Wealth, Luxury, and Corruption: Juvenal on Women and the Decline of Roman Virtue

Why has the corruption of Roman women come about? Juvenal has an answer – and it’s the same as one current in the manosphere.

But whence come these monstrosities? you ask; from what fountain do they flow? In days of old, the wives of Latium were kept chaste by their humble fortunes. It was toil and brief slumbers that kept vice from polluting their modest homes; hands chafed and hardened by Tuscan fleeces, Hannibal nearing the city, and husbands standing to arms at the Colline gate. We are now suffering the calamities of long peace. Luxury, more deadly than any foe, broods over the city, and avenges a conquered world. Since the day when Roman poverty perished, no deed of crime or lust has been wanting to us; from that moment Sybaris and Rhodes and Miletus have poured in upon our hills, with the begarlanded and drunken and unabashed Tarentum. Filthy lucre first brought in amongst us foreign ways; wealth enervated and corrupted the ages with foul indulgences. What decency does Venus observe when she is drunken? when she knows not one member from another, eats giant oysters at midnight, pours foaming unguents into her unmixed Falernian, and drinks out of perfume-bowls, while the roof spins dizzily round, the table dances, and every light shows double!

Juvenal now laments the corruption of religion and traditional rites, which are now a cloth for vilest immorality.

Effeminate men – today’s gay best friends – come in for special scorn. Sometimes they’re just pretending to be gay:

Whenever a cinaedus is kept he taints the household. Folks let these fellows eat and drink with them, and merely have the vessels washed, not shivered to atoms as they should be when such lips have touched them. So even the lanista’s establishment is better ordered than yours, for he separates the vile from the decent, and sequesters even from their fellow-retiarii the wearers of the ill-famed tunic; in the training-school, and even in gaol, such creatures herd apart; but your wife condemns you to drink out of the same cup as these gentry, with whom the poorest trull would refuse to sip the choicest wine. Them do women consult about marriage and divorce, with their society do they relieve boredom or business, from them do they learn lascivious motions and whatever else the teacher knows. But beware! that teacher is not always what he seems: true, he darkens his eyes and dresses like a woman, but adultery is his design. Mistrust him the more for his show of effeminacy; he is a valiant mattress-knight; there Triphallus drops the mask of Thais. Whom are you fooling? not me; play this farce to those who cannot pierce the masquerade. I wager you are every inch a man; do you own it, or must we wring the truth out of the maid-servants?”

Keeping a wife under control is arduous. If you set guards on her, she’ll just have sex with them in exchange for their silence.

I know well the advice and warnings of my old friends: “Put on a lock and keep your wife indoors.” Yes, but who will guard the guardians? They keep silent the lapses of the slut – paid off in common coin. The common crime keeps its silence. A prudent wife looks ahead and starts by seducing them.

It would be tedious to list all the types of women that Juvenal proceeds to skewer. For instance, there are sensual women who enjoy excess in all pleasures, even with guests present:

at last she comes in with a flushed face, and with thirst enough to drink off the vessel containing full three gallons which is laid at her feet, and from which she tosses off a couple of pints before her dinner to create a raging appetite; then she brings it all up again and souses the floor with the washings of her inside. The stream runs over the marble pavement; the gilt basin reeks of Falernian, for she drinks and vomits like a big snake that has tumbled into a vat. The sickened husband closes his eyes and so keeps down his bile.

The newly “liberated” Roman woman, like the modern American woman, goes to all (cosmetic) ends to maintain her beauty – just not for her husband.

she ridiculously puffs out and disfigures her face with lumps of dough; she reeks of rich Poppaean unguents which stick to the lips of her unfortunate husband. Her lover she will meet with a clean-washed skin; but when does she ever care to look nice at home? It is for her lovers that she provides the spikenard, for them she buys all the scents which the slender Indians bring to us. In good time she discloses her face; she removes the first layer of plaster, and begins to be recognisable. She then laves herself with that milk for which she takes a herd of she-asses in her train if sent away to the Hyperborean pole. But when she has been coated over and treated with all those layers of medicaments, and had those lumps of moist dough applied to it, shall we call it a face or a sore?

So important is the business of beautification; so numerous are the tiers and storeys piled one upon another on her head! … Meantime she pays no attention to her husband; she never speaks of what she costs him. She lives with him as if she were only his neighbour; in this alone more near to him, that she hates his friends and his slaves, and plays the mischief with his money.

Other women spend all their time with soothsayers. Poor women are especially superstitious, but at least they have children. A rich woman’s husband shouldn’t be to concerned about her abortion, though, since the child probably wasn’t his anyway:

These poor women, however, endure the perils of child-birth, and all the troubles of nursing to which their lot condemns them; but how often does a gilded bed contain a woman that is lying in? So great is the skill, so powerful the drugs, of the abortionist, paid to murder mankind within the womb. Rejoice, poor wretch; give her the stuff to drink whatever it be, with your own hand: for were she willing to get big and trouble her womb with bouncing babes, you might perhaps find yourself the father of an Ethiopian; and some day a coloured heir, whom you would rather not meet by daylight, would fill all the places in your will.


About Pechorin

A Hero of Our Time
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2 Responses to Wealth, Luxury, and Corruption: Juvenal on Women and the Decline of Roman Virtue

  1. Pingback: Luxury, Slavery, and Decline | Pechorin

  2. Pingback: Luxury, Fertility, and Demographic Suicide | Pechorin

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