Satire is a witty, sometimes biting, often moralizing commentary on current topics, social life, literature, and the folly of individuals. While the Greeks possessed a satiric spirit in some of their writings, satire as a form of literature was more fully developed by the Romans. In fact, Quintilian,the famous Roman teacher of rhetoric*, claimed that satire was a wholly Roman creation. By this, Quintilian was referring to satire in the form of lengthy compositions written in verse.

The first Roman to write satires in verse was Quintus Ennius around 200 B.C. The Romans considered Gaius Lucilius, who lived in the late 100s B.C., the founding father of the genre*, however. Lucilius was the first to use satire as a way of expressing his anger against society and certain powerful individuals. Horace wrote his Satires in the 30s B.C. Although his satires were influenced by Lucilius, Horace rarely attacked living people, and he was far more gentle in tone than his predecessor. Horace gave moral advice by providing everyday examples of what to avoid in one’s personal life. In one of his satires, which compares town and country life, Horace included the still-famous fable of the city mouse and the country mouse. In the first century A.D., during the reign of the emperor Nero, another Roman, Persius, wrote satires that show the strong influence of Stoicism*.

Roman satire reached its peak with Juvenal. His 16 satires bitterly denounced the vices and follies of the early A.D. 100s. In his first satire—an attack on the poetry of his day—Juvenal wrote that “indignation prompts my verse.” In his third satire, which is the most famous, Juvenal described life in the city of Rome. He wrote that honest and poor Romans had no chance in Rome because poverty stood in the way of ability. The sixth satire is a lengthy and harsh attack on women, whom Juvenal depicted as extravagant, greedy, and quarrelsome. In his eighth satire, Juvenal attacked pride in ancestry. He maintained that “virtue is the only true nobility.” His tenth satire, also one of his most famous, recommends “a sound mind in a sound body” and warns of the self-destructiveness of ambition. Juvenal’s tenth satire was adapted by the great British writer of the 1700s, Samuel Johnson. Titled “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” it encourages people to watch out for what they wish for: they just might get it, and it is almost sure to be harmful to them. (See also Literature, Roman; Lucian; Poetry, Roman.)

* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing

* genre style or form, especially in literature or art

* Stoicism philosophy that emphasized control over one’s thoughts and emotions

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