First off – they may by satires but they aren’t really laugh out loud funny. There are a few mildly funny stories, but nothing that a modern stand up comedian could do anything with. But there are times when they bring a smile to your face, and as you read more and get to know the author better you do start to find his approach to life amusing.
You get to know Juvenal pretty well from reading the Satires. He is a bit like the co-worker you can’t stand to begin with, but who you warm to after a while. You realise he isn’t as bad as he seems. Its just a shame he never stops moaning. The satires are are basically one prolonged moan. He moans about everything but mainly people. We can divide the moans into two broad categories. There are the specific failings of individuals, and there are generalised moans about whole groups of people.
In the world of Juvenal there are no heroes. There is no nobility. There is no justice. Everyone you meet is out for themselves. Everyone is vain. Nobody comes out looking good. Women are unfaithful. Men are misguided at best, stupid routinely and pretty often downright dishonest. Greeks are too clever by half and are even less trustworthy than the Romans – and given how bad the Romans are that is saying something.
The stories such as they are, barely count as stories. They don’t have much in the way of plots or punchlines. They are just tableaux to display Juvenal’s misanthropy. It would be easy to get the impression that he is xenophobic and homophobic. But in reality his hatred of foreigners and homosexuals isn’t really much worse than than his hatred of everyone else. He really isn’t a people person.
At first he just gets on your nerves, but you do get to like the miserable git as you come to know him. He does from time to time show his softer side. He has some pity for a few of the poor fools whose own stupidity has undone them. And his continual lashing of the immorality of his time at least suggests that he has some morals himself, even if they are buried deep.
But I can’t honestly recommend the Satires as entertainment. They are worth reading to remind yourself that human nature hasn’t changed that much and that the people who inhabited the Roman Empire were not so different to us. And they give you an idea of what the place was like that no textbook or archeological study can do. You realise what they found important, what they ate, what their motivations were (money mainly as it turns out). Don’t expect too many belly laughs, but there is a certain pleasure from hearing so directly from someone writing so long ago who seems so modern in his outlook.
There are many things that Juvenal says that you can imagine someone saying today. Above all, I can’t help but agree with him that in an age like this, who would not be a satirist?
Modern translations of which there are a few are much better than the public domain ones. You really need the full rudeness and use of slang to get Juvenal’s true level of savagery.