Echoes from Juvenal

After reading Juvenal’s Third Satire, I was struck by the degree to which his lamentations seem relevant today, especially the themes of corruption and inequality. I decided to copy out some lines and I’ll be linking each line to a current-events news story.*


*if I actually followed through on ideas I’d be linking each line to a current-events news story.



“What should I do in Rome? I am no good at lying.

If a book’s bad, I can’t praise it, or go around ordering copies.

I don’t know the stars; I can’t hire out as assassin

When some young man wants his father knocked off for a price…

Who has a pull these days, except your yes men and stooges

With blackmail in their hearts, yet smart enough to keep silent?”

* * * * *

“Put on the stand, at Rome, a man with a record unblemished,

No more a perjurer than Numa was, or Metellus,

What will they question? His wealth, right away, and possibly, later,

(Only possibly, though) touch on his reputation…

His word is as good as his bond–if he has enough bonds in his strongbox.

But a poor man’s oath, even if sworn on all altars,

Has no standing in court.”

* * * * *

“If you’re poor, you’re a joke, on each and every occasion.

What a laugh, if your cloak is dirty or torn, if your toga

Seems a little bit soiled, if your shoe has a crack in the leather,

Or if more than one patch attests to more than one mending!…

All the best seats are reserved for the classes who have the most money…”

* * * * *

“In a great part of this land of Italy, might as well face it,

No one puts on a toga unless he is dead.

But here, beyond our means, we have to be smart, and too often

Get our effects with too much, an elaborate wardrobe, on credit!

This is a common vice; we must keep up with neighbors,

Poor as we are. I tell you, everything here costs you something…

Put this in your pipe and smoke it–we have to pay tribute

Giving slaves a bribe for the prospect of bribing their masters.”

* * * * *

“Who, in Praeneste’s cool, or the wooded Volsinian uplands,

Fears the collapse of his house? But Rome is supported on pipe-stems,

Matchsticks; it’s cheaper, so, for the landlord to shore up hi sruins,

Patch up the old cracked walls, and notify all the tenants

They can sleep secure, though the beams are in ruins above them.

No, the place to live is out there, where no cry of Fire!

Sounds the alarm of the night, with a neighbor yelling for water.”

* * * *

“Codrus owned one bed, too small for a dwarf to sleep on,

Codrus had nothing, no doubt, and yet he succeeded, poor fellow,

Losing that nothing, his all. And this is the very last straw–

No one will help him out with a meal or lodging or shelter.

Stripped to the bone, begging for crusts, he still receives nothing.

Yet if Asturicus’ mansion burns down, what a frenzy of sorrow!

Mothers dishevel themselves, the leaders dress up in black,

Courts are adjourned. We groan at the fall of the city, we hate

The fire, and the fire still burns, and while it is burning,

Somebody rushes up to replace the loss of the marble,

Books, chests, a bust of Minerva. To him that hath shall be given!

This citizen, childless, of course, the richest man in the smart set,

Now has better things, and more, than before the disaster.

How can we help but think he started the fire on purpose?”

* * * * *

“Here in the town the sick die from insomnia mostly.

Undigested food, on a stomach burnign with ulcers,

Brings on listlessness, but who can sleep in a flophouse?

Who but the rich can afford sleep and a garden apartment?

That’s the source of infection… When his business calls,

The crowd makes way as the rich man is carried high in his car.

He gets where he wants before we do; for all our hurry

Traffic gets in our way, in front, around and behind us…

Such a mob, and what if that cart of Ligurian marble

Breaks its axle down and dumps its load on these swarms?

Who will identify limbs or bones? The poor man’s cadaver,

Crushed, disappears like his breath…

Newly come to the bank of the Styx, afraid of the filthy

Ferryman there, since he has no fare, not even a copper

In his dead mouth to pay for the ride through that muddy whirlpool.”

* * * * *

“If you don’t make your will before you go out to have dinner,

There are as many deaths in the night as there are open windows.

There goes your hell-raising drunk, who has had the bad luck to kill no one,

But here are the young hoodlums, all steamed up on wine, keep your distance!

Shut up your house or your store,

Bolts and padlocks and bars will never keep out all the burglars,

Or a holdup man will do you in with a switchblade.

Here is how it all starts, the fight, if you think it is fighting

When he throws all the punches, and all I do is absorb them.

What can you do when he’s mad and bigger and stronger than you are?…

If you try to talk back, or sneak away without speaking,

All the same thing: you’re assaulted, and then put under a bail bond

For committing assault. This is a poor man’s freedom.

Beaten, cut by fists, he begs and implores his assailant,

Please, for a chance to go home with a few teeth left in his mouth.”


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