Too Much of a Good Thing: A Figurative Analysis of Juvenal’s Satire X
Juvenal makes use of the metaphorical “flood” or “torrent” twice in Satire X to depict the dualistic nature and flow-like properties of eloquence in rhetoric. This accords with his larger theme, the courtship of calamity through the desire of excess and underpinning of the hidden costs associated with the ironical dichotomy that is fortune’s favor.
In both instances of “flood” and “torrent”, Juvenal particularly emphasizes the destructive power of these metaphorical deluges, a representation of the effects of eloquence. As such, figurative significance lies in the dichotomy of rhetoric and its ability to flow, properties inherent in streams, waves, and other running bodies of water. He writes “Many a man has met death from the rushing flood of his own eloquence” (Juvenal, Satire X), and “Yet, it was eloquence that brought both orators to their death; each perished by the copious and overflowing torrent of his own genius.” (Juvenal, Satire X). As the rain creates life, providing plants and animals with the water they need to live, it also destroys it, manifesting itself in flash floods that ravage the land and devastate the ecosystem. Rhetoric, like the rain, can foster new relationships, create friends out of strangers, and persuade the masses towards virtue. In some cases, it can even bring justice to criminals and save lives. But, as Juvenal points out, it can also offend and alienate, and mislead those very same masses towards vice. Its latter form is what brings about the ruin of its purveyors. Cicero and Demosthenes can attest to that.
Furthermore, rhetoric, be it written or spoken, has an ebb and flow within its stylistic presentation and even rhythmic delivery. As in the case of poets like Juvenal himself, rhetoric has a certain syllabic music to it, a melodic stream not unlike the properties of a river or a stream. In addition, the notion of a “torrent” or a “flood” implies a certain significance in the speed of this flow. A “flood” or “torrent” of rhetoric could be a diatribe or denunciation, with fervor and emotion bursting out like the destructive water Juvenal figuratively imagines. As in the point before, the effects of such a driven oration are therefore no different from the effects of its calamitous metaphorical counterpart.
The notion of a “flood” or “torrent” is a sub-contention within Juvenal’s larger argument against excess - a lamentation of man’s desire for the favor and blessings of deceptive gods. The over zealous accumulation of honors and power, and likewise the want of it, only leads to the proportionate catastrophe of the inevitable downfall. This point Juvenal emphasizes when he writes of Sejanus: “For in coveting excessive honours and seeking excessive wealth, he was but building up the many stories of a lofty tower whence the fall would be greater.” (Juvenal, Satire X). In similar fashion, the desire of long life leads to the sorrow, both in watching the death of friends and experiencing the decay of self. Juvenal alludes to King Priam of Troy from The Illiad, writing: “Had Priam perished at some other time, his body would have borne on the shoulders of Hector…[instead], laying aside his tiara and arming himself, he fell, a trembling soldier before the altar of the almighty Jove, like an aged ox…” Priam only found despair in his long life, living to see his son slain by Achilles, and his city fall to his enemies. Rhetoric is no exception. “It was genius that cut off his hand, and severed the neck of Cicero”, writes Juvenal. Genius, a deluge of rhetorical ability, was ultimately Cicero’s undoing. His excesses in verse met with contempt from those he castigated, a contempt that would later take his head.
Juvenal’s depiction of the dualistic properties of water, with its ability to both create and destroy, perhaps speaks to more than just the similarly dualistic nature of rhetoric. The double edged sword extends to larger notions of wealth, beauty, power, and life. All objects of desire among the Roman populace are no more blessing than they are curse. All can dispense pleasure and happiness, but far too often, such things in excess can inflict equal or greater pain and misery. Juvenal’s Satire X is a sobering reminder of that latter truth. Only in the desire of health in mind and body can man find sanctuary from the tragedy that surely follows such excess.