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Umbricius and the Frogs (Juvenal, Sat. 3.44–5)1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

S. H. Braund
University of Exeter


In Satire 3, Umbricius states his intention to leave Rome and delivers a long explanation of his decision, an explanation which develops into an invective against life in Rome. In the lines quoted above, Umbricius lists the ‘skills’ which (he implies) are essential for success at Rome, ‘skills’ which he does not possess. The list comprises various mendacious, nefarious and criminal activities; Umbricius' stated inability to undertake such activities reinforces his claim to be a simple, honourable man (e.g. lines 21–2). In this list is his claim ‘I have never examined frogs’ entrails'. TLL glosses this passage ‘(sc. ueneni indagandi gratia)’ (TLL inspicio 1951.70), the view taken by Friedländer too (‘zur Bereitung von Gift’). Courtney takes a different view: ‘Presumably not for poisoning, which inspicere would hardly suit, but of divination … of an oriental type.’

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1990

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2 Expressed in an amazing variety, without repetition, of negative words and of words denoting inability: nescio, nequeo, ignoro, nee uolo nee possum, numquam, norunt alii, nemo, nulli, non.

3 A typical satirical (see Kernan, A., The Cankered Muse (New Haven, 1959), pp. 78)Google Scholar and Juvenalian technique, used especially often in this poem. Other lists in Satire 3 include disgusting jobs (30–3), eastern imports (63–6), places from where Greeks come to Rome (69–70), the roles a Greek can assume (76–8), the forms of flattery and ingratiation practised by Greeks (86–91, resumed 100–8), the nouveaux riches who take the prestigious seats at the theatre (155–8), the list of the poor man's possessions (203–7), the list of presents given to the rich man (215–20) and the list of objects which strike the pedestrian as he makes his way through the crowded streets (244–6).

4 More precisely, to haruspicy, inspection of entrails: on which see Luck, G., Arcana Mundi (Baltimore and London, 1985), pp. 251–2Google Scholar.

5 As at Juv. 1.70 and Prop. 3.6.27, as Courtney says, also Juv. 6.659. For the poisons produced from frogs and toads see Pliny, , N.H. 11.196, 280 and 25.123Google Scholar.

6 Doves: Ov. Fast. 1.451–2 (in Cyprus); puppies: Paus. 3.14.9; Plut. Mor. 290d (in Sparta); chickens: Sen. N.Q. 4B.6.2 (a story set in the Peloponnese); the sacred chickens at Rome (OLD pullus lc) were also used for prophecy but on the basis of their behaviour, not their entrails.

7 A senatus consultum of 97 B.C. prohibiting human sacrifice (Plin, . N.H. 30.12)Google Scholar suggests that human sacrifice was thought to occur in the Roman Empire at that time. Cf. Cic.Font. 31 for human sacrifice attributed to the Gauls. The sacrifice of a baby or child was ‘a commonplace of accusation': see MacMullen, R., Enemies of the Roman Order (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), p. 335Google Scholar, of which a good example is Philostr., Vit. Apoll. 8.7.12, 15.

8 Cicero cites these lines from his translation of Aratus' Diosemeia:

uos quoque signa uidetis, aquai dulcis alumnae,

cum clamore paratis inanis fundere uoces

absurdoque sono fontis et stagna cietis,

then comments: ‘quis est qui ranunculos hoc uidere suspicari possit? sed inest in ranunculis uis et natura quaedam significans aliquid per se ipsa satis certa, cognitioni autem hominum obscurior’ (Div. 1.15). This is a motif taken over from Aratus 946–7 (following [Theophrastus], De Sign. Tempest. 15) and later appearing in Virgil, Georg. 1.378 and Plin, . N.H. 18.361Google Scholar. Cf. Cicero again in Alt. 15.16a: ‘equidem etiam pluuias metuo, si Prognostica nostra uera sunt; ranae enim ῥητορε⋯ουσιν’.

9 Kadletz, E., Animal Sacrifice in Greek and Roman Religion (1976; Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Washington)Google Scholar. Thanks are due to my colleague Richard Seaford for referring me to this work.

10 Professor Nisbet points out in a letter that funus here refers to natural death, not murder, as at 6.565–8:

consulit ictericae lento de funere matris,

ante tamen de te Tanaquil tua, quando sororem

efferat et patruos, an sit uicturus adulter

post ipsam: quid enim maius dare numina possunt?

Cf. Propertius 2.27.1–2 ‘uos incertam, mortales, funeris horam / quaeritis et qua sit mors aditura uia’. A father's death might naturally hold particular interest for his son(s) who stood to inherit from him.

11 For Roman suspicion of astrologers and diviners in general, see R. MacMullen, op. cit., ch. 4; Barb, A. A., “The Survival of Magic Arts’, in Momigliano, A. (ed.), The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), 100–25, p. 105Google Scholar. Consultations about the death of relatives were illegal: see MacMullen (above), pp. 129–30.

12 Part of the reason for choosing frogs rather than any other lowly animal may very well be their role in another form of prediction, namely weather-prophets (see note 8 above), allowing the para prosdokian.

13 Cf. also the mock-Homeric tale of the battle of the frogs and mice, the Batrachomyomachia; Cicero's amusing reference to the clients of Ulubrae put into his charge at Fam. 7.18.3: uim maximam ranunculorum; the fable of the frog which puffs itself up until it bursts, used in Hor. Sat. 2.3.314–20 (also Phaedrus 1.24, Babrius.28; cf. Petr. Satyr. 74.13 inflat se tamquam rana); and Trimalchio's picture of his success in life:sic amicus uester, quifuit rana, nunc est rex (Satyr. 77.6), which may be a proverb.

14 For a similar description of a tiny plot of land see Martial 11.18, e.g. line 12 urucam male pascit hortus unam. There may also be here a literary reminiscence of Ovid, Met. 5.457–8: cf. Richardson, L. J. D.The Size of the Lizard’, Hermathena 57 (1941), 128–9Google Scholar.

15 Another possible motive for Umbricius' departure from Rome is because he is a jaundiced failure and not for any high moral principles. This is an issue I have explored in ‘City and Country in Roman Satire’, in Satire and Society in Ancient Rome, ed. Braund, S. H. (1989), 2834Google Scholar. In this case, with the para prosdokian of lacertae Juvenal is suggesting that if you leave the perils of Rome ‘to make yourself the master of one lizard’, then perhaps it is not worth leaving the metropolis at all.

16 BICS Suppl. 51 (1988), p. 92 n. 9Google Scholar. The identification of Juvenal's Umbricius with the haruspex was rejected outright with no reason given by Mayor (Mayor, J. E. B., Thirteen Satires ofJuvena 4 (London, 18861889) on 3.21–57)Google Scholar and Ferguson (Ferguson, J., Juvenal: The Satires (New York, 1979) on 3.1)Google Scholar; Highet (Highet, G., Juvenal The Satirist (Oxford, 1954), p. 253 n. 7)Google Scholar also rejects the identification as incompatible with lines 42–5.

17 Cf. Courtney's note on unum 3.3 (Courtney, E., A Commentary on the Satires of Juvenal (London, 1980))Google Scholar.

18 For the notion of ‘giving a citizen’ cf. Tac. Ann. 4.43 eum legibuspulsum ciuem sibi Zmyrnaei addiderant, often in the sense of ‘adding to the civic roll’, as Cic. Arch. 4, Plin. Ep. 10.114.1, Suet. Aug. 42.2. For donare used of people cf. Sen. Apocol. 15.2 Caesar ilium Aeaco donat, Petr. Satyr. 127.3 dono tibifratrem meum, Ov. Met. 1.622 paelice donala.

19 Umbricius' birth on the Aventine may suggest his bad luck, for the place was thought to lie under a curse, cf. Gell. 13.14.6 quasi auibus obscenis ominosum, because of its associations with Remus: see Syme, R., Roman Papers I, ed. Badian, E. (1979), p. 314Google Scholar = Hermes 84 (1956), p. 266Google Scholar; moreover, the fact that the Aventine for a very long time in Roman history lay outside the pomerium of Rome (i.e. outside the limit of the city auspices: see Gell. 13.14.1–4) may symbolise Umbricius' alienation and eventual withdrawal from Rome.

20 For ciuis meaning ‘fellow-citizen’, cf. Manil. 4.634 Crete ciuem sortita Tonantem, Plaut. Rud. 1–2 quigenlis omnis mariaque et terras mouet / eius sum ciuis ciuitate caelitum; municeps too bears this meaning, at Juv. 4.33, 14.271, Mart. 10.87.10, 14.114.2.

21 On the ‘literary substrata’ to Juvenal's Satires see Townend, G. B., JRS 63 (1973), 148–60Google Scholar.

22 Syme argues powerfully, with particular reference to another passage from Juvenal's first Book of Satires, that Tacitus', Histories had recently been published: Roman Papers III, ed. Birley, A. R. (1984), pp. 1144–6Google Scholar = AJPh 100 (1979), 261–3Google Scholar.