation of some equestrians by the social, political, and economic changes that have taken place under the emperors. These two images make it clear that Juvenal has greater worries than those over social class and wealth. For when essential components of their self understanding (e.g., a well-defined social niche and the entitlement it implies) are taken from them, men like Juvenal run the risk of losing themselves. Thus, these images of annihilation represent anxiety over the ultimate result of the process of social change that leaves Juvenal and his characters complaining about the nouveaux riches, foreigners, and even slaves displacing them in society. The unfortunate man in poem 3 and the victim in poem 15 are not simply mistreated by society, they are made to disappear by it. Support for this idea comes especially, but not exclusively, from the third satire: the description of the man crushed out of existence is an exemplum in the speech of Umbricius, who is leaving Rome because he can no longer survive in the new social system dominated by rich Greeklings and freedmen. To his mind, Rome has become so unsafe and chaotic that men like himself cannot walk home without being humiliated, attacked, and even obliterated. Umbricius himself is represented, as numerous scholars have noted, as a kind of ghost, headed to the Underworld after he has been shut out of life in Rome. The obliterated pedestrian he describes represents his anxieties for himself, and Satire 3 is a brilliant portrait of a man who, rightly or wrongly, has come to understand himself as socially non-existent. Poem 15 also makes abundantly clear what happens to outsiders in the poetry of Juvenal.


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