Juvenal’s “Against the City of Rome”, written in the late 1st and early 2nd Century A.D., is an explosive diatribe against what Juvenal views as a declining Roman metropolis: Juvenal makes explicit many of the concerning social issues that existed in the Rome of this era, for example, alerting the reader to issues of traffic congestion, substance abuse and violent crime. What is most compelling about Juvenal’s texts is that it seems to point out some of the existing social issues in the urban environments of the late twentieth and early twentieth century. In other words, when reading Juvenal’s text about Ancient Rome, the reader sees that not much has changed in terms of social issues in the urban space.
In the modern cityscape, one of the key issues of that is transportation. Congestion in terms of overuse of vehicles have led to many attempted solutions, such as an increasing emphasis on public transportation. Nevertheless, the fact that American culture is a culture firmly rooted in the automobile, problems related to transportation, such as traffic congestion and pollution, remain relevant and have not been mitigated entirely. What Juvenal’s text shows us in this light is that such problems of transportation are almost inevitably tied to an urban space by definition. Hence, even in a time period where there were no automobiles, Juvenal criticizes Rome’s traffic and congestion, noting that “that’s why everyone’s sick: carts clattering Through the winding streets/curses hurled At some herd standing still in the middle of the road.” Juvenal’s detailed description summarizes many of the problems with transportation issues: there is a street congestion which destroys the overall quality of life in the city. Furthermore, although there was obviously no automobile pollution, Juvenal makes an important link between transportation problems in the city and overall individual health. Accordingly, Juvenal’s identification of congestion in Rome seem entirely consistent with modern problems of the city, related to congestion and health issues.
Juvenal also references substance abuse, in particular alcoholism. “Don’t forget the drunkard who likes to fight: If he hasn’t killed anyone yet, he suffers, And he mourns all night like Achilles for Patroclus.” In this passage Juvenal notes the self-destructive as well as the greater destructive effects of substance abuse. Much like in the modern city, urban centers become a magnet for substance abuse, most likely because of easier access to narcotic substances that in turn creates a “community” of addicts. Hence, Juvenal here uncovers a very clear and seemingly continually relevant link between the urban space and substance abuse.
Juvenal also points out the link between physical violence or crime in the urban space. In his work, he vividly describes a beating he suffers from one such aggressive youth. “Thus begins a wretched fight – If you can call it a fight when he punches/And I take a beating: he stands in front of me/And orders me to halt. What can I do? Especially in the face of a frenzied maniac/Who, by the way, is stronger than I am?” The urban environment of Rome thus breeds a particular form of violence and aggression. This is closely related to contemporary issues of violence and the city, whereby the city seems to be somehow by definition more conducive to criminal and violent behavior. Certainly, this can be attributed to the sheer quantity of people living in a city environment: there is bound to be violence. But the cramped living conditions and the greater social problems that are also mentioned seem to contribute to such crime.
When looking at Juvenal’s text, it seems that the city is a breeding ground for social problems. Ancient Rome or a contemporary urban center seem no different. Juvenal’s text forces us to think: is there something essential about the city environment that leads to these social problems? Or do we have to re-think our urban spaces in light of these social problems, in an effort to reduce the latter and transform our cities accordingly?