Juvenalian Geographic: An Evaluation of Imperial Roman Identity

Osman S. Umurhan

New York University

In Juvenal's Satire 11, the satirist invites a certain Persicus to witness and enjoy a modest dinner at Rome.  If Persicus should request anything during his dining experience, the speaker advises him to do so in the following way: cum posces, posce Latine (line 148).  The word Latinus has a multivalent significance for it serves as a contrast to the rich man's exotic cuisine and foreign attendants, both of which are marked by their foreign origin at the empire's periphery (Scythiae volucres…et Gaetulus oryx, lines 139-140).  Commanding Persicus to request anything Latine highlights a contrasting pun on the name Persicus that suggests the meaning 'luxurious' (Braund, 2004) and also signifies a foreign, eastern origin.  Furthermore, Latinus contributes to the satirist's explicit call to honor what is indigenous, or Roman—to consume its native wine served by his native servant (lines 159-160).  His modest feast serves as a rejoinder to other luxurious feasts taking place at the city's geographic center, the Subura (line 141).  In this paper I suggest that these contrasts provide two sets of oppositions -- namely the rich versus the modest and the foreign versus the native -- that frame the passage (lines 138-160), underscoring the satirist's frequently expressed anxiety that his language—and Rome by extension—is under foreign threat.

Imperial Latin satire reflected demographic issues centering on questions of identity (Habinek, 1998; Freudenberg, 2001) and foreign populations in imperial Rome (Noy, 2000; Scheidel, 2004).  In the Satires Juvenal characteristically broaches issues of Roman identity as they interact with the foreign.  The dinner scene of Satire 11 is just one example of the satirist's persistent anxiety about external influences. This anxiety gains its most effective resonance within a geographic framework, where the foreign is portrayed as 'imported' to Rome, the center of the empire, from its territorial periphery.  I argue that the collapse of these oppositions within this framework, in fact, signifies the satirist's inability to argue convincingly for Roman homogeneity.

In the main, the satirist's 'geographic' presentation exemplifies the inundation of foreign people and goods into Rome in the Satires as a consequence of Roman territorial expansion in the Imperial era.  This geographic mode allows the satirist to evaluate and counter the foreign challenges on Roman identity with a demand for Latinus.  Yet, he undercuts his own presentation of the native/foreign opposition with a demand for homogeneity even though such homogeneity is unattainable since Roman identity, in reality, is inherently inextricable from its foreign counterpart.


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