Greco-Roman satire  

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"mine is not the first of this kind, but the same thing that has been often practiced even by great authors: when Homer, so many ages since, did the like with the battle of frogs and mice; Virgil, with the gnat and puddings; Ovid, with the nut; when Polycrates and his corrector Isocrates extolled tyranny; Glauco, injustice; Favorinus, deformity and the quartan ague; Synescius, baldness; Lucian, the fly and flattery; when Seneca made such sport with Claudius' canonizations; Plutarch, with his dialogue between Ulysses and Gryllus; Lucian and Apuleius, with the ass; and some other, I know not who, with the hog that made his last will and testament, of which also even St. Jerome makes mention." --The Praise of Folly, Erasmus

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This page is about the concepts of satire and parody in Greek and Roman culture.

Erasmus's defense of the satirical encomium (see left) features a summary of Greco-Roman satire.


In Greek culture

The Greeks had no word for what later would be called "satire", although the terms cynicism and parody were used. In retrospect, the Greek playwright Aristophanes is one of the best known early satirists; his plays are known for their critical political and societal commentary, particularly for the political satire by which he criticized the powerful Cleon (as in The Knights) and for the persecution he underwent. The bawdy style of Aristophanes was adopted by Greek dramatist-comedian Menander in many of his plays, as his early play Drunkenness which contains an attack on the politician Callimedon.

The oldest form of satire still in use is the Menippean satire by Menippus of Gadara. His own writings are lost, but his admirers and imitators mix seriousness and mocking in dialogues, presenting parodies before a background of diatribe, meaning one should begin to question approved truths, in this case to form a didactic set of knowledge.


Lucian of Samosata (Born 115 AD) a well-known Greek satirist and traveling lecturer. He is noted for his witty and scoffing nature. His best-known work is True History (a romance, patently not "true" at all, with its trip to the moon). He also wrote mockingly of the followers of Jesus for their ignorance and credulity.

True History can be read as a form of literary criticism, a satire against contemporary and ancient sources which quote fantastic and mythical events as truth. He mentions the tales of Ctesias, Iambulus, and Homer and states that "what did surprise me was their supposition that nobody would notice they were lying." As noted by classicist B.P. Reardon, "above all, it is a parody of literary 'liars' like Homer and Herodotus". Consequently, Lucian goes on to state that the story recounted in True History is about "things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else; things, what is more, that do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all. So my readers must not believe a word I say." He justifies the title by arguing that his is the only truthful mythological story ever written, inasmuch as it is the only one that admits that it is all lies. He also promises a sequel; later critics point out that this is the greatest lie of all.

In Roman culture

In Rome, the first to discuss satire critically was Quintilian, who invented the term to describe the writings of Lucilius. Prominent satirists from Roman antiquity include Horace and Juvenal, who were active during the early days of the Roman Empire and are the two most influential Latin satirists. Other important Roman satirists are Lucilius and Persius.

Later in the 16th century, most would believe that the term satire came from the Greek satyr; satyrs were the companions of Dionysos and central characters of the satyr plays of the theatre of ancient Greece. Its derivatives satirical and satirise are indeed Greek suffixes, but the style of the Roman satire is rather linked to the satira, or satura lanx, a "dish of fruits" resembling the colourful mockings or figuratively a "medley". Pliny reports that the 6th century BC poet Hipponax wrote satirae that were so cruel that the offended hanged themselves. The confusion with the satyr supported the understanding of satire as biting, like Juvenal, and not mild, like Horace, and this is reflected in literary criticism and method in Early Modern Europe until the 17th century.

Criticism of Roman emperors (notably by Horace on Augustus) needed to be presented in veiled ironical terms — but the term when applied to Latin works actually titled as "satires" is much wider than in the modern sense of the word, including fantastic and highly coloured humorous writing with little or no real mocking intent.

Anonymous examples include Testamentum porcelli.

List of authors



See also

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