Home > Uncategorized > Juvenal: War and violence, baser than the beasts

Juvenal: War and violence, baser than the beasts


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

Juvenal: Mighty warriors and their tombs are circumscribed by Fate

Juvenal: The spoils of war and the price thereof

Juvenal: Weigh the greatest military commanders in the balance


From Satires
Translated by G. G. Ramsay

The Pygmy warrior marches forth in his tiny arms to encounter the sudden swoop and clamorous cloud of Thracian birds; but soon, no match for his foe, he is snatched up by the savage crane and borne in his crooked talons through the air. If you saw this in our own country, you would shake with laughter; but in that land, where the whole host is only one foot high, though like battles are witnessed every day, no one laughs.


It is here mostly that lies the cause of crime. No human passion has mingled more poison-bowls, none has more often wielded the murderous dagger, than the fierce craving for unbounded wealth. For the man who wants wealth must have it at once; what respect for laws, what fear, what sense of shame is to be found in a miser hurrying to be rich? “Live content, my boys, with these cottages and hills of yours,” said the Marsian or Hernican or Vestinian father in the days of yore; “let the plough win for us what bread shall suffice our table; such fare the rustic Gods approve, whose aid and bounty gave us the glad ear of corn, and taught man to disdain the acorn of ancient times. The man who is not ashamed to wear high boots in time of frost, and who keeps off the East wind with skins turned inwards, will never wish to do a forbidden thing; it is purple raiment, whatever it be, foreign and unknown to us, that leads to crime and wickedness.”

Such were the maxims which those ancients taught the young; but now, when autumn days are over, the father rouses his sleeping son after midnight with a shout: “Awake, boy, and take your tablets; scribble away and get up your cases; read through the red-lettered laws of our forefathers, or send in a petition for a centurion’s vine-staff…destroy the huts of the Moors and the forts of the Brigantes, that your sixtieth year may bring you the eagle that will make you rich…Let this maxim be ever on your lips, a saying worthy of the Gods, and of Jove himself if he turned poet: ‘No matter whence the money comes, but money you must have.'”

“When you tell a youth that a man is a fool who makes a present to a friend, or relieves and lightens the poverty of a kinsman, you teach him to plunder and to cheat and to commit any kind of crime for money’s sake, the love of which is as great in you as was love of their country in the hearts of the Decii, or in that of Menoeceus…”


When Nature gave tears to man, she proclaimed that he was tender-hearted; and tenderness is the best quality in man. She therefore bids us weep for the misery of a friend upon his trial, or when a ward whose streaming cheeks and girlish locks raise a doubt as to his sex brings a defrauder into court. It is at Nature’s behest that we weep when we meet the bier of a full-grown maiden, or when the earth closes over a babe too young for the funeral pyre. For what good man, what man worthy of the mystic torch, and such as the priest of Ceres would wish him to be, believes that any human woes concern him not? It is this that separates us from the dumb herd; and it is for this that we alone have had allotted to us a nature worthy of reverence, capable of divine things, fit to acquire and practise the arts of life, and that we have drawn from on high that gift of feeling which is lacking to the beasts that grovel with eyes upon the ground. To them in the beginning of the world our common maker gave only life; to us he gave souls as well, that fellow-feeling might bid us ask or proffer aid, gather scattered dwellers into a people, desert the primeval groves and woods inhabited by our forefathers, build houses for ourselves, with others adjacent to our own, that a neighbour’s threshold from the confidence that comes of union, might give us peaceful slumbers…and seek protection inside the same city walls, and behind gates fastened by a single key.

But in these days there is more amity among serpents than among men; wild beasts are merciful to beasts spotted like themselves. When did the stronger lion ever take the life of the weaker? In what wood did a boar ever breathe his last under the tusks of a boar bigger than himself? The fierce tigress of India dwells in perpetual peace with her fellow; bears live in harmony with bears. But man finds it all too little to have forged the deadly blade on an impious anvil; for whereas the first artificers only wearied themselves with forging hoes and harrows, spades and ploughshares, not knowing how to beat out swords, we now behold a people whose wrath is not assuaged by slaying someone, but who deem that a man’s breast, arms, and face afford a kind of food. What would Pythagoras say, or to what place would he not flee, if he beheld these horrors of to-day, – he who refrained from every living creature as if it were human, and would not indulge his belly with every kind of vegetable?

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