Petronius Arbiter


Part VI: Aboard Lichas’ ship; the shipwreck

Shipwreck off a Rocky Coast

‘Shipwreck off a Rocky Coast’
Wijnand Nuijen, c. 1837
The Rijksmuseum

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

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.


104-105: Encolpius and Giton are revealed

Lichas, waking, cried: ‘I thought I heard Priapus in my dream, saying: “Encolpius, whom you seek, as I know, has been brought aboard your ship.”’ Tryphaena, beside him, shuddered and replied: ‘You’d think we’d shared our sleep, for I also dreamed that a statue of Neptune, one I saw in a gallery at Baiae, told me: “You’ll find Giton on Lichas’ vessel.” But Eumolpus, who was there, broke in: ‘Well that shows you Epicurus was a man divine, since he condemns such laughable illusions in a most witty manner…’

However, Lichas, after praying Tryphaena’s dream might prove harmless, said: ‘What prevents us searching the vessel now, lest we seem to be scorning the gods’ purposes?’ Suddenly, the man who’d caught us at our furtive tricks the night before, whose name was Hesus, proclaimed: ‘So who were those fellows being shaved by moonlight, a bad precedent by heavens! I’ve heard indeed that no man alive should shed hair or fingernail on board ship, unless the wind and waves are troubled.’  Alarmed at this speech, Lichas flared: ‘So, has someone been trimming their hair aboard ship, and in the dead of night too? Drag the wretches out here, and quickly, so I may know who should expiate this crime and save the voyage.’

‘Ah,’ said Eumolpus, ‘I commanded it. Not in order to perpetrate anything ill-omened myself, who am making the very same passage, but because those rascals had long and filthy hair; indeed, not wanting to make a prison of the ship or the signs of their branding to be covered by hair, so preventing them being visible to all eyes, I ordered these convicts freed from squalor. Amongst other things, after they’d squandered my money on a certain lady friend of ours, I hauled them from her the other night, drenched in wine and scent. In fact, they still stink of the remains of my inheritance.’

Nevertheless, to appease the guardian spirit of the vessel, it was decided that we each receive forty lashes. So, without delay, the furious sailors advanced on us with rope-ends, ready to placate said guardian with our vile blood. And indeed I withstood three full blows with Spartan nobility. But Giton shrieked so loudly the moment he was touched, that Tryphaena’s ears were filled with his familiar cry. Not only was the mistress alarmed, but all her maids were drawn to the well-known voice, and ran to this victim of a flogging. Already the sailors were disarmed by Giton’s wondrous beauty and, even without speaking, he’d appealed to his tormentors, when the maids screamed as one: ‘It’s Giton, Giton, stay your hands, you monsters; help, lady, it’s Giton!’

Tryphaena had already given ear, convinced on her own account, and flew immediately to the lad. Lichas, meanwhile, who knew me very well, rushed forwards, as if he had heard my voice too and, without looking at my hands and face, but, gazing down, promptly applied a hand to my obliging groin, saying: ‘Hello, Encolpius.’ It’s no wonder that Ulysses’ old nurse, Euryclea, found the scar that revealed his identity after twenty years, when Lichas, the shrewdest of men, so cleverly hit upon the one means of discovering a fugitive whose every feature of face and body was obscured.

Tryphaena poured out her tears over our supposed branding, believing the marks on our foreheads were real tokens of punishment, and began to enquire, ever so gently, as to which prison might have interrupted our wandering, and who might have laid so savage a hand on us in punishment, though, she said, slaves who ran away, having come to loathe their own happiness, might well deserve a measure of ill-treatment.

106-107: Eumolpus tries to mediate

But Lichas leaped forward, transported by anger, crying: ‘O woman, you simpleton; as if those marks could ever be the scars raised by a branding-iron! I only wish their foreheads had been inscribed with such a signature; some consolation would be left to us. As it is we’re assailed by skilful actors playing a farce, and mocked by hand-drawn lettering.’

Tryphaena wished him to be merciful, not having lost all her passion for Giton, but Lichas still remembered how his wife had been seduced, and the insults he’d received in Hercules’ colonnade, and with a troubled look he proclaimed vehemently: ‘O Tryphaena, you’ll admit, I think, that the immortal gods control human affairs, for they led these evil-doers unaware on board my ship, and equally they warned us of what they’d done in a confirmatory dream. So, look, how can we possibly pardon those whom heaven itself has delivered up to us for punishment? As for myself, I’m not bloodthirsty, but I fear, if I’m merciful, I’ll suffer.’  

Tryphaena changed her mind after such an appeal to religion and declined to interfere in the punishment, on the contrary even agreeing with this most justified act of revenge. She had been as gravely vexed by insult as Lichas, since her badge of shame had been revealed in public.

Eumolpus now stepped in: ‘I am, I believe, a man of some standing, and these lads previously chose me for a purpose, begging me to effect a reconciliation for them with their old friends, at some moment or other. Unless you imagine the young men fell into this situation inadvertently, even though every traveller seeks as a first priority someone dependable, like myself, in whom they can trust? So unbend minds softened by their desire to make amends, and let them travel freely without harm to their destination. Even a harsh and unforgiving master will forgo his severity if penitence returns his fugitive slaves to him; as men spare an enemy who surrenders. What more can you seek or desire? These frank and honest young men lie prostrate here, in your sight, as suppliants and, what is more important on both sides, they were once bound to you in close friendship. By heavens, if they’d embezzled your money, or hurt you by betraying a confidence, you might well rest content with the punishment you’ve seen inflicted. Behold, servitude written on their foreheads, and their honest faces advertising the voluntary nature of their sentence.’

Lichas interrupted this plea for mercy: ‘Don’t confuse the issue, let’s consider each thing in its place. And first of all, if they’re here by choice, why shave the hair from their heads? Whoever disguises himself, is planning some ruse, not making amends. Then, if they were devising some act of grace with you as mediator, why did you do everything you could to hide them? It’s apparent from this that the rascals fell into the situation by chance, and you sought some means of deflecting the force of our displeasure. When you make yourself unpopular by claiming they’re frank and honest, mind you don’t weaken your case by being too presumptuous. What should injured parties do, if the guilty hasten to their punishment? They were indeed once our friends: therefore they merit harsher treatment; for we call someone who injures a stranger a brigand, but one who injures their friends is little less than a parricide.’

Eumolpus halted this unjust speech, saying: ‘I gather there’s nothing more against these young men than their cutting their hair at night: by that reasoning it might seem they chanced upon the ship, rather than arriving on purpose. But I want what happened to reach your ears simply as it occurred. They wanted to relieve their heads of that useless and irritating weight of hair before they embarked, but a rising wind postponed the planned solution. They had no idea it even mattered where they carried out what they’d intended, being ignorant of the laws and superstitions of the sea.’

‘Why shave their heads,’ said Lichas, ‘to make amends? Unless, of course, it’s that bald heads excite greater compassion? Though why must we seek the truth through a third party? What have you to say for yourself, you rascal? What fiery salamander singed your eyebrows? Which god did you vow your hair to? Answer me, you little poisoner!’

108: Warring factions

Terrified of being punished, I was struck dumb with fear, too disturbed to find words to say in such an open and shut case, and we were not in a position to say or do anything, both on account of our heads being shamefully ugly, devoid of hair, and our eyebrows as bald as our foreheads. And when a wet sponge was wiped over our tearful faces, smearing every feature with black ink of course, and covering our faces with a sooty cloud, their anger was turned to loathing. Eumolpus cried out that he could not allow anyone to disfigure honest young men, in a manner so against law and natural justice, cutting short the angry sailors’ threats not only with argument but by force.  His paid servant and one or two of the most ineffectual passengers stood by him in his protest, though offering him moral support rather than any power to assist.

I, for my part, shirked nothing in my defence, shaking my fist in Tryphaena’s face, proclaiming loudly in a clear voice that I’d take my hands to her unless she avoided harming Giton, she being a wicked woman and the one person aboard who deserved a flogging. Lichas’ anger blazed more fiercely at my boldness, annoyed that I had relinquished my own cause to support another’s. Tryphaena raged no less hotly and abusively, causing the whole company aboard to split into separate factions. On our side, the hired slave of a barber distributed his blades and armed himself, on the other, Tryphaena’s slaves were ready with bare fists, nor was the clamour of her army of maidservants lacking, the helmsman alone swearing that he would cease steering the ship, if the madness, stirred up at the whim of a pack of scoundrels, did not end. Nonetheless, the fury of the fight still refused to diminish, our enemies seeking revenge, we to save our lives. Many collapsed on both sides without fatal result, still more, incurring bloody wounds, retired on foot as if from a real battle, and yet neither side’s anger abated.

Then Giton, most courageously, placing his razor dangerously near his private parts, threatened to mutilate himself, being the cause of our many misfortunes, Tryphaena only averting the dreadful deed by her heartfelt efforts. I raised a barber’s knife to my throat several times, no more meaning to kill myself than Giton intended to do what he’d threatened. Though he filled the tragic role more recklessly, since he knew he was holding that blunt razor with which he had once feigned to cut his throat.

Both sides were drawn up in battle array, and it was apparent the fight which followed would be an uncommon one, when the helmsman, with some difficulty, exhorted Tryphaena to call a truce by acting as herald, with a staff. Promises were given and accepted in the usual manner, as she waved an olive-branch taken from the ship’s tutelary figurehead, and ventured to come over and declaim to us:

‘What madness then has turned peace to war?

What have we done to merit this? No Paris

carries wronged Menelaus’ bride aboard ship,

no frenzied Medea, in arms, slays her brother.

Yet love scorned possesses power. Oh, who,

seizing blades, tempts fate among the waves?

Is it not enough death awaits all? Don’t outdo

the sea, piling fresh waters on the cruel deep.’

109: A peace treaty

As the woman’s voice poured out this loud and dramatic speech, the fighting died away for a while and, recalled to the ways of peace, our hands relinquished their weapons. Our leader, Eumolpus, seized this occasion for penitence and, after reproving Lichas most vehemently, signed the treaty, which ran as follows: ‘Agreed on your part, that you, Tryphaena, will not complain of any injury done you by Giton, and if any has been done to you before today, you will not raise it against him, or punish him, or endeavour to pursue him in any other manner; that you will not give the boy any orders distasteful to him, not restricted to embraces, kisses, or sexual encounters, without laying out a hundred in silver, in ready money. Likewise, it is agreed on your part, Lichas, that you will not pursue Encolpius with insulting words or looks, nor ask where he sleeps at night, or if you do ask you’ll lay out two hundred in silver in ready money.’

Peace was made on these terms, and we laid down our weapons, and lest any vestige of anger remain in our thoughts, even after signing this pledge, we decided to erase the past with a kiss. Amid universal applause, all hatred shrank away, and dinner, a more extensive one due to the quarrel, united us in conviviality. Then the whole ship rang with song and, a sudden calm having delayed our course, one man pursued flying fish with a spear, another pulled out his reluctant prey on baited hooks. Behold, also, sea-birds perched on the yard-arm, and were skilfully captured with rods made of woven reeds; snared by these limed rods, they were brought down into our hands. The breeze ruffled their feathers as they flew, and blew them about amidst the light sea-foam.

Lichas was already starting to show me his friendship again, and Tryphaena was already scattering some of her drink over Giton, when Eumolpus, who was a little tipsy with wine himself, decided to aim his wit at bald and branded persons until, exhausting his icy powers of satire, he returned to his versifying, and began reciting a little elegy concerning hair:

‘Hair, the whole glory of the flesh, is fallen;

sad winter carries off spring’s bright tresses.

Already bared temples mourn, free of shade,

and a bald spot shines where the hair is lost.

O, the deceitful nature of you gods, who rob

us first of the joys you gave us first in youth.

Wretch, once bright with hair, and lovelier

even than Apollo, or Diana, Apollo’s sister,

now smoother than bronze, or some swollen

garden truffle that the rain creates; you who

flee now in fear from the mockery of girls;

that you may see how swiftly death comes,

know, part of you above has already died.’

110: The fugitives’ looks are restored

I believe he wished to offer us more lines, even more tactless than the ones before, but one of Tryphaena’s maids led Giton below decks, and adorned the lad’s head with one of her mistress’ curly wigs. Moreover she took some false eyebrows from a box and, by cleverly following the outlines of those he had sacrificed, she restored all his proper beauty. Tryphaena recognised the true Giton with a deluge of tears, and then for the first time kissed the lad with real affection.

Certainly I was pleased to see his former loveliness renewed, yet continually hid my own head realising that I was marked by no common deformity, since even Lichas considered me unfit to converse with. But that same maid-servant rescued me from melancholy, summoned me aside, and decked me with no less attractive curls; why, my face shone more splendidly, since my curls were golden!

Then Eumolpus, advocate in our peril, and author of the present concord, lest our conviviality fall silent for lack of a good story, began to comment on the fickleness of women: how easily they fell in love, how quickly they forgot even their children, that no woman was so chaste as not to be distracted to madness by her passion for some stranger. Nor was he thinking of ancient tragedy or names notorious in history, but of an affair that occurred in his own time, which he’d relate if we wished to hear it. So all eyes and ears were directed towards him, and he began thus:

111-112: The story of the widow of Ephesus

‘There was a married woman in Ephesus so noted for being chaste that she even drew women from the neighbouring regions to gaze upon her. When she buried her husband therefore she was not content with following his funeral procession in commonplace fashion, hair loose and beating her naked breast before the crowd; she followed the dead man to his resting place, in order to keep vigil over his corpse laid in a vault in the Greek manner, and weep night and day. Neither her parents nor her relatives could persuade her from tormenting herself thus, or courting death by starvation; finally the magistrates, having been rebuffed, abandoned her to her fate and, mourned by all as a unique specimen of womanhood, she had now spent a fifth day without nourishment. A devoted maid-servant sat beside the sorrowful woman, and shed tears in sympathy with her grief, at the same time renewing the lamp placed in the tomb. A single opinion was held by the whole city, every class of person admitting that this was the one true and shining example of loyalty and love.

Meanwhile the provincial governor had demanded the crucifixion of some brigands near the building where the widow was weeping for her recent loss. The next night, a soldier, guarding the crosses to ensure that none of the bodies were taken down for burial, noticed a bright light shining among the tombs, and on hearing the mourner’s groans was curious to know who was there and what they were about. He therefore descended into the vault and, on seeing a most beautiful woman, first halted in confusion, as if what he saw were some portent or spirit from the underworld. Then, noting the corpse lying there, and reflecting on the woman’s tears and her face marked by her nails, he obviously realised what the situation was, and that she was unable to endure her loss. He therefore carried his supper into the tomb, and began to exhort the mourner not to persist in idle grief, or break her heart with unprofitable lament: since all met the same fate and found the same house of rest; adding the further solace that restores health to wounded spirits.

But she, at this consolation from a stranger, only beat her breast more violently, tearing out strands of hair and placing them on the corpse. Still the soldier did not withdraw, but with like exhortation attempted to offer the widow a bite to eat, till the maid, seduced by the aroma of the wine as I believe, first gave way herself, stretching out her hand at his kind invitation, and then, refreshed by food and drink, proceeded to attack her mistress’ obstinacy, saying: “What good will it do you to faint from hunger, bury yourself alive, breathe out your innocent soul before fate demands it?

‘Do you think that ashes or sepulchral spirits care?’

Will you not begin to live once more? Will you not shake off a woman’s weakness, and enjoy the blessings of the light as long as you are allowed? Your dear husband’s body lying here should convince you to live.”

No one refuses to listen when they’re urged to eat and stay alive, so the widow, parched from her days of abstinence, allowed her resolution to waver, and took drink and food no less avidly than the maid who had been the first to yield. Well, you know the temptation that generally consumes a man on a full stomach. The soldier used the same blandishments which had persuaded the widow to eat to mount an attack on her virtue. Her chaste eye saw a youth neither ugly nor tongue-tied, while the maid-servant was in favour of her showing gratitude, saying: “Will you resist even a love that pleases you?”

Why should I linger over the issue? The widow did not deny this request either, and the conquering hero won her acceptance in both respects. They did not simply spend the night together, the night of their nuptials, but also the next, and a third, shutting the door of the vault of course so that any friend or stranger who visited the tomb would think that most virtuous of widows had breathed her last over her husband’s body. Moreover, the soldier, delighted with the woman’s comeliness, secretly bought up all the fine things his means allowed, and carried them to the vault as soon as darkness fell.

Now, the parents of one of the crucified men, seeing how lax the guard proved, lifted their son’s corpse down, by night, and administered the last rites. But the soldier, circumvented while he was inside the vault, seeing a cross without its corpse next day, was fearful of punishment, and told the woman what had happened, declaring he would not wait for the inevitable court-martial, but would execute sentence for his neglect with his sword. She should therefore prepare a place for a man about to die, and prepare the one fateful vault to receive both her husband and her lover. The woman’s heart was no less tender than pure. ‘The gods forbid,’ she cried, ‘that I should gaze at the same time on the corpses of the two men dearest to me. I’d rather sacrifice the dead than slay the living.’ And with this, she told him to drag her husband’s body from its coffin, and suspend it from the vacant cross. The soldier carried out the idea of this cleverest of women, leaving people to wonder, next day, how on earth the dead husband had got there.’

113: Encolpius is unhappy

The sailors received this tale with laughter, while Tryphaena, blushing not a little, pressed her face lovingly against Giton’s neck. But Lichas scorned to laugh and, shaking his head angrily, cried: ‘If the governor of that province had owned to any sense of justice, he’d have placed the husband’s body in the tomb again, and hung the woman on the cross.’

No doubt he was thinking once more of Hedyle, and the plundering of his ship at her passionate departure. But the terms of our treaty permitted no harbouring of the past, and the conviviality that filled our minds granted no room for resentment. Tryphaena was now lying in Giton’s lap, covering his breast with kisses instantly, while arranging the wig on his shaven head. I was gloomy and uneasy concerning our new treaty, touching neither food nor drink, and glancing truculently at them both. Every kiss wounded me, every caress this wanton woman invented. I was unsure as yet whether I was angrier with the boy for appropriating my mistress, or my mistress for seducing the boy: both of them were loathsome in my eyes, and depressed me more than the bondage I’d escaped. Added to which was the fact that Tryphaena no longer addressed me as a friend whom she was once grateful to have for a lover, nor did Giton see fit to drink my health, or even so much as include me in the general conversation. I suppose he was afraid lest he reopen a recent scar just as a show of friendliness had begun to heal it. Tears readily flooded my heart in pain, and a groan hidden by a sigh almost robbed me of breath…

‘He tried to gain a share in their joy,

not with the arrogance of a master,

but seeking indulgence as a friend…’

‘Oh,’ said the handmaid, ‘if you’ve a drop of decent blood in you, you’ll treat her as little more than a whore. If you’d be a man, you’ll not go with a catamite.’ Nothing shamed me more than the thought that Eumolpus might have perceived what he had been up to, and the satirical fellow might punish him in verse…but Eumolpus swore a formal oath…

114: The storm

As we were discussing this and other matters, the waves rose, and clouds gathered from all directions, burying the day in darkness. The sailors ran anxiously to their posts, and furled the sails before the storm. But the wind drove the waves at random and the helmsman was at a loss what course to steer. One moment the wind blew towards Sicily, more often a northerly gripped the vessel and drove her, at its mercy, towards the coast of Italy; and, more dangerous than the squalls, so dense a darkness had quenched all light the prow was totally hidden from the helmsman. Then, by Hercules, as the violent fury of the sea increased, Lichas trembled and stretched his arms out to me imploringly, crying: ‘You, Encolpius, aid us in our peril; hand Isis’ sacred robe and sistrum back to the vessel. In faith, be as merciful as you used to be.’ Yet even as he shouted, a gust blew him overboard, and the gale whirled him round and round in a vicious whirlpool, before swallowing him. Tryphaena, on the other hand, had been almost dragged away by her servants, placed in a ship’s boat with most of her luggage, and rescued by them from certain death.

I clasped Giton to me, and weeping cried: ‘Did we deserve this of the gods, that they should unite us only in death? But cruel Fortune denies us even this.  See, even now the waves will overturn the boat, even now the raging sea will tear asunder a lover’s embrace. So if you ever truly loved Encolpius, kiss him while you may, snatch this last joy from the jaws of fate.’ As I spoke, Giton stripped of his clothing, and hidden by my shirt, raised his face to be kissed. And so no even more malign wave might pull us apart, as we clung together, he tied his belt round us both, saying: ‘If nothing else, death will bear us along together, for a while at least, or if the sea proves merciful and cast us both on the sand, either someone will pile stones over us out of common humanity, or the angry waves in a last effort will cover us with the indifferent sand.’ I suffered this last bondage and, like a man fit for his funeral bier, waited for a death already seeming less cruel.

Meanwhile, by some decree of fate, the storm had peaked, conquering all that remained of the vessel. Neither mast nor rudder, rope nor oar, were left, and she drifted in the waves like a raw unfinished mass. Now fishermen in their little boats promptly raced out to seize their plunder, then, on finding survivors minded to defend their possessions, substituted aid for savagery…

115: Lichas’ corpse drifts ashore

Hearing a strange noise, a groan from the master’s cabin like a wild beast longing to escape, we followed the sound, only to find Eumolpus sitting there penning lines of verse on a large piece of parchment. Amazed at his thus finding time to compose poetry with death close at hand, we dragged him, protesting loudly, from the cabin and told him to be sensible. He, furious at the interruption cried: ‘Allow me to finish the line; the verse ends lamely.’ But I laid hands on the madman and ordered Giton to come and help me drag the bellowing poet ashore. When this was, at last, achieved, we found our way gloomily to a fisherman’s hut, refreshed ourselves somewhat with food from the wreck, and passed a miserable night.

Next morning, which we devoted to debating where on earth we were, I suddenly saw a human body, caught in a gentle eddy, carried ashore. I halted, saddened, and began to reflect, moist-eyed, on the sea’s treachery: ‘Perhaps there’s a wife waiting safely at home for him somewhere, perhaps a father or son unaware of the storm: he’s sure to have left someone behind whom he kissed on leaving. Such is the end of mortal hopes, such the end of all great schemes. How the man floats!’

I was still weeping over this stranger, when a wave turned his unmarked visage towards the shore, and I recognised, thrown almost at my feet, Lichas, so fierce and implacable but a little while ago. For a long time, I failed to contain my tears, beating my breast again and again, saying; ‘Where now is your quick temper, your violence? You’re a prey for fish and wild beasts now, for sure; you who boasted not long past of the powerful ship you commanded, have not one plank left of that great vessel to save you. Go now, mortal men, and fill your minds with mighty plans. Go, you misers, and hide your fraudulent gains for a thousand years hence. Did not this man, yesterday, inspect the family accounts, did he not even fix, in his own mind, the day of his return to his native land? You gods, you goddesses, how far he lies from his destination!

Yet it’s not the sea alone that proves faithless to mortal men. His weapons fail the soldier, another man, while paying his vows to the gods, is buried by the fall of his own roof. Another slips from his carriage, and dashes out his brains; his food chokes the glutton, his own frugality the abstinent. Reckon it all up, fairly, and shipwreck is everywhere. And what though there’s no grave for those drowned deep in the waves? As if it matters in what way our perishable flesh is consumed, by fire, or water, or the lapse of time! Whatever we do, all things must arrive at the one end. Wild beasts will rip at the corpse? As if fire would treat it better! On the contrary, we think it the most potent of punishments, when we’ve been angered by our slaves. What madness, then, is all that we do lest the grave leave something of us behind!’ Yet Lichas was burnt on a pyre built by the hands of his enemies, while Eumolpus moreover, composing an epitaph for the dead, searched for some far-fetched ideas.

116: Approaching the city of Croton (Crotone)

We willingly performed this last service, then followed our chosen path, and in a short while, sweating hard, ascended a height, from which we saw, not far away, a city on a high hill. Lost, we had no idea what place it was, until we learned from the manager of an estate that this was Croton, an ancient foundation, and once the finest city in Italy. When we enquired more closely who dwelt on such hallowed soil, and what manner of trade they most approved of, now their wealth had been reduced by frequent wars, he replied: ‘O, my friends, if you are traders, revise your plans, and seek another, more secure, means of livelihood. If, on the other hand, you are men who support themselves by the marked exercise of their superior wits, and are ever given to deceit, you are on the right road to wealth.

For in this city the pursuit of learning goes un-regarded, eloquence has no place, frugality and purity of morals win no reward by being praised, rather all the men you observe in that city are divided into two parties. They are either hunters of legacies or the hunted. For in this city no one raises children, since anyone with direct heirs is never admitted to dinner or the theatre but, deprived of all advantage, lives in obscurity among the disgraced; while those who have never taken a wife, and possess no close relations, achieve the highest honours. They alone are considered manly and even virtuous. You will enter a city which is like a plague-ridden field, in which there are only carcasses to be torn to shreds, and crows to do the tearing’

117: Eumolpus proposes they act out a pretence

Eumolpus, all the more cautious, applied his mental powers to the novelty of the situation, confessing that the kind of hunting described did not displease him. I thought the old fellow was jesting, with poetic levity, but then he added: ‘I only wish I could display a finer outward appearance, I mean more refined apparel and more elegant accoutrements, to lend credibility to our deceit: by heavens, I’d not defer the business, but lead you on to great riches in an instant. In any event, I promise to do whatever my companion in extortion demands, as long as my clothes prove satisfactory, along with whatever Lycurgus’ villa might have offered the prowler. For the mother of the gods will surely deliver some coins for present needs. Why delay’ Eumolpus asked, ‘in adopting a pretence? Imagine me your master, if the idea pleases you.’

No one dared object to this stratagem, which cost us nothing. So we swore an oath to Eumolpus to keep the deception safe amongst ourselves: to suffer branding, chains, death by the sword, or whatever else Eumolpus demanded. Like true gladiators we solemnly pledged our bodies and souls to our master. After we’d sworn the oath, we saluted our fictitious master slavishly, and all learnt his tale by heart: that Eumolpus had lost a son, a youth of great eloquence and promise; that the poor old fellow had left his own country on account of it, to escape seeing his son’s followers and friends, and his grave, a source of tears each day; that his grief was augmented by the loss of more than twenty thousand gold pieces in a shipwreck not long ago, not that the loss troubled him, but abandoned by his attendant his rank went unrecognised; and that furthermore he had three hundred thousand in gold vested in Africa in land and loans, for he’d such a host of slaves scattered throughout Numidia, he might as well have taken Carthage.

In support of his scheme, we told Eumolpus that he should cough frequently, complain of a weak stomach, and openly find fault with all his meals; that he should wax eloquent regarding gold, silver, the deficiencies of his estates, and the endless barrenness of the soil; moreover that he should pore over his accounts each day, and revise the provisions of his will each month. And to complete the pretence he must call us by the wrong names when he attempted to summon any of us, so that it would be readily apparent that our master had in mind other servants who were not present.

All this being agreed, we offered a prayer to the gods ‘for a prosperous and happy outcome’ and set off. But Giton could not carry anything being unused to it, and the hired man Corax, who shirked his duties, kept depositing the luggage on the ground, and cursing our haste, protesting that he would either throw the luggage away or flee with his burden. ‘What makes you think I’m a packhorse, or a ship full of stones? he cried, ‘You paid for a man not an ass. I’m no less free than you are, even if father did leave me a pauper.’ Not content with curses only, he lifted his leg repeatedly and filled the whole road with an obscene noise and odour. Giton mocked his insolence and accompanied every blast with a like sound.

End of the Satyricon: Part VI