Juvenal, Satires XV.1-13

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Juvenal’s condemnation of Egyptian superstition.
Name of the author: 
Juvenal
Date: 
128 CE
Date: 
2nd CE
Place: 
Rome
Language: 
Latin
Category: 
Roman
Literary genre: 
Poetry
Title of work: 
Satires
Reference: 
XV.1-13
Commentary: 

Juvenal’s fifteenth Satire was written at the end of the satirist’s life, around 128 CE, when he was in Egypt (for the dating, see Sers, Juvénal, p. 332). The inhumanity of men towards their peers is the central theme of this Satire, as it deals at length with the condemnation of anger which could manifest itself through religious superstition and violence, murder and even cannibalism (Wehrle, The Satiric, p. 57-62). Thus, the story of the violent conflict between two Egyptian towns, Ombi and Tentyra, conflict which is said to have ended with cannibalistic acts, is presented as the perfect example illustrating the main issue discussed here. At the very beginning of this Satire, Juvenal opens the discussion with a sort of general development on the religious beliefs of the Egyptians, the passage analysed here (v. 1-13). As expected, Juvenal is openly critical towards their gods and their religious rules, but his criticism reaches its climax when he concludes that for them, cannibalism was an authorized practice. We will try to understand more precisely what motivates Juvenal’s criticism towards Egyptian religion, to finally compare it with his opinion on Jewish religious beliefs.

From the first verse, Juvenal’s views on the Egyptian religion are critical as he asserts that everybody knows “what monsters demented Egypt worships” (demens Aegyptos portenta colat, v. 1-2). The superstition of the Egyptians is a common motif in Latin literature. Previously, Cicero already denounced the Aegyptiorum dementiam, “the insanity of the Egyptians” (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods I.43), and the fact that they worshiped portenta, “monsters” (Cicero, On the Commonwealth III.14; for the references, Courtney, A Commentary, p. 592).

As many authors before him, Juvenal underlines the strangeness of the Egyptian beliefs by insisting on the fact that they worship animals. Juvenal lists various examples: the crocodile (v. 2), the ibis (v. 3), a sort of long-tape ale (v. 4), the cat (v. 7), an undefined fish (v. 7) and the dog (v. 8). Through this enumeration of more or less exotic animals, Juvenal may have wanted to discredit the sacred menagerie of the Egyptians. The sentence “none adore Diana” (nemo Dianam, v. 8), which is supposed to close the enumeration of deities, shows clearly Juvenal’s Romano-centrism and contempt: Egyptians worship dogs, especially through the god Anubis, but they were not able to worship the huntress goddess Diana, who was usually represented with a dog as a companion. The denigration of the Egyptian gods, especially of their appearances, is something which is quite common in Roman sources, especially during the Augustan period. Considering the motif of the Egyptian dog-god, Anubis, we can see that he was frequently quoted by the Roman poets to celebrate the victory of Augustus – and thus of the Roman gods – over Antony and Cleopatra and their Egyptian gods (see the references to “monstrous gods of every form and barking Anubis” in Virgil, Aeneid VIII.698-699; and to the “yelping Anubis,” Propertius, Elegies III.11.41).

However, Juvenal does not limit his presentation of the Egyptian gods to their zoomorphic aspect, he also highlights the local character of their cults. The best example of cult based within a very local, full-of-legends context is that of the golden idol of the long-tailed ape (v. 5-6). Thus, through this description, Juvenal did not necessarily want to give a presentation of the whole Egyptian Pantheon. His aim was to insist on the fact that the cults of these strange gods were so local that they could sometimes cause enmity between the various cities. One of the most relevant examples here is that of the crocodile, later exposed by Juvenal from verses 33 to 52. The crocodile was worshiped in some villages, as in Ombos, whereas it was cursed, hunted, and sacrificed in others, as in the close village of Dendara (on the rivalry between these cities, see also Aelian, On the Characteristics of Animals X.21; Frankfurter, Religion, p. 67-68). We will not deal further here with the accuracy of Juvenal’s description of the local cults. However, it is important to remind that this presentation is highly personal: dogs, cats, ibises or apes were also part of the Egyptian pantheon and were thus worshiped in many regions of Egypt (on this issue see Courtney, A Commentary, p. 592-593). What was clearly at stake here for Juvenal was to introduce the idea that the disseminated local cults of more or less bizarre animals were clearly a source of conflict and of violence in Egypt. 

Second, after this long enumeration of Egyptian gods, Juvenal deals with Egyptian taboos, especially with dietary restrictions. According to the first one, eating leeks or onions is prohibited (v. 9). This passage may echo the passage of Epistle I.12.21, in which Horace reproaches to Iccius to kill leeks and onions (porrum et caepe trucidas). This sentence may be a reference to the Pythagorean metempsychosis, that is, to the belief that a human soul could be reincarnated into an animal or even into certain varieties of vegetable, including leeks and onions, therefore making it prohibited to eat it (Courtney, A Commentary, p. 594-595). Concerning the dietary restrictions for the Egyptians, two texts may confirm the onion ban. First, Diodorus of Sicily mentions that some Egyptians abstained from eating lentils, beans, cheese, or onions, however, we do not know if it was for religious or nutritional reasons (Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History I.89.4). Second, Pliny the Elder writes that Egyptians used to swear by garlic, onions, and the gods (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History XIX.101; for the references see Courtney, A Commentary, p. 595). However, it is not likely that leeks were seen as sacred and that their consumption was generally prohibited for some religious reasons. By referring to these plants, Juvenal may have wanted to emphasize the ridiculous character of these dietary restrictions. His scorn can be perceived in the sentence: “What a holy race (sanctas gentes) to have such divinities (numina) springing up in their gardens!” (v. 10-11). Juvenal’s words are clearly ironical: Egyptians’ deities are clearly represented here as “home-made” and prosaic gods, an assessment which clearly led him to re-evaluate, through an ironical perspective, the initial address o sanctas gentes. In a way, Juvenal may have wanted to say that the value of peoples were correlated with the value and the power of their gods: with such vegetal, nearly vegetative, gods, Egyptians could be no more than a strange, simple, and powerless people.
The second dietary restriction mentioned by Juvenal is the prohibition to eat lanata animalia, that is woolly animals, an expression referring to sheep.Actually, we know thanks to Herodotus that in the past, Egyptians sacrificed rams to Zeus-Ammon (Herodotus, The Histories II.42; Courtney, A Commentary, p. 595). The next reference to the ban of slaying a kid (fetum capellae, v. 12) has probably to be understood as the result of Juvenal’s influence by Herodotus’s writing about the fact that Egyptians would have considered the goats as sacred because they would have been associated with Mendes-Pan. However, according to Edward Courtney, Juvenal, just as Herodotus, may have made a mistake by considering that this animal was a goat, rather than a certain variety of sheep (Courtney, A Commentary, p. 595). Thus, Juvenal’s reference to sacred woolly animals could thus be connected with this story.

Juvenal’s short presentation of Egyptian beliefs reaches its climax in the last verse, when he highlights the contrast between the respect of Egyptians for minor and strange animals or plants and the fact that eating human flesh was allowed (licet, v. 13). Juvenal’s claim according to which Egyptians used to have some anthropophagic practices is far from being confirmed by other sources. Herodotus denies the fact that they practiced human sacrifices, whereas Diodorus of Sicily is one of the few, before Juvenal, who mentions that anthropophagic practices existed, but it is during some famine (Herodotus, The Histories II.45; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History I.84). Aside from the fact that these accusations of cannibalism were probably used by Juvenal to stress even more strongly the otherness of the Egyptians (see Eyre, The Cannibal, p. 157-158), the reference to the vehement rejection of eating some animals clearly echoes a passage appearing in the previous Satire, in which Juvenal expresses contempt for the religious beliefs of the Jews and of the proselytes. In this passage, Juvenal marks the difference between the sympathizer father who just abstains from eating pork, and his proselyte son who considers it as something as atrocious as eating human flesh (Juvenal, Satire XIV. 98-99). In these two Satires, the only parallel between the Jews’ and the Egyptians’ customs is their aversion to eating some animals. Tacitus in Histories V.5.3 had already drawn a parallel between some Jewish and Egyptian religious practices (such as the burial of their dead) or beliefs (their conception of the Underworld). However, their relationship to cannibalism, as it is depicted by Juvenal, seems opposed. For the Jews, it represents an abomination, whereas the Egyptians supposedly practiced it. For Jean Gérard, by using the anthropophagic motif when he evokes both the Jews and the Egyptians, Juvenal wanted to assert that religious superstition, here embodied by Jewish or Egyptian beliefs and religious practices, opens the way to inhumane acts, of which cannibalism would be the awful culmination (Gérard, Juvénal, p. 394). However, such a reading can be contested, as the inhumanness of anthropophagic Egyptians seems opposed to the misanthropy of the Jews abhorring pork as human flesh. By using the example of anthropophagic Egyptians, Juvenal may have wanted to stress their otherness, and the fact that they are barbarians. On the contrary, in the Greek sources, misanthropy – which is, according to Juvenal, the main characteristic of the Jews – is a personality trait which is often that of a member of the civic community, and never that of a barbarian. Misanthropy is the characteristic of the de-civilized man, a definition which fits in with very well with Juvenal’s prejudices against the Jews, who are presented as deviant men who had abandoned the Roman laws to respect Jewish ones. 

Bibliographical references: 
Sers, Olivier, Juvénal, Satires (edition by Pierre de Labriolle and François Villeneuve; translation by Olivier Sers; Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2002)
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Juvenal, Satires XV.1-13
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Mon, 10/30/2017 - 10:24
URL: http://www.judaism-and-rome.org/juvenal-satires%C2%A0xv1-13
Visited: Mon, 07/22/2019 - 13:01

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