Petronius Arbiter


Part II: Trimalchio’s Feast

The Pleasures of the Seasons: Autumn

‘The Pleasures of the Seasons: Autumn’
Johann Georg Platzer, c. 1730
The Minneapolis Institute of Art

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

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27-28: Trimalchio is introduced

Already the third day had arrived, with expectations of a free dinner that is, but we were so full of holes escape seemed better than rest. We were therefore gloomily making plans to evade the coming storm, when one of Agamemnon’s servants appeared, as we hesitated, and said: ‘Don’t you know whose house it’s all happening at today? Trimalchio. Filthy rich, with a large clock and a trumpeter in uniform in the dining-room, to tell him how much of his life’s gone by.’

We forgot our troubles, hurried into our clothes, and told Giton, who had been waiting on us very willingly the while, to follow us to the baths. We had proceeded to wander around smartly dressed, or rather to joke about and circulate, when we suddenly saw a bald old fellow, in a russet tunic playing at handball with some long-haired lads. It was not the boys who caught our attention, though they were worthy of it, but the old gentleman, in his sandals, playing with a green ball. He refused to pick it up if it touched the ground, instead a slave stood near with a bagful, supplying the players.

We noted several novelties. Two eunuchs stood at opposite sides of the circle, one holding a silver chamber-pot, the other counting the balls, not as they flew from hand to hand in the game but as they were dropped. While we were gazing in amazement, Menelaus (Agamemnon’s assistant tutor) ran up to us, saying: ‘You’ll rest your elbows at his house, and what you are watching’s a prelude to dinner.’ And Menelaus had just ceased speaking when Trimalchio snapped his fingers, the signal for the eunuch with the chamber-pot to approach him as he played and hold it out. Trimalchio relieved his bladder, called for a basin to wash his hands, then wiped them on the lad’s head…

It would take too long to give the details. We all went to the baths and, sweating with the heat, in a trice went on to the cold bath. Trimalchio, anointed with unguents, was then rubbed down, not with towels but blankets of finest wool. Three masseurs were drinking Falernian wine nearby and, in quarrelling, a good deal was spilt, Trimalchio commenting that they were drinking his health. He was then bundled up in a woollen coat of scarlet hue, and placed in a litter.  Four runners with all the trappings went in front, and a hand-cart in which his favourite rode, a poor little aged lad, uglier than his master, Trimalchio. As he was borne away, a musician with a tiny pair of pies approached and played throughout the trip, as if he were whispering secrets in his ear.

We followed, already lost in wonder, and arrived, with Agamemnon, at the door, on whose lintel was a sign: ‘No servant to leave the house, except at his master’s bidding, the penalty one hundred lashes’. In the entrance stood a porter dressed in green, with a cherry-coloured belt, shelling peas into a silver dish, while over the doorway hung a gilded cage, in which a magpie perched, welcoming visitors.

29-30: Trimalchio’s house

While I was marvelling at all this, I almost broke a leg falling backwards, for on the left as you entered, not far from the porter’s room, a large dog on a chain was depicted on the wall, and over him in block capitals was written: ‘CAVE CANEM’. My friends mocked me, but I plucked up courage and inspected the whole wall.

There was a painting of a slave-market, with the person’s names, and Trimalchio was pictured holding a caduceus, Mercury’s wand, Minerva holding his hand and leading him into Rome. Then the artist had painstakingly rendered his whole career with titles, showing exactly how he had learnt to do the books, and become in the end a treasurer. At the point, in fact, where the portico wall gave out, Mercury had him by the chin and was raising him to his seat in the tribunal. Nearby stood Fortune with a horn of plenty, and the three Fates spinning a golden thread.

Next I spotted a group of runners, practising with a trainer. And then, I saw a big cupboard, a shrine, in which were silver statues of the Lares, and a marble figure of Venus, and a golden box, of no small size, in which I was told Trimalchio’s first beard was stored…So I asked the house manager what pictures they had in the hall. ‘The Iliad, and the Odyssey,’ he said, ‘and the gladiator show that Laenas gave.’ I was unable to take it all in at once…

Now we made our way to the dining room, in which the steward sat, doing the accounts. What astonished me above all was seeing rods and axes fixed to the dining-room doorposts, one end finished with a kind of bronze ship’s beak, on which was inscribed: ‘Presented to Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio, priest of Augustus, by Cinnamus the steward.’ Beneath this inscription, a double-lamp hung from the ceiling, and two calendars fixed on either doorpost, one, if I remember rightly, inscribed as follows: ‘Our C. dines out on the 30th December, and New Year’s Eve’ the other depicting the moon’s course, and images of the sun and the six planets, with lucky and unlucky days distinguished by different markers.

Sated with these delights, we were about to enter the dining-room, when a slave, entrusted with the duty, cried: ‘Right foot first.’ We were anxious of course, for a moment, lest any of us broke the rule crossing the threshold. Moreover, as we were all stepping out with the right foot together, a slave, stripped for a flogging, fell at our feet and begged us to save him from punishment. No great crime had put him so at risk, only the steward’s clothes had been stolen from him at the baths, which were scarcely worth a few silver coins.

We drew back our right feet, and asked the steward, who sat in the hall counting the gold, to pardon the slave. He raised his head, haughtily, and said: ‘It’s not the loss I mind so much as the rascal’s negligence. He lost the dinner clothes one of my dependants gave me on my birthday, Tyrian dye of course, but they had been through the wash once already. What of it? I grant you the request.’

31-33: The feast commences

We felt obliged at his great generosity, and once we were  in the dining-room, the slave on whose behalf we had pleaded scurried over to us and to our astonishment rained kisses on us, thanking us for our kindness. ‘In a word,’ he said, ‘you’ll soon know who owes you thanks, for the master’s wine is in this servant’s gift.’…

We sat down at last, and lads from Alexandria poured snow-cooled water over our hands. Others followed, knelt in front of us, and pared our nails with great care. Nor were they silent during this unpleasant task, but sang as they worked. I wanted to discover if the whole household were singers, so I asked for a drink. An eager slave repeated my request in as shrill a singing voice as I my own, as they all did if asked for anything…it was more like a pantomime chorus than a gentleman’s dining room.

Still, some very fine appetisers now arrived, since all were seated except Trimalchio, for whom the first place was saved, as is the latest fashion. An ass in Corinthian bronze stood at the centre of the tray of titbits, its panniers filled with olives, white on one side, black on the other. Two dishes flanked the ass, on whose edges Trimalchio’s name was inscribed, and their weight in silver. There were  even dormice rolled in poppy-seeds and honey, supported on little bridges soldered to the plate. There were hot sausages set on a silver grill, and beneath it plums and pomegranate seeds.

While we enjoyed these luxuries, Trimalchio himself was carried in, to the sound of music, propped on the minutest of pillows, laughter escaping the unwary. His closely shaven head topped a scarlet cloak, yet round the heavy cloth at his neck he had tied a napkin with wide purple stripes, hung with fringes. On the little finger of his left hand he wore a large gilded ring, but on the top joint of the ring-finger, next to it, a smaller one that seemed to me all gold, but was really iron soldered with little iron stars. And lest his wealth was insufficiently displayed, a golden bracelet adorned his bare right arm, and an ivory bangle with a metal clasp.

Picking his teeth with a silver quill, he spoke. ‘Friends, it was not convenient for me to join the banquet yet, but not wishing to keep you waiting by staying away much longer, I relinquish my own pleasure. Yet permit me to finish the game.’ A lad followed with a terebinth wood table, and crystal dice; and I noticed the most delightful thing of all, instead of black counters and white gold and silver coins were used.

Then, as Trimalchio passed all sorts of remarks, as he played on, we being occupied still by the appetisers, a tray was brought with a basket, in which a wooden hen was spreading its wings as they do when laying. Two servants approached, as loud music played, and hunted about in the straw. from which peahens’ eggs were extracted and handed to the guests. Trimalchio turned his face towards it, saying: ‘Friends, I ordered peahen’s eggs to be placed beneath a common hen, though upon my oath I fear they are addled now; yet we’ll see if they’re still fresh enough to sip at.’

We seized our spoons, not less than half a pound in weight, and cracked the eggs which were made of creamy grain. I was almost about to throw away my portion, thinking a peachick had already formed. Then I heard a veteran diner say: ‘This is bound to hold something good,’ and poking my finger through the grain I found a most juicy ortolan rolled up in spiced egg-yolk.

34-36: Exotic dishes and fine wine

Trimalchio, having finished his game, asked for all the same dishes, and in a loud voice was inviting any of us who wished to partake of a second glass of honeyed-wine, when suddenly a change in the music gave the signal for a troop of singing servants to sweep away the starters. A dish happened to fall, in the rush, and a lad picked it up from the floor. Trimalchio noticed this, and ordered the boy to be boxed on the ear, and to throw the dish to the floor again. A servant then arrived who began sweeping the remnants away with a broom, the silver included.

Then a pair of long-haired Ethiopians entered, with little wineskins, like those who scatter sand in the amphitheatre, gave us wine to wash our hands, no one offering water. When we complimented our host on his fastidiousness, he replied: ‘Mars loves a level field, so I gave orders that that all should be assigned their own table. That way, those most sweaty servants will avoid rendering us so very hot in passing.’

Immediately some two-handled glass jars coated with gypsum were brought, labels attached to their necks with this inscription: ‘Falernian of Opimius’ vintage, one hundred years old’. As we examined the labels, Trimalchio clapped his hands, crying: ‘Alas, thus wine lives longer than poor mortals. So let’s make merry. Wine is life. I’ll answer for it being the true Opimian. Yesterday I produced some not half so fine, for a much finer set of guests.’

As we drank, and admired every luxurious detail, a slave brought in a silver skeleton, so fashioned that its flexible joints and vertebrae could be bent in every direction. He threw it onto the table once or twice so that the moveable sections expressed various attitudes, Trimalchio adding:

‘Alas, poor wretches we are; all that is mortal’s naught.

Thus are we all, when the world of shadows claims us.

So let’s live, while we’re yet granted our good health.’

While we applauded, a dish appeared, not as ample as was expected; yet its novelty drew every eye. The platter was round, with the twelve Zodiacal signs set in a circle, and on each the server had set food that was appropriate to the sign: over Aries, ram’s-head chickpeas; over Taurus a slice of beef; over Gemini, kidneys and testicles; over the Crab a chaplet of leaves; over Leo an African fig; over Virgo a young sow’s womb; over Libra a pair of scales with a pastry on one side, a cake on the other; over Scorpio a scorpion-fish, over Sagittarius a sea-bream; over Capricorn a lobster; over Aquarius a goose; over Pisces a pair of mullets. In the centre a piece of cut turf, with its wild grasses, supported a honeycomb. An Egyptian boy took the bread around in a silver baking-pan…

And Trimalchio himself, tortured a tune, in his vile singing voice, from the musical comedy ‘Asafoetida’. We approached the disappointing spread even more gloomily, but Trimalchio cried: ‘Let’s eat: here’s the sauce for our banquet.’ As he spoke, four dancers, in time to the music, waltzed in and removed the whole lid of the dish. Then, in the depths, were revealed, plump chickens and sow’s bellies, with a hare, in the midst, adorned with wings to resemble Pegasus. We noted four figures of Marsyas, stationed at the dish’s corners, from whose bagpipes a spiced sauce ran over various fish which swam about in a sort of tidal channel. We all joined in the applause, begun by the servants, and laughingly attacked the delicacies.

Trimalchio, no less pleased with the trick he had played on us, cried: ‘Carver!’ A server appeared and, with flourishes in time to the music, cut and sliced the food, such that he resembled a chariot-fighter wielding his weapon to the sound of an organ. Trimalchio kept up an undiminished cry of: ‘Carver, Carver.’ I suspected this oft-repeated word appertained to some kind of joke, and was not ashamed to ask my next-door neighbour this very question. He, who had seen this kind of performance often, merely replied: ‘You see the fellow carving the meat: well his name is Carver. So whenever Trimalchio says ‘Carver’, he uses the word to summon up both the man and the function.’

37-38: Encolpius asks his neighbour about Trimalchio

Unable to eat another thing, and turning to my neighbour to learn the most I could and, starting to gather the most far-fetched tales, I enquired who the woman was who was scurrying hither and thither. ‘That’s Trimalchio’s wife,’ he said, ‘named Fortunata, who counts out money by the cart-load. And not so long ago, what was she? Well, pardon me, but you wouldn’t have accepted a piece of bread from her hand. Now, without a why or a wherefore, she’s been raised to the skies and become Trimalchio’s all in all. In short, if she tells him at high noon that it’s dark, he believes it so.

He’s so rich, indeed, he’s no idea what he has; but this she-wolf manages everything, more than you might suspect. She’s sober, temperate, prudent, but yet with a nasty tongue, a magpie on the couch. Whom she likes she likes, whom she doesn’t, she doesn’t.

For his part, Trimalchio has land wherever a falcon flies, he’s wealthiest of the wealthy. There’s more silver-plate in his porter’s room than others possess in total. And oh, oh, his servants, goodness me, I don’t believe one in ten even knows who his master is. In short, he could knock any of these yes-men into a cocked hat. And don’t think he purchases anything; everything’s home grown: wool, citrus fruit, pepper, hen’s milk for the asking. In fact, because his wool was not fine enough quality, he bought rams from Taranto, and mated them with his flock. To produce Attic honey on his estate he ordered bees from Athens; incidentally native bees are improved by the Greek ones. And in the last few days, behold, he sends for mushroom spawn from India. He hasn’t a mule not born of a wild ass.

You see all these cushions: there isn’t one whose stuffing isn’t scarlet or purple. Such is the felicity of his mind. Moreover, beware of disparaging his fellow-freedmen. They’re a tasty lot. That one you see reclining at the end of the bottom couch; nowadays he’s worth eight hundred thousand. He rose from nothing. Not long ago he was carrying logs on his back. But, so they say – I don’t know but I’ve heard – he snatched the freedman’s hat from a Gnome and found treasure. I envy none if heaven grants them a gift. He’s still showing the slap his master gave him as a mark of his freedom, but thinks none the worse of himself. So he’s put up a notice beside his hutch: ‘This garret to let from the first of July; the owner, Gaius Pompeius Diogenes, has bought himself a house.’

That fellow too on a freedman’s couch, how pleased he is with himself. I don’t criticise. He’s seen his million, but he’s badly shaken, I doubt there’s a hair on his head that’s mortgage-free, but it’s not his fault, by heavens; there’s no finer man alive; yet it’s wretched freedmen who’ve taken it all for themselves. Indeed, you know: a fellow’s pot goes off the boil, and when things start to slide, his friends desert him. What a fine business he had, and see him now. He ran a chain of funeral parlours. He used to dine like a prince. Stuffed boar’s head boiled in a cloth, pastry-work; chefs and confectioners galore. More wine was spilt on the floor than many a man has in his cellar. He was a phenomenon, not a mortal. When his business was failing, fearful his creditors might think he was nearly bankrupt, he advertised a sale under this banner: ‘Gaius Julius Proculus will auction a few things superfluous to his needs.’

39: Trimalchio explains the Zodiac

Trimalchio interrupted these charming tales; for the dishes had now been removed, and the happy company began to address the wine, amid general conversation. Reclining, therefore, on his couch, Trimalchio said: ‘You should let the wine flow pleasantly. Fish should swim. I ask you, did you really think I would rest content with the food you saw on the lid of that dish? “Is this what Ulysses is known for?” One must not forget the claims of literature, even at dinner. May the bones of my former patron rest in peace, he who wanted me to be a man amongst men.

For nothing yields me anything novel, as that last dish showed in practice. The heavens, which the twelve gods inhabit, wheel round through as many signs, and in a trice Aries the Ram appears. Therefore whoever is born under that sign has many flocks and much wool, a hard head too, an impudent front and sharp horns. Many rhetoricians and head-butters are born under this sign.’ We applauded the elegance of his astrology; so he proceeded: ‘Then Taurus the Bull fills the heavens. Thus those who lash out with their heels are born, and ploughmen, and those who find their food themselves. Under Gemini the Twins, pairs of chariot-horses and oxen and testicles are formed, and people who sit both sides of the fence. Under Cancer the Crab, I was born. So I have many a leg to stand on, and possess much by land and sea, for either one suits the crab. And that was why I placed nothing on the sign of the Crab just now, lest it weighed on my birth-sign.

Under Leo the Lion, heavy eaters and powerful men are born; under Virgo the Virgin, women are born, and runaway slaves (whose flight is only halted by a Vestal) and those in fetters; under Libra the Scales, butchers, perfumers, and anyone who weighs things; under Scorpio, the Scorpion, poisoners and assassins; under Sagittarius the Archer, the squinters who eye the greens while taking the bacon; under Capricorn the Goat, those poor wretches whose troubles give birth to horns on the brow; under Aquarius the Water-Bearer, innkeepers and those with hydrocephalus; under Pisces the Fishes, the fish-buyers and gaping-mouthed orators. So the world turns like a millstone, and always works some evil, as men die or are born. You saw the piece of turf in the midst of the dish, and on the turf a honeycomb, I do nothing without cause. Mother Earth is in the centre rounded like an egg, and all goodness within her, like a honeycomb.’

40-41: The Boar

‘Wisdom!’ we all cried, and raising our arms aloft we swore that Hipparchus and Aratus, the astronomers, were not to be compared with him. Then the servants entered and spread coverlets over the couches, on which hunting-nets were depicted, men with spears lying in wait, and all the apparatus of the chase. We were still wondering what to expect when a mighty shout erupted outside the dining-room, and behold, Spartan hounds, that swarmed around the table.

After them followed a huge tray, on which lay a boar of the largest size, wearing a freedman’s cap, with two little palm-twig baskets hanging from the tusks, one with nut-shaped dates the other with Theban. Round the tray lay suckling pigs, made of spice cake, as if at the teat, to signify the presence of the sow. And these were gifts for the guests to take away. Carver who had sliced the fowls did not arrive to slice the boar, but rather a large bearded fellow with bands around his legs, and an ornate damask hunting-cloak, who drew a knife and plunged it vehemently into the boar’s flank, a number of fieldfares flying out, at the blow. Fowlers were ready with limed reeds, as they fluttered round the room, and caught them in an instant.

Trimalchio now commanded that each be served a portion, adding: ‘Now see what fine acorns this boar has been living on in the woods.’ Immediately the boys came and took down the little baskets, which hung from its tusks, and distributed the nut-shaped dates and the Theban to the guests.

Meanwhile, finding a quiet corner, I was torn by many a speculation as to why the boar had entered wearing a freedman’s cap. After exhausting every line of thought, I hardened myself to ask my previous informant about what was troubling me. ‘Your humble servant can explain that, too,’ he said, ‘there’s no enigma, the thing is plain. When this boar appeared yesterday, to crown the feast, the guests let him go, so today he returns to the feast as a freedman.’ I cursed my stupidity, and questioned him no more, lest I seemed never to have dined with decent folk .

End of the Satyricon: Part II