Juvenal: On the City of Rome (late 1st, early 2nd Century CE)


Like most ancient satire, the writings of Decimus Junius Juvenalis are essentially conservative. In order to avoid censorship, or worse, he chose as his targets people who had lived a century before; but he clearly meant to describe what he saw as the faults of his own time. In his Third Satire he gives us a wonderfully intimate and lively portrait of daily life in the streets of imperial Rome. In the poem, a friend of Juvenal's is moving to a place in the countryside, and it is he who details what he can't stand about the city.

What are the main characteristics of life in the city that the speaker objects to? About what customs in ancient Rome can you learn from reading this poem?

The sick die here because they can't sleep,
Though most people complain about the food
Rotting undigested in their burning guts.
For when does sleep come in rented rooms?
It costs a lot merely to sleep in this city!
That's why everyone's sick: carts clattering
Through the winding streets, (1)
curses hurled
At some herd standing still in the middle of the road,
Could rob Claudius (2) or a seal of their sleep!
When duty demands it, crowds fall back to allow
The wealthy to pass, who sail past the coast
In a mighty Liburnian ship,(3) while on the way
They read or write or even take a nap,
For the litter and its shut windows bring on sleep.
Yet he still arrives first; while we are blocked
In our hurry by a wave before us, while the great crowd
Crushes our backs from behind us; an elbow or a stick
Hits you, a beam or a wine-jar smacks you on the head;
My leg is covered in crud, from every side
I'm trampled by shoes, and some soldier spears
My foot with his spiked shoes. Look over there:
See the baskets belching out smoke? A picnic!
There must be a hundred guests and each
Dragging behind his own portable kitchen!
Corbulo (4) could scarcely carry such huge dishes--
And so many--as are placed on the heads of the servants,
Poor schmucks, walking bolt upright
And madly fanning the flames while they run.
Mended tunics are torn, the massive trunk
Of a fir passes by in a cart, a pine over here
In a wagon, both sway and menace the crowd.
If the axle supporting a load of Ligurian marble (5)
Gave way, and spilled its mountain on the heads of the crowd,
What would be left over? Bodies? Hardly.
Who'd be able to find any limbs or bones?
The body of the ordinary man would utterly perish
Just like his soul. Meanwhile, his family, unawares,
Is washing dishes, blowing the fire with their mouths,
Making a racket with oily scrapers and washing
Spots from the linens. The house-boys are busy
With their chores, but the poor bastard's sitting
On the infernal shore, newly arrived,
Frightened of the horrible ferryman, (6) despairing and unhappy
For stuck in the mud he has no coin in his mouth
To offer to buy his passage across the waters.(7)

Think now about all those other perils
Of the night: how high it is to the roof up there
From which a tile falls and smashes your brains;
How many times broken, leaky jars
Fall from windows; how hard they strike and break
The pavement. You could be thought lazy and careless
If you go to dinner without writing a will.
There are as many deaths waiting for you
As there are open windows above your head.
Therefore you should hope and fervently pray
That they only dump their sewage on you.

Don't forget the drunkard who likes to fight:
If he hasn't killed anyone yet, he suffers,
And he mourns all night like Achilles for Patroclus, (8)
Lying first on his face and then on his back, tossing
And turning all night. He can't get to sleep otherwise:
Only a brawl puts some people to sleep!
But even though he's young and flushed with wine,
He carefully avoids the man with the crimson cloak
And the long procession of servants and burning lamps.
As for me, led home only by the moon
Or a small candle, whose wick I tend with care,
Me he despises. Thus begins a wretched fight--
If you can call it a fight when he punches
And I take a beating: he stands in front of me
And orders me to halt. What can I do?
Especially in the face of a frenzied maniac
Who, by the way, is stronger than I am?
"Where are you coming from? Whose beans and vinegar
Are you farting out your ass? What low-life
Shoemaker have you been eating leeks with
And stuffing your face with boiled sheep's head?
Why don't you answer me? Speak!
You want I should kick some sense in you!
Where do you beg? What synagogue
Do you pray at?" (9)
You can try to say something,
Or you can try to slip quietly away,
It really doesn't matter one way or another:
You're going to get pounded, and taken to court
The next day because you bothered him.
You see, this alone is the poor man's freedom:
After being beaten and punched you have the right
To ask that a few teeth be left in your mouth.

This doesn't exhaust all the dangers in the city.
For there is always someone to rob you,
No matter how tightly you lock your house
Or seal all the shutters of your shop with fastened chains.
Sometimes thugs do their job quickly with a knife.
Whenever the Pomptine Marshes or the pine forests
Of Gallinaria (10) are protected by armed guards,
They all rush to Rome as if it were
A game preserve!

On what forge or anvil
Is there anything else except heavy chains?
Iron is mainly used to fashion fetters,
So much so we risk a shortage of ploughshares
And the complete disappearance of hoes and mattocks.
Happy were our grandfathers' ancestors,
Happy those ages of the kings and tribunes of old
When Rome was content with only a single jail.

I could add many more reasons,
But the mules call and the daylight is passing away.
It's time.
The mule driver there has been signalling
For some time now with his driving stick.
Farewell, and remember me whenever Rome
Allows you to return to your native Aquinum,
For however brief a time, and tear me away
From Cumae to the altars built for Ceres by Helvius
And the ones built for Diana by your own people,
And I'll lace up my thick boots (11) and come through the fields
To your chilly country and help you write your satires.

But only if they aren't ashamed to have me in them.

Translated by Richard Hooker


(1) The emperor Trajan tried to cut down on the noise made by heavy traffic by cutting down on public building ; the bulk of city wagon traffic (see below) involved building materials. As a result of Trajan's laws, most of the loading , transportation, and offloading of building materials occurred at night.

(2) The emperor Claudius was popularly considered both an idiot and perpetually drowsy; while he certainly wasn't an idiot, the latter actually seems to be a fair characterization.

(3) That is, they pass through the crowds in a closed litter. Juvenal is likening the litter carried by servants to a war-vessel; the "coast" is the crowded streets.

(4) Domitius Corbulo was a famous Roman general known for his mighty strength.

(5) This is marble from Luna, near Carrara, in Etruria. Juvenal is describing the typical heavy traffic of Rome; the only wagons that were allowed on the streets were wagons carrying building materials.

(6) Charon. The man is dead and in the underworld. In Roman and Greek thought, the dead arrive at the shore of the river Acheron and are ferried across by Charon to the Underworld itself, where they are judged and sent either to Tartarus for punishment or Elysium for reward.

(7) In Greek and Roman funerary practices, a small coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased. Charon would not ferry across those who died before their time; they'd have to wait until their appointed hour.

(8) The reference is to the Iliad, Book 24. Achilles is the great hero of the Iliad; when his friend, Patroclus, is killed in battle, he avenges himself on the Trojan hero responsible for his death. The irony is that Achilles refuses to fight in the Iliad, whereas the person described here can't wait. The emperor Nero was infamous for behavior like that Juvenal describes here.

(9) Judaism was becoming increasingly popular in Rome as one of a number of exotic Eastern religions, but conservatives like Juvenal viewed it with contempt.

(10) The Pomptine Marshes (on the Appian Way) and Gallinarian forest (near Cumae) were famous for their roving bands of armed robbers.

(11) Juvenal uses foot-wear to indicate character several times in this satire. Here, "thick boots" are the attire of farmers; Umbricius is saying that his move to the country is permanent.


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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. If, after examining the table of contents of the complete volume, you are interested in considering it for use at your own campus, please contact Paul Brians.

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