Parasitic Patrons, Whoring Wives, and Mercenary Men in Juvenal’s Satires: From Comic Character to Contemptible Caricature

Heather Vincent (Eckerd College)

From the outrageous behavior of the Empress Messalina to the sex-for-hire client Naevolus, Juvenal’s characters leap from the page as vivid and grotesque caricatures. In this paper, I assert that the comparatively benign stock characters from New Comedy serve as the literary archetypes from which, and against which, Juvenal’s satiric caricatures emerge. In Juvenal, we find elements of a familiar cast: parasites, wives, and slaves of various types, but in Juvenal these figures are but a shadow of their former, some would say better, New Comic selves. They are uglier, louder, smellier, more belligerent, and far more villainous than Plautus or Terence would have dared. Not surprisingly, the reaction of modern readers (and perhaps ancient readers as well) has ranged widely, from outrage to outrageous laughter, and critics have struggled to reconcile the two diametrically opposed responses.

Much of the recent work concerning Juvenal’s characters has tended to focus on the socio-political context and ideology that gave rise to his vitriolic representations, especially those of women (e.g. Richlin 1984 and 1992, Vidén 1993). Questions about the nature of the aggressive humor in the vignettes, and the audience to whom the humor does/does not appeal have also received a share of scholarly attention (Henderson 1999, Gold 1994, Plaza 2006). Most recently, Maria Plaza has suggested that some of Juvenal’s characters who serve as the objects of derisive laughter may be viewed as “reverse stereotypes,” or inversions traditional social norms. She goes on to suggest that hyperbolic exaggerations of these character traits serve to mitigate, at least partially, the bald aggression and misogyny apparent in the text.

The present study agrees with much of Plaza’s analysis regarding “reverse stereotypes” but suggests that they originate not exclusively in what Plaza calls “norm-conforming stereotypes,” but also in the archetypes of New Comedy. As I argue, Juvenal’s narrative strategy for developing familiar stock characters into satiric caricatures involves projecting the stock character’s vices onto his/her traditional antagonist or comic foil. Thus, in Juvenal’s poems, patrons are as parasitic as the parasites who hound them (Sat. 1.135-146; Sat. 5), husbands as greedy as their acquisitive dowered wives, uxores dotatae (Sat. 6.136-228), and the Roman matron more lusty than her philandering husband, senex amator, (Sat. 6.103-134). Through specific allusions and shared stock jokes, the poet ensures that his mutant creations retain at least a faint resemblance to their Plautine ancestors. I believe that the continual resonance of New Comedy effectively distances the text from its contemporary political milieu, and thus allows the reader a fictitious pretext under which s/he may relish Juvenal’s salacious and grotesque caricatures.


Gold, Barbara. 1994. “Humor in Juvenal’s Sixth Satire: Is it Funny?” in Jäkel, Siegfried and Asko Timonen, eds. Laughter Down the Centuries, v. 1. Turku, Finland.

Henderson, J. 1999. Writing Down Rome: Satire, Comedy, and Other Offenses in Latin Poetry. Oxford.

Plaza, M. 2006. The Function of Humour in Roman Verse Satire: Laughing and Lying. Oxford.

Richlin, Amy. 1992. The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor, 2nd ed. Oxford.

---------. 1984. “Invective Against Women in Roman Satire.” Arethusa 17: 67-80.

Vidén, Gunhild. 1993. Women in Roman Literature: Attitudes of Authors Under the Early Empire. Göteburg, Sweden.

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