Petronius Arbiter


Part VII: Eumolpus’ epic; and encounters with Circe

Ulysses at the Palace of Circe

‘Ulysses at the Palace of Circe’
Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg, 1630 - c. 1676
The Getty | Open Content Program

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

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118: Eumolpus on poetic style

‘O, my young friends,’ Eumolpus said, ‘poetry has led many astray. For as soon as the writer has framed their verse in metre, and woven a more delicate meaning with roundabout expressions, they think they’ve immediately scaled Helicon. Thus people wearied by public oratory often take refuge in the tranquility of verse, as if in some happier harbour, believing a poem easier to construct than a speech adorned with quivering epigrams. But nobler spirits love correctness of style, and the mind cannot conceive and give birth if it is not steeped in the great stream of literature.

One must flee from all diction that is, one might say, base, and choose words remote from common speech, putting into practice Horace’s ‘I hate the vulgar crowd and keep them away.’ Moreover, one must take care that one’s thoughts do not stand out from the form in which they are expressed, but shine with a beauty woven into the material. Homer’s work is witness to this, and the lyric poets, and Rome’s Virgil, and Horace’s studied charm. The rest either did not find the path that leads to poetry, or found it but were afraid to walk it. Behold, anyone who attempts the mighty theme of civil war, will sink beneath the burden unless they are full of literature.

It is not simply a matter of recording events in verse, historians can do that far better, but genius must plunge headlong, freely, into allusion, and the role of the gods, and mythical conflicts of will, so that thoughts of an inspired seer emerge rather than statements made on oath before witnesses, as the following outpouring will demonstrate, if you wish, though it has not received the final touches:

119: Eumolpus’ epic: Rome at the close of the Republic  

“Already the all-conquering Romans possessed

a whole world, wherever sea and land extend.

Yet were not content. Their laden ships stirred

and troubled the waters; if any unknown bay

lay beyond, or any land yielding yellow gold,

there was Rome’s enemy, fate readied sad war,

wealth was sought. No common joys pleased,

not one of our delights dulled by plebeian use.

The soldier at sea praised Corinthian bronzes;

bright pigments from the earth rivalled Tyrian

purple; here Africa, there China of wondrous

silks, and Arabia stripping its own fields bare.

Behold more destruction; peace wounded, hurt;

creatures hunted in the woods for gold; Ammon

in far Africa troubled lest there be lack of ivory,

precious to the dead; as greed for foreign things

freights the ships, the tiger’s brought to gilded

palaces to drink men’s blood while all applaud.

Alas, I hesitate to speak of those fate has wasted,

lads scarcely pubescent taken secretly, castrated

with a knife in the Persian manner, made slaves

for lust, all so the finest years might be marked

by delay, by holding back fleeting time Nature

seeks but cannot find herself. So all delight in

prostitution, in the feeble steps of a weak body,

flowing hair, all the clothes with strange names,

whatever lacks manliness. Citrus-wood tables,

see, out of African trees, mirroring the hordes

of slaves, the purple robes; their grain imitating

gold, yet worth more, set to lure the senses, as

a drunken crowd surrounds base barren wood,

with the mercenary hungering for every prize.

Gluttony is a fine art. Mullet brought living

to the table in Sicilian brine, and oysters torn

from the shores of the Lucrine, exalt a meal,

that whets the appetite by extravagance. Now

Phasis’ silent banks are devoid of pheasants,

the empty breeze blows on deserted grasses.

The same madness in affairs; the true Roman,

bought, votes for gain, to the clink of coins.

With a venal populace, and a venal senate,

allegiance bore a price. Vanished the virtue

and freedom of old, power swayed by bribes,

grandeur itself lay dead, corrupted by gold.

Cato, defeated, expelled by the mob, Caesar

is sadder still, ashamed to have ousted Cato,

for the nation’s dishonour and virtue’s ruin

lay not in his defeat, but in Rome’s power

and glory being humbled by one man. Rome

lost was herself her own price and purchase.

And usury’s maw and the need for money

consumed men caught in the twofold abyss.

No house was secure, but all men mortgaged;

like some disease born silently in the bones

the madness spread through a body in pain.

Violence suits the poor, bloodshed restores

wealth lost to luxury. Poverty dares risk all.

This Rome, drowned in filth, lost in sleep,

what art could lead her to sense and reason

not fury, civil war, the sword’s blood-lust?

120: Eumolpus’ epic: Dis initiates the Civil War

Fate prompted the emergence of three leaders,

fatal Enyo buried each under piles of weapons.

Parthia holds Crassus, Libya’s shore Pompey,

Caesar stained ungrateful Rome with his blood;

Earth as if unable to endure the burden divorced

their ashes. Such the reward that ambition grants.

There’s a place deep in a chasm, between Naples

and Pozzuolo’s fields, wet with Cocytus’ waters,

for the dark air rushes out bearing the fatal spray.

The ground’s never green in summer, the land

is bare of grass, no soft thickets ring with song

in spring full of the sound of competing birds,

but all is chaos; raw stretches of black pumice

enjoy the gloom of cypresses that stand around.

From these abodes, father Dis lifted up his head

lit by funereal flames, flecked with white ashes,

then roused winged Fortune, with this speech:

‘Fortune, you ruler of things human and divine,

never pleased with power too securely ensconced,

who always love the new, abandoning what’s won,

do you not feel yourself weighed down by Rome,

unable to raise further that mass doomed to fall?

Rome’s youth detests its own powers, cannot

bear the wealth it has amassed. See, everywhere,

spoils squandered, riches run wild bringing loss.

They build golden houses, raise them to the stars,

dam the waters with stone, fields born from the sea;

rebellious men, who go altering the order of things.

They even seek my realm. The earth gapes wide

for their wild excavations, caverns groan as they

hollow out the hills, and as living men turn stone

to vain use, the shades below hope to see the sky.

So, Fortune, go alter your face of peace for war,

hound the Romans, and grant my realm the dead.

No blood has wet my lips for many a year, nor

has my dear Tisiphone bathed her parched skin

since Sulla’s sword drank deep, and fertile earth

thrust wheat nourished on blood into the light.’

121: Eumolpus’ epic: Fortune sets the scene

He finished speaking and, seeking to take her

hand in his, split the earth in a gaping chasm.

Then Fortune spilt words from a fickle heart:

‘O father, whom the depths of Cocytus obey,

if it is right that I reveal the truth fearlessly,

your prayer will be fulfilled, no less an anger

stirs my heart, or the flame deep in my bones.

I now resent all I have granted towering Rome,

angered by my gifts. The power that has raised

those palaces shall destroy them. To burn their

corpses will delight me, feeding my blood-lust.

Already the crash of arms rings loud in my ears,

I see Philippi’s field strewn now with the dead

of twin battles, Thessaly’s pyres, Spain’s losses.

And I see your Egyptian barriers groan, Nile, 

and Actium’s bay, and men blessed by Apollo.

So, open the parched realms of the underworld,

and summon fresh souls. Charon the ferryman

will lack the strength to take the shades across,

a whole fleet is needed. And you, pale Tisiphone,

glut yourself on vast slaughter, rip the wounds,

a ruined world drawn down to Stygian shades.’

122: Eumolpus’ epic: Caesar enters Italy

She had barely finished, when the sky shook,

split by a blaze of lightning, a burst of flame.

The father of shades sank, sealing the chasm,

pale with terror at his brother Jove’s stroke.

At once the slaughter, the dire ruin to come,

was revealed by divine omens. For the sun

was dark with blood, face veiled in shadow:

seeming even then to gaze on civil conflict.

For her part, the moon’s full face darkened,

denying the crime her light. The shattered

mountain ridges thundered, winding rivers,

dying, no longer kept their familiar course.

The sky rings with the clash of arms, bugles

blaring to heaven rouse the war-god Mars,

and Etna erupting sends its fire into the air.

Behold dead faces among the tombs, bones

that lack burial are gibbering dire warnings.

A blazing light, accompanied by unknown

stars, portends ruin, and the sky rains blood.

The heavens soon made all plain, for Caesar

ending all delay, driven by desire for revenge,

abandoning Gaul, made civil war on Rome.

In the high Alps, where the pass descends

that Hercules trod allowing men a passage,

there’s a place, sacred to his altars, that winter

seals with snow, lifting white peaks to the sky. 

You’d think the sky had fallen. The sun’s rays

scarcely warm the air, nor do the spring breezes;

but all is stiff with ice, and winter’s heavy frost;

its looming mountains fit to support the globe.

Caesar, treading these heights with his exultant

army, choosing a viewpoint looked far and wide

over Italy, from the summit, and stretching his

arms and lifting his voice to the heavens, cried:

“Omnipotent Jove, and you Italy, Saturn’s land,

once pleased with my conquests, my triumphs,

bear witness, I summon the war god unwillingly,

reluctant to wield the sword, urged on by injury,

banished from my city while I was dyeing Rhine

red with blood, thwarting the Gauls who sought

the Alpine passes for a second assault on Rome,

success ensuring exile. Success in Germany, my

sixty victories, proved an offence. Who fears my

glory, forbids me war? Base, bought, hirelings,

to whom my native Rome plays the stepmother.

Yet know, that no coward will tie my hands with

impunity. On, men, to victory while anger rages,

onwards my comrades, plead our cause with steel!

For we are charged as one, and the same fate hangs

above us all. Thanks are due to you, since victory is

not mine alone. As glory only leads to punishment

and our victories simply earn us disgrace, Fortune

must decide how the dice fall. Raise our standard,

prove your strength. My cause will surely triumph,

amid so many brave soldiers, I cannot meet defeat.”

As he spoke, a raven, Apollo’s bird, sounded an

omen from the heavens, beating the air in flight.

On the left, strange voices cried, from the angle

of an icy grove, and the sound of flames followed.

Even the sun shone, its light brighter than before,

while a golden halo glowed about its shining face.

123: Eumolpus’ epic: Pompey takes flight

Encouraged by this, Caesar advanced the standard,

and marched first with an unprecedented boldness.

At first the icy ground, though bound in white frost,

did not thwart them, truly cold but mercifully quiet,

and then the squadrons emerged among the clouds,

the horses, anxious, shattered the frozen surfaces,

the snows melted. Soon new-born streams flowed

from the mountain heights, yet they halted, as if

by command, the numbed flow’s force in chains;

what before ran free was now hard enough to cut.

Treacherous before, the ground now mocked their

steps, failed their footing. Horses and men, both,

fell together in one despairing accumulating pile.

Behold, the clouds are stirred by a freezing wind,

disencumbering themselves; gusts of air whirled,

and the sky was broken by swollen bursts of hail.

Now the very clouds themselves fell on the men,

an icy mass striking them, like a wave of the sea.

Earth in deep snow was veiled, as the stars above,

and even the rivers yielded, frozen to their banks.

But not Caesar, who, leaning on his mighty spear,

trod the broken ground securely, like that son of

Amphitryon, Hercules, racing down from some

lofty summit of the Caucasus, or rather Jupiter,

fierce of visage, descending from the heights of

high Olympus to put the doomed Giants to rout.

While Caesar treads the swelling peaks in anger,

Rumour, bringing fear, flies swiftly with beating

wings, seeking the high summit of the Palatine.

carrying all the thunderous news to the Romans:

that a fleet is filling the waves as, over the Alps,

horsemen pour, red with the blood of Germans.

Blood and battle, fire and slaughter, the images

of war flit before their eyes. So their hearts beat

tumultuously, divided in fear between two paths.

One man escapes by land, another trusts instead

to the water, the sea now safer than his country:

each man flying as far as the depth of his fears.

Others prefer to fight, and utilise fate’s decree.

Amid this turmoil, the people, a wretched sight,

fleeing the empty city, go where the heart leads.

Rome delights in flight, her sons, cowed by war,

leaving houses mourning at a breath of rumour.

One holds his trembling child’s hand, another

clasp his household gods, praying for the deaths

of the unseen enemy. Some embrace their wives

mournfully, youths carry aged fathers, bringing

only what they fear to lose, unused to burdens.

The incautious drag all their goods behind, and

march laden to the battle. All as if a southerly

wind at its height, strikes the sea, when neither

helm nor rigging assist the captains; one ropes

heavy planks of pine, another sets sail and runs

for a safe bay and tranquil shore, trusting all to

Fortune. Yet why bemoan such trivia? Pompey

the Great, scourge of pirates, who made all of

Pontus tremble, explored the savage Hydaspes,

amazed Jupiter with three triumphs; to whom

tamed Bosphorus, and the troubled Black Sea

waters bowed; flees from Rome, shamefully,

abandons his title to empire, so that Fortune

might see a great man’s back turned in flight.

124-125: Eumolpus’ epic: the gods take sides

So mighty a disaster overwhelmed the gods,

and fear in heaven drove their flight; behold,

a crowd of gentle deities abandoned frenzied

earth in loathing, shunning humanity at war.

First Peace, her white arms bruised, hides

a conquered head beneath her helm, leaving

this world, seeking Dis’ implacable realm.

With her go Faith and Justice with loosened

hair, and Concord with torn cloak, weeping.

Yet, where the gates of Erebus yawn wide,

Dis’ dread company emerges, grim Erinys,

menacing Bellona, Megaera whirling her

torches, Destruction, Treachery, pale Death.

With them Madness, as if freed from broken

reins, lifting her blood-stained head, conceals

her face, scarred by a thousand wounds, with

her bloody helm; grips a worn shield, studded

with spear-points in her left hand, in her right

waves a hot brand, bearing fire to the world.  

Earth felt the gods stir, and the stars shaken

sought their place again; for all the heavenly

realm hastened to take sides. Dione was first

to champion Caesar, Pallas rushed to her side,

and Quirinus too, shaking his mighty spear.

Pompey received Apollo, his sister Diana,

Mercury and Hercules, like him in his deeds.

The trumpets blared, and Discord, with torn

hair, raised her Stygian head into the upper

world. Dried blood caked her face, tears ran

from her bruised eyes, her teeth all scabrous

with green mould, tongue dripping disease,

face wreathed in snakes, her clothes all torn

over her tormented breast, she brandished

her quivering torch that flared blood-red.

Leaving the dark of Cocytus and Tartarus,

she sought the high ridge of the Apennines,

from which she could gaze on earth and all

its shores, and the armies filling the globe,

and words sprang from her wrathful breast:

“Take arms, you nations, minds inflamed,

take arms and set alight the hearts of cities.

Who hides is lost. Let no women be idle,

no child, nor the old wasted by the years;

let earth herself tremble, and the shattered

houses rebel. You Marcellus, hold Caesar

to the law, Curio rouse the rabble, Lentulus

set free brave Mars. And you, divine Julius,

why wait to shatter the gates, strip towns

of their defences, take their gold? Shall

you fail, Pompey to hold Rome’s citadel?

Then seize the walls of Dyrrachium, dye

the bays of Thessaly with soldiers’ blood.”

What Discord decreed on earth was done.’

After Eumolpus had poured out these lines with immense fluency, we finally entered Croton. Where indeed we were welcomed at a little inn but, seeking next day a house of more obvious wealth, we encountered a crowd of fortune-hunters who enquired what manner of men we were and where we came from. Then, as demanded by our joint plan of action, we poured out a fluent stream of doubtless highly credible words, regarding ourselves, and our origins. The fortune-hunters immediately competed fiercely in heaping their own riches on Eumolpus, all striving to win his favour with gifts, and this continued in Croton for many a day.

Eumolpus was flushed with success, and forgot the former state of his fortunes insofar as to boast, in a highly arrogant manner, that no one there might resist his influence and that, thanks to his friends’ favour, his people would escape punishment if they committed a crime in that city. But I, though I had filled my stomach every day with an overflowing supply of good things, and considered that ill-fortune had turned its restrictive gaze from me, frequently thought about my previous habits and their origin, and kept repeating to myself: ‘What if some clever legacy-hunter sends an investigator to North Africa and discovers our deceit?  What if Eumolpus’ paid servant, wearying of his present good-fortune, hints of it to his friends and, betraying us out of spite, exposes the whole ruse? We’d naturally be forced to flee once more, and summon again the state of poverty we’ve at last abolished. You gods and goddesses, how miserable it is for a man who lives outside the law: always expecting to suffer his just deserts.’

126: Circe and Chrysis

Chrysis, who was Circe’s maid, said to me: ‘Because you’ve always known you were desirable, you hunt after profit and sell your embraces rather than simply granting them. Why the well-combed flowing hair, the face plastered with cosmetics, the lascivious melting glance too, and why the artful walk with never a footstep out of place, if you’re not putting your body on show for sale?

Consider me: I know nothing of omens, take no notice of astrologers’ charts, yet I can read a man’s character in his face, and when I see him walk I know his thoughts. So if you’d like to sell what we desire, the buyer’s ready; if you’ll grant us it freely, which would be kinder, you’ll ensure I owe you a favour. You see, when you confess to being a humble slave it kindles desire in one who burns for you. Some women are on heat for lowly fellows, unable to rouse their passions except for a slave, or an attendant in a short tunic. Others are on fire for a gladiator, or a muleteer covered in dust, or an actor parading about ostentatiously on stage. My mistress is one of these: she ignores the fourteen rows for the knights, and seeks what delights her among the crowd at the back.’

Flattered by her winning words, I said: ‘It’s not you, who loves me, is it?’ Chrysis laughed aloud at such a feeble turn of phrase, and said: ‘Don’t be so full of yourself! I’ve never succumbed to a slave yet, and the gods forbid I should embrace such torment. Leave it to married women to kiss the scars from some flogging: even if I’m only a lady’s maid, I never sit in any seat but a knight’s.’ I, for my part, was amazed at their contrasting inclinations, and counted them amongst the extraordinary phenomena, the maid possessing a married woman’s pride, the married woman the low tastes of a maid.

Our teasing then proceeding further, I asked Chrysis to lead her mistress to a grove of plane-trees. The plan pleased the girl, so she gathered her skirts and turned into the laurel bushes that grew close to the path we were walking. It was not long before she led the lady from her hiding-place and brought her to me, a woman more perfect than any artist’s dream. There are no words to describe her beauty, whatever I might say would fall short. Her hair, by its very nature, flowed over her shoulders, her brow was small, and the roots of her hair curved back from it, her eyebrows extended to the line of her cheekbones, and almost met again above her eyes, eyes brighter than stars shining with no moon present, her nose had a little curve, and her little mouth was such as Praxiteles thought Diana might possess. And her chin now, her hands, and the whiteness of her foot, below a slender golden anklet, eclipsing Parian marble! For the very first time I thought light of my old passion for Dorida…

‘What made you cast your armour aside, Jove,

leaving it there, a silent tale, among the gods?

Once then, to sprout horns on a savage brow,

again, turning white hairs to swan’s feathers.

Here’s the true Danae. Try but to touch her form,

and already your limbs melt with the fiery heat…’

127-128: Polyaenus (Encolpius’ pseudonym) dallies with Circe

She smiled so sweetly with delight, I thought the unclouded moon was showing me her full face. then, her fingers governing her tone, she said: ‘Young man, if you do not scorn to love a well-endowed lady, who this very year had her first experience of a man, I bring you a new friend. True you have a ‘brother’ to love, not that I regret inquiring indeed, but what prevents you taking on a ‘sister’ too? I’ll adopt the same role. Deign only to acknowledge my kiss, at your pleasure.’

‘I should rather implore you by your beauty,’ I replied, ‘not to disdain the admittance of a stranger to your worshippers. You’ll find me a true votary, if you let me adore you. And don’t think I’d enter this shrine to Love, without an offering, I’ll give you my ‘brother’. ‘What’ she answered, ‘you’d offer me him without whom you cannot live, on whose lips you hang, whom you love as I’d have you love me?’

As she spoke, so much grace attended her words, so sweetly did that gentle sound fill the air, that it seemed a Siren sang harmoniously in the breeze. And as I marvelled, while somehow the whole light of the heavens shone more brightly upon me, I was pleased to ask this goddess her name. ‘So my maid did not tell you, I am called Circe?’ she answered? ‘Not indeed a daughter of the Sun, nor can my mother stop the world in its course, when she pleases. Nevertheless it will be to heaven’s credit if we are united. Surely some god, in silent thought, is now preparing something? Not without cause does Circe love Polyaenus: a great fire always blazes between these names. Take me in your arms, if you so wish. You’ve no need to fear that anyone might spy on us. Your ‘brother’ is far away.’

So saying, Circe clasped me in two arms softer than a bird’s plumage and drew me to the ground carpeted with grass and herbs.

‘Such flowers as Earth, our mother, poured out

on Mount Ida’s summit, when Jove took Juno

in lawful love, his whole heart nurturing flame:

for roses gleamed there, violets, tender sedge,

there white lilies smiled in the green meadow:

such ground summoned Venus to the soft grass,

and the day, brightening, blessed their secret love.’

We lay there together on the grass, exchanging a thousand little kisses, but seeking more serious pleasures. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked, ‘do my kisses offend you? Is my breath sour with fasting? Do I neglect my underarms? If it’s not that, are you frightened of Giton?’ I blushed crimson, and evidently lost whatever manhood I’d been exhibiting, as if my whole body was incapacitated. ‘I beg you, my lady,’ I cried, ‘please don’t mock the afflicted. I’m affected by sorcery.’

‘Chrysis,’ she said, ‘Tell me honestly, am I ugly or unkempt? Is there some natural blemish makes him blind to my beauty? Don’t deceive your mistress. I don’t know in what way I’ve sinned.’ Next she snatched a mirror from the silent girl, and after trying every expression that usually conjures a smile between lovers, shook out the cloak the earth had stained and hurried into the temple of Venus. I, on the contrary, as wretched and terrified as if I’d been seduced by some succubus, began to question my pride as to whether I’d been cheated of true delight.

‘As if, in drowsy night, when dreams deceive

our errant eyes, the earth yields wealth to light,

beneath the spade: our eager hands turn to theft

and snatch at treasure, while sweat runs down

our face, as terror grips our heart, lest someone

strike our laden breast, aware of hidden gold:

then when joy flees from the brain it cheated,

and reality returns, the mind, longs for what

it lost, preoccupied with that transient vision…’

‘Well, in Socrates’ name,’ cried Giton, ‘I give thanks that you love me with his kind of faithfulness. For Alcibiades never lay untouched so, in his teacher’s bed.’ ‘Believe me, dear,’ I replied, ‘I doubt I’m a man any longer, I certainly don’t feel like one. That part of my flesh that was once a veritable Achilles is dead and gone.’ The lad, lest he be caught in private with me and give rise to rumour, tore himself away, and fled into the recesses of the house.

129-130: An exchange of letters

Later Chrysis entered my room to hand me a letter from her mistress, that ran as follows: ‘Circe greets Polyaenus. If I were a passionate woman I’d complain of disappointment; as it is I’m thankful for your indifference. I’ve long toyed with the illusion of pleasure. Yet I seek to know how you are, and whether your feet carried you home again; the doctors say a man with no strength has difficulty walking. I tell you, young man, beware of paralysis. I have never seen a sick man in such mortal danger; by heavens you’re as good as dead!

If the same inactivity grips your hands and knees, you can send for those funereal brass-players. So, what then?  Even if I’ve been deeply hurt, I don’t grudge the suffering a cure. If you want to be well, ask Giton. I think you’ll regain your strength, if you pass three nights without your ‘brother’. As for me, I’ve no fear of finding a lover I can’t satisfy. My mirror and reputation tell no lies. Keep well, if you can.’    

When Chrysis saw I had finished reading the whole reproof, she said: ‘Such things often occur, especially in this town, where the women can draw the moon down from the sky and so they concern themselves with these things too. Only do write back to my mistress in a more flattering manner, and restore her spirits with unreserved kindness. For I must tell the truth: she has not been herself since the moment she felt injured.’

I obeyed the girl willingly, and wrote as follows: ‘Polyaenus greets Circe. I confess, lady, I have often sinned; being human and young as yet. But never before today have I committed a mortal sin. You have my, the offender’s, confession: whatever you command, I deserve. I have been a traitor, killed a man, profaned a shrine: exact punishment for these crimes. If you favour execution, I’ll bring my sword, if you’re satisfied with a flogging, I’ll run naked to my lady. Remember this one thing, not I but my equipment offended. An eager soldier, but without his weapons. I know not what troubled me. Perhaps my mind ran on while my body lingered, perhaps in longing for perfect enjoyment, I neglected the right moment. I can’t determine what I did. Yet you order me to beware of paralysis: as if anything could be worse than that which robbed me of the means of possessing you. My apology amounts to this: I will give you satisfaction, if you will  let me amend my fault’

Chrysis was despatched with this promise, while I took great care of the body which had so offended and, rejecting the baths, anointed myself, in moderation, then dined on strengthening foods, onions I mean, and snails without sauce, drinking wine sparingly. I then composed myself with the gentlest of walks before bed and went to my room, without Giton. I was so anxious to please her I feared lest my ‘brother’ might enervate the flesh.

131: A touch of magic

Next day I rose, sound in mind and body, went down to that same plane-tree grove, even though I feared the place was inauspicious, and proceeded to wait among the trees for Chrysis to show me the way. I had not been sitting long where I had sat the day before, when Chrysis appeared bringing an old woman with her. After greeting me, she said: ‘Well, the question is, proud lover, whether you’ve begun to regain your courage?’

Then the old woman, one Proselenos, took a twist of varicoloured threads from her clothing, and tied it about my neck. Next, she mixed dust and spit, took it up on her middle finger and, despite my protest, marked my brow. After chanting something, she ordered me to spit three times, and toss stones into my lap three times, after she’d said a spell over them and wrapped them in purple cloth, then laid her hands on me and attempted to test their power over my member. Before one could say a word, it obeyed her command, filling the old woman’s hands with a mighty erection. She, triumphant with joy, cried: ‘See, dear Chrysis, see, what a hare I’ve started, as they say elsewhere!’

‘The noble plane-tree, laurel decked with berries,

the quivering cypress, and the swaying summits

of the shorn pine, poured out their summer shade.

The foaming river’s errant waters played among

them, their querulous drops troubling the stones.

A place fit for love: the nightingale bore witness,

with the elegant swallow, flitting over the grass

and sweet violets, pursuing their intrigue in song.’

Circe lay there, her marble neck resting on a golden bank, fanning the still air with a spray of flowering myrtle. And, on seeing me, she reddened a little, obviously recalling yesterday’s affront; when the others had left, she invited me to sit beside her, laid the myrtle sprig across my eyes, and then, as if she’d set a wall between us, said boldly: ‘The question, my paralytic, is whether you’re here today as a whole man?’ ‘Why ask,’ I replied, ‘rather than try me?’ And I threw myself, with no spells uttered, into her arms, enjoying her kisses to satiety. The very charms of her body summoned me and drew me towards love. Now the sound of kisses as our lips met, now our hands wound together explored the modes of love, now our bodies bound in mutual embrace made our spirits as one…

132: Reprisal and reproach

Alas!...Wounded by manifest insult, Circe finally ran to seek revenge, calling for her lackeys and shouting for me to be whipped. Not content with this grave punishment, the woman summoned all her weaving-women and household slaves and commanded them to spit on me. I put my hands to my eyes, uttering no protest since I knew what I merited, and beaten and spat upon was ejected from the threshold. The old witch, Proselenos, was also thrown out, Chrysis was flogged, while the whole household muttered sadly to themselves, asking what had destroyed their mistress’ good mood.

Thinking on all my vicissitudes with a little more courage, I hid the marks of the lash artfully, lest Eumolpus was rendered happier by my punishment, or Giton sadder. So as to simply hide my shame, I affected to be visited by exhaustion, and once in bed turned my whole fire and fury on that member which had been the cause of all my ills:

‘Thrice in hand I seized the dreaded weapon,

thrice, weaker suddenly than a cabbage stalk,

fearing the blade, that served me ill in panic.

Nor could I do now, what I had wished to do;

that thing, colder from dread than chill winter,

cloaked in a thousand wrinkles, had fled within.

So I couldn’t present my head for punishment,

but, the plaything of that rascal, in mortal fear,

I turned to words, with power to hurt the more.’

Raising myself on one elbow, I reproached the stubborn creature, roughly as follows: ‘What have you to say for yourself, you disgrace to men and gods? Indeed, you’ve no right even to be addressed seriously. Have I deserved it of you, to be dragged down from heaven, where I was, to Hades? That you should make an exhibition of me in the prime and vigour of my years, imposing the weakness of bowed old age on me? I beg you, show me proof you’re not defunct.’ Though I reproached ‘her’ in this manner:

‘She turned away, her eyes fixed on the ground,

no more altered in expression, by the speech he had begun,

than the pliant willow, or a poppy bending its weary head.’   

Nonetheless, at the end of this speech of most vile condemnation, I regretted, with a secret blush, my arguing, forgetting all shame, with that part of myself that men of serious note never even seek to admit to their consideration. Then, after rubbing my forehead for a long while, I said to myself: ‘What harm do I do, if I relieve my feelings with a perfectly natural stream of abuse? Don’t we often speak ill of our belly, our throats, and our heads when they ache? Why, did not Ulysses quarrel with his own heart, while some tragedians castigate their eyes as if they could hear? Those with gout curse their joints, those with arthritis their hands, the bleary their eyes, and those who often stub their toes attribute all their ills to their feet.

‘Cato’s followers, why wrinkle your brows at me

why condemn the efforts of my naïve simplicity?

A happy kindness smiles through my pure speech,

and my candid tongue reports what real people do.

Who’s ignorant then of sex, the delights of Venus?

Who’s banned from stirring limbs in a warm bed?

The father of truth, Epicurus, commanded the wise

to love, and declared that such was the goal of life.’

End of the Satyricon: Part VII