Dialogue of the Prostitutes?: The Speaker of Juvenal's Ninth Satire

Heather A. Woods

University of Minnesota

Traditionally, examinations of Juvenal's Ninth Satire have been particularly concerned with the poem's treatment of homosexuality and patronage (Braund, Green, Tennant) and hence primarily focused on the relationship between the despondent gigolo Naevolus and his former "patron" Virro. While investigations into this relationship and its implications for our understanding of Roman society have been quite fruitful, they generally exclude examination of the character of the poem's speaker and his relationship with Naevolus. The fact that the dialogue format of poem 9 is unique in the Juvenalian corpus suggests that the character of Naevolus' unnamed interlocutor deserves a fuller assessment.

From his first lines, the speaker asserts his ostensible disgust for Naevolus and his behavior while at the same time unconsciously implicating himself in Naevolus' lifestyle. The speaker is clearly familiar with Naevolus, and throughout their interaction he attempts to establish himself as a man of refinement and higher standards of conduct than the other, but he demonstrates an intimate knowledge of Naevolus' milieu and a clear preoccupation with the grotesque and unseemly, both of which undermine his self-presentation. The speaker knows the details of Naevolus' personal hygiene regimen and has an intimate familiarity with Naevolus' sexual behavior. That the speaker is a man like Naevolus himself, rather than a customer, is suggested by the fact that Naevolus seeks professional advice from him at all and is made clear by the continual negative characterization of men like Virro by both Naevolus and the speaker. If the speaker were indeed the sort of refined upper-class man of substance that he attempts to appear to be, he would neither be receptive to such insults, nor would he participate in them himself.

That the speaker is engaged in a sort of performance is clear. He seeks to portray himself as a man socially and morally superior to Naevolus who is simply inquiring after the other's health and selflessly offering wise counsel, but his interest in the scandalous belies his refinement, and his attempts to employ a literary, moralizing style are continually jarring in the context of a conversation with an unabashedly practical prostitute. The result is that the speaker is neither helpful to Naevolus nor convincing in the role of an elite member of society. Ultimately the dialogue format of Satire 9 exposes the speaker, often misidentified as the poet himself or given no real attention at all, as as much a target of the satire as either Naevolus or Virro. The speaker of poem 9, when understood in this way, is not unlike the inconsistent and self-defeating speaker of poem 1 as analyzed in Braund's commentary.


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