Humour and satire are well-known in Roman literature and especially Juvenal was a master of satire. In his famous third satire he describes life at Rome. Any romantic soul dreaming of living at Imperial Rome should first read this satire and then reconsider his or her desire.
In this selection Juvenal or rather the speaker of this satire – a certain Umbricius - is complaining about living standards in the insulae. These were flats in which the poor masses lived crowdedly together and if we may believe Juvenal, they were of poor construction and extremely liable to fire.
Juvenal, Satire 3, 193-202
nos urbem colimus tenui tibicine fultam
magna parte sui; nam sic labentibus obstat
vilicus et, veteris rimae cum texit hiatum, 195
securos pendente iubet dormire ruina.
vivendum est illic, ubi nulla incendia, nulli
nocte metus. iam poscit aquam, iam frivola transfert
Ucalegon, tabulata tibi iam tertia fumant:
tu nescis; nam si gradibus trepidatur ab imis, 200
ultimus ardebit quem tegula sola tuetur
a pluvia, molles ubi reddunt ova columbae.
colo colui cultum: to live
tenui tibicine fultam: supported (fulcio fulsi fultum) by a thin prop, i.e. inadequately constructed. (A tibicen is someone playing on a tibia, a flute and by transference a prop for shoring up a building.)
magna parte sui: the ablative is used for describing a distance:`over a great part of it'.
labor lapsus sum: to slip, slip and fall (labentibus refers to the buildings, but it may also refer to the inhabitants.)
obsto obstiti + dat,: to oppose, hinder, prevent
vilicus: estate manager (These insulae were owned by rich Romans who themselves of course lived in rich villae outside the city.)
tego texi tectum: to cover, hide
hiatus –us (m.): opening, gap
securos: i.e the inhabitants
pendeo pependi, to hang down (pendente ruina: abl. abs. with collapse about to happen.)
iubeo iussi iussum: to order, demand, but here `to be of the opinion of’
vivendum est illic: one can better live there in the countryside (illic)
nulli nocte metus: the fears of the night are fires and buglers
posco poposci: to ask, demand (A fire has started on the ground floor. Shouting `aquam!’ is the Roman equivalent of `fire!’)
frivola: bits and pieces, small belongings
Ucalegon: this name is taken from Virgil Aeneas 2,311. When Troy was sacked poor Ucalegon could not escape and was burnt alive. For the Roman reader the pun of the nickname for the neighbour on the ground floor was obvious: he won’t survive!
fumo: to smoke
trepido: to hurry with alarm (trepidatur is an impersonal construction `alarm is raised from the stairs under’ gradibus imis `from the deepest stairs’ i.e. the ground floor)
ultimus: he as last
ardeo arsi arsum: to burn
tueor tuitus sum: to protect
mollis, mollis: soft, tender
reddo ova: to lay eggs