It is fair to assess Juvenal as a sexist, and to admire Euripides for his sympathy toward women. And that’s why I was startled to read Juvenal’s satire on chastity (Satire VI) and Euripides’s Hippolytus and realize they were writing about the same subject.
Two writers could not be more different in style and approach. in fifth-century Athens, Euripides was often satirized by Greek poets and his tragedies were not appreciated until after his death. Juvenal, a satirist in Rome in the late first century and early second century A.D., was a stand-up comic poet who dealt in jeers and gibes: he lampoons every hypocrite, hack writer, whore, adulterer, aristocrat, politician, shopkeeper, and street vendor. in his view, Rome literally stank. Satire VI is a comical but overlong and often tiresome invective against unchaste women.
On the other hand, Euripides is a compassionate realist who parses the emotions that drive his characters. Euripides is generous; it is the gods who are unkind. In Hippolytus, Queen Phaedra, who honors the goddess Aphrodite, falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, a fanatically chaste, arrogant worshiper of Artemis.
But let me start with Juvenal’s one-sided perspective on unchaste women. He begins Satire VI at the beginning of time, when the Earth was new. (The translations of Juvenal below are mine.)
“I believe,” Juvenal begins, “that Chastity lingered for a long time on Earth, when Saturn was king, when the cave provided homes and the fire and household gods and masters were covered with common darkness, and when the mountain wife strewed the woodland couch with leaves and and straw and skins of wild animals.“
After this pastoral introduction, Juvenal begins to rage. Comic rants are the gist of his satire. He raves that men should not marry: they would be better off sleeping with pretty boys than being married to cheating women.
Here’s why women won’t be chaste: Juvenal says they would rather have sex with gay actors, or run away with ugly, famous gladiators than stay with the boring husbands who support them. Aelia is in love with a queer actor who plays women’s roles in tragedy, while Hispulla is having a passionate affair with another tragic actor. Juvenal asks if young Hispula can really be expected to prefer an aging professor, Quintilian? After this brief taunt, Juvenal returns to lambasting women.
But here’s my favorite passage: Juvenal says that bluestocking women are even more disagreeable than the unchaste women. When an educated woman talks about poetry at a dinner party, it stops all conversation.
She praises Virgil, forgives Dido about to kill herself, and compares poets, balancing Virgil on one side of the scale and Homer on the other. The grammarians yield to her expertise, the orators are overcome, the whole crowd is silent, and neither the special pleader nor the herald speak up. And not even another woman.
Euripides’s Hippolytus is complex and sympathetic, sensitive to the plight of a powerful woman. Phaedra, the wife of King Theseus, is restless and disturbed: she has fallen in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, a chaste devotee of the goddess Artemis. Hippolytus spends his time in healthy pursuits, riding horses and driving chariots on the beach. No doubt he flexes his gleaming muscles and enchants everyone. Phaedra is lovesick but has no intention of telling her love..
She is cynical about chastity. The following passages are translated by David Grene.
Truly, too,/ I hate lip-worshippers of chastity who own/ a lecherous daring when they have privacy./ O Cypris, Sea-Born Goddess, how can they/ look frankly in the faces of their husbands/ and never shiver with fear lest their accomplice,/ the darkness, and the rafters of the house/ take voice and cry aloud?
And then a disaster occurs. Phaedra’s nurse betrays her, thinking that Hippolytus will reciprocate Phaedra’s feelings and rush into her arms. The nurse does not understand the complexity of the situation.
rHippolytus’s sneering, hubristic reaction is similar to Juvenal’s rant.
Women! This coin which men find counterfeit / Why, why, Lord Zeus, did you put them in the world,/ in the light of the sun? If you were so determined/ to breed the race of man, the source/ should not have been women.
And now we reach the impasse, aporia (literally “no way out”). Phaedra is “ruined” by her nurse’s interference;. Hippolytus sneers at her and looks forward to telling his father. Who is right? Who is wrong? Phaedra intended to keep her feelings private: it is the nurse who took it upon herself to play the go-between. Hippolytus has an extreme case of hubris, and yet we understand his repulsion. Both characters are out of balance because of their failure to honor both Aphrodite and Artemis.
Nothing good will come of this. There is no deus ex machina here.
I love Euripides, but, as always, have mixed feelings about Juvenal.