Scholia Reviews ns 6 (1997) 19.
John Henderson, Figuring Out Roman Nobility: Juvenal's Eighth Satire. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997. Pp. viii + 168, incl. appendices. ISBN 0-85989-517-3. UKú9.95.
University of Southern California, Los Angeles
'Stemmata quid faciunt?' is the famous opening of Juvenal's eighth satire. Family trees and what they are on about, what it is that they do, that is what the author announces as the theme of the text. The text starts with a question, a question that is usually read as rhetorical, as a 'leading' question, directing the reader's response in a particular direction -- a num or nonne question, in terms of Latin language. Often, the answer required is thought to be 'Nothing', or at any rate 'Not much.' That is, the satire has frequently been read straightforwardly as supportive of the message that 'moral qualities are more important than birth.' But the question can also be read as an open one. From this perspective, the text is exploring what it is that stemmata (family trees) do in Roman society, without too readily pushing one answer at the readership -- at least overtly: there is still of course the possibility that the author is playing a more subtle game of seduction with the reader. To view the question as an open one is perhaps to face a more interesting reading of the text; it is at least a reading that keeps more interpretative possibilities open and prevents too early a foreclosure.
This is the stance that Henderson adopts in this book. He refuses to attempt a definitive judgement on the question of the text's 'viewpoint', treating it, as he writes in his preface (p. vii), as a performance text, a script which can be produced in more than one way, much as the text of, let us say, The Merchant of Venice can be read and interpreted, and produced on stage, in several different ways. In so doing, he emphasises the amount of distancing that is possible from the overt message of the text, the extent to which the element of irony can be seen to be part of the ingredients of Juvenal's text. Distancing and irony -- one might almost speak of Socratic EI)RWNEI/A -- are thus integral to Henderson's reading of this satire, and correspondingly to his own style in this book.
Henderson's style is unusual for academic writing, as those who have read his other works will already know. He avoids the rather bland, 'educated' style current in academic prose, choosing a range of linguistic registers with a concentration on the 'lower', more conversational end of the spectrum. There is a gadfly quality to his writing; he will make a suggestive or persuasive remark, and then, having implanted his point in the reader's mind, not settle but dart on. He uses much jokey wordplay, which may disconcert those who are used to a more syllogistic mode of argumentation. Some may feel that form is privileged over substance, but this would be to misunderstand the extent to which form and substance are inseparable, in the cases both of Juvenal and of Henderson. For the latter, at any rate, style can be seen as carrying his methodology, his choice of critical approach. Avoidance of too overtly serious a tone corresponds with his preference for ironic distancing, his refusal of too close an identification with any one, hegemonic reading of the text. To some this emphasis on maintaining a certain distance from certainty, may fail to satisfy, if an authoritative reading of the text is what they want. 'Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul / When hot for certainties . . .' in Henderson's work! Its 'up in the air' quality may appear uncomfortably ungrounded. Henderson's mode of argument may appear (mere) wordplay. This playful quality, though, is not necessarily to be looked down upon. Word play, playing with words, is, after all, what literary criticism is, and Juvenal himself is unquestionably a master of the art of playing with words.
This book is, however, despite what appears at first sight to be a stylistic light touch (which does not imply fuzziness or imprecision), well grounded in solid literary scholarship, displaying the author's indisputably wide and detailed knowledge of Latin literature. It is well buttressed by a supportive structure of appendices (36 pages compared with 96 pages of the main body of the book) and endnotes, in which the author's erudition is apparent. It is also grounded in a detailed examination of the Roman social and cultural history of the period of which the satire is a product. The text is firmly placed in context in the world, both material and mental, from which it comes and to which it was first directed.
Henderson shows us how Satires 8 addresses issues that were of abiding concern to its original, elite readership: the place of 'good birth' in Roman society; the question of the transmission of elite status, and its relationship with heredity; the importance of having a 'good name' -- and one's name, of course, marks one's status in society. Implicitly, this satire addresses itself to the question of the place of the elite in Roman society, and thus, inevitably, its relationship with the institution of the principate, and it must be borne in mind that the principate itself had recently changed from being an office transmitted by heredity to one of adoption, where the imperial names were given to an adoptive son chosen as being 'the best man for the job'. Lineage, though, as well as being important socially and politically, is also important at the literary level. As a practitioner of the literary genre of satura, Juvenal himself has a lineage, both among his predecessors as satirists and more widely in the body of Latin literature as a whole, which was one of the topics to which Roman satire turned its attention, and Henderson's book draws out this element of concern too.
Henderson also draws the reader's attention to the extent to which this satire is both itself a piece of rhetoric and is concerned with rhetoric. As a performance text, it has links with declamation, that rhetorical performance that was a competitive game by which men with an elite education demonstrated and reaffirmed their elite status, and thus their place as good Romans. An integral element of rhetoric as taught and practised at this time was the use of exempla, paradigmatic stories taken from Roman history, each attached to the name of its hero or villain, that served to embody right or wrong conduct, and with which this satire is crammed. The use of such exempla was a commonplace of speechmaking, and so indeed was the hackneyed philosophical topos of 'birth versus virtue' that is the topic of this satire. Instead of taking the text merely as an example of such commonplace performance, Henderson in this deftly articulated book invites us to read Juvenal Satires 8 as a distanced comment on contemporary Roman educational practice, the place of tradition in Roman life, and on 'Romanness' itself, as created, recreated and transmitted.