A Roman´s Habitus

A Reconstruction of the Narrator Umbricius’ Mentality in Juvenal’s Third Satire

Essay, 2010

9 Pages, Grade: 1,0


1. Umbricius - Juvenal’s alter ego:

„And home, I grant, to the afflicted soul, seems pleasant.”1 Ulysses

In Juvenal’s third satire his alter-ego Umbricius looks back upon Rome before leaving the city. In fact, this is a very euphemistic description. Umbricius is a poor guy, poor in every material meaning: He´s economically, bodily and mentally exhausted from the city, which he, and this is being told in many satiric facts , is now going to leave. Why should he do such a thing? This question might be the first question for a reader to ask, and one of the first effects of Juvenal’s satire: Umbricius’ thoughts lead to reflection. He himself knows exactly why he wants to leave Rome. Juvenal/Umbricius knows already! And this is the motivation for this essay: to reconstruct the narrator’s mentality to show the mind behind it: Juvenal. To show the mentality of a living Roman, to get an idea how a Roman’s mentality reveals itself in time through his opus.

This reconstruction does not aim to give a psychological profile of Juvenal, but rather to paint a careful picture of his mentality, a Roman’s mentality, by analysing the given/written facts about Rome as told by a Roman: Umbricius. If the satire is carefully analysed, the possibility is given to make careful conclusions and also to articulate three theses; conclusions that lead to these theses about the, behind all satiric art, self-describing Roman mentality against the background of the satire - by creating a „picture of a Ro-man“.

Of course, the satire is overdrawn and filled with mockery and many stereotypes, but Juvenal wants to tell something, and he tells it through Umbricius: Why would he leave the city? Is Rome really only doing him harm? Is there no use to life, but decadence on one and poverty on the other hand? But I want to go a step further. This method allows to reconstruct the synthesis of Umbricius’ mentality with the author’s, Juvenal’s, mentality, to show his habitus2 - a so carefully created Roman’s habitus, by reconstructing a Roman’s look, reflecting on his own time. In other words: I am trying to create a “light picture of a Ro-man“, which is, as I’d like to propose, the overall meaning of the totality’s significants (the texts themselves), built by the third and the remaining satires.

This Roman habitus might be generally unknown. It does not know itself. It is a written performance of Juvenal’s awareness, of analysis and reflection, to get to know and to explain the problems of his present time. I propose that Juvenal was aware of the habitus surrounding him, and that, as a reflecting historian and poet, he was aware of his own reflections - his own habitus. He could have surely answered the question: “Who am I?” - And he did: In his satires. And he is also questioning the reader: “Who are you?” - Here in Rome, at my, at Umbricius’ time?

Now, this is my third proposal and thesis: By revealing the Roman habitus in his satires, Juvenal is aware of proving a bit of a general Roman habitus. And he also reveals his own, which can be found between the lines, in his humour, his satire. Mockery and irony are the shield that Juvenal uses to camouflage his habitus - but it shows, nontheless, who he is, and what he means. His - until then - secret is no longer there. But more importantly: He will always be the only one to whom this - his own - habitus is known between the mentality-fronts he is describing. My analysis can only show a small part of both: of Juvenal’s and the Roman’s habitus.

As one can now insist: All this sounds like an insinuation. But it is no insinuation, and even if it is, it is Juvenal himself who insists on his opinion between the lines, and another term for his habitus, one we can surely reveal is this: “Juvenal’s insinuation”. In other words: This habitus, this self-insinuation is what stands and sounds between the lines.

Finally: This investigation tries to explore and reveal a Roman’s habitus without claiming completeness and without losing itself too deeply in the dusty depths of notional psychology. To show and to document this habitus, I will use Juvenal’s third satire only. A more dense investigation might show if this way of reconstruction is a possibility - or not.

2. What I see, is…

Here spoke Umbricius: "Since there is no room," quoth he, "for honest callings in this city, no reward for labour; since my means are less to-day than they were yesterday, and to-morrow will rub off something from the little that is left, I purpose to go to the place where Daedalus put off his weary wings while my white hairs are recent, while my old age is erect and fresh, while Lachesis has something left to spin, and I can support myself on my own feet without slipping a staff beneath my hand. Farewell my country!3

This reproachful but in principle unexcitingly sounding Wild Blow gives us a relatively complete look at the Roman’s habitus. It shows what we can analyse as effects of transformation4 : 1: The knowledge of departure 2: Work, at which one can stay honest, is not required anymore. 3: Effort is no longer worth it, because a surplus doesn´t show up - on the contrary: effort brings loss. 4: The cost of living rises rapidly. 5. All this accumulates in a coercion of facts: the reason to leave Rome “ while my old age is erect and fresh .”

Concerning 1: The reference to Daedalus seems to be very important in more than one way. On the one hand, Umbricius condemns Roman culture and practice in verse 65f. as a farce of Greek culture and also condemns the Greeks and their culture in a very rude way;5 On the other hand, he himself uses Daedalus or better: the Greek- mythological model, for his subjective conclusion. Umbricius will leave his home, in this case Rome, like Daedalus left the labyrinth by his own virtue; like Daedalus he will go to exile, and a city such as Rome can easily be seen as a labyrinth. Daedalus died, according to the myth, after his escape from the labyrinth in Sicily to Cumae, where our Umbricius wants to go; Cumae, which lies in the northwest of Naples, in the Italian region of Campania. Cumae itself was founded by Greek colonists from Chalkis and Eretria during the 8th century BC.6 Whom is Umbricius really mocking, then? The Greeks and their culture? But isn´t he on the way to depart to the origins of Greek culture, where he’ll be more in touch with Greeks, than he is here, in Rome? Besides: The satire is a Greek invention! So, Umbricius is mocking “his” Romans, which try so hard to be Greek or to realise Greek culture. They don’t see that they are getting themselves a living Greek farce7. The Romans and Roman culture are transforming themselves into a pseudo-Greek-culture; they are reconfiguring the cultural code of their cultural room - Rome and the Roman Empire. They have forgotten the difference between assimilating and/or integrating a culture like the Greek through a leading culture like their own; about which they assimilate themselves into interpreted Greek culture and by this process of transformation and reconfiguration they get a segmentary component of Greek culture - a Roman culture without Roman culture - a farce.

This is the perfect paradox: by thinking of themselves as a leading culture, the Romans practically and theoretically mean to integrate Greek culture - but it happens exactly the other way around! The Romans’ perception of the surrounding world cannot be forgotten either, as it is part of this process of transformation. The pseudo- Greek perspective is now the Romans’ new point of view on the world, as Umbricius shows us. A look at political practice reveals permanent political unrest in the empire, besides some periodical exceptions running like a red string through Roman history - until the downfall of the (Western) Roman Empire in 476 AD. This downfall can inasmuch be seen as an effect of a pseudo-graecisation . This may sound a bit exaggerated, but as one has to see - there is a point, which I tried to explain above. A denial of this interpretation would be either exaggerated, and it would underestimate the interactions, the cultural reconfigurations and processes of transformation, which are an inescapable effect of cultural merge.


1 Hom. Od. II, 350 translated by Samuel Butler, Loeb Classical Library 1918, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/juvenalpersius-intro.html (last checked: 06/26/2010).

2 I follow Bourdieu’s definition of habitus. A habitus, in his words, is the way people “behave”. (Bourdieu, Pierre: Zur Genese der Begriffe Habitus und Feld. In: Der Tote packt den Lebenden. Hamburg 1997) Another possible explanation for habitus, which points in the same direction, is given by Norbert Elias. (Elias, Norbert: Über den Prozess der Zivilisation. Frankfurt am Main 1987) The definition fits in both instances: a habitus is part of socialisation, or, as I try to show, part of the process of reconfiguring and transforming Roman culture by the help of Greek culture. Bourdieu calls a habitus a “geronnene Lebensgeschichte” (coagulated life story; Bourdieu, p. 57f).

3 Juvenal, third Satire, verse 19-30, transl. by Susanna Morton Braund, Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

4 For a definition of what transformation might be, I refer to the homepage of the „Sonderforschungsbereich 644“ at the Humboldt-University, Berlin. (http://www.sfb- antike.de/index.php?id=317&L=0 - last checked 05/15/2010): Transformation, to make it short, means the process of cultural exchange between Roman and Greek culture and their complex interdependences. Roman culture integrates parts of Greek culture and reintegrates Roman culture in the Greek one. The result is what Umbricius tries to describe as the new Roman habitus.

5 For example 71f.: „ Quick of wit and of unbounded impudence, they are as ready of speech as Isaeus and more torrential. “

6 Caputo, Paolo: Cuma e il suo Parco Archeologico. Un territorio e le sue testimonianze . Roma 1996.

7 Juvenal, third Satire, verse 55 - 125. Very interesting also in comparison with Karl Marx’ work “The 18th Brumaire” - there he looks at the first and the second French Revolution and comes to the conclusion that the second French Revolution (1848-1851) was a farce, after the first one was a tragedy. (MEW: Band 8. Berlin 1966. p. 115)

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A Roman´s Habitus
A Reconstruction of the Narrator Umbricius’ Mentality in Juvenal’s Third Satire
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Geschichte)
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Roman´s, Habitus
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Michael Bolz (Author), 2010, A Roman´s Habitus, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/154932


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