Monday, July 5, 2010

Obsequere Imperio, Part I

Juvenal's tenth satire, in which he rails against the folly and vanity of human prayers, is probably his most famous. Not only because it contains the memorable panem et circenses quip which, either in the original or in (mis-)translation, is still an essential tool for every second-rate social commentator, but because its message is perhaps the most timeless of all Juvenal's often heavy-handed moral conclusions: we are better served by letting the gods decide what it best for us; pray for a mens sana in corpore sano, strength of spirit and an ability to cope with misfortune, and leave it at that.

The satire contains many memorable exemplary episodes, including the vivid account of the fall of Sejanus, the emperor Tiberius's favourite (in which the panem et circenses phrase occurs), the brief summary of Hannibal's career, and the wryly funny suggestion that Cicero might have avoided so much danger in his life had he been content to be a lousy poet. Many of these may feature in later posts...

But an often ignored passage is in my opinion one of the best: the section depicting the plight of Gaius Silius, the consul-elect who entered into a dangerous affair with the notorious Messalina, wife of the emperor Claudius. The Silius episode is memorably described by Tacitus as well (although his version of the story is slightly different, with Silius rather than Messalina insisting on their marriage), but the irony and pathos of Juvenal's depiction rank it among his best work:

...elige quidnam
suadendum esse putes cui nubere Caesaris uxor
destinat. optimus hic et formonsissimus idem
gentis patriciae rapitur miser extinguendus
Messalinae oculis; dudum sedet illa parato
flammeolo Tyriusque palam genialis in hortis
sternitur et ritu decies centena dabuntur
antiquo, veniet cum signatoribus auspex.

"Choose what earthly advice you think you ought to give to the fellow whom Caesar's wife intends to marry. This most excellent and also handsome representative of a patrician family is snatched off, poor fellow, to be snuffed out by Messalina's eyes. She has long been sitting with her flame-coloured veil all ready, and the Tyrian-dyed marriage bed is openly turned down in the gardens, and a dowry of a million will be given according to the old custom, and the soothsayer will come along with the witnesses."

(Juvenal, Satire X, 329-336)

The stage is set for the calamity:

Line 329: "quidnam" is, as always, a bit stronger than "quid"; a rough equivalent in English would be "what on earth" or "what in the world". Emphatically placed here, it helps to show the impossible situation that Silius finds himself in (once we know who is being described).
330: "Caesaris uxor": now, there has been no lead-in to this story, and so the reader/listener is left in suspense as to who this could be, since all the emperors were known as "Caesar". Silius has not been mentioned yet, neither has Messalina.
331: "destinat": enjambed, and emphatically placed, so it must have some significance. I think that here Juvenal is stressing that Messalina does not just want to marry Silius (and therefore throw off concealment once and for all) she has determined to do it: that is her will, and she gets what she wants. The whole point of the passage is to show that Silius, for all his nobility of birth, good looks and social standing (as consul-elect), he is essentially Messalina's slave, and more importantly a slave to fortune. The superlatives ("optimus...formonsissimus") build up the impression of Silius as someone supposedly favoured by fate...but events show that it is quite the opposite.
332: the sudden "rapitur", after an enunciation of Silius's good fortune, is jarring and effective. He is "snatched away"; "miser" continues the negative mood, and the gloomy "extinguendus" - a fifth-foot spondee (see here) - gives the line a very heavy, fatal feel. In the space of a line, Silius has gone from being a Roman brahmin to a candidate for unavoidable death (the gerundive ending of "extinguendus" is equally effective).
333: "Messalinae": Aha! Now the reader/listener knows who we're talking about, and all the mixture of pride and misery in the last three lines becomes immediately clear. The mention of Messalina (in emphatic position, naturally!) is all the more striking for being delayed, as is the metaphor of Silius' being destroyed by her eyes. The theme of this portion of the satire is the folly of prayers for good looks. Silius' beauty has attracted Messalina's attention...and from that moment, Juvenal implies, he is a dead man.
334-336: in some ways these lines are simply atmospheric filler, but there are some interesting points: "parato" as the final word in line 333 is suggestive; what has she "prepared" for him? (Shades of the ending of the fifth satire!) "sternitur", in line 335, has the double meaning of "laid low/killed", which is appropriate to the context, while the mention of a million sesterces being handed over is sadly ironic: Silius will obviously be unable to take advantage of such new-found wealth.

Stay tuned for Part II.

No comments:

Post a Comment