The Satires

Satire VIII – Rely On Your Own Worth

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

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Satire VIII: Rely On Your Own Worth

SatVIII:1-38 What’s The Point Of A Pedigree?

What’s the point of a pedigree, Ponticus? Where’s the profit

In being judged by the length of your bloodline, of displaying

Portraits in oils of your ancestors, the Aemiliani standing tall

In their chariots, the Curii half-height, a Corvinus devoid of

A shoulder, or a Galba missing his ears and a nose; what’s

The value in being able to boast a Censor in your extensive

Family-tree, or be connected through a tangle of branches

With a dictator, and sundry smoke-stained masters of horse,

If, beneath the shade of the Lepidi, life is hard? What’s the use

Of all those busts of warriors, if you spend your time gambling

The night away, staring at the Numantini, and don’t sleep till

Venus rises, under whom generals raise standards and camp?

Why should a Fabius, scion of Hercules, delight in that god’s

Great altar, or the title Allobrogicus, when he himself is idle

And greedy, and softer than the fleece of a Euganean lamb,

When he shames his unpolished ancestors by having his loins

Smoothed with Catanian pumice, while his dealing in poison

Degrades his poor clan with a bust that should be shattered?

You may decorate your whole atrium with old wax portraits

Throughout, but the one and only virtue’s personal excellence.

In morality: be a Cossos Gaetulicus, a Paulus Macedonicus,

A Claudius Drusus, put that before rows of ancestral statues,

Let that take precedence over those consular rods of office.

The first debt you owe me is greatness of soul. Do you justify

Being regarded as sound, tenacious of justice in word and deed?

I acknowledge a true prince, then; hail to you Gaetulicus, or

Silanus: whatever the nobility of your race, hail to you, rare

And illustrious citizen, be welcomed by a joyful country,

Let the people cheer as they’re wont to do when Osiris is found.

Who would call a thing noble that’s unworthy of its breeding,

A thing distinguished by a glorious name, and nothing else?

We give the name ‘Atlas’ to someone’s dwarf, we call their

Black Ethiopian slave, ‘Swan’, while some bent and deformed

Girl’s beautiful ‘Europa’; and a dull dog with chronic mange,

That spends its time licking at the rim of a dried-up lamp,

Is called ‘Tiger’, ‘Leopard’, or ‘Lion’ or whatever else

In this world roars fiercely. So watch out, take care that

It’s not for such reasons they call you Creticus, or Camerinus.

SatVIII:39-70 I’m Talking About You, Rubellius Blandus

Who am I warning, like this? I’m talking about you, Rubellius

Blandus. You’re puffed up with pride over the exalted origins

Of the Drusi, as if you’d done something to make you noble,

As if it were due to you that your line’s bright with Julian blood,

Not that of a hired weaver from under the windy Embankment.

‘You’re all base’ you say. ‘You’re the lowest of the low, not

One of you can even prove where his ancestors’ came from,

While I’m descended from kings.’ Long life to you, may you

Take lasting joy in your origins. But from these plebeian depths

Come your eloquent Romans, who take on cases to defend

Uneducated nobles; from this crowd of togas comes the man

Who’ll untie legal knots and solve the mysteries of justice;

From here comes the diligent young soldier headed for the

Euphrates, or a legion watching over the conquered Batavi.

But you, you’re merely ‘descended from kings’, a broken Herm.

Indeed the only thing distinguishing you from a Herm is this:

The Herm’s head’s made of marble, while your flesh is alive.

Tell me, you scion of Trojans, who would call a dumb animal

Noble unless it was sound? That’s what we praise a racehorse

For, its speed, its countless easy wins that create a furore in

The noisy Circus as it takes the prize; that’s a noble horse,

The one, that whatever pasture nurtured it, gallops well clear

Of the pack, and raises a cloud of dust in the lead, on the flat.

The rest, over whose harness Victory rarely hovers, are cattle

For sale, sired though they are by Hirpinus or Coryphaeus.

There’s no respect for ancestors there, no regard for the

Shades; tardy offspring fit only for turning the millstone,

Are obliged to find themselves fresh owners at knock-down

Prices, and pull wagons around yoked to their weary necks.

So if you’re to impress me, not your line, offer something

Personal that I might set against your name, besides those

Titles we gave, and still give, to those to whom you owe all.

SatVIII:71-141 Ponticus, Here’s How To Behave

I’ve addressed enough to a young man whom tradition records

As proud, and inflated, and full of his close connection to Nero.

It’s rare enough to find human feeling in people of that class.

But Ponticus, I’d not want you to be valued only for the praise

Your family earned, or do nothing yourself to justify future

Praise. It’s wretched to have to rely on the fame of others, fear

The roof will collapse in ruins, if the pillars are taken away.

That trailing on the ground the vine will long for its lost elm.

Be a fine soldier, and a fine guardian, and a sound judge too.

If you’re summoned as witness in a confused and ambiguous

Case, even if Phalaris, the Sicilian tyrant, orders you to lie,

And spell out your perjuries, his Bronze Bull ready to torment

You at hand, it’s a worse evil to prefer survival to dishonour,

And for the sake of staying alive, lose the reason for living.

Such die deserving death, though dining on a hundred Lucrine

Oysters, bathed in a bronze tub filled with Cosmus’s perfume.

When, as governor, you’re welcomed at last to your long-awaited

Province, take a bridle and curb to your anger, and your greed,

Demonstrate some sympathy for the impoverished provincials:

What you’ll see are the marrow-bones of kings, sucked dry.

Keep an eye on the law’s restrictions, what the Senate command,

The copious rewards that await the virtuous, the righteous bolt

Of Senatorial lightning, that condemnation that ruined Capito

And Tutor, for stealing from the Cilicians. Though, why bother?

Look round for an auctioneer, Chaerippus, to sell off your rags,

Since Pansa is stealing whatever Natta left; and then be silent;

It would be madness to lose the fare for the ferryman as well.

The provinces never groaned like this, the pain of their losses

Was never so great, when, soon after conquest, they flourished.

Then their houses were bulging, there were vast piles of cash,

Military cloaks from Sparta, purple Coan silks, besides

Paintings by Parrhasius, statues signed by Myron, lifelike

Ivories by Phidias, no lack of endless works of Polyclitus,

And scarcely a table about lacking Mentor’s silverware.

From the provinces, Dolabella, from there Antonius, and that

Temple-robber Verres carried off loot concealed in tall

Ships, achieving greater triumphs in peacetime than war.

These days when some little farm is seized, the locals have

Only a few yoked oxen, a pitiful herd of mares, to be driven

Off with the patriarch of the herd and the household gods

Themselves, too, if any of their statues are worth the taking.

Perhaps you despise the unwarlike Rhodians, and perfumed

Corinth, and rightly so, what could a whole effeminate race

Of youths, from there, with their depilated legs, do to you?

It’s hairy Spain you should avoid, and the Gallic region,

And the shores of Illyria; and beware of African reapers

Who glut the idle City, freeing it for the races or the stage.

How great anyway are the rewards you’d win from so

Dire a crime, since Marius Priscus stripped Africa bare?

Take care above all to do no great injury to the wretched

And the brave. Leave them their swords and shields,

Though you take every last piece of their gold and silver.

What I’ve just written is not some mere maxim: it’s truth;

Believe me I’m reading aloud now from the Sibyl’s leaves.

If your retinue of followers behave, if no long-haired

Apollo takes bribes for you; if your wife’s free of guilt,

Not set to use the courts in every town to snatch spoils

With her hooked talons, like that harpy Celaeno; then you

May spell out your forebears back to King Picus, and if

It’s exalted names you treasure, include the Titans’ whole

Battle-line among them, including Prometheus himself.

But if you’re driven, precipitately, by greed and ambition,

If you slake whips and break them on provincial backs,

If blunted axes, and weary executioners, thrill you,

Your ancestral nobility will contrast with your baseness,

And shine its light on actions that should shame you.

Every fault of character’s the more open to reproach

The higher the rank is of the person who displays it.

SatVIII:142-182 Not Like Lateranus!

What’s so impressive about your custom of penning false

Wills, in temples your grandfather built, or while gazing

At your father’s triumphal statue? That, as an adulterer

By night, a Gallic cowl from Saintonge hides your head?

Lateranus, the gross, muleteer consul, outdoes that: he flies

By his forebears’ bones and ashes in his speedy carriage,

Then shames them, by applying the brake himself: true

He does it at night, but the moon sees it, and the glaring

Stars bear witness. He drives himself! When his stint at

The office is over, Lateranus takes up a whip in broad

Daylight, never worries about meeting an adult friend,

In fact he’ll wave to him first, with the whip; he even

Shakes out bales of hay, pours feed for his weary team.

And then, though he sacrifices sheep, or a red bullock,

In Numa’s rites, he swears by the horse-goddess Epona

At Jove’s altar, by the painted icons on his rank stable.

And when he’s off to enjoy a midnight eating-bout

A Syrio-Phoenician, drenched in endless perfumes, runs

To greet him, some Syrian Jew from the Idumaean Gate,

With that host’s welcome, ‘My Lord and Master’ while

Cyane, robe hiked to her thighs, offers the jar for sale.  

Some defender of his faults, will tell me: ‘We too were

Like that when young,’ that’s as maybe, but you ceased

To nurture those errors. What tempts disgrace should be

Transient, a fault to be trimmed away with the first beard.

Grant lads indulgence: but our Lateranus headed straight

For bathhouse wine jugs and painted awnings even when

He was old enough to fight, or guard the Syrian frontiers,

Or Armenia, the Danube, the Rhine. Send him to Ostia,

Caesar, when you’ve found him in that vast eating-house.

Where he’ll be reclining next to some assassin, mingling

With sailors, consorting with thieves, and fugitive slaves,

Down there, among executioners, sat with coffin-makers,

Or the drums, now fallen silent, of some priest of Cybele.

There’s it’s a free for all, a communal jar, there no one has

Separate couches, tables set apart. Ponticus, if you chanced

To own a slave you found there, what would you do? Surely,

He’d be destined for some Lucanian or Tuscan slave-farm.

But you, you scions of Troy, you excuse it in yourselves.

What shames the working man’s fine for a Brutus, a Volesus.

SatVIII:183-230 Aristocrats Indeed!

Were these examples we cited never so wretched, never

So shameful, are there not worse examples still to come?

When you’d spent your cash, Damasippus, you hired out

Your voice to the stage, and acted Catullus’ noisy ‘Ghost’.

Agile Lentulus played the bandit Laureolus, rather well, I

Thought him worthy of his crucifixion. And let’s not start

Excusing the populace; there’s a hard side to this audience,

That sits, and watches the triple follies of these aristocrats,

Listens to pantomime Fabii, laughs at the slapstick antics

Of the Mamerci. What matter how well their drubbings pay?

They’re selling themselves, without some Nero’s coercion,

Can’t wait to sell, even when it’s the noble praetor’s games.

But consider: the stage over here, versus a violent death there;

Which is best? Is there anyone so scared to die, he’d rather act

Thymele’s jealous spouse, or play foil to Corinthus the clown?

Still if an emperor could play the lyre, a noble in a pantomime’s

No marvel. What could be worse, except the gladiatorial school?

There you may behold Rome’s shame: one of the Gracchi fights,

But not in heavy armour, not with a shield or with a curved blade;

He rejects such things, you see: look, he’s brandishing a trident.

When he’s flourished his right arm, and hurled his trailing net,

Without success, he’ll raise his bare face to the spectators, and

Having ensured he’s known throughout the whole arena, flees,

Dressed as a Salian priest, there’s no mistake, his golden tunic

Taut below his neck, the twisted cord swaying from his cap.

So the opponent ordered to fight this Gracchus, suffers a greater

Loss of face than he would have done from any wound received.

If the masses were granted a free vote, who would be so foolish

As to hesitate about preferring Seneca to that Nero who deserved

Worse punishment than the usual parricide, who should have been

Sewn with more than a snake and monkey in a sea-drowned sack.

Nero wrought Orestes’ crime, but the motive was quite different.

Agamemnon’s son, with divine indulgence, avenged his father,

Murdered at a banquet, you know, but never polluted himself by

Slitting his sister Electra’s jugular, or shedding his Spartan wife

Hermione’s blood, he prepared no poisoned doses for relatives,

He never took to the stage, like Nero, to sing the part of Orestes,

He never wrote an epic of Troy. What actions more deserved

Punishment, by Verginius and his army, by Galba and Vindex?

Such were the deeds and accomplishments of our noble emperor,

Who loved to prostitute himself on a foreign stage, in vile song,

Winning Greek garlands of dry celery leaves for his performance.

So grant your ancestors’ statues the prizes won by your voice,

Lay your Thyestes’ tragic robe with its long train, your mask of 

Antigone or of Melanippe, before the feet of your own Domitius,

Go hang your lyre from your colossus, carved out of marble!

SatVIII:231-275 Let Us Celebrate Our Humble Origins

Where is a more exalted ancestry to be found, than yours Catiline,

Or yours Cethegus? Yet armed by night you connived to attack 

Homes and temples and set them alight, like those sons of Gaul

In breeches, like the scions of those Senones who sacked Rome,

An outrage punished by legal execution, in ‘a coat of burning pitch’.

While Cicero the consul, alert, halts the advance of your banners.

He, a self-made man from Arpinum, of humble origin, a municipal

Knight new to the City, posts helmeted troops everywhere to protect

The terrified people, labours away over all the seven hills of Rome. 

So his toga, in time of peace, brought him as much titled distinction,

Without stepping outside the walls, as Octavius, his sword stained

From continual slaughter, snatched for himself at Leucas, by Actium,

Or Philippi, in the fields of Thessaly; moreover Rome was still free,

When she named Cicero as parent and father of his native country.

And Gaius Marius, also from Arpinum, toiled in the Volscian hills

To earn a living, labouring away behind another man’s plough.

And later felt the centurion’s gnarled stick on his head, if he

Showed reluctance as he dug the camp’s moat with his tardy pick.

And yet it is he who takes on the Cimbri at a moment of high risk

To his country, and it is he alone who defends a trembling Rome.

And that’s why when the crows fly down to feast on the mounds

Of dead, never having fastened on mightier corpses, his fellow

Consul, Catulus, though a nobleman, receives the lesser laurels.

The Decii were plebeian souls, and their names plebeian too,

Yet they were worth all the legions, all of their allies, and all

The youth of Latium, to Mother Earth and the gods below.

Servius Tullius, born to a slave-girl, won the robes and crowns

And rods of Romulus, he the very last of the good kings of Rome.

The traitors who planned to unbar the gates to the exiled tyrants,

Were the sons of the consul himself, though, the very citizens

Who should have achieved great deeds on behalf of fragile liberty,

Deeds that Gaius Mucius or Horatius Cocles might have admired,

Or Cloelia, that girl who swam the Tiber, the frontier of our power.

A slave, deserving to be mourned by Roman women, it was who

Revealed the secret plot to the Senate, while the traitors got their just

Rewards, a flogging, then their newly-legal execution under the axe.

I’d rather you were fathered by Thersites, and behaved like Achilles,

Grandson of Aeacus, brandishing the weapons forged by Hephaestus,

Than that Achilles fathered you, only for you to behave like Thersites.

Though you can unroll the family tree, and trace your name far back,

It still derives from that first melting-pot of Rome, that granted all

Asylum; and whoever your first ancestor might have been, he was

Still a herdsman, or performed some other task I’d rather not mention.

End of Satire VIII