Satire VI is the most famous of the sixteen Satires by the Roman author Juvenal written in the late 1st or early 2nd century. In English translation, this satire is often titled something in the vein of Against Women due to the most obvious reading of its content. It enjoyed significant social currency from late antiquity to the early modern period, being read largely as a proof-text for a wide array of misogynistic beliefs. Its current significance rests in its role as a crucial—although problematic—body of evidence on Roman conceptions of gender and sexuality. The overarching theme of the poem is a dissuasion of the addressee Postumius from marriage; the narrator uses a series of acidic vignettes on the degraded state of (predominantly female) morality to bolster his argument. At c. 695 lines of Latin hexameter, this satire is nearly twice the length of the next largest of the author's sixteen known satires; Satire VI alone composes Book II of Juvenal's five books of satire. In addition, Satire VI contains the famous phrase, "Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (but who will guard the guards themselves), which is variously translated as "But who guards the guards?", "But who watches the watchmen?", or similar. (This phrase has been used as an epigraph to numerous works, most notably Watchmen and the Tower Commission Report.) In context, it refers to the impossibility of enforcing moral behavior when the enforcers (custodes) are corruptible:
The Themes of the Poem
In the view of Peter Green, "'Cynthia' was the pseudonym which Propertius used to indicate his mistress Hostia in his poems; the girl who wept for her sparrow was 'Lesbia,' the mistress of Catullus, whose real name was Clodia." While the equation of these pseudonyms with historical women is debatable, the reference within Satire VI to Propertius and Catullus is clear. In opposition to the sophisticated, urban woman of the elegiac ideal, the woman of the mythical golden age was a simple rustic. The constant touchstone of the remainder of the poem is the deviance of contemporary Roman women from an amorphous ideal located in the unspecified past. Though it is frequently decried as a misogynistic rant, feminist scholar Jamie Corson has pointed out:
- Satire VI is not merely a diatribe against women, but an all-out invective against marriage. .. This decaying of Rome’s social and moral standards has caused marriage to become the offspring of greed and corruption. Men have become weak, and allow women to challenge male supremacy so that marital power relations now favour women.
The author sets the frame for his satire with a hyperbolic presentation of the options available to the Roman male – marriage, suicide, or a boy lover:
Juvenal was concerned with the morality and actions of the Roman elite; Satire VI can equally be read as an invective against the men who have permitted this pervasive degradation of the Roman world. The author harshly criticizes avaricious husbands who marry not for love but for the dowry and subsequently allow their rich wives to do whatever they wish (6.136-141). Similarly, men who care only for the fleeting beauty of their wives, and then divorce them as it fades, merit condemnation (6.142-48). While women are prone to temptation, Juvenal casts men as agents and enablers of the feminine proclivity toward vice. In the written Roma of the Satires, men will even impersonate eunuchs to get unmonitored access to corrupt a woman (6.O-20-30). The literary trope of luxury imported into Roma along with the spoils of conquest and the goods (and banes) of the world is employed by Juvenal to explain the source of degradation:
Synopsis of the Poem by Section
- lines 6.1-24 – Parody of the golden age myth as dirty cave people. The ages of man: in the golden age no one feared a thief, the silver age had the first adulterers, and the remaining crimes in the Iron Age. The goddesses Pudicitia (Chastity) and Astraea (Justice) withdrew from the earth in disgust.
- lines 6.25-37 – Are you preparing to get married, Postumus, in this day and age, when you could just commit suicide or sleep with a boy?
- lines 6.38-59 – The notorious adulterer Ursidius wants a wife and children. He wants of wife of old-fashioned virtue, but he is insane to think he will get one.
- lines 6.60-81 – Marry a woman and an actor will become a father instead of you.
- lines 6.82-113 – Eppia, a senator’s wife, ran off to Egypt with a gladiator.
- lines 6.114-141 – Messalina, wife of Claudius, sneaked out of the palace to work at a brothel. Lust is the least of their sins, but greedy husbands allow it for the dowry.
- lines 6.142-160 – Men love a pretty face, not the woman. When she gets old, they kick her out.
- lines 6.161-183 – The narrator would prefer a prostitute for a wife over Cornelia, since virtuous women are often arrogant.
- lines 6.184-199 – Dressing and speaking Greek is not attractive, especially for old women.
- lines 6.200-230 – Women torment even men they love and want to rule the home, then they just move on to another man – one with eight husbands in five years.
- lines 6.231-245 – A man will never be happy while his mother-in-law lives; she teaches her daughter evil habits.
- lines 6.246-267 – Women cause lawsuits and love to wrangle. Some elite women practice at gladiatorial exercises, perhaps with the idea of actually entering the arena.
- lines 6.268-285 – Women cover their own transgressions with accusations of their husband’s. If the husband catches them, they are even more indignant.
Lack of Restraint
- lines 6.286-313 – Poverty and constant work kept women chaste previously. It was the excessive wealth that came with conquest that destroyed Roman morality with luxury.
- lines 6.314-345 – Two women profane the shrine of Pudicitia (Chastity). Description of the now perverted rites of the Bona Dea (Good Goddess).
- lines 6.O1-O34 – the Oxford Fragment – Cinaedi (pathic males) are a moral contamination; women listen to their advice. Cups should be shattered if they drink from them. Be sure the eunuchs guarding your wife are really eunuchs. Who will guard the guards themselves? 
- lines 6.346-378 – Women both high and low are the same. Women are fiscally profligate and lack foresight and self-restraint.
- lines 6.379-397 – Some women are so enthralled by musicians that they will perform sacrifices to the gods for their victory in a contest, no less than if their own husband or child were sick.
- lines 6.398-412 – Some women intrude into matters that pertain to men and are constantly blathering gossip and rumors.
- lines 6.413-433 – Some women are horrible neighbors and hostesses. Keeping their guests waiting then drinking and vomiting like a snake that has fallen into a vat of wine.
- lines 6.434-456 – Women who are educated and fancy themselves orators and grammarians, disputing literary points and noting every grammatical slip of their husbands, are repulsive.
- lines 6.457-473 – Rich women are utterly out of control. They only try to look presentable for their lovers. At home for their husbands they are covered in beauty concoctions.
- lines 6.474-511 – If a woman’s husband sleeps turned away, she tortures everyone at hand. Women rule their households like bloody tyrants. An army of maids is in attendance to get her ready for the public. She lives with the husband as if he were a stranger.
- lines 6.511-541 – The eunuch priest of Bellona and the mother of the gods is given complete credence by some women. Others are fanatic adherents of the cult of Isis and its charlatan priests.
- lines 6.542-591 – Still others listen to Jewish or Armenian soothsayers, or believe in the prophetic abilities of Chaldaean astrologers. Even worse is a woman who is so skilled at astrology that others seek her out for advice. Poor women get their fortunes told down by the Circus Maximus.
Drugs and Poisons
- lines 6.592-609 – At least poor women will have children. Rich women instead receive abortions to avoid the bother. But husbands should be glad since they would just become the father of a half-Ethiopian anyway. Women also get abandoned children to pass off as those of their husbands; these become the Roman elite – as Fortuna laughs.
- lines 6.610-626 – Women love to drug and poison their husbands to get their way. The wife of Caligula drove him insane with a potion, and Agrippina the Younger poisoned Claudius.
- lines 6.627-633 – The evil stepmother would like to poison rich stepchildren.
- lines 6.634-43 – The narrator asks if his listener thinks he has slipped into the hyperbole of tragedy. But Pontia admits to murdering her two children and would have killed seven if there had been seven. We should believe what the poets tell us about Medea and Procne, yet they were less evil than women now, because they did what they did due to rage, not money. There is a Clytemnestra on every street.
- The specific poems of Catullus alluded to are poems II and III, in which the character Lesbia first plays with, then mourns, the passer (sparrow). The narrator refers to the poems of Propertius more generally as the source of the character Cynthia: e.g. 1.1, 1.3, 1.4, et cetera.
- There is significant disturbance of the text in the area from which the Oxford fragment originated. Various attempts have been made to reorder the lines so that the sense would be more clear.
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