The Satires

Satire XIII – Mock Consolation

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

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Satire XIII: Mock Consolation

SatXIII:1-70 Why So Surprised, Calvinus?

Setting a bad example won’t make the perpetrator feel pleased.

That’s the first manner in which life takes its revenge, that no

One who’s guilty absolves themselves, in their own judgement,

Though he be a praetor who’s corrupt influence rigged a vote.

So why should anyone be surprised, Calvinus, at recent events,

The wicked crime, a matter of trust betrayed? It’s not as though

You’re a person of such slender means the weight of this modest

Loss will sink you, nor is your experience something that’s rarely

Known: it’s the kind of bad luck familiar to many a person, banal

These days, a card that’s plucked from fortune’s outspread hand.

Put an end to your excessive grief. One’s indignation should not

Burn more fiercely than fitting, nor be greater than one’s injury;

Yet you can scarcely endure the slightest, the least, the tiniest

Particle of hurt, you’re all in a blaze, with your innards seething,

Because your friend won’t return that sacred sum of money you

Entrusted to him. Why should that surprise someone with sixty

Years behind him, a man who was born in Fonteius’ consulship? 

Have you gained not an ounce of profit from all your experience?

Surely those precepts are fine which the sacred books of wisdom

Offer; the wisdom to overcome fate, and yet we also consider

Those people fortunate, who have learned from life’s teachings

To endure unpleasant things, and to bow and not resist the yoke.

What day is so full of good luck it fails to produce theft, fraud,

And betrayal, and the benefits gained by other sorts of crime,

The wealth that’s gained through the sword or the poison chest?

The good are rare: count them, there are scarcely as many as

There were gates to Thebes, or mouths draining the rich Nile.

It’s the ninth century of Rome now, an era even worse than

The age of iron, and Nature herself can find no name for its

Wickedness, she has no baser metal left to provide a label.

What’s the point of invoking the aid of men and gods, with

The clamour Faesidius’ noisy crew makes, cheering him on,

For a handout? Say, old man, for whom a lad’s gold charm’s

More fitting, don’t you know the lure of other people’s cash?

Don’t you know how your simplicity moves the crowd to

Laughter, when you demand no one perjure himself, when

You seek divinity in lofty temples, on blood-stained altars?

The natives once lived that way, until Saturn was forced to

Forsake his crown, and grabbed the rustic sickle as he fled;

Back then, when Juno was but a child, and Jupiter lived as

A private individual in the caverns of Cretan Mount Ida;

There were no heavenly banquets then above the clouds

No Ganymede, no Hebe, Hercules’ wife, as cupbearers,

No Vulcan, once the nectar was poured, wiping his arms,

Black with soot from his Liparean forge and workshop.

Each god dined alone, nor was there the crowd of gods

That exists today; the heavens being content with only

A handful of deities, and weighing more lightly on Atlas’

Shoulders; grim Pluto had not yet drawn his lot, winning

His kingdom in the depths, wedding Sicilian Proserpine;

No Ixion’s wheel, no Furies, no Sisyphean rock, or dark

Vultures for Tityos; just happy shades, no infernal rulers.

In that age wickedness was greeted with astonishment.

They thought it a primal sin, one punishable by death,

If a young man refused to defend his elders, or a boy

To defend anyone with a beard, even if his own home

Did possess more berries, or a larger heap of acorns;

So revered was even four years seniority, and the first

Signs of a beard were the equivalent of sacred old age.

These days if a friend fails to renege on your agreement,

And returns your purse to you with all its rusting metal,

It’s a marvel of fidelity, a portent fit for the prophetic

Etruscan books, or the sacrifice of a garlanded lamb.

If I come across an outstandingly honest man, I rank

It with some monstrous embryo, or a fish turned up,

Amazingly, by the plough, or a pregnant mule; as

Stunned as if it rained stones, or as if a hive of bees

Had swarmed in a great cluster on the roof of a shrine,

Or as if a swift-flowing eddying river of milk, with its

Whirling vortices, had rushed precipitously to the sea.

SatXIII:71-119 How They Seek To Justify Themselves!

You complain about a hundred gold pieces gone astray,

In his sacrilegious act of fraud? Why not that secret hoard

Of two thousand lost thus by another, or yet another’s still

Greater sum, that an angle of his vast treasury scarce holds?

It’s so simple, and easy, to ignore those divine witnesses,

If there’s no mortal in the know. See how loud he is in his

Denials, and the self-possession displayed on his lying face.

He swears by the sun’s rays and the Tarpeian lightning bolt,

And Mars’ lance and the arrows of Apollo, Cirrha’s prophet,

And by the shafts and quiver of Diana, the virgin huntress,

And by your trident Neptune, father of the Aegean, and he’ll

Add Hercules’ bow, and Minerva’s spear, for good measure,

Whatever weapons happen to exist in the heavenly armoury.

And if indeed, he’s a father, he’ll say, with a tear: ‘Or may I

Devour my son’s brain boiled, doused with Egyptian vinegar!’

There are those who attribute everything to acts of fortune,

Who believe that the world goes on its way without guidance, 

And that nature brings on the succession of days and years;

Who will therefore touch any altar you like without concern,

Others believe the gods exist, yet still commit perjury, saying

To themselves; ‘Isis may choose to do what she wishes with

My body; let her strike me blind with an angry shake of her  

Rattle, so long as, sightless, I keep the cash I’ll deny receiving.

Lung disease, or festering abscesses, or even the loss of a leg

Are worth it. Though Ladas, the runner, were poor, he should

Still have no hesitation, unless he’s mad or dying, in praying

For the rich man’s gout; for what does the glory of swiftness

Bring after all, or thirsting for that wreath of Olympian olive?

Though the gods’ anger is great, it’s slow indeed to take effect.

How long might it take before they trouble me? I may even

Find the powers that be are indulgent; ready to forgive all this.

The same crimes are committed but with very different results:

One man’s prize for his sins is crucifixion, another’s is a crown.’

His heart trembling in terror at his vile trespass, this is how he

Calms himself. When you summon him to the sacred shrine,

He’s ahead of you, drags you there, ready to vex you further;

When the cause is ill, given endless audacity, such confidence

Appear highly convincing. He’s acting out a farce, like that

Fugitive jester in Catullus’s witty mime, while you, wretched

Fool are roaring, loudly enough, it would seem, to out-do Stentor,

Just as Mars roars in Homer’s Iliad: ‘Jupiter, can you hear all this,

Yet not utter a word: surely you must speak out, though your lips

Be made of marble or bronze? Why else do we unwrap the incense

So piously, or the sliced calf’s liver, or the pieces of white pork-fat

To add to the glowing coals? As far as I can see there’s not a jot of

Difference between your statue and one of big-mouthed Vagellius.’

SatXIII:120-173 Your Loss Is Nothing New

Alternatively, accept this solace, worthy of being offered even

By one who’s not read the Cynics; or the dogmas of the Stoics,

Distinguishable from the Cynics by their shirts; or delighted

With Epicurus, happy with the plants in his miniscule garden.

Difficult illnesses should be cared for by the greatest of doctors:

But even one of Philippus’ students would do to take your pulse.

If there’s no more detestable crime you can point to in the whole

Of the world than this, I’ll be silent, I won’t stop you beating

Your chest with your fists, or smacking your face with the flat

Of your hand. After all, after a loss you close the doors; cash

Is mourned, throughout the house, with a louder moaning and

Wailing than a death; no one feigns grief in such a matter, or

Remains content with merely ripping the hems of his clothes,

Or simply making his eyes sore with his simulated weeping;

When it’s money that’s gone astray we grieve with real tears.

However, if every court you see is full of similar complaints,

If when a document’s been pored over ten times by the other

Party, the signature is later declared false, and the whole thing

Worthless, condemned by one’s very handwriting, one’s seal,

That prince of sardonyx stones, kept secure in an ivory chest,

Why do you, O precious creature, think your case should be

Judged extraordinary? What? Are you the child of a white hen,

While we are common chicks hatched from misfortune’s eggs?

It’s a minor thing you’ve experienced, it calls for modest anger,

One you’ve cast your eyes on more serious crimes. Compare

The hired thief, or the deliberate fire that’s started with matches,

The front door revealing the first effect of the flames; Compare

Those who steal huge venerable rusted chalices from the ancient

Temples, given us by nations, or crowns once dedicated by kings;

If those valuables are lacking, some lesser vandal appears who’ll

Sacrilegiously scrape the gold from Hercules’ thigh or Neptune’s

Face, or go stripping the thin gold leaf from the statue of Castor;

Compare the manufacturers and dealers in poison, the parricide

Who deserves to be thrown in the sea in an ox-skin, along with

The ill-fated ape, an innocent, but nevertheless sewn in as well.

That’s but a part of the wickedness Gallicus, Prefect of the City,

Hears all day, from the morning star’s setting to that of the sun!

A single courtroom is sufficient if you want to understand the

Behaviour of humankind; spend a few days there, then dare to

Call yourself unfortunate, once you’re far away from the place. 

What’s so surprising about goitre in the Alps, or about a breast

In Meroe, beside the Ethiopian Nile, bigger than its fat baby?

Who gapes now at those blue-eyed Germans with their yellow

Hair, with their greasy curls all twisted into their pointed braids?

Imagine a Pygmy warrior in miniature armour who suddenly

Runs towards a raucous cloud of Thracian birds and is grabbed

By a savage crane in an instant, and carried off through the air

In its curved beak, no match for his enemy. If you saw that here,

Among the crowd, then you might shake with laughter; but there,

Where the whole army’s no more than a foot tall, no one laughs.

SatXIII:174-249 Forget About Revenge

‘Is the perjurer to suffer no punishment then for his irreligious

Fraud?’ Well imagine he’d been dragged away in the heaviest

Of chains, and executed at once based on your judgement (what

More could you want?); nevertheless your loss remains, that

Money of yours will never be returned, but the blood that has

Been shed from the headless corpse will grant invidious solace.

‘Yet vengeance is fine, it’s more gratifying than life itself!’

So the uneducated claim, whose tempers you see flaring for

The slightest reason, sometimes for no earthly reason at all.

That’s not what Chrysippus the Stoic says, nor the gentle mind

Of Thales, or old Socrates who lived below sweet Hymettus,

He who would never have inflicted on his accusers one drop

Of the hemlock he was obliged to drink, in his cruel prison.

Indeed vengeance is always a delight to the weak and petty

And small-minded. You can see that straight away, since

No one enjoys vengeance more than a woman. Yet why

Believe the guilty have escaped, when conscience dwells on

Their vile deeds, terrifies them, strikes with its silent whip,

Wielding its invisible lash, there, in the tortured mind?

A fierce punishment it is indeed, to bear in your breast that

Hostile witness, night and day, a punishment more savage

Than anything Rhadamanthus, or stern Caedicius contrived.

The Pythian prophetess told a Spartan, who asked about

His keeping money entrusted to him, retaining it legally

By swearing a false oath, that he’d not go unpunished.

He had truly wished to know Apollo’s thoughts on the

Matter, and whether the god would sanction the crime!

He returned the money, through fear, not principle, yet

Every word from the shrine was true and worthy of that

Temple, as was witnessed by his death, and those of his

Children, his household, and kin however far removed.

Such was the punishment suffered solely for thinking of

Doing wrong. Since, he who merely contemplates some

Secret wickedness in his mind, incurs the same guilt

As if he had done the deed. Think, if he really does it!

Perpetual anxiety is his, which even affects his eating,

His throat parched as in sickness, and the stubborn

Food sticking in his gullet. The wretched man spits

Out his Setian wine, and the choicest ageing Alban

Vintages displease; offer him finest Falernian; as if

It were sour, dense wrinkles will furrow his brow. 

At night perhaps his conscience allows him a brief

Respite; after tossing all over the bed, his limbs lie

Quiet; when at once he’ll see the temple, the altar

He’s insulted and you, his victim, in dream, a sight

To make him sweat profoundly; your image, ghostly,

Larger than life, scaring him, driving him to confess.

Such are men who turn pale and quake at every flash

Of lightning, who faint at the first rumble of thunder

In the sky, as if the fire falls to earth not by chance or

The tempest’s frenzy, but in anger, as if in judgement.

If they’re unharmed, they dread the next thunderstorm

With greater anxiety, as if the lull were a postponement.

Moreover if they once start to feel feverish, sharp pains

In the side keeping them awake, they believe their bodily

Afflictions sent by a higher power: and consider them

The gods’ spears and missiles. They don’t dare pledge

A bleating beast to the little shrine or promise the Lares

A cockerel’s crest; what respite from illness can the guilty

Hope for? What sacrificial victim isn’t worthier of life?

They’re full of resolution when they commit the crime;

Only after the evil’s done do they begin to acquire a sense

Of right and wrong. Yet their nature, fixed and incapable

Of change, will still return to the paths it has condemned.

Who ever set a limit to their own sins? When does a blush

Of shame, once banished, reappear on some hardened brow?

Who have you ever seen who remains content with but one

Offence? Your miscreant will set his foot in the snare, he’ll

Suffer the hook in some dark prison, or he’ll join a crowd of

Notorious exiles, on some rugged rock in the Aegean Sea.

You’ll revel in the bitter punishment meted out to the one

You hate, and eventually you’ll cheerfully admit the gods

Are not as dull-witted as Claudius, nor as blind as Tiresias.

End of Satire XIII