One of the most charming ancient genres is the Roman dinner invitation poem. “You will dine well if you bring your own,” writes the poet Catullus (13), adding humorously that “his purse is full of cobwebs.” And Horace (Epistle I.5) writes, “If you don’t mind reclining on a scruffy couch and eating a dinner of cheap greens, I will wait for you at home at sunset.”
The impoverished poets love to entertain. If only all of our dinner invitations could be metrical! How about a poem where, as a modern poet, you offer only spaghetti and charming company because your food was spoiled in the power outage?
Juvenal spins the trope differently from his predecessors. He is cranky, mordant, and so politically incorrect you will either laugh or slam the book shut. (I advise you to avoid Satire II and Satire VI, both of which are obscene and offensive.) His good satires are great: in Satire I, he lists a catalogue of immoral and crass practices in Rome. Then he justifies his lampoon by saying, “It is difficult not to write satire.”
He skewers everything from bad poetry to unfaithful wives to gay marriage to the impossibility of making a living in Rome (he, for one, refuses to write good reviews of bad books) to the entire female sex (I sighed, but read it) to the myth of heredity making a difference.
In Satire V, which is my favorite, Juvenal warns Trebius, an impoverished man who lives from hand to mouth, not to dine with Virro, a sadistic boor who invites his dependents if he needs an extra guest. The rich will eat game, fish, truffles, mushrooms, and fruit while the poor gnaw on hard bread and spoiled food. Even the water is different for the rich, and the poor can’t even get the slaves to pour them a glass of murky liquid.
Begging, Juvenal says, is preferable to accepting this pointless invitation.
Is there no sidewalk to beg on? No bridge or scrap of a mat too small by half? Is the insult of this dinner of such value, is your hunger so gnawing, that a man couldn’t more honorably shudder at and eat filthy dog food?
Virro’s dinner party is the reverse of the nouveau riche Trimalchio’s feast (Petronius’s Satyricon): instead of the guests enjoying the most extravagant entertainment, watching in horror the host shit in a gold chamber pot, and dining on dishes almost too fantastic for a modern chef to imagine, Virro and the rich enjoy watching the poor starve while they scarf down so much food it upsets their stomachs.
The translations from the Latin are my own. Here are the Latin lines from Juvenal.
nulla crepido uacat? nusquam pons et tegetis pars
dimidia breuior? tantine iniuria cenae,
tam ieiuna fames, cum possit honestius illic 10
et tremere et sordes farris mordere canini?
And you can read my post on Horace’s poem here