The 12+12 Books of Christmas #9


Horace, Juvenal and Persius were the great Roman satirists of the ancient world. If you have read your Casaubon, you will know that the Roman satirists created a genre all by themselves without any help from the Greeks and their satyr plays. That’s only the gist of the argument, but we cannot delve into details and footnotes here. The three authors still determine how we talk about the tone of satires today. Their tone can be Horatian, in which case they are fairly mild and witty. When someone is said to write Juvenalian satire, their works are acerbic and critical as well as funny. If someone writes Persian satire, they are probably a classicist or some kind of weirdo.

Early modern critics were fond of comparing the three satirists and arguing about which one of them was best. Some were willing to admit they liked them all. Each had his purpose. Horace was great for amusing lessons in ethics, and Juvenal was good for giggles. Persius was a tricky one, because he is quite difficult. “Obscure” is the word often used to describe his satires. Casaubon was a big fan, but he was a master classicist, philologist and was at the time called the most learned man in Europe. Persius is the satirist no one reads, so if you want to make an impression, voice your admiration of the works of Persius at a dinner party. (Note: If you go to dinner parties where people are impressed by stuff like this, you’re weird.)

The works are very old so much of what they talk about is obscure. Satire has a shelf life and it’s frankly amazing that the Roman satirists can still coax a chuckle out of sincerity-obsessed post-post-modern hipster-irony-saturated readers. Juvenal can do that, Horace perhaps. Persius not so much, but he too has his moments. The yardstick of good satire is its ability to resist changes in the society around it. The rule of thumb since the Renaissance has been that satire is good if its lessons can be generalized. The more general the better. Resistance to the ravages of time, I find, works almost as well. If an old joke makes you laugh, it’s a good one. Horace, Juvenal and Persius tell some of the oldest. That alone is a good reason to read them.

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