The Satires

Satire I – A Justification for Satire

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.


Satire I: A Justification

SatI:1-18 Unbearable Stuff!

Must I be a listener forever? Never reply,

Tortured so often by throaty Cordus’s Theseus?

Must I let this fellow recite his Roman comedies,

Unpunished, and that one his elegies? Unpunished,

Consuming my whole day on some endless Telephus,

Or unfinished Orestes, the cover full and the margins?

A man knows his own house less well than I know

The grove of Mars or that cave of Vulcan’s right by

The Aeolian cliffs; what the winds do, which shade

Aeacus torments, where he’s from, he with the golden

Stolen fleece, how big that ash tree Monychus hurled –

Fronto’s plane-trees, cracked marble, and columns

Fractured by non-stop readings, ring with this stuff.

Expect the same, then, from this best and worst of poets.

I too have snatched my hand out of reach of the cane,

I too have given old Sulla ‘good advice’: get lost, enjoy

A good rest. It’s false mercy, when you trip over poets

Everywhere, to spare the paper they’re all ready to waste.

SatI:19-44 Why Choose Satire?

Why I still choose to go driving over the very plain

Where Lucilius the great, from Aurunca, steered his team,

I’ll explain, if you’ve time to hear my reasons, quietly.

When a tender eunuch takes him a wife; when Mevia

Fights a Tuscan boar, with bare breasts, gripping the spear;

When a fellow can match all the aristocrats in wealth,

Who made me cry with pain when he used to shave me;

When a pleb from the Nile, when a slave from Canopus,

One Crispinus, hitching his Tyrian cloak on his shoulder,

Wafts the gold of summer about on his sweaty fingers,

Simply unable to suffer the dreadful weight of a gem;

It’s hard not to write satire! For who’s so tolerant of Rome’s

Iniquities, so made of steel they can contain themselves

When along comes that lawyer Matho’s brand new litter,

Full of himself; behind, one who informed on a powerful

Friend, ready to steal any scraps from the noble carcase,

Whom Massa the stool-pigeon fears, and Carus sweetens

With gifts, like Thymele, in the farce, fed by fearful Latinus;

When you’re shoved by men who earn a place in the will

By night, men raised to the gods by the wide road now

To highest advancement, by a rich old woman’s ‘purse’?

To Proculeius just one twelfth share, but to Gillo eleven,

Each heir gets the portion that matches their performance.

May they turn truly pale as they snatch their blood-money,

Like a man with bare feet who’s stepped on a snake,

Or the next loser to speak, at Caligula’s altar in Lyon.

SatI:45-80 It’s a Litany of Crime

How can I describe the fierce anger burning my fevered gut,

When people are crushed by the herd behind some despoiler

Who prostituted his ward, or one found guilty in a wasteful

Trial? How could disgrace matter if the money’s safe?

Marius Priscus, in exile, drinks all afternoon, enjoying

The gods’ displeasure, while you, the dutiful winner, weep.

Isn’t that worth shining a light on, one lit by old Horace?

Isn’t that my task? What better? No dull tales of Hercules,

Please, or Diomedes, or that bellowing in the labyrinth,

Or the sea struck by the wing-wrecked son of a flying artisan,

When a husband accepts a wife’s lover’s gifts, and no law

Against her cheating: expert now at staring up at the ceiling,

An expert too at snoring over his cup through vigilant nose?

When someone who’s lavished his wealth on the horses, blown

The family fortune, thinks he’s the right to expect a command,

Just for racing his speeding chariot down the Flaminian Way,

Like some puny Automedon? Yes, he was clutching the reins,

Himself, while showing off to his girlfriend, her in the cloak.

Surely I’m allowed to fill a fat notebook at the crossroads

When they carry past, on six shoulders, no less, some false

Signatory, exhibited, this side and that, in his almost bare

Litter, one, strongly resembling the effeminate Maecenas,

Who’s made himself distinguished and rich with the aid

Of a brief roll of paper, and a moist signet ring?

When a powerful lady is next, who mixes in dried toad’s

Venom, while offering her husband mellow Calenian wine,

Improves on Lucusta, by teaching her simple neighbours

How to bury their skin-blotched husbands to public acclaim.

If you want to be someone, do something worthy of prison,

Exile on tiny Gyara – the honest are praised, but neglected.

It’s crime brings the gardens, mansions, elaborate dinners,

Old silver plate, and those drinking-cups carved with goats.

Who can sleep, for seducers of greedy daughters-in-law,

Who can sleep, for impure brides and teenage adulterers?

If talent is lacking, then indignation can fashion my verse,

Of such kind as poets like me, or Cluvenius, produce.

SatI:81-126 And All About Money

Since the days when a rainstorm raised the water-level,

And Deucalion sailed mountains by boat, asked a sign,

And the malleable stone was gradually warmed to life,

And Pyrrha displayed newly-created girls to the men,

What humankind does, its prayers, fears, angers, and pleasures,

Delights and excursions, all that farrago’s in my little book.

And when was the flow of vice fuller? When did the palm

Open wider to greed? When did gambling arouse greater

Passion? See, they don’t flock to the gaming tables now

With their purses: they place the family treasure and play.

What battles you’ll see there, the croupier bringing forth

Warriors! It’s quite mad to go losing a hundred thousand,

Surely, and yet to begrudge a shirt to a shivering slave?

Who of our ancestors built such villas, dined in private

On seven courses? Now the paltry handout-basket sits

On the doorstep, snatched at by a toga-clad mob,

As the patron first takes a nervous look at the faces,

Lest they’ve come to make false claim in another’s name:

Known, and you’re in. He even instructs the herald to call

The ‘Trojan’ elite, they too vex the threshold among us

All. ‘Give first to the praetor, and then to the tribune.’

But a freedman is first. ‘I was the first, here.’ he says.

‘Why should I fear, why should I hesitate, though I was

Born by Euphrates? The effeminate holes in my ears

Would proclaim it, if I denied it. Yet my five taverns

Bring in four hundred thousand, what more can the purple

Provide? While some Corvinus herds his leased sheep

There, in Laurentine fields, I possess more than Pallas

More than Licinus?’ Well, let the tribunes wait, then,

Let cash be the conqueror; let the slave just arrived here,

With chalk-whitened feet, not yield to high office;

After all, among us, the greatness of riches is sacred,

Though fatal Pecunia (Cash) has no temple as yet

To dwell in, and as yet we’ve set up no altars to money,

As we worship now, Peace, Loyalty, Victory, Virtue,

Or Concord, with clatter of storks when we hail her.

But while the highest official reckons at year-end

What the handouts brought in, how much added fat,

What will his clients do for their togas and shoes,

Bread and fuel at home? Jam-packed the litters arrive

For their hundred pence, a wife who’s pregnant or sick

Follows a husband doing the rounds, a craftier man

Plays the old trick, claims for his wife in her absence,

Pointing instead to an empty, close-curtained sedan,

‘There’s my Galla,’ he cries, ‘quick now, why the delay?

Show your face, Galla.’ ‘No need, she might be asleep.’

SatI:127-146 The Reward of Greed

The very day is distinguished by splendid things:

The handout, then the Forum, Apollo expert in law,

And the insignia, among which some customs-man

Out of Egypt, a nobody, dares to display his titles,

On whose statue it’s fine to take not merely a piss.

Aged and weary his clients abandon the forecourts,

Relinquish their aims; since the hope of eating lasts

Longest in man, they must buy firewood and greens.

Meanwhile his lordship is dining on all of the best

Produce of forest and sea, himself, amid empty couches.

Now at their table, one of those lovely large round

Antique ones, these people consume a whole fortune.

Soon there’ll be no parasites left. Who can bear

Such vulgar luxury? What a monstrous maw that feeds

On a whole wild boar, a creature that’s fit for a banquet!

There’s swift punishment though, when bloated you doff

Your cloak, and go for a bath, with a part-digested peacock

Inside. Then for the old it’s death, intestate and sudden.

The news is passed round at dinner, with never a tear;

And the funeral’s performed to the cheers of irate friends.

SatI:147-171 The Dangers of Satire

Posterity will need to add nothing to how we behave,

Our children will do and desire exactly the same;

All depravity stands at the edge of a chasm. Set sail,

Spread all your canvas. Perhaps you’ll say ‘Where

Is the power to match your subject? Where will you find

The frankness of those who wrote as they chose

With passionate spirit?’ Well who do I dare not name?

What matter if Mucius could never forgive my words?

‘Well, try Tigellinus, and you’ll be the flame to his torch

That scorches men upright, their bound throats smoking,

And score a wide track with your corpse over the sand.’

Do I let him ride by, then, that man who’s poisoned three

Of his uncles, and despise us from his feather cushions?

‘Yes, button your lip, instead, when he sallies by:

If you even say: ‘that’s him’, you’ll be marked, an informer.

It’s fine to pit pious Aeneas against the fierce Rutulian,

There’s no problem with old Achilles pierced by a shaft,

Or a Hylas, chasing his pitcher, searched for by many:

But when fiery Lucilius roars as if waving his naked

Blade, the hearer whose criminal mind is long-frozen,

Reddens and sweats, his conscience new-stricken by guilt.

Then, there’ll be anger and tears. So think about it first,

Before you go sounding your trumpet: too late to regret

Arming when you’re at war.’ Then I’ll see what they can do

To me, whose ashes the Via Latina and Via Flaminia shroud.

End of Satire I