Roman Satirists 

Introduction to Roman Satire

Roman Satirists







A Timeline of the Roman Satirists


Quintus Ennius*

  • Dates: 239 B.C. - 169 B.C. (died of gout at age 70)

  • Writings: The writings of Ennius are fragmentary, mostly composed in verse on different topics and in different meters, hence the name "Saturae."  Because the work was circulated, no copies were kept in good condition.  Porphyrio, a later Roman author, says that there were four books of the Saturae.  It is difficult to date the Saturae fragments, but they must have been completed before 184 B.C. when Scipio Africanus died.  Ennius' chief work was the Annals, the history of Rome up until his own present day.

  • Translation: Remains of Old Latin I, Warmington

  • Persona: He did not stay long with one patron, thus he was able to write about the good qualities of people and the pettiness of society.

  • Brief Biography: Ennius was born in Rudiae, located in the "heel" of Italy and educated in Tarentum just before Hannibal came to southern Italy.  As a soldier in Sardinia, he met Cato, who took Ennius back to Rome to learn Greek.  Ennius later taught both Latin and Greek, living on Aventine Hill.  Scipio Africanus was his patron and later, he became the personal poet of Fulvius Nobilior in Aetolia.  Five years later, Fulvius' son granted him Roman citizenship.

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Gaius Lucilius*

  • Dates: 180 B.C - 102 B.C.

  • Writings:  Lucilius wrote thirty books compiled into three collections.  The satires were divided into these three groups: books 1-21, 22-25 and 26-30.  He was influenced by Greek iambic poetry, and by the Socratic method of dialogue.  All the material we have extant was handed down to us through Nonius in quoted form, especially books 26-30, in his book Doctrina.

  • Translation: Remains of Old Latin III, Page

  • Persona: He wrote harshly, using real names and criticizing real people.  His satire borders on invective poetry.  Persius said that Lucilius "lashed the city, and broke his jaw."  Juvenal said that he had a hot temper and never hesitated to speak his mind.  He was skeptical of public superstitions and ceremonies, disgusted with avarice, corruption, and discontent.

  • Brief Biography: Born in Suessa Aurunca, between Latium and Campania, he seems to have been connected with the equestrian class, though it is never mentioned that he obtained Roman citizenship.  Based on his writings, it seems he was well educated; he mentioned philosophers as if they were personal friends, though it was never explicitly stated that he visited Greece.  He was a member of the literary circle of Scipio Aemilianus.  Began writing during the Italian struggle for citizenship, but did not publish his works until after the Numantine conflict in Spain had ended.  He moved into the house that had been intended for Antiochus IV Epiphanes He stopped writing satire in 105 B.C. when he moved to Naples.  Instead, he wrote elegiac poetry publishes after his death.  He was honored with a public funeral.

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Marcus Terentius Varro*

  • Dates: 116 B.C. - 27 B.C.

  • Writings: Besides his many satires, Varro wrote several other works entitled Sesculixes (Ulysses and a Half), Bimarcus (Varro Split), Sexagessis (The Man Aged Sixty), and Trikaranos (The Three-Headed Monster).  Varro is the only satirist on our list to have written satire in Greek.

  • Translation:  None found.  Please write if you know of one.

  • Persona: Varro wrote in the style of Menippus.  He was harshly critical of the current and past moral climates, and was very much a conservative in his opinions.

  • Brief Biography:  Varro was born in Reate where he was tutored by Aelius Stilo, a contemporary literary scholar.  He was a land owner, and later became a Legate, then a propraetor.  Later he fought against pirates of the Mediterranean.  Varro served under Pompey in Spain against Sertorius, and in Pompey's struggle against Caesar.  When Ceasar was victorious, Varro was forced to surrender, but he continued to live to the ripe old age of 90.

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Quintus Horacius Flaccus*

  • Dates: December 8, 65 B.C. - 8 B.C.

  • Writings: Horace began writing satires early in his career.  He completed a total of ten satires, which he called "sermones" or conversations.  In his fourth satire, commonly called his program satire (his explanation of what he writes and why) he calls his work "satura" and claims the influence of Lucilius.

  • Translation: Horace: Satires and Epistles;  Persius: Satires, Rudd

  • Persona: Although he claims to have been influenced by Lucilius, Horace's satire is much less harsh.  He does not name the people he is criticizing, perhaps because of the more turbulent nature of the time in which he lived.  He criticized gluttony and greed, and was especially irritated by discontent.

  • Brief Biography:  The son of a freedman, Horace was born in Venusia.  Although it was not common for a person of his rank, Horace's father saved money to provide his son with an aristocratic education.  His father even acted as paedagogos to the young pupil.  He was trained in literature by Orbilius, and later went to Athens to study philosophy and ethics.  While in Athens, he joined Brutus' cause and went to Asia Minor, where he had the role of a military tribune.  When Brutus was defeated, Horace left the army.  He was absolved of all connections with Brutus, but his family land was confiscated.  It was at this time that he began his literary career.  Virgil became his patron and gave him a farm in Sabina where Horace spent the remainder of his days.

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Titus Petronius Arbiter*

  • Dates: ? - 66 A.D. (ordered by Nero to commit suicide)

  • Writings:  In addition to his lyric and elegiac poetry, wrote The Satyricon.  We only have a small portion of this work extant.  The fracments we do have appear to belong to books XIV XV and XVI, and many scholars have hypothesized that there may have been up to 20 books.  The main plot of the portion we have now describes the foolish Trimalchio and his high-brow dinner party.

  • Translation: Petronius: The Satyricon;  Seneca: The Apocolocyntosis, Sullivan

  • Persona: Even from the fragments we have, we can see that Petronius was not in favor of flagrant excess.  He did not approve of people behaving above their station.  

  • Brief Biography: We actually have no direct knowledge of this author.  There is, however, a description of a Petronius in the Annals of Tacitus.  The biographical information we have on the author of the Satyricon is based on the assumption that these two are one in the same.  If that is so, then he served both as governor of Bythinia, and later as consul.  He was well know for enjoying the finer things in life, and even earned himself the name "arbiter elegantiae" ("arbiter of excellence").  Those who envied his position and popularity spread rumors that he was conspiring against the emperor, and Nero ordered him to commit suicide.  He did so surrounded by friends, merriment and entertainment.  Instead of sending the emperor a final flattering letter to beg mercy on his family after he was gone (as was common) he instead sent Nero a complete list of all of the emperors sexual liaisons, male and female.

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Lucius Annaeus Seneca*

  • Dates: 4 B.C. - 65 A.D. (committed suicide at the command of Nero)

  • Writings:  Seneca's main satirical work was The Apocolocyntosis, usually translated "The Pumpkinification of Claudius." The title at least is thought to be a pun on the idea of apotheosis, or deification of a Roman emperor.  Written about the death of Claudius, the work pokes fun at the belief of Claudius (and other emperors) that they would become gods after their death.

  • Translation: Petronius: The Satyricon; Seneca: The Apocolocyntosis, Sullivan

  • Persona: Although Seneca's writing style was often loose, almost conversational, the attitude was often revengeful and aimed at an immediate impact.

  • Brief Biography: Seneca, son of Seneca the Elder and Helvia, was born to an equestrian family.  He was educated in Rome during the time of Augustus.  His reputation as a writer and orator earned him the dislike of Caligula.

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Aules Persius Flaccus*

  • Dates: December 4, A.D. 34 - November 24, A.D. 62 (he died of a stomach disease at age 27)

  • Writings:  It was said to have been Lucilius' tenth book that prompted him to write satire.  Unfortunately, he died before his work was completed; it contained 650 lines.  In his introduction he used choliambic meter, the only occurrence of this in verse satire.  He did not like the Neronian obsession with diction, but instead praised the Augustine writings of Horace and Virgil.  However, he disliked Horace's use of mataphors; Persius preferred similes.  Posthumously his friend Cornutus and Casius Bassus altered the contents to be more acceptable to a public audience.  His writings were read and quoted frequently by grammarians of the later empire.  He was first published in 1469-70, and was made famous by an edition published by Casaubon in 1605.

  • TranslationHorace: Satires and Epistles;  Persius: Satires, Rudd

  • Persona: He did not write to criticize individuals or ethics in general, but the ethics of literature.  He did not use real names.  Instead, he borrowed from Horace's generic names.

  • Brief Biography: Persius was born in Volaterrae.  He was very proud of his Etruscian heritage.  Although he was born into an Equestrian family, he never held office, married or had children.  His father died when he was six years old and he was raised by his mother, his aunt and his sisters. Went to Rome and studied under grammarian Remmius Palaemon, a man who "loved his women, wrote his poetry and was hot headed."  He also studied under Verginius Flavus, a celebrity in his time.  Persius' best friend was a freedman named Annaeus Cornutus, a Stoic who composed philosophical writings and subjects for rhetoric.

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Marcus Valerius Martialis

  • Dates: A.D. 40 - A.D. 104

  • Writings:  Martial wrote in many different genres.  His first book, the Liber Spectaculorum was composed to commemorate the opening of the Colosseum in 80 A.D.  The Xenia and the Apophoreta are lists of gift tags.  His 12 books of epigrams, however, contain his satrical writings.  Some of the epigrams are character sketches, ridiculing perticular people or types of people.

  • Translation:  Martial: Epigrams I and II, Shackleton Bailey

  • Persona:  Martial does not hold back in his censure of many people and types.  He disapproves of everything from stingy hosts to bores and even criticizes doctors.  He also often has the potential of being rather obscene, while at the same time he expresses an appreciation for nature and shows a genuine sensitivity to human character.

  • Brief Biography:  Martial was born in Bilbilis, Spain.  After completing his education, he came to Rome at the age of 24.  He did not have many resources in Spain, and depended on patrons such as Seneca and Lucan.  Later he was given a small farm in Nomentum, and appointed to the office of military tribune.  One aspect to his life that may have been an advantage to his satirical writings was that he had contact with many diverse groups of people, from emperors to slaves, both men and women.  In 96 A.D. when Nerva became emperor, Pliny the Younger paid for Martial's return to Spain, were Marcella gave him a farm on which he spent the remainder of his days.

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D. Iunius Juvenal*

  • Dates:  approximately A.D. 55 - A.D. 138

  • Writings:  Juvenal wrote five books containing a total of 16 satires.  The first satire in Book 1 is his program satire, in which he describes some of the common vices of his time and explains why he writes satire.  Some of the other topics he addresses are dinner parties, adultery and religion.

  • Translation: Juvenal: The Sixteen Satires, Green

  • Persona:  Horace was influenced both by Lucilius and Horace.  Like Lucilius, he was vicious and attacked specific people by name.  However, like Horace, he played it safe by attacking those of the past who were no longer alive.

  • Brief Biography:  Juvenal probably lived during the time of the emperor Hadrian.  The family name Iunius suggests that he was of Spanish origin.  In one of his poems, he refers to the town of Aquinum in Monte Cassino with some familiarity, suggesting that perhaps this was his birthplace.  Three letters have been found written from Juvenal to Martial, suggesting that they were friends.  Although information on Juvenal is sketchy, some sources suggest that he may have been exiled to Egypt at the end of his life for writing satires about people buying their way into public offices.

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(Lucius) Ap(p)uleius

  • Dates: approximately A.D. 125 - A.D. 171

  • Writings:  In addition to his one satirical work, Apuleius also wrote five other pieces.  These were mostly philosophical in nature, and were expansions on the thoughts of Socrates and Plato.  The Golden Ass (or Metamorphoses) was Apuleius' satirical piece in which a character named Lucius begins meddling with black magic and accidentally turns himself into a donkey.  Because of his new form, Lucius has a new angle from which to view life.  He overhears conversations that he may not have been held in his presence were he in a human form.

  • Translation:  The Golden Ass: or Metamorphoses, Kenny

  • Persona:  Because the character Lucius is in the form of a donkey for most of the story, Apuleius' persona is most like that of a fly-on-the-wall.  He is the unnoticed observer of peoples' private life, and occasionally he has the opportunity to interfere and enforce justice.

  • Brief Biography: Appuleius was born in Madura, which, at that time, was a respected Roman colony.  His father was a duumvir, an office to which Apuleius may have succeeded after his father's death.  He was educated in Carthage and later traveled to Greece where he was greatly influenced by the study of philosophy.  When he returned to Africa, he was ill and was taken in by an old classmate with ulterior motives.  Apuleius' frined, Pontianus, wanted a husband for his aging mother.  Apuleius agreed, but soon toruble arose when Pontianus' father in law tried to break off the engagement to ensure an ample inheritance for his own daughter.  When Pontianus died soon afterwards, his father in law and uncle tried to accuse Apuleius of poisioning his friend and seducing his friend's mother by witchcraft.  In his defense, he wrote the Apologia, the work from which we learn most of his biography.  It is speculated that he wrote the Golden Ass after this time, as a piece about a man who meddles with black magic would certainly have come up in a trial for witchcraft.


*For the biographies of Ennius, Lucilius, Horace, Persius, Juvenal, Varro, Seneca and Petronius we are indebted to Roman Satire, Michael Coffey (1989).