The Origin of Roman Satire

Ruins of Roman theatre.

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Roman literature began as an imitation of the Greek literary forms, from the epic stories of Greek heroes and tragedy to the poem known as an epigram. It was only in a satire that the Romans could claim originality since the Greeks never split satire off into its own genre.

Satire, as invented by the Romans, had a tendency from the beginning towards social criticism which we still associate with satire. But the defining characteristic of Roman satire was that it was a medley, as a modern revue.

Menippean Satire

The Romans produced two types of satire. Menippean satire was frequently a parody, blending prose and verse. The first use of this was the Syrian Cynic philosopher Menippus of Gadara (fl. 290 B.C.). Varro (116-27 B.C.) brought it into Latin. The Apocolocyntosis (Pumpkinification of Claudius), attributed to Seneca, a parody of the deification of the drooling emperor, is the only extant Menippean satire. We also have large segments of the Epicurean satire/novel, Satyricon, by Petronius.

Verse Satire

The other and more important type of satire was the verse satire. Satire unqualified by "Menippean" usually refers to the verse satire. It was written in dactylic hexameter meter, like epics. Its stately meter partly accounts for its relatively high place in the hierarchy of poetry quoted at the beginning.

Founder of the Genre of Satire

Although there were earlier Latin writers instrumental in developing the genre of satire, the official founder of this Roman genre is Lucilius, of whom we have only fragments. Horace, Persius, and Juvenal followed, leaving us many complete satires about the life, vice, and moral decay they saw around them.

Antecedents of Satire

Attacking the foolish, a component of ancient or modern satire, is found in Athenian Old Comedy whose sole extant representative is Aristophanes. The Romans borrowed from him and other than extant Greek writers of comedy, Cratinus, and Eupolus, according to Horace. The Latin satirists also borrowed attention-grabbing techniques from Cynic and Skeptic preachers whose extemporaneous sermons, called diatribes, could be embellished with anecdotes, character sketches, fables, obscene jokes, parodies of serious poetry, and other elements also found in Roman satire.

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Gill, N.S. "The Origin of Roman Satire." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). The Origin of Roman Satire. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Origin of Roman Satire." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).