The Satires

Satire XV– Compassion, Not Hatred

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

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Satire XV: Compassion Not Hatred

SatXV:1-92 Among The Cannibals

Who’s ignorant, Volusius of Bithynia, of those monsters

The mad Egyptians worship? One city reveres the crocodile,

In another, they’ll tremble at an ibis, glutted with snakes.

The sacred monkey’s golden image gleams where unearthly

Chords reverberate from Memnon’s crumbling statue, where

Ruined Thebes, with its hundred gates, is buried in the sand.

One town’s folk will venerate cats, another’s freshwater fish,

Or they’ll say their prayers to a dog: yet none worship Diana.

It’s a sin to violate a leek, or crunch an onion in your teeth

(O holy race, whose gardens give birth to such divinities!),

They abstain from woolly animals completely at their tables,

And there it’s a sin, as well, to slaughter a goat’s offspring:

But it’s fine to feed on human flesh. When Ulysses told the

Tale of such a crime, at the dinner table, to startled Alcinous,

Some of his listeners must have been moved to anger, or to

Laughter even, thinking him a fluent liar. ‘Return him to the

Waves, why don’t you? He’s earned the reality of some cruel

Charybdis, by inventing his Cyclopeans, and Laestrygonians.

I’d sooner believe in his Scylla, or his clashing Cyanean rocks,

His bag of winds, or his Elpenor, grunting beside his fellow

Oarsmen, turned to swine by a delicate touch of Circe’s wand.

Does he think we Phaeacians are as empty-headed as that?’

It’s what he’d have cried, rightly, some sober man of Corcyra,

One who’d restricted his intake of wine from the brimming jar;

Since Odysseus, after all, had not a single witness to his story.

In turn, I’ll tell a horrendous tale of recent happenings, in Iuncus’

Consulship (127AD), beyond the walls of baking Coptos (Quift),

A crime perpetrated by the mob, more horrific than any tragedy.

For, if you chose to swish the tragic robes from Pyrrha onwards,

No tragedian portrays the crime of an entire people. Yet hear this

Instance of savage barbarism, one that occurred in our own times.

Between two neighbouring towns on the Nile, Tentyra (Dendera)

And Ombos (Naquada), there flamed an ancient and enduring feud,

An undying hatred, an open wound, not amenable to being healed.

The fury of the people had been roused, on both sides, because each

Loathed their neighbour’s gods, considering those they worshipped

Themselves the only true divinities. So, when a sacred festival, was

Held by one tribe, the other’s chieftains and elders, decided as one

To seize this opportunity, and prevent their enemies from enjoying

The celebratory happiness of the day, and the delights of a banquet,

With tables positioned by the temples, at the crossroads, with their

Dining couches, often in continuous use all day and night, until the

Seventh dawn lights them. (The native Egyptians may be uncouth,

But as far as I can tell myself, scandalous Canopus, in its civilised

Extravagance, more than matches that of these barbarous masses.)

Added to which victory seemed certain over feasters, inarticulate

And staggering drunkenly with wine. On one side were dancers,

Men swaying to the sounds of a dark-skinned piper, with flowers,

Perfumes, in all their variety, their brows all wreathed in garlands:

On the other savage hatred. First they begin with sonorous insults:

With tempers blazing, these are the bugle-calls to start the brawl.

Then both sides come together with a cry, using their naked hands

As weapons. Scarcely a jaw remains unwounded, it’s hard to find

Any visage, perhaps there’s none, that’s lacking some nasal injury.

Already, throughout the ranks, mutilated faces are to be seen,

Features distorted, the bones gaping whitely through torn cheeks, 

Or fists covered with blood from damaged eyes. Yet they realise

This is still some sort of puerile game, a childish attempt at battle,

Since there are no corpses yet to trample, and what’s the point 

After all, of a fighting mob that’s thousands strong, if everyone

Emerges from this alive? So the fighting grows fiercer, and now

They start to gather stones from the ground, and bending their

Arms back, begin to hurl them; these the home-grown missiles

Rioters use, not the rocks that Ajax or Turnus wielded, nor as

Heavy as the one with which Diomedes struck Aeneas on the hip,

Merely the sort of stones a strength inferior to theirs, belonging

To those born in our times, can manage to lift high and launch.

For the human race was already in decline when Homer lived.

Now the earth produces men who are sinful but worthless,

Such that any god who saw them, would laugh, in derision.

Let me turn back to my tale. The one side, having gathered

Reinforcements, dared to take up their weapons and renew

The fierce fight, sending a hail of hostile arrows, into the air.

Chased by the men of Ombos, those of Dendera, that town

Blessed by the palm-trees’ shade, turned their backs in swift

Retreat. One man, in panic, slipped as he fled, fell precipitately,

And was captured. He was immediately chopped in a hundred

Pieces, one man providing enough substance to feed the mob,

Who triumphantly devoured him, even gnawing at his bones,

Thinking it far too tedious a wait to barbecue him, or cook

Him in a pot over a blazing fire, content to eat the body raw.

I’d like to celebrate the fact, though, that they chose not to

Desecrate your gift to the world, Prometheus, the fire you

Stole from highest heaven. My congratulations to that fierce

Element: that delights me too. Yet no cannibals that chew

Human flesh, ever dined on any other corpse more willingly.

Lest you ask, or are in doubt, about the perpetrators of that

Crime, let me say it was not merely the first who dined well,

But the very last spectator, also, seeing the whole body quite

Consumed, drew his fingers over the ground to taste the blood.

SatXV:93-174 In Praise Of Compassion

They say too that the Basques prolonged their lives (72BC) by this

Kind of thing, although in an altogether different situation, then

It was hostile fate, and the extremity caused by war, provoked

Their actions; a dire crisis, dreadful hunger during a long siege.

They had already eaten every creature, every plant, and whatever

Else they had to, driven by the pains of an empty belly, till even

Pompey and his men pitied those skeletons, their pallid leanness.

Famine made them start to tear at each other’s limbs, they were

Even ready to lacerate their own. Could men or gods refuse to

Forgive those who had to suffer such dire and monstrous things,

When even the shades of those whose bodies they were eating

Forgave? Zeno the Stoic’s precepts lead us to act otherwise.

Today Greece’s Athens, and ours, influence all. Gaul’s

Eloquence is educating Britain’s lawyers, and even farthest

Thule already talks of hiring its own professor of rhetoric.

How should we expect the Spaniards, I mentioned, of Metellus’

Day to have known the Stoic school? Yet those Spaniards were

Noble, and those of Saguntum earlier (218BC) were equal in

Courage and steadfastness, victims of an even worse disaster.

What like defence could those Egyptians offer, more barbarous

Than the priests of Diana’s altar at Maeotis, since were we to

Accept the poets for now, the Taurian who initiated their foul

Rites only enacted human sacrifice, the victim’s body subject

To no more, no further desecration, than the knife. But what

Impelled the Egyptians, where was the dreadful famine, what

Threatening army drove them to commit so detestable a crime?

If the soil of Memphis was parched, surely there was another

Way to have shamed the Nile into rising, and soaking the earth?

Not even those dreadful Germans, or the Britons, those savage

Scythians, or monstrous Transylvanians, raged with the frenzy

Of this mindless civilian mob, a people good only for hoisting

The miniature sails on their earthenware boats, and leaning on

Those tiny oars depicted on their jars. There’s no punishment

You can devise severe enough for such a crime, nor a fitting

Retribution for those peoples whose rage drives them on as

Would famine, and urges them to like behaviour. By her gift

Of tears, Nature acknowledges she has granted human beings

Compassionate hearts: it’s the finest element of our sensibility.

And so she causes us to weep for the ward, who with long

Childish hair, hiding a face wet with tears, rendering its

Sex indeterminate, has summoned a defrauder to court.

Nature demands we sigh, when we meet the funeral cortege

Of a girl fated never to marry, or attend an infant’s burial,

One too young for the pyre. Who that is good, and worthy

Of the mysteries, and wishes to live like a priest of Ceres,

Can treat others’ ills as alien to themselves? This is what

Separates us from the dumb herd, and thus we alone are

Granted abilities worthy to be revered, fit for the gods;

And equipped for artistic practice and creation; we alone

Exhibit a sensibility inspired by the high heavens above,

And lacking in those with faces bowed towards the earth.

When the world began, what fashioned us mutually only

Granted them so much mind, us intellect, so that mutual

Empathy would drive it to seek and offer help; draw

Scattered individuals into community; migrate from the

Ancient forests, leave the woods our ancestors inhabited;

Build houses, and join another roof to our own hearths;

So that, thanks to our neighbour’s threshold, the mutual

Confidence achieved would render both our sleep secure;

Protect with our weapons the fellow citizen who staggers

From some deep wound, or has fallen to the ground;

Give the common bugle-cry, as a signal; be defended

By the same turrets; our gates locked by a single key.

Yet now there is more harmony among snakes. The

Wild beast spares its relatives with similar markings.

When does a stronger lion take the life of a weaker?

Where does a wild boar die at the tusks of a greater?

The Indian tiger lives in perfect peace with the fierce

Tigress, and savage bears live together in harmony.

Yet it proves not enough for human beings to beat

Out lethal steel on the inauspicious anvil, outdoing

The first smiths who spent their hours forging rakes

And hoes, mattocks, and ploughshares, men lacking

The method for making swords. The people we have

Cast our eyes on are those for whom killing others

Is insufficient to quench their anger, those who think

Faces, arms, and torsos a source of food. What would

Pythagoras say? Would he not flee such horrors, he

Who, not only abstained from animal flesh as if it

Were human, but even from certain varieties of bean!

End of Satire XV