Juvenal, Satires VIII.87-124

On the risks of the misbehaviours of the Roman governors towards Rome’s allies.
Name of the author: 
114 CE to 127 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 

The dating of Juvenal’s eighth Satire has been debated, as some scholars consider that it may have been written between 114 and 117 CE (for the dating, see Sers, Juvénal, p. 331), whereas others think that it could have been during Hadrian’s reign, from 117 CE onwards, but before Juvenal’s exile in Egypt in 127 CE. In this Satire, Juvenal violently attacks some members of the nobilitas, that is members stemming from a patrician family or a family containing at least one consul, who because of their idleness, cowardice or their bad behaviours, brought shame upon their families and led to a general downgrading of the Roman nobilitas. Juvenal was reusing here a leitmotiv, which already existed under the Republic, according to which the nobilitas as an “ideological model” based on virtue, should surpass the nobilitas as a “social model,” that is the nobility transmitted by blood (Badel, La noblesse, p. 182).
This eighth Satire is addressed to Ponticus, an aristocrat who might be a fictive character. After having introduced the main subject of the Satire, namely the necessity for him to confirm his noble rank by his personal virtus (v. 1-38), he then gives an example of a young noble called Rubellius Blandus that he criticizes for his bad behaviour (v. 39-70). Juvenal then exhorts Ponticus to act righteously as he has been newly appointed governor (v. 71-145). The passage presented here is an excerpt from this exhortation.

At the beginning of this passage, Juvenal recalls the duties of the good governor and exhorts Ponticus to show humaneness and moderation: “set a curb and a limit to your passion (irae), as also to your greed (avaritiae)” (v. 88-89). Advice of this type is commonplace in works, especially in letters, addressed to provincial governors. One of the letters frequently quoted as the model is the long letter addressed by Marcus Tullius Cicero to his brother Quintus, during the third year of Quintus’s proconsulate in Asia, at the end of 60 BCE or the beginning of 59 BCE (Cicero, Ad Quitum fratrem I.1). In his letter, Cicero insists on the personal behaviour of the governor and on the fact that he has to guarantee the happiness of the provincials (I.1.7-19). Among the personal qualities of the governor, he enumerates clemency (clementia), benevolence (mansuetudo) and humaneness (humanitas) (I.1.25) (on this letter, see Bérenger, “Le gouverneur,” p. 239-240). Juvenal may have been influenced by such texts calling on the ethical values of the governor, but the subject of morality is not the main obstacle that he puts forward preventing Ponticus from being a bad governor (Courtney, A Commentary, p. 383). He prefers to recall that he has to exercise his power within the legal framework and according to the institutions, especially the Senate, which supervise its actions (v. 91-92). The fact that Juvenal puts less emphasis on morality, and more on the safeguards preventing exactions of the governors or the negative consequences that their misbehaviours could have upon the Roman state (see the last paragraph), can be explained by the satirical genre and by the personal preoccupations of Juvenal.

As stated previously, the exactions of these Roman administrators are not condemned by Juvenal because of some kind of moral consideration for Rome’s allies, who are depicted, not without exaggeration, as dispossessed skeletons “whose very bones have been sucked dry of marrow” (v. 90). For him, these men have to be blamed, as their actions discredit first the Roman nobiles,and also the Roman legal system. The first point appears clearly with the case of Capito and Numitor (v. 92-94). Cossutianus Capito was accused of extortion by the Cilicians and condemned in 57 CE (see Courtney, A Commentary, p. 398). Due to the fact that before Pompey’s campaign of 67 BCE Cilician pirates represented a major threat to Rome, Juvenal may have wanted to create with the metaphor “pirates of the Cilicians” (piratae Cilicum) a provocative paradox: some Roman nobiles were becoming the savage enemies that Rome had previously fought. Moreover, Juvenal does not want only to show that exactions exist, he wants also to highlight the fact that these exactions remain unpunished (Gérard, Juvénal, p. 303). For instance, Cossutianus Capito had been condemned but was then reintegrated into the Senate thanks to his father-in-law. This was also the case with Marius, mentioned in verse 120, “seeing that Marius has so lately (nuper) stripped Africa to the skin.” Already in his first Satire, Juvenal mentions this man, Marius Priscus, who had been condemned in 100 CE for corruption during his proconsulship in Africa, and writes that he continued to live in peace (Satire I.48-50). Twenty years later, by alluding to another time and by using the word nuper, “lately,” Juvenal may have wanted to say that this story was still relevant (Gérard, Juvénal, p. 303).

Moreover, it can be noted that the cases of maladministration by Roman governors quoted by Juvenal in this Satire were not recent. The case of Marius Priscus is the latest, but it went back to nearly twenty years before the time of this Satire’s composition. In addition, Juvenal quotes the case of Capito, which occurred under Nero’s reign, and he also refers to the exactions perpetrated by Cn. Cornelius Dolabella during his propraetorship in Cilicia between 80 and 79 BCE (Courtney, A Commentary, p. 400); by Antonius, who may be identified with C. Antonius Hybrida, the uncle of Marc Antony, who had been prosecuted in 76 BCE for plundering Greece when he was a prefect of Sulla in 84 BCE, and who had also been condemned in 59 BCE for plundering Macedonia during his proconsulship of 62 BCE (Courtney, A Commentary, p. 401); and by Caius Licinius Verres during his propraetorship in Sicily between 73 and 71 BCE (v. 105-107). The fact that Juvenal took most of his examples from the remote past of Rome, especially from the Republican period, can be explained variously. Firstly, from the point of view of the history of control of the misbehaviours of Roman administrators in the provinces, it is well known that the governors were more controlled and more easily condemned under the Empire than in the Republican period. Such a phenomenon is deeply linked with the reinforcement, under Augustus, of the legal framework preventing exactions or misbehaviours of the Roman administrators in the provinces. Actually, through the senatusconsultum Calvisianum – known through the Fifth Edict of Cyrene and which supplemented the lex Iulia de repetundis of 59 BCE – Augustus strengthened the possibility for the provincials to lodge a complaint against bad governors, and he defined more clearly the procedure which had to be followed in case of misbehaviours of administrators in the provinces (on the consequences of this measure see Béranger-Badel, Agnès, “Les procès des gouverneurs,” p. 315-319). In addition, this phenomenon can also be explained by the fact that some of the koina and the concilia of the cities in the provinces of the Empire were better organized for taking proceedings against one of their former administrators. Thus, Juvenal may have chosen these examples from Rome’s remote past, especially from the Republican period, because they embodied more relevant examples of the uncontrollable arbitrariness of some Roman provincial administrators. However, Jean Gérard has listed the four known governors who had been judged under Trajan’s reign for irregularities and excesses during their provincial administration (Gérard, Juvénal, p. 305-307) to prove that misbehaviors of Roman governors during their office remained a reality of the administrative life of this period. Therefore, Juvenal would have had in mind these recent cases when he dealt with this question of maladministration of the provincial governors. It is true that some governors continued under Trajan or Hadrian’s reign to ill-treat their own people, even if they had more chance of being prosecuted and condemned than in the Republican period. Thus, by alluding to the case of Marius Priscus, Juvenal may have wanted to prove that some governors – even if on the ground they were less numerous than in the Republican period – continued to not be condemned despite their exactions. Such an assessment enabled him to fuel the main theme of this Satire, namely the fact that members of the nobilitas continued to downgrade the rank of their family. In addition, to not deal with too many recent or contemporary cases was also a means for Juvenal to not be involved in political affairs which could be prejudicial for him.

The most interesting point is that Juvenal develops the idea that the exactions, misappropriations or briberies of the Roman governors represent a major risk for Roman power. With the sentence “loading big ships with secret spoils (occulta spolia), loot of peace-time being worth various triumphs (et plures de pace triumphos)” (v. 106-107; I modify the Loeb’s translation), Juvenal implicitly says, through the two oxymora occulta spolia and pace triumphos, that the misbehaviours of these governors led to a total inversion of Rome’s usual relations with its allies. These governors behave as if they were in a territory to be conquered; the allies become enemies who can be stripped and humiliated (see Fredericks, “Rhetoric,” p. 123).
Then, from verse 112 to the end of our text, Juvenal proposes to evaluate the riskiness of these exactions for Rome’s interests according to the origins of these allies; a reflexion which is logically influenced by the racial prejudices of the satirist. Juvenal thus distinguishes the Easterners, especially the Greeks, from other peoples. Concerning the Greeks, Juvenal expresses here all the contempt that he has for them (v. 112-115), but it is not for the reason that he usually gives in other Satires (e.g. the third Satire, where the Greeks are flatterers and arrivistes). Juvenal develops here another critical theme: the Greeks were dangerous because of the infiltration of their culture and manners which would lead to a “de-virilisation” of the Roman males (Sherwin-White, Racial Prejudice, p. 74-75). In our text, Juvenal precisely depicts the Corinthians and the Rhodians through this perspective and presents them as effeminate epilated men. Already in Satire VI.296, Juvenal stages Rhodes as a perfumed and drunk figure embodying moral decay. This exaggerated and degrading representation of the Greeks enables the satirist to argue that even if they were plundered by the Roman administrators, they would not be able to revolt against Rome.
Nevertheless, according to the author, the situation would be clearly different for the Gauls, the Spaniards and the Illyrians, who are presented as warlike peoples. Quite similar prejudices about them can be found in Tacitus, who concludes that Spain and Gaul are valentissima imperii or terrarum pars, “the strongest part of the Empire / of the world” (Tacitus, Agricola XXIV; Histories III.53), or in Valerius Maximus, who presents Spain as horrida et bellicosa provincia, “a rough and warlike province” (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings IX.1.5; for the references see Courtney, A Commentary, p. 402). Thus, contrary to the effeminate Greeks, Gauls, Spaniards and Illyrians represented a major threat to Rome because they could organise military revolts to protest against the oppression of the Roman administration.
If seditions caused by the misbehaviours of the Roman administrators are presented by Juvenal as the riskiest consequence for the integrity of the Empire, the satirist warns Ponticus against another danger: that of excessively impoverishing the regions providing the annona to Rome: “spare, too, those harvesters who fill the belly of a city that has no leisure save for the Circus and the play” (v. 117-118 parce et messoribus illis/ qui saturant urbem circo scenaeque vacantem). It is clear that here Juvenal targets North Africa, which is mentioned in the following verses. Insisting on the contrast between the hard-working provinces and the Rome, whose citizens spend most of their time watching games, Juvenal may have wanted to give credit to the idea of Rome’s moral decay. As Jean Gérard rightly notices, the contrast between Juvenal’s depiction and some passages of the Panegyric of Trajan, dealing with the question of Rome’s supply by its allies, is really impressive (Gérard, Juvénal, p. 336). In his Panegyric, Pliny insists on the fact that the crops are not stolen from Rome’s allies; on the contrary, allies are presented as bringing them voluntarily and joyfully to Rome (Pliny, Panegyric of Trajan XXIX.3-4). Pliny also writes that when Rome’s allies experienced a famine, it was Rome who helped them in turn (Pliny, Panegyric of Trajan XXX; XXXI). Juvenal’s point of view is totally opposed to that of Pliny, as he considers Rome’s relations with his allies – and thus the missions of the provincial governors – only through the perspective of minimizing the displeasure of the allies, while ensuring the maximum profits for Rome. The antagonism of these two perspectives can of course be explained by the opposite literary genres of these two works.

Bibliographical references: 

Juvénal, Satires

Sers, OlivierbookJuvénal, Satiresedition by Pierre de Labriolle and François Villeneuve; translation by Olivier SersParisLes Belles Lettres2002