Thursday, May 27, 2010

Si Potes, Et Debes

Juvenal has always been one of my favourite Latin poets, even if his style isn't quite as polished as that of the Golden Age giants. I think part of the reason why his Satires have always appealed to me is that their depiction of the dirty realities of life in the Roman world represents a good counterpoint to the tales of love, adventure and past wars favoured by Virgil, Ovid et al.

The most famous of the Satires are undoubtedly the third, a brilliantly vivid portrait of the decadence of Rome, and the tenth, a memorable declamation on the topic of "be careful what you wish/pray for". Extracts from both of those masterpieces, by the way, will undoubtedly feature in future posts. But I have a real soft spot for the lesser-known fifth, a mordant tragi-comic tale of a poor client's degrading experience at a dinner given by a rich patron.

All sorts of petty humiliations are suffered by the client, for whom the invitation to dinner is, as Juvenal mentions early in the piece, votorum summa - his prayers come true, essentially. Juvenal's hero, a certain Trebius, drinks inferior wine, cracks his teeth on inedible bread, and even suffers indignities at the hands of the rich man's slaves, who welcome the chance to finally wield power over someone.

The satire, however, contains a nasty twist right at the end, and here is where the title of this post comes in. One expects Juvenal to finish off with a final tirade directed at the heartless patron, Virro. But no; he has already chided him earlier in the poem, using the perfectly chosen words cenes civiliter. Instead, Juvenal turns on Trebius, saying what a hopeless fool he is to suffer all this. Cruel it may be, but it makes for a superbly effective and unexpected ending. The nub of Juvenal's message is contained in a brief but striking phrase which runs across a line break: omnia ferre / si potes, et debes. "If you can cope with all of this (all the aforementioned humiliations)...then you deserve to!" The message, or part of it, is: have some self-respect.

It is the unexpected et debes which makes this such a memorable aphorism. A poor cliens might see these insults to his dignity as necessary evils on the path to social advancement, but Juvenal destroys these pretensions completely in his final lines. There will be no social advancement, no chance to gain the rich man's favour: he's taking you for a ride, and enjoying your distress. Here are the last eight lines of the poem, including the phrase quoted above, with some brief notes:

spes bene cenandi vos decipit. 'ecce dabit iam
semesum leporem atque aliquid de clunibus apri,
ad nos iam veniet minor altilis.' inde parato
intactoque omnes et stricto pane tacetis.
ille sapit, qui te sic utitur. omnia ferre
si potes, et debes. pulsandum vertice raso
praebebis quandoque caput nec dura timebis
flagra pati, his epulis et tali dignus amico.

(Juvenal, Satires, V.166-173)

"The hope of a good dinner tricks you. 'Here, soon enough he'll give us a half-eaten hare, or something from the rump of a boar, soon enough a smaller fowl [sc. smaller than the one the host is eating] will come down to us.' And then you all sit in silence with untouched and cut bread at the ready. He has sense, to treat you like this. If you can cope with all of this...then you deserve to. The time will come when you'll offer up your bald head to be beaten, and you won't be afraid of receiving a harsh're worthy of this kind of banquet, and this kind of friend."

Line 166: the quotation belongs to Trebius, still vainly hoping for some decent food, and the ending of the previous sentence at the start of the fifth foot creates a bucolic diaeresis, which serves to emphasise the content of the first four feet, which here constitutes another aphorism of sorts. The repetition of "iam" in lines 166 and 168 gives a poignant if pathetic touch to Trebius's hopes: "any moment now, any moment now" he'll get some proper fare. But, of course, he never does.
169: this line is a superb example of the unexpected ending, or paraprosdokian (παρα προσδοκιαν), so common in Greek Old Comedy. Everyone is waiting with a ready (parato)...untouched (intacto)...and drawn (stricto)...surely it must be a sword (the most common article described as "strictus"), to attack the patron? No, instead it's the bread (pane) left until the end of the line, which is not "drawn" but "cut", and suddenly the image of a righteous rebellion instead becomes another scene of teeth-gritting with inedible food on the plate.
170: "ille...utitur" is followed by another bucolic diaeresis, again accentuating the earlier sentence. "utitur" contains a clever pun: the word is commonly used to refer to domestic hospitality, but of course the prime meaning of the word is to use...and the gormless clients have been used, well and truly, by their patron. Even "sapit" has a subtle double meaning: of course, it means "he is clever", but the original sense of sapere is to have flavour...and of course it is the rich patron who is sampling all the flavour of the dinner, while his "guests" miss out.
171-3: the physical humiliations described here would be suffered by the morio, the traditional clown and butt of jokes who endured beatings for the amusement of the guests at a Roman party. The implications about Trebius's role at this party are obvious.
173: two final richly ironic comments on the situation. "dignus" can simply mean "worthy of", but it can also imply a sense of independent dignity...and this is exactly what Trebius has been robbed of. And the final word of the satire, "amico", implies just what Trebius has let himself in for. No doubt he has boasted of having this rich patron as "a friend", and perhaps to his way of thinking the friendship has been cemented by his invitation to a fancy dinner. But no, he has in fact become the entertainment, by allowing his host to enjoy his desperate frustration. And so Juvenal's final comment is: if you court such "friends", then you deserve them.

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