Juvenal on Women, part 2

Juvenal goes on to point out the blame men bear, for they too have given up ancient virtue, and marry only for money or momentary beauty. Still, men have little choice in the matter, women being the masters of the reproductive market, and recourse against their collective decision being difficult if not impossible. A few women, Juvenal admits, may have avoided the general decay of Rome’s womenfolk. Yet such women are liable to have another defect: pride.

“Do you say no worthy wife is to be found among all these crowds?” Well, let her be handsome, charming, rich and fertile; let her have ancient ancestors ranged about her halls; let her be more chaste than the dishevelled Sabine maidens who stopped the war—-a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan! yet who could endure a wife that possessed all perfections? I would rather have a Venusian wench for my wife than you, O Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, if, with all your virtues, you bring me a haughty brow, and reckon up Triumphs as part of your marriage portion.

Incidentally, this is the origin of the now common phrase “black swan.”

Juvenal reminds proud women of the story of Niobe and Apollo. A woman who is always competing with a man is intolerable and unlovable.

is any dignity in a wife, any beauty, worth the cost, if she is for ever reckoning up her merits against you? These high and transcendent qualities lose all their charm when spoilt by a pride that savours more of aloes than of honey. And who was ever so enamoured as not to shrink from the woman whom he praises to the skies, and to hate her for seven hours out of every twelve?

If Postumus does not truly love one woman, then why marry? Wives and weddings are expensive, and get in the way of Postumus’ hedonism (a spirit typical of the Roman of that period, and something for which Juvenal elsewhere expressed absolute contempt). Yet even if he does, marriage is no panacea.

If you are honestly uxorious, and devoted to one woman, then bow your head and submit your neck to the yoke. Never will you find a woman who spares the man who loves her; for though she be herself aflame, she delights to torment and plunder him. So the better the man, the more desirable he be as a husband, the less good will he get out of his wife.

That is to say that no good deed with women goes unpunished (hence, of course, the need for game, i.e. for an understanding of feminine psychology). Good men are betrayed by women – one thinks of Cato the younger, that noblest of the Romans, who was rewarded with an unfaithful wife. But the bad sleep well – and they do not only sleep.

Juvenal goes on to describe women’s cruelty, caprice, and lack of all sense of justice.

“Crucify that slave!” says the wife. “But what crime worthy of death has he committed? ” asks the husband; “where are the witnesses? who informed against him? Give him a hearing at least; no delay can be too long when a man’s life is at stake!” “What, you numskull? You call a slave a man, do you? He has done no wrong, you say? Be it so; but this is my will and my command: let my will be the voucher for the deed.” Thus does she lord it over her husband. But before long she vacates her kingdom; she flits from one home to another, wearing out her bridal veil; then back she flies again and returns to her own imprints in the bed that she has abandoned, leaving behind her the newly decorated door, the festal hangings on the walls, and the garlands still green over the threshold. Thus does the tale of her husbands grow; there will be eight of them in the course of five autumns—-a fact worthy of commemoration on her tomb!

Once women learned good behaviour from their mothers. Older women took pride in maintaining the moral order, and shamed younger women who stepped too far out of line. But as mere women, they did so only out of self-love. Now that older women are corrupt, they naturally take pleasure in making young women like themselves, and see virtue as an threat to their own reputations.

Give up all hope of peace so long as your mother-in-law is alive… Do you really expect the mother to teach her daughter honest ways—-ways different from her own? Nay, the vile old woman finds a profit in bringing up her daughter to be vile.

Marital felicity is a chimaera.

The bed that holds a wife is never free from wrangling and mutual bickerings; no sleep is to be got there! It is there that she sets upon her husband, more savage than a tigress that has lost her cubs; conscious of her own secret slips, she affects a grievance, abusing his slaves, or weeping over some imagined mistress. She has an abundant supply of tears always ready in their place, awaiting her command in which fashion they should flow. You, poor dolt, are delighted, believing them to be tears of love, and kiss them away; but what notes, what love-letters would you find if you opened the desk of your green-eyed adulterous wife!

As we would now say: beta.

When caught in infidelity, women are shameless.

There’s no effrontery like that of a woman caught in the act; her very guilt inspires her with wrath and insolence.


About Pechorin

A Hero of Our Time
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