The Satires

Satire IV – Mock-Epic

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

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Satire IV: Mock Epic

SatIV:1-33 Crispinus and the Mullet

Behold, Crispinus again! He’s someone I’ll often call on

To play a part, a monster without one redeeming virtue

To offset his faults, a weakling, strong only in lechery,

An adulterer, who rejects none but unmarried women. 

What matter how extensive the porticoes are where he

Wears out his mules; how vast the groves where he’s borne

Beneath the shade; how many acres of palace he’s bought

Near the Forum? No miscreant’s happy, least of all a sinful

Seducer, who recently slept with a priestess in a headband;

And she now destined to be punished, by being buried alive.  

So, on to his lighter sins: all the same, if another had done

The deed, he’d be convicted by the Censor, for lax morals,

For what’s normal in a Crispinus is criminal in another,

In a Titius or Seius. What can you do when the man himself

Is more dreadful and dire than any accusation you can bring?

He bought a red mullet, matched its weight in gold pieces,

Sixty, in fact, as those assert who’d make the gross, grosser.

I might praise his cunning plan, if with a gift so rare he stole

First place in the sealed will of some fond childless old man;

Or better still, sent it along to some high-ranking mistress,

Who rides along in that closed litter with the wide windows.

No way! It was for himself! Oh, we witness many things now,

The poor, miserly gourmet, Apicius, failed to enact. Did you,

Crispinus, clad in your native Egyptian papyrus dress, pay

As much, then, for fish-scales? Likely the fisherman could

Have been bought for less than the fish; land’s cheap too

In the provinces but fetches a whole lot more in Apulia.

Imagine what kind of feasts the Emperor himself guzzled

In those days, if so many silver coins, a tiny fraction,

A side-dish from a moderate repast, were belched forth

By a purple-clad clown attached to the Great Palace,

Now a great leader of horsemen, who used to shout

His wares, dealing in fellow catfish from a rotten haul! 

SatIV:34-71 The Enormous Turbot

Begin, Muse. And Calliope, you may be seated: this is no

Recitation, the truth’s our theme. Come, girls of Pieria, tell

Your story, and may my terming you girls do me some good.

In the days when Rome was that bald Nero, Domitian’s slave,

When that last of the Flavians was mangling a dying world,

A marvellous hulk of an Adriatic turbot came to light,

Below the Temple of Venus that graces Doric Ancona,

Filled the net, and stuck fast, no smaller than those fish

The Sea of Azov hides, that when the sun melts the ice

At last, find their way down to the Black Sea straits,

Bloated from long idleness and from the enduring cold.

The monster was marked down by the controller of boats

And nets, for his High Priest, the Emperor. After all,

Who’d dare sell or buy such a thing when even the beaches

Were covered with spies? Like a shot, the inspectors of seaweed

Everywhere, would tackle a naked oarsmen, and claim

That the fish was, without shadow of doubt, a fugitive

That had swum for long ages in Caesar’s fishpond, and as

A prisoner on the run, must return to its former master.

If we’re to believe Palfurius, or heed what Armillatus says,

Whatever is rare and particularly fine in the whole ocean

Belongs to the treasury, wherever it swims. Donated thus,

It can’t go to waste. Now with fading autumn giving way

To frost, now with invalids prone to less frequent fevers,

Foul winter’s keen weather served to keep the catch fresh;

Nonetheless, the fisherman hurried, urged by the wintry wind.

When the lake lay below, where ruined Alba tends the Trojan

Flame and worships at the shrine of the lesser Vesta,

A wondering crowd obstructed his entrance for a time.

When they yielded, the gates swung open on oiled hinges;

The senators, excluded, watched the fish enter and travel,

Straight to Agamemnon, where, the fisherman from Picenum

Said: ‘Accept a gift too large for a private kitchen. Make this

A holiday. Hasten to fill your stomach with this rich food,

Consume this turbot preserved for your glorious reign.

It longed to be caught, itself.’ What flattery! All the same

The cock’s crest rose. There’s nothing the powerful

Won’t believe of themselves, when praised to the skies.

SatIV:72-129 The Summoning of the Council

Yet a dish was lacking large enough for the fish. So

The nobles, the Emperor hated, were summoned to a council,

Displaying in their faces the pallor of that vast and terrible

Friendship. The first to snatch up his cloak and hasten there,

As the Liburnian slave was calling: ‘Hurry, he’s seated now’

Was Plotius Pegasus, slave – what else were prefects then,

After all? – appointed to oversee a startled Rome, the best,

Most incorruptible, of jurists, one who thought that however

Dreadful the times, justice should be weighed without violence.

The aged and amiable Quintus Crispus was there as well,

A gentle soul, with a character to match his eloquence.

How much more useful a courtier he’d have been to that king

Of nations, lands and seas, if only he’d been allowed, while

Serving that ruinous plague, to condemn cruelty and offer

Honourable advice! But what’s more deaf than the ear of a

Tyrant? On his whim hangs the fate of a friend, who simply

Wants to speak of rain, heat, or the poor spring weather.

Thus, Crispus never extended his arms against the flood,

Not being the kind of citizen to dare to offer his thoughts

Freely, nor one to put his life at risk for the sake of truth.

That’s how he managed eighty summers and as many

Winters, protected by such armour even in that court.

Hurrying along with him came his peer, Acilius Aviola,

With a young son, Glabrio, whom a cruel death awaited,

So swiftly dealt by the master’s sword; though it’s long

Been a miracle to survive to old age among the nobility,

Which is why I prefer to remain a nobody on this earth.

It only brought that youth misery to appear as a naked

Hunter in the Alban arena, tackling bears at close quarters.

Who, after all, isn’t wise to aristocratic arts these days?

Who’d be amazed at your pretences now Lucius Brutus?

It was easier in those days to impose on a bearded king.

No less in appearance, despite his humble background

Came Rubrius Gallus, guilty of an old unmentionable

Offence, yet more perverse than a pathic scribbling satire.

Montanus’s belly was present too, with weighty paunch;

And Crispinus drenched in that morning’s perfume,

Scarcely less odorous than a funeral cortege or two; more

Ruthless still, Pompeius, men killed at his slightest whisper;

Fuscus whose guts Dacia’s vultures were destined to enjoy,

And who meditated battles in his marble villa; prudent Veiiento,

In company with the deadly Lucius Catullus Messalinus,

Inflamed with passion for a girl he had never seen,

He’d be a great and notable monster even in our day,

A blind sycophant, and a terrifying hired accomplice,

Worthy to be one of those beggars blowing obsequious

Kisses at the wheels of your carriage on the hill at Aricia.

None was more impressed with the turbot; for he made

A long speech to his left, though the fish was on his right,

Which is how he used to praise the Cilician fist fights,

And the wires that whisk lads high up above the stage.

Veiiento not to be outdone, like your fanatics, Bellona,

Goaded to ritual frenzy, prophesied: ‘Here is the mighty

Omen of a magnificent and glorious triumph to come.

You’ll net a king, or Arvigarus will fall from his British

Chariot.’ ‘This fish is a new species: do you see the spikes

Bristling from its spine?’ The only thing Fabricius failed

To mention was the turbot’s place of birth, and its age.

SatIV:130-154 The Council’s Advice

‘So what do you recommend? Should we chop it in half?’

‘Spare it such outrage’ cried Montanus, ‘have a deep dish

Made, thin-sided, but large enough for its vast dimensions.

We need a prompt and mighty potter, like Prometheus.

Ready the wheel and the clay swiftly, and from this time

Forth, let there be potters, Caesar, among your servants.’

The proposal, worthy of the man, won the day. He’d known

The excesses of the old Imperium, and Nero’s late hours,

The famished feeling at midnight, when Falernian wine

Gives heartburn. No one today has greater knowledge where

Food’s concerned: at first bite he could tell if the oysters

Came from Circeii, the Lucrine Lake, or the Kentish Coast

By Richborough, or at a glance, a sea-urchin’s native shore.

They rose, the council over, the nobles ordered to leave,

Whom the great leader had called to his Alban fortress,

Forced to hasten there, gathered together in surprise,

As though he’d news of the Chatti or fierce Sygambri,

As though a disturbing letter had arrived on frantic wings,

Sent swiftly from some far-distant region of the world.

Oh, if only he’d chosen to devote the whole of that age, given

To savagery, to such trivia, instead of depriving Rome of great

And illustrious spirits, with impunity, and none to take revenge!

Yet he perished as soon as the working man began to fear him:

It did for him, to be drenched in the Lamia family’s blood.

End of Satire IV