Juvenal’s sixth satire is commonly interpreted as an attack on women–like in the example below. But I’m featuring this passage for a different reason…
These lines are introduced by a rhetorical question posed by an imaginary challenger to Juvenal’s complaint (the feminine nulla is “no woman"):
“Nullane de tantis gregibus tibi digna videtur?”
Juvenal responds by granting all the qualities one would expect from the ideal wife:
Sit formonsa, decens, dives, fecunda; vetustos
porticibus disponat avos, intactior omni
crinibus effusis bellum dirimente Sabina,
rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cycno.
(Note formonsa, a much stronger form than formosa…vetustos…avos are the busts of ancestors she arrays (disponat) in her porticibus–naturally, if she is dives…intactior refers to her virginity; the Sabine women were legendary for beauty that dirimente bellum…simillima, like formonsa, is a more powerful and exotic form of a rather common word)
And the punchline:
Quis feret uxorem cui constant omnia?
Constant is a difficult word to translate exactly here…literally it’s “continue, last", but there is a whiff of perfection somwhat akin to the English “goody two-shoes".
But I wanted to focus on the comparison nigroque simillima cycno. Juvenal chose this phrase becasue, for him, black swans did not exist; he’s commenting on the impossibility of finding such a rara avis. Of course, we now know black swans do exist; they were discovered in Australia (by Europeans) some 1600 years after Juvenal penned his satires. So the joke has somewhat backfired…perhaps good women are more frequent than the cynics believe (I know my lovely wife would agree:-).
This observation about the unlikely black swan isn’t new; it is the basis for Nasim Taleb’s 2007 book of the same name. Written just before the financial crisis, Taleb argues that statistical outliers have a disproportionate impact in history and economics, and that most economic/historic techniques use to predict outcomes fail because they discount these exceptional phenomena.
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