Petronius Arbiter


Part I: Adventures of Encolpius and Ascyltos

Scene from the Wedding of Messalina and Gaius Silius

‘Scene from the Wedding of Messalina and Gaius Silius’
Nicolaes Knüpfer, c. 1645 - c. 1655
The Rijksmuseum

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2018 All Rights Reserved

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1-2: Encolpius, a Greek freedman, rails against rhetoric

…‘These teachers of rhetoric, surely tormented by some other crowd of Furies, declaim: “I earned these scars fighting for people’s rights; I gave this eye for you; where’s an arm to help me to my children, now that my hamstrung legs can’t support me?”

Even this would be tolerable, if it smoothed a path to eloquence. Yet the sole result of this windy blather, these loud empty phrases, is to make their pupils, on reaching court, realise they’ve been transported to another planet. That’s why I think these schools of theirs make utter fools of our youngsters since they see and hear nothing of normal life there; it’s all about pirates chained on beaches, tyrants penning edicts commanding sons to behead their fathers, or oracles in time of plague demanding the blood of three or more virgins; yet in a mass of honeyed language, with every word and gesture scattering poppy-seed and sesame.

Whoever is fed on that, can no more be wise than those who spend their time in the kitchen can smell sweet. By your leave, I must tell you, you have been the ruin of true eloquence. Your empty, lightweight tone only serves to excite derision, and the content of your oratory withers and dies. The young were not confined to set speeches when Sophocles and Euripides found words worthy of their thoughts. No cloistered teacher had addled their wits, as yet, when Pindar and the Nine lyric poets were fearful of singing Homer’s verse.

No need to cite the poets in evidence: neither Plato nor Demosthenes, I find, received any training of this kind. Great, which is to say modest, oratory is never swollen and full of blemishes, but flows with a natural beauty. Your windy, shapeless loquacity is a recent import from Asia to Athens, the breath of which moved the minds of young men aspiring to greatness, like the influence exercised by some baleful star, and once the rule of eloquence was corrupted, it ceased and was dumb.

After that, who could achieve the heights Thucydides reached, or Hyperides’ fame? Even poetry lost its healthy glow, but as if all was fed on the same food, failed to reach a ripe old age. Painting also met the same fate, once Egyptian audacity had found a short-cut to the fine arts.’

3-5. Agamemnon, a teacher of rhetoric, responds

Agamemnon stopped me declaiming longer under the portico than he had sweated inside, by saying: ‘Your speech has a rare flavour, young man, and, what is rarer still, you admire good sense, so I’ll make no secret of my art. No wonder the teachers are guilty of such exhibitions, having to act as madmen among the mad. Unless they speak as their pupils wish, they’ll be ‘left to teach alone’ as Cicero said. Like false sycophants chasing a dinner with the rich, their first concern is what will please their hearers; nor will they win what they seek unless they set snares for the listener: the master of eloquence, unless, like a fisherman, he baits his hook with such as he knows will bring the little fish swarming, must sit on a rock with no hope of a catch.

Then what? Parents should be criticised, who won’t let their children profit from sterner discipline. Firstly, they sacrifice their young hopefuls, as all else, on the altar of ambition. Then if they are in haste for results, they thrust raw youths into the law courts, and eloquence, the highest of callings as they will confess, upon immature children.

If they would allow a slower pace, so studious lads were steeped in serious reading, their minds formed by wise precept, relentlessly digging out the right word with the pen, and listening carefully to what they wished to imitate, convinced that what pleases the young is rarely fine: then the grandeur of oratory would carry its full weight. As it is, these lads play about in college, and are ridiculed in the courts, and, what’s worse, they won’t confess the errors they learnt in youth when they’re older.

But don’t think me disapproving of a modest Lucilian effort, I’ll say what I think in verse:

Whoever courts success in a serious art,

applying his mind to seeking greatness,

let him obey the strict rule of austerity:

careless of the tyrant’s lofty frown, not

seeking to win dinners of the prodigal,

nor drowning the flame of his intellect

by drinking with the foolish, nor sitting

in the theatre, bribed to clap at grimaces.

But whether warlike Athena’s Acropolis

smiles on him, or the land of the Spartan

farmer, or Naples, the home of the Sirens,

let him give his youthful years to poetry,

let his happy spirit drink at the Maeonian

fount. Later, filled with Socratic wisdom,

let him loose the rein, and brandish high

the weapons of the mighty Demosthenes.

Then let the band of Romans flow about

him, and free of the Greek tones, amend

his previous taste. Meanwhile he should

refrain from the courts, give his writing

space, letting his strains sound secretly,

in swift metre; then let him tell of feasts,

and chant war in fierce verse, with high

speech such as indomitable Cicero used.

Set your mind to noble ends: so inspired,

let the words pour out, a swelling flood,

from a heart that the Pierian Muses love.’

6-8: Seeking Ascyltos, Encolpius finds himself in a brothel

While listening to him intently, I failed to notice Ascyltos had fled. But while I was pacing about in the heat of conversation, a great crowd of students entered the colonnade, apparently after quitting some teacher whose extemporary declamation had followed Agamemnon’s discourse. So while the youths were ridiculing his maxims, and decrying his whole style of speech, I took the opportunity to slip away and quickly set off to find Ascyltos.

However I couldn’t remember the right way, nor did I know the address of our lodgings. And so wherever I went I kept revisiting the same place, until, weary with walking and dripping with sweat, I asked an old woman selling fresh vegetables: ‘Do you happen to know where I’m staying, mother?’ She was delighted with such polite folly and replied: ‘How could I not?’ and rising, led the way. I thought her some kind of diviner…

When we had reached a dark corner, the charming old lady pushed back a patchwork curtain saying: ‘You must live here.’ While I was denying all knowledge of the place, I glimpsed naked prostitutes with price-tags, pacing around furtively. Slowly, in fact too late, I realised she’d led me to a whore-house. Cursing the old woman, I hid my face, and began running through the brothel to the other side, when at the very entrance Ascyltos met me, I being tired-out and half-dead: perhaps the old woman had led him there too. Greeting him with a smile, I asked what he was doing in such a vile place. Wiping the sweat away with his hand, he said: ‘If you only knew what’s happened to me.’ ‘What now?’ I cried. On the verge of collapse, he answered: ‘I was wandering about, without finding wherever it was I’d left our lodgings, when a decent bloke approached, and kindly offered to show me. Then, by the most obscure digressions, he led me here, and began offering money for sex. A whore had relieved me of cash for a room, and he’d already grabbed me, so I’d have paid a price if I hadn’t been the stronger…’

9-11: A quarrel with Ascyltos

Everyone there seemed high on aphrodisiacs…our united force defied the assailant…then, through a sort of murk, I spied Giton standing by the road in the dark, and launched myself towards the very place….while I was asking the boy if he’d found us a bite to eat, he sat on the bed wiping away a trickle of tears with his thumb. Perturbed by the lad’s appearance, I asked what was wrong. He was slow to talk, and unwilling, but once I’d showered him with threats and entreaties, he answered: ‘That friend or companion of yours raced into our lodgings not long ago, wanting to steal my modesty. While I shouted, he drew his blade and cried: ‘If you’re Lucretia, you’ve found your Tarquin!’

On hearing this I shook my fist in Ascyltos’ face, exclaiming: ‘What have you got to say for yourself, playing the woman, you whore, your every breath unclean?’ Ascyltos, feigning shock, soon made a braver showing, shouting more loudly still: ‘Silence, vile gladiator, expelled from the ring in disgrace! Be quiet, midnight assassin, who even in better times, could never take on a proper woman, you to whom I was the same friend in the garden as the boy is in our lodgings!’

‘You slipped away from Agamemnon’s speech,’ I said, ‘What should I have done, you idiot,’ he cried, ‘when I was dying of hunger? Go on listening to his chatter, all broken glass and interpretation of dreams? Goodness, you’re worse than me, praising a poet to cadge a meal.’ And our sordid quarrel evaporated in laughter, as we retired to bed for the rest…

His insult though re-entered my mind. ‘Ascyltos’, I said, ‘we’ll never agree. Let’s split what we have and see if we can’t defeat poverty by our own efforts. You have learning and so do I. I promise not to get in your way. If we don’t, we’ll be in conflict every day for a thousand reasons and set rumours going, about us, all over town.’ Ascyltos agreed, saying: ‘Since we’re engaged for supper like students today, let’s not waste the evening. Tomorrow I’ll look for fresh lodgings, as you wish, and a new boyfriend.’ ‘It’s hard work, waiting for what pleases,’ I answered…

This flat-out quarrel was prompted by lust; I’d long wanted to get rid of that irritating watchdog, and reinstate my old arrangement with Giton…afterwards I surveyed the town then returned to the little room, exacting kisses openly, hugging the lad in close embrace, and enjoying my dearest longings to the point of envy. Nor was all yet done, when Ascyltos crept furtively to the door, shot back the bolt by force,  and found me at play with my friend. He filled the place with mockery and applause, and dragged away the cloak that covered me, crying: ‘What are you up to, most chaste of lovers? Are you a companion of the camp-bed?’ Not content with words alone, he pulled the strap from his bag and gave me a proper flogging, adding sarcastically: ‘You’ll not want to share this with the lad’…

12-15: The cloak and the shirt

It was already dusk when we reached the market-square, where we saw a host of things for sale, of little value, though the evening shadows readily concealed their lack of merchantable quality. So, for our part, we brought along a cloak snatched in the street, and seized the opportunity to display the bottom hem in a corner of the market on the off-chance that its splendour might attract a purchaser. Soon, a rustic I knew by sight, appeared, with a girl, and began to examine it closely.

Ascyltos, in turn, contemplating the shirt over our rustic shopper’s shoulder, was suddenly struck dumb with amazement. Nor could I regard him without some emotion, since it seemed to me he was the very man who had found our shirt in the solitary spot where we’d lost it. Plainly, it was him. But as Ascyltos was afraid to trust his eyes, lest he did something rash, he first closed in as if he were a buyer, took it from the man’s shoulder and fingered it carefully. O marvellous stroke of luck! The rustic had as yet not laid curious hands on the seams, and was selling it, in disdain, as a beggar’s cast-off.

Ascyltos, realising our little hoard was still intact, and seeing the contemptible nature of the seller, drew me aside from the crowd, saying: ‘Do you see, my friend, that treasure I grumbled at losing has returned to us? That’s the shirt, so it seems, filled as yet with our untouched gold. What to do then, how to assert our legal right?’

I was delighted, not only because I foresaw a profit, but because fate had relieved me of a most disagreeable suspicion. I opposed any circuitous methods, arguing for a straightforward civil process, such that if they refused to return others’ property to the rightful owners, it could be enforced by the court. But Ascyltos feared the law, saying: ‘No one here knows us, or would place any trust in what we say. I’d rather buy the shirt openly, even though it’s really ours as we know, and recoup our treasure cheaply, rather than descend to the uncertainty of a lawsuit:

What use are laws, where only money rules

and the plaintiff without it can never win?

Even those with a Cynic’s purse, these days,

have been known to betray truth for money.

So a lawsuit’s no more than a public auction,

with the noble jurors approving the purchase.’

But we had nothing in hand but a few coins intended for buying lupine beans. So lest our prize vanish in the meantime, we decided to discount the cloak and incur a small loss for a greater gain. We had just unrolled the goods, when a veiled woman, standing next to the rustic and gazing closely at the stains, grabbed the cloak in both hands, shouting: ‘Thieves!’ at the top of her voice. Angry with ourselves, lest all come to nothing, we began tugging at the shirt, which was filthy and torn, proclaiming, with equal force, that these folk had what belonged to us. But it proved an unequal argument, and the traders who flocked to the noise naturally mocked our madness, since one side laid claim to a valuable cloak, the other to a patchwork of rags not worth mending.

Ascyltos cunningly quenched the laughter, calling for silence, saying: ‘You see, everyone loves their own; if they’ll give us our shirt they can have the cloak.’ The rustic and the woman were pleased with the exchange, but the watch had been summoned and, wanting to profit from the situation, demanded the items be left with them, and the justice would investigate our complaint the next day. Nor was that all, for more was in question, since both parties were suspected of robbery. Now a custodian was needed, and one of the traders, a bald man with a lumpy forehead, who sometimes assisted the law, seized the cloak, saying he’d produce it tomorrow. It was obvious he merely wished to deposit it with a pair of thieves, never to be seen again, and that we, afraid of being charged, would fail to appear at the hearing.

Clearly our wish was the same, and fate came to the aid of both parties. The rustic was indignant at our demand that his rag should be shown in public, threw the shirt in Ascyltos’ face and, ending the quarrel, demanded the cloak, which had started the whole thing…

Recovering our treasure, as we hoped, we scurried to our lodgings and locked the door, mocking the stupidity of those who’d accused us wrongly, as well as the trader whose impressive cunning had returned us our money.

I never like to grab what I wish at once,

nor does a ready victory delight me…

16-18: Quartilla

As we found supper ready, thanks to Giton, we were eating away, when there came an insolent knock at the door. When, turning pale, we asked who it was, a voice replied: ‘Open, and you’ll soon know.’ While we were speaking, the door swung open of itself, and suddenly yielded our visitor an entrance. It was the veiled woman who, a while ago, had been standing beside the rustic. ‘Did you think to evade me? she cried. I am maid to that Quartilla whose devotions, in her secret sanctuary, you disturbed. She is here herself, at your lodgings, seeking a word with you. Don’t worry, she won’t reproach you or punish your mistake, rather she wonders how heaven brought such urbane youths to her quarter.’ We still said nothing, remaining non-committal, Quartilla herself entered, with a little girl, sat on my bed, and cried for a long time.

Even then we said not a word, but sat in amazement awaiting the end of this ready show of grief. Thus, the designing shower of tears ceasing, she drew her cloak from her proud head, and wringing her hands till the joints cracked, asked: ‘Where did you bold lads learn to rival the robbers of romance? Heavens, I pity you: none can look on forbidden things with impunity. Indeed our quarter is so full of divine presences you’re more likely to meet a deity than a man.

Don’t imagine I’ve come here for revenge, being more concerned for your youth than for my injury; since I still believe it was your imprudence that made you commit that unforgiveable sin. I was so tormented that night, myself, shivering with such a dangerous chill,  I even feared an attack of the tertian fever. Seeking a remedy in my dreams, I was commanded to find you, and lessen the force of my affliction by the acuteness you’d show.

But I’m not so worried about the remedy as the greater anxiety which burns in my heart, drawing me towards the inevitable end, that prompted to youthful indiscretion you might tell publicly what you saw in the shrine of Priapus, and reveal our god’s deliberations to the mob. I therefore raise my uplifted palms towards your knees, and beg and pray you’ll refrain from ridicule and mockery of our nocturnal worship, and exhibiting to all the mysteries, so long hidden, known to scarcely three creatures.’

She ended her request in a flood of tears, once more and, sobbing hard, buried her face and breasts in my bedclothes. I was awash with pity and fear combined, telling her to be of good cheer, and not worry about either matter: since no one would broadcast her devotions, and if the gods had shown her a cure for her tertian fever, we’d risk our lives to aid divine providence.

At this the woman grew more cheerful, kissing me over and over, and, having passed from tears to laughter, gently stroking the hair that fell past my ears, with her hand, said: ‘I’ll make a pact with you, and withdraw the accusation I’ve made. But if you’d not promised the cure I seek, a whole regiment were ready to right my wrongs tomorrow, and uphold my honour:

To be defied is vile, to make terms splendid;

I take delight in following the path I choose.

For even the wise will quarrel when despised,

while the victor is the one who sheds no blood…’

19-21: The ordeal

Suddenly, she clapped her hands and burst out laughing, so hard that we were terrified. On their side the maid, and the little girl who had entered with Quartilla, did the same. The whole room rang with laughter like a farce, while we, not understanding why their mood had changed so quickly, looked at one another and then the women…

‘I forbade any mortal from entering these lodgings today, so I might receive my cure at your hands without interruption.’ When Quartilla spoke these words, Ascyltos was dumbfounded for a moment, while I grew colder than an Alpine winter and couldn’t utter a word. Yet the presence of my friends saved me from the worst fears. They were only a trio of mere women, who were surely too weak to attack us, even if they wanted to; on our side, if nothing else, we had the power of our sex. And our clothing was certainly more suited. Indeed I’d already paired us off, if it came to a fight, myself against Quartilla, Ascyltos against her maid, and Giton the little girl…

But then our resolution yielded to terror, while certain death began to pass before our eyes. ‘If there’s anything worse in preparation, lady,’ I said, ‘be quick; we’ve done nothing so criminal we deserve to perish by torture.’ The maid, whose name was Psyche, was carefully spreading a blanket on the floor. She stirred my loins, now frozen by a thousand deaths. Ascyltos had buried his head in his cloak, no doubt recalling how risky it is to pry into others’ secrets. Now the maid took two ribbons from her dress, tying our feet with one, our hands with the other…

Ascyltos, the thread of our invention already failing, cried: ‘What, don’t I get a taste?’ Psyche was betrayed by my laughter, clapped her hands, and said: ‘Indeed, I poured it, young man…did you quaff all the medicine yourself?’ ‘Did he really? said Quartilla, ‘did Encolpius really drink all that was mingled there?’ Her sides shook with laughter. And even Giton finally had to laugh, at least when the little girl clasped his neck and showered innumerable kisses on his unresisting lips…

We wanted to shout aloud, in our misery, yet there was no help forthcoming, and when I tried to summon some honest citizen, Psyche stabbed my cheek with a hair-pin, while the girl threatened Ascyltos with a sponge she’d soaked in the mixture…

Finally a sodomite arrived, in a myrtle-coloured wool garment tied with a belt…now forcing our buttocks apart, now fouling us with his vile slobbering, until Quartilla holding her whalebone rod in her hand, her dress girded high, ordered us wretches to be granted our discharge…We both took a solemn oath that her dreadful secret would die with us…

Several masseurs from the wrestling club arrived, and refreshed us by rubbing us properly with oil. Thus, one way or the other, our fatigue departed, we dressed again for dinner, and were led to the next-door room, where three places were set, and the rest of a luxurious dinner-service splendidly displayed. We were asked to sit, and after some wonderful tasters, swam in wine, Falernian no less. We followed with more courses, and were about to take a nap, when Quartilla cried: ‘Really, you have it in mind to sleep, though you owe the spirit of Priapus a vigil?...

22-24: Midnight revels

When Ascyltos, exhausted by his misfortunes, fell into a doze, the maid, who’d been driven away unjustly, rubbed soot all over his face and painted his lips and neck while he was drowsing. I too was tired out, as I’d had only the briefest taste of sleep; all the servants, indoors and out, were also slumbering. Some lay scattered at the guests’ feet, others leant on the walls, some rested in the doorway, their heads together: the oil in the lamps was spent, and they gave only a thin dying light.

Suddenly two Syrians arrived, intent on plundering the room, and, while quarrelling greedily over the silver, pulled at a jug and split it. The table, with all its silver plate, collapsed and a cup which chanced to fly high in the air struck the maid, who was drooped over a couch, on the head. She cried out at the blow, waking some of the drunken party, and revealing the thieves. The Syrians, who were there for the spoils, realising they’d been seen, dropped side by side on a couch, in perfect harmony, and began to snore as if they’d long been slumbering there.

By now the butler had woken: he refilled the lamps, and the serving lads rubbed their eyes for a bit, then returned to their duties, as a girl cymbalist appeared and the clash of brass roused everybody. So the entertainment began again, as Quartilla called for wine, the cymbalist adding to the merriment…

A  lewd dancer entered, an utterly shameless fellow, clearly worthy of the house he was in, who, flapping his hands at us, uttered these lines:

‘Quick, gather round me, now, you fat sodomites,

stretch your legs, run about, let foot-soles meet

and supple thighs, wanton fingers and agile bums,

you softies, old men, trimmed by a Delian hand.’

His poetry done, he covered me with the vilest kisses, then climbing onto the bed forcefully smothered my protests. He worked me over for ages in vain. He sweated acacia-juice in streams from his forehead, which trickled down his wrinkled cheeks like rain running down a wall. No longer able to hide my tears, reduced to the last extremity, I cried: ‘What a nightcap you prescribed for me, Lady, and no mistake!’ She clapped her hands softly, saying: ‘O what a smart lad, a fount of native wit!’ What, didn’t you know, a sodomite’s called a ‘nightcap’. Then, so that my companion fared no better than I: ‘By that faith of yours, Lady,’ I cried, ‘does only Ascyltos get a rest on this couch?’ ‘Well,’ she said ‘let Ascyltos be granted a nightcap too!’

With that the rider changed horses, and turning to my companion, pounded at him with lips and buttocks. Giton stood there splitting his sides with laughter, all the while. Spying him, Quartilla, enquired with eager curiosity whose lad he was. When I told her he was my lover, she asked: ‘Why hasn’t he kissed me then?’ And summoning him to her, fell to kissing him. Soon her hand drifted to his lap, and feeling his innocent little offering, she cried: ‘This will do fine duty as a taster for our pleasures tomorrow; today I’ll not take a thing after my daily asses’ milk.’

25-26: Nuptials

With that, Psyche, smiling, whispered something in her ear: ‘Yes, yes,’ Quartilla said, ‘a good suggestion. Why, since it’s a most fitting occasion, should our little Pannychis not lose her innocence?’ A pretty little lass was immediately produced, not above seven years old, the same child with whom Quartilla first entered our room. Though generally applauding and demanding such nuptials, I was dumbfounded, claiming that Giton, an extremely modest lad, was not up to such things, nor was the child old enough to receive the attentions a woman suffers. ‘Is she younger than I was, then, when I first experienced a man?’ Quartilla asked. ‘Juno curse me, if I can ever recall being a virgin. When I was little I was sullied by boys my age, and as I grew older applied myself to larger ones, till I reached maturity. Indeed I think the proverb comes from that, for, as they say: she can bear the bull that has borne the calf.’ So lest Giton sustained a worse injury in private, I rose for the nuptial celebration. Now Psyche placed a bridal veil over the girl’s face, the ‘nightcap’ led the way with a wedding-torch, and a long train of drunken women, applauding, hung the marriage chamber with sinful tapestries, while Quartilla, also inflamed by the other jesters’ lasciviousness, snatched Giton and drew him into the bedroom.

The lad certainly made no resistance, nor did the girl seem at all frightened by that gloomy word matrimony. When they lay there, the door locked, we sat down before the threshold, and Quartilla, first naughtily opening a crack in the wood, diligently applied a curious eye to watching their childish passions. She slowly dragged me by force to the same diversion, and since our faces were close together as we looked, whenever we left off gazing, she often chanced to turn her lips towards me, and repeatedly stole a smacking kiss… then we threw ourselves on the bed and spent the rest of the night free of terror…

End of the Satyricon: Part I