Lucius Apuleius: The Golden Ass

Book IX

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2013 All Rights Reserved

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Book IX:1-4 The rabid dog

There was the vile executioner arming his impious hands against me. But the extreme proximity of danger sharpened my thoughts, and without waiting to reflect I chose to escape impending slaughter by sudden flight. Breaking the halter in a trice, I set off at full speed, for the good of my health lashing out repeatedly with my hooves. I’d soon crossed the courtyard nearby and burst at once into the dining room where the owner was hosting a banquet for the goddess’s priests. Charging headlong I collided with no small list of furniture, including the tables and lamps which I upset. The owner was incensed at the vile commotion I made, calling me savage and wild, ordering a servant to lock me up in some safe place to stop me disrupting their peaceful meal again with such impudent tricks. But having saved myself by this cunning stratagem, snatching myself from that butcher’s very hands, I was delighted with the security of my death-defying prison.

But, in truth, if Fortune so decrees, nothing turns out right for human beings: neither wise counsel nor clever devices can subvert or remould the fated workings of divine providence. In this case, a similar event to that which seemed to have worked my instant salvation threatened further danger, or rather the risk of imminent destruction.

While the guests were quietly talking amongst themselves, it seems an excited slave burst into the dining room, his face twitching and trembling, to tell his master the news that a rabid dog from the nearby alley had just broken in through the back gate. This bitch, in a red-hot blaze of fury, had attacked the hounds then invaded the stable and assaulted the pack-animals with equal violence. Not even the humans had been spared: in trying to drive her off, Myrtilus the muleteer, Hephaestion the cook, Hypatarius the butler, and Apollonius the household physician, along with several other of the servants too, had all been severely bitten in various places. Many of the pack-animals had turned rabid and wild, infected by the poisonous bites. This was shocking news, and thinking my mad behaviour had been due to the same disease they snatched up all sorts of weapons and set out to kill me, urging each other on to attack this common death-threat, though it was they who were filled with madness, and no doubt they’d have hacked me limb from limb with their spears and lances and double-headed axes which the servants quickly supplied had I not seen that tempest of trouble approaching, and fled from my cell into my master’s bedroom. They shut and bolted the door behind me, and laid siege to the place to wait, free of the risk of contact, for me to be progressively weakened by the unrelenting nature of that lethal illness, and die. So I thus was left alone, and embraced Fortune’s gift, pure solitude! I threw myself on the bed, and slept the sleep of a human being for the first time in a while.

It was broad daylight when I rose, refreshed from my weariness by the softness of the bed. The guards, who’d been on sentry duty watching all night outside the door, were discussing what state I might be in, so I listened: ‘Is that wretched ass thrashing about in a fit do you think?’ ‘Perhaps the illness has passed its peak and exhausted itself by now?’ To resolve the matter they chose to investigate. They peered in through a crack in the door, and found me standing there quiet, sane and healthy. So they opened the door to test my placidity more surely. One, a saviour sent from heaven I’d say, proposed a trial to the others, to test the state of my health: they’d offer me a pail of fresh water to drink, and if I drank the water willingly and fearlessly, in the normal way, they’d know I was well, and rid of the hydrophobia. But if I spurned the liquid and panicked on seeing it, they’d be certain the rabies was still there in my system. That being the proper means of diagnosis, as spelt out in the old texts.

They agreed to try, and had soon fetched a large pail of crystal-clear water from the spring nearby, and hesitantly presented it to me. Without delay, I started forward to meet them, bending my head and immersing it completely, thirstily gulping down those truly life-giving waters. I tranquilly accepted their slapping me with their hands, tugging at my ears, pulling at my halter, and the other tests they chose to make, till I’d clearly proven my gentleness to all, and overturned any presumption I was mad.

Having in this way twice escaped from peril, on the next day I was loaded with the sacred accoutrements, and with castanets and cymbals led to the road again, on our mendicants’ rounds. After stopping at several hamlets and walled estates, we halted at a village built on the half-ruined site of a wealthy city, or so we were told. We found lodgings at the nearest inn, and there we heard a fine story abut a certain poor workman deceived by his wife, which I’d like you to hear too.

Book IX:5-7 The lover in the jar

Labouring away in poverty, this leanest of fellows made a living by doing jobbing work for little pay. He had a wife as lean as himself, but rumoured to be the ultimate in lasciviousness. One day after had left in the early morning to go to his current job, a bold adulterer slipped secretly into the house, but while the two were happily striving away at Venus’ sport, the husband suddenly came home. Not expecting, in his ignorance, anything of the sort, and finding the doors locked and bolted, he praised his wife’s virtue in his thoughts, and knocked on the door, announcing his presence with a whistle. Now the wife, astute and cunning in all those kinds of games, pushed her lover from their close embrace, and hid him from view in an empty storage-jar, half-buried in an angle of the room. Then she flung the door wide, and as her husband entered, assailed him with a furious tirade.

‘What are you doing ambling around hands in pockets, with that vacant idle look? Is this the way you win us a living, and put food on the table, absenting yourself from work? Here I sit in this miserable home of ours, wearing my fingers to the bone spinning wool night and day, so we can at least keep oil in the lamp. How much happier than I my neighbour Daphne is, she spends her days eating and drinking, and dallying with her lovers.’

The husband was astounded. ‘What’s all this about? The boss is involved in a lawsuit, and gave us the day off, but I’ve still taken care of supper. You see how much space that storage-jar takes up, that’s always empty, and serves no purpose except to cramp our living space? Well I’ve sold it to someone for five denarii, and he’s on his way to collect it and pay, so while we’re waiting tuck up your skirt and lend me a hand to dig it up, then the purchaser can take it straight away.’

A born deceiver, the wife gave a bold laugh, and said: ‘What a brilliant husband I’ve got, a masterly negotiator! I, a mere woman, without stepping outside, just sold for seven denarii something he’s offloaded for less!’

Pleased with the higher price, the husband asked: ‘Who would pay that for it?’ ‘Quiet, you fool,’ she cried, ‘he’s there, he’s climbed down into the jar to see whether it’s quite sound!’

Now the lover took his cue from the wife’s words, and swiftly emerged. ‘To tell you the truth, madam,’ he cried, ‘this jar of yours is pretty old and badly cracked in a host of places.’ Then he turned to the husband pretending not to know who he was: ‘You then, my man, whoever you are, look sharp and hand me the light, so I can scrape off a layer of dirt, and see if it’s fit for use, unless you think money grows on trees!’

Without a moment’s delay, and suspecting nothing, that fine genius of a husband, lit the lamp and saying: ‘Step aside, mate, you take a rest while I clean it up to show you!’ he took off his shirt, lowered the lamp inside, and began to hack at the solid crust inside the ancient receptacle.

At once the adulterer, fine lad that he was, bent the man’s wife face-down over the jar, and toyed with her at his ease, while she, the cunning little whore, poked her head right into the jar and made a fool of her husband, pointing her finger at places to clean, here, there, and elsewhere, again and again till, with both jobs now complete, she’d pocketed the seven denarii, and the poor husband, hoisting the jar on his back, had to carry it off to her lover’s lodgings.

Book IX:8-10 Sold again

The eunuchs stayed a few days, fattening themselves at public expense. Replete with the proceeds of their fortune-telling, those most holy of priests devised a novel variant on such ventures. They composed an all-purpose prophecy that would fit every situation, and fool the host of people who came to consult them on every sort of matter. The prophecy ran like this:

‘Yoked together, those oxen plough the soil:

To bring rich seed to future birth, they toil.’

So, for example, if they chanced to be consulted on the suitability of a particular marriage, they’d say the oracle was favourable, and the ‘yoke’ of marriage would nurture ‘seeds’ of children. If instead it was a question of property, then’ oxen’, ‘yokes’, and flourishing fields of ‘seed’ were all involved. If someone sought divine auspices regarding a journey, they’d imply the tamest four-footed beasts were all but ‘yoked together’, and ‘rich seed’ foretold a profitable trip. If a man was off to fight a battle, or chase a band of thieves, and wanted to know if the outcome would be good, they’d argue that victory was guaranteed by that same blessed prophecy: the enemies’ necks would go under the ‘yoke’, while a ‘rich’ and plentiful heap of spoils would be the clear result.

With this cunning method of divination they raked in a pile of cash. But they soon grew weary, tired of the endless requests for oracles, and set out on the road again. The journey was even worse than that previous one by night, for the way was marked by waterlogged ditches, in places pitted with stagnant pools, in others thick with slippery mud. My legs were aching from the constant stumbles and incessant sliding, and exhausted I could barely reach the level track at last, when suddenly we were overtaken by a body of armed men. Curbing their horses’ headlong gallop with great difficulty, they rounded savagely on Philebus and his troop, and grasping them by the throats, denouncing them as vile temple-robbers, began to pummel them with their fists. Then handcuffing them all they demanded in no uncertain terms that they hand over the golden goblet, the spoil of their crime, which they’d secretly stolen from the shrine of the Mother of the Gods while pretending to hold arcane ceremonies, and then, as though they thought they could evade all punishment for the outrage by leaving silently, sneaking out of the city in the half-light of dawn. One of them went so far as to lean over my back and, rummaging around in the robes of the goddess I was bearing, found the golden goblet and flourished it for all to see. Yet even faced with this accusation of sacrilegious crime those impure creatures were neither frightened nor dismayed, but made unfortunate jests and laughed it off: ‘The perversity and injustice of it all! How often the innocent are accused of crime! Simply for one little cup, which the Mother of Gods gave her sister, the Goddess of Syria, as a token of friendship, we her sacred high priests are labelled criminals, and exposed to danger.’

This and similar sorts of nonsense they babbled, but all in vain, since they were led back to town, clapped in chains, and locked in gaol, while the goblet and the image of the Goddess I was carrying were sent to the temple’s treasury and re-consecrated. Next day I was taken out and sold again at auction. A miller and baker from a nearby hill-town bought me, for seven sestertii more than Philebus paid, swiftly loaded me with the heavy sacks of grain he’d purchased, and led me by a steep and perilous track, full of tangled roots and jagged stones, to the mill and bake-house that he ran.

Book IX:11-13 At the mill

There the endless gyrations of numerous beasts turned millstones of varying size, and not only by day but all night long the ceaseless turning of the wheels perpetually made flour. My master gave me a generous welcome, making my first day a holiday, and lavishly filling my manger with fodder, no doubt to keep me from feelings of terror at the prospect of slavery. But that pleasant period of feeding and idleness was brief enough, since early the following morning I was harnessed to what seemed the largest wheel of the mill: my head was covered with a sack and I was at once given a shove along the curving track of its circular bed. In a circumscribed orbit, ever retracing my steps, I travelled on that fixed path, however I’d not completely lost my intellect and cunning, and made it look as though, as an apprentice to the trade, I was a very slow learner. Though, as a human being, I’d often seen mill-wheels turned in a similar way, I pretended to ignorance of the process, and as a novice stood rooted to the spot in a feigned stupor. I hoped, you see, I’d be judged useless and unfit for that sort of work, and demoted to some other easier task, or even put out to pasture. But I exercised that wretched cunning of mine to no avail, for several lads armed with sticks had soon surrounded me, and while I stood there, suspecting nothing because my eyes were hooded, they suddenly shouted all together on a signal, and laid into me with a flurry of blows, so scaring me with their cries I abandoned my scheme in a hurry, tugged furiously at the halter with all my strength and swiftly performed the circuits prescribed, raising a howl of laughter at my sudden change of heart.

When the day was mostly past, and I was weary, they un-harnessed me, removed my collar, and tied me to the manger. Though I was utterly exhausted, urgently in need of restoring my strength, and almost dead from hunger, still my usual sense of curiosity kept me upright with its nagging: I neglected the pile of fodder, and was pleased to watch the life of that detestable mill.

You blessed gods, what a pack of dwarves those workers were, their skins striped with livid welts, their seamed backs half-visible through the ragged shirts they wore; some with loin-cloths but all revealing their bodies under their clothes; foreheads branded, heads half-shaved, and feet chained together. They were wretchedly sallow too, their eyes so bleary from the scorching heat of that smoke-filled darkness, they could barely see, and like wrestlers sprinkled with dust before a fight, they were coarsely whitened with floury ash.

As for my fellow-creatures, what a sight! How to describe their state? Those senile mules and worn-out geldings drooped their heads over the manger as they munched their heaps of chaff; necks bent and covered with vile running sores, flabby nostrils distended from endless wheezing, and their chests raw from the constant friction of the harness. Their flanks were cut to the bone from relentless whipping, their hooves distorted to strange dimensions from the repetitive circling, and their whole hide blotched by mange and hollowed by starvation.

The sorry lot of my companions made me fear for myself and, recalling the fortunate Lucius I once was, now lost in degradation, I bowed my head in mourning. There was only the one consolation for my sad existence, in that everyone freely did and said whatever they wished in my worthless presence, and so my natural curiosity had revived. Homer, that divine creator of ancient poetry among the Greeks, desiring to depict a hero of the highest intellect, rightly chose to sing of Odysseus whose powers were refined by seeing many cities and knowing the minds of many men. And I now remember the ass I was with infinite gratitude since concealed in his hide, and meeting with those ups and downs of fortune, gave me all sorts of knowledge, even though I was less than wise. Thus, here comes a tale, better than many another and sweetly presented, which I’ve decided to offer to your hearing. And away we go.

Book IX:14-16 The miller’s wife

The miller who had bought me was altogether a good and sober man, but he’d married the worst of women, wholly wicked, who so dishonoured his house and bed, that even I, by Hercules, groaned inwardly for his sake. That dreadful woman lacked not a single fault, but every evil flowed through her soul as if through some vile sewer: mean and malicious, drunk on dalliance, wildly wilful, as grasping in her petty thefts as wasteful in her mad extravagance, inimical to loyalty and an enemy to chastity. And then she detested and scorned the heavenly powers, and in place of true religion presumed to worship a false and sacrilegious deity, she called the ‘only god’ inventing fantastic rites to mislead everyone and deceive her poor husband, that excused her tippling wine from dawn and playing the whore all day.

Being the sort of woman she was, she persecuted me with unbelievable hatred. Before dawn, she’d shout, while still in bed, for that new ass to be harnessed to the wheel, and the instant she left her room she’d cry for me to be whipped over and over while she stood and watched. Then while all the other creatures were sent to dinner on time, it was only much later that I was fed. Her cruelty greatly sharpened my natural curiosity as to her other behaviour, since I’d noticed a young fellow often visiting her room, and I wished with all my heart I could see his face. If only the sack over my head had allowed me the slightest glimpse, my cunning would not have failed to gain an insight into that dreadful woman’s scandalous goings-on. There was an old woman who was her confidante, her inseparable companion all day every day, and acted as go-between in her affairs and debaucheries. First thing after breakfast, after some mutual draughts of pure wine, the wife would plan lying charades, with subtle twists, for the better deception of her poor husband. As for me, though Photis’ mistake in turning me into an ass instead of a bird, still rankled greatly, at least I had gained one solace from that wretched and painful change of form, namely that with my vast ears I could hear everything clearly, even at some considerable distance. So one morning the following words from her cautious old confidante drifted to those same ears:

‘Mistress, you must do something about that weak and timid lover of yours, the one you chose without asking me, who trembles at the blink of an eyebrow from your odious and disagreeable husband, and frustrates your willing arms so with the uselessness of his turgid loving. How superior young Philesitherus, he’s handsome, generous, strong and fearlessly loyal in opposing a husband’s ineffectual wiles. He alone, by Hercules, is worthy to enjoy a wife’s favours, his head alone deserves to wear the golden crown, if for no other reason than the clever way he tricked a certain jealous husband recently. Listen and compare the differing talents of these two lovers.

You know Barbarus, the town councillor, the one they call the Scorpion because of his poisonous nature? Well he married a truly lovely girl of good family, but keeps her locked up tight in his house with a strict watch over her.’ ‘Why yes,’ said the miller’s wife, ‘I know her well. It’s Arete whom I went to school with.’ ‘Well then,’ the old woman said, ‘you’ll know the tale of Philesitherus too?’ ‘Why no,’ was the reply, ‘but I’d like to hear it, greatly. So unravel it my dear, from beginning to end.’

Book IX:17-19 The tale of Arete and Philesitherus: Myrmex

The old chatterer at once began: ‘This Barbarus had a journey to make, and since he wished to be sure of his wife’s faithfulness, he gave secret instructions concerning her to Myrmex his servant, whom he firmly trusted. He charged him with guarding the lady, threatening incarceration, everlasting chains, violent and shameful death, if any man so much as brushed her in passing with his fingertips, and swore it by all the powers of the heavens. Then leaving the worried Myrmex as sharp-eyed custodian of his wife, secure in mind he set out on his way.

Myrmex, intensely anxious, firmly refused to let his mistress leave the house. He sat by her side while she worked at her household task of spinning wool, and was close behind when Arete went to the baths in the evening, holding the hem of her robe in his hand, displaying marvellous tenacity in the demanding role with which he was entrusted.

Bu there was no way to hide the noble lady’s beauty from Philesitherus’ ardent gaze. He was aroused and kindled in the extreme by her very reputation for chastity, and the famously close watch kept on her. He was ready to try anything, suffer anything, to overcome the tenacious household defences. He trusted to human frailty where honesty was concerned, sure that all difficulties cash will overcome, that gold can open even adamantine doors. Taking advantage of Myrmex being alone, he revealed his passion for Arete, and begged for help to ease his agony, since he’d decided and resolved to hasten his own death if he failed to attain his desire. Nor need Myrmex fear so simple a matter. He would sneak in alone at dusk, trusting the shadows would cloak and conceal him, and would be gone again in a trice. Adding to these reassurances and the like a powerfully-driven wedge to break through the servant’s stolid resistance, by holding out his palm on which lay some bright freshly-minted gold pieces, of which twenty he said were destined for the mistress, but ten he freely gave to him.

Myrmex was horrified at this unheard of approach, and stopping his ears he fled, yet could not rid his thoughts of the coins’ glowing splendour. He distanced himself from them, and went swiftly homewards, though seeing still in his imagination the gleam of shining gold, and feeling that rich reward within his grasp. His mind was wonderfully disturbed, and the poor man was dragged this way and that, torn by his dilemma, on the one hand faithfulness, on the other gain, on one side tortuous punishment, on the other pleasure. But in the end gold overcame his fear of death. His love of glittering lucre was not quenched by time, for pestilential avarice poisoned his night-time thoughts, and no matter how strongly his master’s threats urged him to stay home, the lure of gold tempted him forth.

Swallowing his shame, laying aside all doubts, he carried Philesitherus’ blandishments to his mistress’ ear. The woman, not deviating from her gender’s natural fickleness, immediately forsook her honour for money. Myrmex, filled with delight, swiftly sought an end to any loyalty to his master, craving not merely to touch but to possess the wealth, which to his shame he had gazed on. He cheerfully announced to Philesitherus that his efforts had furthered the youth’s wishes, and demanded payment of his reward. Myrmex’s palm, that had never even known the feel of copper coins, now held golden ones.

Book IX:20-21 The tale of Arete and Philesitherus: A narrow escape

Late at night, he let the eager lover into the house and, alone with head well-covered, right to Arete’s room. Just as they were fighting their first skirmishes as naked followers of Venus, just as their first embraces were on the verge of dedicating an offering to untried love, her husband arrived home, much to their surprise, taking a nocturnal opportunity for an unexpected visit. First he knocked then he shouted, then, waxing suspicious at the delay, beat at the door with a stone, threatening Myrmex angrily with punishment. He, dismayed at the sudden disastrous turn of events, and reduced to witlessness by his piteous terror, made the only excuse that came to mind, saying he’d mislaid the key and was having trouble finding it in the dark. Meanwhile Philesitherus, on hearing the noise, quickly threw on his tunic and ran from the bedroom, forgetting his shoes in the confusion. Myrmex then inserted the key in the lock, threw open the door, and let in his master, who was still bellowing oaths at the gods. While Barbarus hastened to the bedroom, Myrmex let Philesitherus out unnoticed, and once the latter had safely crossed the threshold, relieved at his own escape, locked the door and returned to bed.

But when Barbarus left the marriage bed at dawn, he found a pair of strange sandals under the bed, the ones that Philesitherus had been wearing when he sneaked into the room. He suspected what had gone on from this evidence, but hiding his heart-ache from his wife and the servants, he simply snatched up the sandals and hid them secretly in his robe. Then he ordered the servants to bind Myrmex by the arms and drag him off to the Forum. He himself led the way, pacing hurriedly, quietly muttering to himself, confident of tracing the adulterer given the sandals as a clue. So there was Barbarus striding furiously down the street, his brow knitted in anger, while behind stumbled Myrmex in chains, who though not caught red-handed a guilty conscience troubled, though his floods of tears and pitiful wails of terror were in vain.

At this very moment along came Philesitherus, who although on other business, was shocked at the unanticipated sight, but undeterred recollected what he had forgotten in his swift departure, cleverly sized up the situation, and at once regained his usual self-possession. Pushing the slaves aside, he flung himself on Myrmex, shouting at the top of his voice and seeming to strike his face with his fists. ‘Ah, you thief, you lying wretch,’ he cried, ‘may your master there, and all the gods you invoked with perjurious oaths, punish your wicked self wickedly! You it was who stole my sandals yesterday at the baths. You deserve to wear out those chains, by Hercules; you deserve to endure the dark depths of gaol.’

Book IX:22-25 The tale of the fuller’s wife

At this point the miller’s wife interrupted the garrulous old woman: ‘Happy is she who enjoys the freedom of such steadfast companionship! Sadly I chose a lover who even fears the sound of the mill-stones and the face of that mangy ass out there.’ ‘I’ll soon bring you a livelier one,’ the old woman replied, ‘with good credentials, fully proven, guaranteed to be up to the task.’ Promising to be back by evening, she departed leaving the wife, that paragon of virtue, to prepare a sumptuous meal, blending fresh sauces for the meat, and decanting a vintage wine. Then with the table richly set, she awaited the advent of her lover as if he were a deity, her husband fortuitously dining that night at the fuller’s house next door.

Thus, as day neared its close, when I was at last freed from my collar and released to carefree rest, I was not only grateful, by Hercules, to be rid of my task, but with eyes un-blinkered I could freely observe all that wicked woman’s wiles. When the sun had slipped beneath the waves, and was lighting regions of the underworld, the bold lover made his appearance on the arm of that vile old woman. He was a mere boy, notable for the shiny smoothness of his cheeks, and still a target for male lovers. Welcoming him with a shower of kisses, the miller’s wife invited him to sit down to the dinner she’d prepared.

But as he was raising the first cup of wine to his lips her husband, returning prematurely, was heard approaching the door. That brazen wife cursing him passionately, expressing the hope he’d trip and break a leg, hid her pale and trembling lover, under a large wooden tub used for sifting flour that was lying upside down on the ground behind the house. Her natural talent for dissimulation allowed her to conceal her bad behaviour, and assuming a perfectly calm expression she asked her husband why he’d left his best friend’s house and was back so early.

He, clearly upset, sighing assiduously, replied: ‘What a terrible and unspeakable crime that wicked woman’s committed. It was more than I could endure so I hastened to escape. Kind gods, to think that so apparently faithful and well-behaved a wife has disgraced herself so shamefully! I swear by that image of sacred Ceres over there, I could scarcely believe my eyes.’

Stirred by her husband’s words, his impudent wife showed her eagerness to hear the tale, and she nagged him to tell the whole story from the start, and would not relent till the miller yielded to her wish and, unaware of his own misfortune, related that of his dearest friend, the fuller.

‘His wife,’ he began ‘always seems such a chaste woman, with a firm reputation for virtue in managing her husband’s house. But she’s been hiding her passion for a secret lover. He’s been meeting her constantly for stolen embraces, and at the very moment we returned from the baths for dinner she and that very youth were making love. Disturbed by our sudden arrival, she was forced to hasty action, hiding him in their wicker cage, a funnel of smooth sticks with a narrow opening at the top over which they hang the cloth to bleach in the fumes from smouldering sulphur. Once he was safely inside, she happily joined the meal. But meanwhile the acrid penetrating smoke was choking the youth, and overcome by the thick cloud he began to suffocate. And the sulphur, in accord with that active element’s nature, caused him to sneeze and go on sneezing. On hearing the sound of this, which came from behind the wife’s back, we though it was her and wished her good health as normal. But when the same thing happened again and again, my friend, sensing something wrong, finally realised the truth. Pushing the table aside, he raised the cage and dragged out the youth who was struggling for breath. Blazing with anger, indignant at the dishonour, my friend the fuller called for his sword, and would have cut the throat of the fainting man, if I, out of fear of the law, had not restrained him from violent action. I told him his enemy would soon be dead from the powerful effects of the sulphur, and our hands moreover would be clean, and persuaded less by my argument than the obvious circumstance that the fellow was only half-alive he had him hauled outside into the alley.

Then I spoke to the wife quietly and persuaded her, finally, to leave the house for the moment and go off to some woman friend’s until time had mollified her husband’s furious wrath, since he was in the grip of such a fit of anger I was certain he contemplated inflicting some dreadful injury on his wife and himself. That’s how our loathsome dinner-party ended, and I was driven to seek refuge at my own hearth.’

Book IX:26-28 Exposure

While the miller told his story, his wife, as impudent as ever, roundly cursed the fuller’s wife, decrying her for a shameless, faithless disgrace to the whole sex, in staining her chastity, trampling the bonds of marriage underfoot, turning her husband’s home into a scandalous brothel, and exchanging her status as wife for that of a common whore. She even claimed the woman should be burnt alive. Aware though of her own crime and the secret of a burning conscience, she pondered how to free her own lover from his close confinement, and urged her husband to seek an early night.  But he, banished from an unfinished dinner, and still hungry, requested some food instead. His wife served him quickly, reluctantly feeding him on dainties meant for another.

Now, my heart ached to its depths at the thought of that dreadful woman’s history of sin and her present crime, and I tried hard to think of any way to help my master by revealing and exposing her deceit, and uncovering that fellow, hidden like a tortoise under the tub, for all to see. It was now, tormented by this insult to my master, that divine providence finally smiled on me. It was the hour when the lame old man, entrusted with our care, used to drive all of us animals to the nearby pond to drink. This granted me the chance for vengeance I was seeking. As I trotted by, I caught sight of the ends of the lover’s fingers sticking out from underneath his hollow cover. I planted the edge of my hoof on top, applied strong pressure, and crushed them flatter and flatter, until he was wracked with pain. He uttered a wretched cry, lifted the tub and pushed it away; his sudden appearance disclosing to the world’s unknowing eyes the shameless wife’s secret affair. The miller, though, seemed barely moved by the wound to his honour, but with calm face and a kind look began to speak in a gentle way to the pallid and trembling lad.

‘You’ve nothing to fear from me, young man. I’m not Barbarus, nor do I share the boorishness of rustic manners. I’ll not take the fuller’s savagery as my model and stifle you with lethal fumes, or even invoke the law’s severity and have such a charming and handsome lad tried on a capital charge under the law on adultery. No, I’ll share you with my wife instead. Rather than divorce her and split the property, I’ll create a partnership with common assets, and without argument or dissent we three will lie together in the one bed. She and I have always lived in such harmony, in accordance with the precepts of the wise, that we both suit each other. Nevertheless the principle of equality grants no wife greater rights than her husband.’

After this mild speech, he led him off to bed, still ribbing the reluctant lad. Locking his disgraced wife in another room, he had the boy, and enjoyed the perfect revenge for his ruined marriage. But when the sun’s bright orb gave birth to day, he summoned the two strongest servants in the house who hoisted the lad on high and thrashed his backside. ‘You,’ he said, ‘are but a soft and tender child, so don’t go cheating us of the bloom of your youth pursuing women, and free women too, breaking up lawfully sanctioned marriage, and claiming the title of adulterer before your time!’

When he’d done chastising him with the whip and taunting him with such comments and more, he threw him out of the house. Thus the boldest of adulterers ran off in tears, escaping death which was more than he could have hoped, but with his tender buttocks the worse for a night and a day’s hard wear. And despite his words the miller gave his wife notice of divorce and immediately expelled her from the house.

Book IX:29-31 Revenge

Now the wife’s inborn malice was stimulated and exacerbated by this affront, well-deserved though it was. Resorting to her old ways, she turned to those magic arts women employ. After careful inquiry, she found an old witch, who they said could work anything with spells and like mischief, and begged her with many gifts and much exhortation to either mollify her husband’s wrath and bring about a reconciliation, or if that were impossible send some spectre or dreadful demon to do him violence and expel his spirit. Then the witch, with her supernatural powers, used the primal weapons of her wicked arts against him, trying to turn the greatly aggrieved husband’s thoughts towards renewed affection. When this effort was disappointed, unhappy with those otherworldly agents, spurred on by their disdain of her as much as by the promise of reward, she threatened the life of the wretched miller by raising the ghost of a murdered woman to destroy him.

Now perhaps, scrupulous reader, you may find fault with my tale, asking: ‘Clever little ass, how come, if you were imprisoned in the confines of that mill-house, you could discover what those women were secretly up to, as you claim?’ Well, let me tell you how an inquisitive man disguised as a beast of burden could find out everything they did to encompass my master’s ruin.

About noon the dead woman’s spirit appeared inside the mill-house, possessed by terrible grief, half-clothed in tear-stained rags, her feet bare and unprotected, and she greatly emaciated, pale as boxwood. Her grey dishevelled hair, sprinkled with ashes, hung over her forehead hiding most of her face. She gently laid her hand on the miller’s arm, as if she wished to speak to him privately, led him away to his room and remained there behind closed doors with him for a length of time. As all the grain at hand had been milled, and more was needed, the workers stood outside the door and called to their master for new supplies. When they’d shouted several times loudly without reply, and pounded on the door, finding it securely fastened and suspecting something gravely wrong, they broke the lock with a powerful heave, and forced their way in. The strange woman was nowhere to be seen, but their master was hanging from a beam, already dead. They freed his body from the noose, lowered it, and began to mourn, wailing loudly and beating their breasts. When the corpse was washed and the laying-out complete, they carried it off for burial, followed by a large procession.

Next day his daughter arrived in haste from the next town, where she had lived since her marriage. She was already in mourning, shaking her dishevelled hair, and beating her breasts with her hands, for though the news of the family’s misfortunes was not yet abroad, her father’s weeping ghost had appeared to her in a dream, the noose around his neck, and told her all; her stepmother’s crimes of sorcery and adultery, and how the ghost had dispatched him to the shades. Once her long lamentations had ceased, her self-torment restrained by her friends who had gathered round, she left off mourning, and when the rites at the tomb had been duly completed, eight days later, she auctioned the mill and contents, the slaves and all the animals. So fickle Fortune scattered the various elements of that house and, as for me, a poor market-gardener bought me for fifty sestertii, a high price for him to pay, as he said, but he hoped to earn a living from our joint efforts.

Book IX:32-34 Signs and portents

I feel I must describe this new regime of slavery too. Each morning I was loaded with piles of vegetables, and led to the nearest town, and when the gardener had handed his produce over to the traders, he’d return to his farm riding on my back. Then while he bent like a slave himself to his digging, watering and other tasks, I’d recuperate at leisure in uninterrupted rest. But when the stars, moving in their appointed courses, had passed through days and months and the year declined from the delights of the autumn vintage to wintry frosts under Capricorn, the rain fell all day long and the nights were wet with dew, while I, shut in an open stall under the bare sky, was tormented by cold, since my master was so poor he had to be content with a hut of branches, without a straw mattress or a blanket, let alone one for me. And in the morning I was tortured to death by the freezing mud and sharp lumps of ice that cut my unshod hooves. My belly went in want of the usual fodder, my master and I feeding on the same meagre fare: old bitter lettuces run to seed so long ago they were thin as broom, in a muddy mess of bitter-tasting juice.

One moonless night, a farmer from the next village was forced to break his journey, soaked by heavy rain and thwarted by the pitch darkness, and turn his weary horse aside at our smallholding. He found a warm reception all considering, a much-needed though not luxurious refuge from the weather, and wanting to repay his kindly host for his hospitality promised him corn and oil, and two quarts of wine from his farm. My master climbed on my bare back, with a sack and some empty wine-skins, ready to set out promptly on the seven-mile trip. Soon covering the distance we reached the farm, and there the guest became the courteous host in turn and invited my master to a sumptuous meal.

While they were drinking wine and chatting together a startling thing occurred. One of the hens ran cackling around the yard, ready to lay an egg. The farmer seeing her said: ‘Good girl, you’re the best of layers, with that egg you give each day, and now I see you promise us something extra for dinner.’ And he called a servant: ‘Put that basket for the laying hens in the usual corner, my lad.’ The slave did as ordered, but the hen spurning her usual bed laid her gift at her master’s feet, and not the usual egg but a fully-fledged chick, with claws and feathers, an ominous portent, that with open eyes ran cheeping after its mother.

Not long after an even more startling thing occurred, enough to terrify anyone and rightly so. Under the table, which held the leftovers from the meal, a gaping crack appeared and a huge fountain of blood gushed from the depths below, splashing into the air and spattering the table with crimson drops. And while everyone was trembling and staring dumbfounded at these signs from the divine powers, wondering in their astonishment what they might mean, a servant came running from the wine-cellar to say the wine casked long before was bubbling in ferment as though a fire had been laid beneath. Then a weasel was seen dragging a dead snake from its lair, a bright green frog leapt from a sheep-dog’s mouth, while an old ram standing by attacked the dog and choked it to death in its jaws. All this array of varying prodigies frightened the master and servants to death, and threw them into an utter stupor. They were at a loss how to propitiate the heavenly powers: with what kind of sacrifices and how many, which portent was most important which least, so which to address first and which later? And while they were all still waiting, numb, expecting something dreadful, a slave came running with news for the farmer of the greatest and worst of disasters.

Book IX:35-38 The three brothers

Now the farmer had three grown sons, the pride of his life, well-educated lads and highly respectable. These three young men were old friends of a certain poor neighbour whose modest cottage adjoined a large and prosperous estate owned by a wealthy and important young nobleman, one who abused his ancient heritage, won power through faction, and did what he wished freely in the nearby town. He oppressed his humble neighbour, attacking his meagre fields, stealing his cattle, slaughtering his sheep, and trampling the crops before they ripened. Having robbed him of the products of his labour, he was now intent on driving him from his land, initiating a lawsuit re-drawing the boundaries of his estate, and claiming all the ground as his own. The farmer was a humble man yet, stripped bare by his wealthy neighbour’s greed, he wished at least to be buried where his family had always farmed, and so with some trepidation he’d invited a group of friends to gather formally to mark the boundaries. Among these folk were the three brothers, who came to help their friend in whatever way they could in his distress.

The young nobleman however was not disturbed or deterred in the slightest by the presence of so many townsmen, and not only denied his plundering but refused to moderate his wild language. When they remonstrated mildly and attempted to soothe his temper with placatory words, he instantly uttered a binding and sacred oath, swearing on his own life and the lives of his family that not only did he hold these mediators in contempt but would have his slaves grab the neighbour by his ears and hurl him as far they could from this land which was now his own. The listeners were filled with violent indignation, and one of the three brothers at once replied boldly that the nobleman’s wealth was of no account, nor his tyrannous threats, since the law freely protected the poor from rich men’s insolence, now as always.

This speech was like pouring oil on flames, adding sulphur to a fire, or taking a whip to a Fury, and only served to fuel the noble’s savagery. Angered to the point of total madness, he cried out that he’d see them all damned and the law too, and commanded the dogs set loose, and turned on the lot of them with orders to kill. These were huge blood-thirsty watch-dogs, fierce hounds that would worry carcases abandoned in the fields, and trained to savage passers-by at will. Roused by the herdsmen’s customary cries, they rushed inflamed, with rabid intent, at the crowd of men, terrifying them with their raucous barking. They leapt on their quarry, wounding their victims all over, ripping and tearing at their flesh. Not even those who tried to flee were spared, as the hounds only chased them down the more fiercely.

In the confusion of this butchery of a frightened throng, the youngest brother stumbled over a rock, stubbed his toes, and fell to the ground, making himself a prey to the savagery of those ferocious hounds. As soon as they saw the defenceless victim, they began to tear at him where he lay. The other two brothers hearing his screams, as if of one dying, ran anxiously to his aid. Wrapping their left hands in their cloaks they threw stone after stone trying to defend him, and drive the dogs away, but failed to subdue them or quell their ferocity. Savagely wounded the youngest brother uttered his last words: ‘Avenge my death on that vile bastion of corruption!’ and gave up his life.

The surviving brothers, blazing with anger, ran towards the nobleman, more with a willing disregard for their own safety, by Hercules, than in desperation, and furiously pelted him with stones. But the blood-stained assassin, experienced in like acts of violence, hurled his javelin and drove it straight through one of them who, dead though he was, did not fall lifeless to earth, for the spear passing through his body and projecting to almost its full length beyond, due to the power of the blow, stuck in the ground, so that the corpse hung there supported by the taut shaft.

Then a big, tall fellow, one of the murderer’s slaves, came to his master’s aid, slinging a stone in a long arc towards the last surviving brother’s right arm, though the blow was surprisingly ineffectual, merely grazing the fingertips and falling harmlessly to earth. This slight result, a small mercy, presented the cunning youth with a chance of revenge. Feigning an injured hand, he called out to the cruel oppressor: ‘You may delight in destroying us all, feeding your lust for violence on three brother’s blood, and seeming to triumph over the fellow-citizens you’ve laid low, but know this: that though you steal a poor man’s land, however far you extend your boundaries, you will always have to deal with your neighbours. But now my right hand which itches to sever your head from your body is damaged through Fate’s unjust decree.’

This speech roused the exasperated noble still further, and he drew his sword to attack the brother eager to despatch him with his own hand. But he had met his match. The youth, suddenly contrary to all expectations, seized his opponent’s right arm in a fierce grip instead, turned the weapon, and struck blow after mighty blow, until the rich man’s evil soul departed his body. Then, he swiftly grasped the blade wet with blood, and cut his own throat so escaping the approaching band of his enemy’s slaves. Such were the happenings those portents had prophesied, such were the events reported to the head of the family. Beset by misfortune, the old man was powerless to speak a word or shed a tear, but simply took up a knife, that lay beside the food set out for his guests and, imitating his poor son, stabbed at his throat time and again until he fell head downwards across the table, covering the stains from the previously prophetic fount of blood with a freshly flowing stream.

Book IX:39-42 Encounter with a soldier

So in a moment the family ruin was complete. My market-gardener pitying the farmer’s misfortune, and lamenting deeply over the loss of the promised gifts, had found only tears instead of a meal, and wringing his empty hands mounted hurriedly on my back and set out to retrace the route we came by, though as it chanced he failed to arrive home safely.

On the road we met with a tall Roman, a soldier as we saw from his dress and manner, who inquired in a high and mighty voice where my master was going with that ass without a load. But my master stunned by grief, and not understanding his speech, passed him by in silence. The soldier took offence, and unable to quell his natural arrogance, thinking the gardener’s silence an insult, knocked him from my back with the centurion’s stick he carried. The gardener humbly explained he had no Latin, so the soldier asked him again in Greek: ‘Where are you off to with that ass of yours?’ The gardener said he was going to the next village. ‘Well I’ve a need of him,’ replied the soldier, ‘to trot with the other pack-animals and carry the colonel’s baggage from the neighbouring fort.’ He quickly laid hands on me, catching hold of my halter and dragging me off. But the gardener, staunching the blood that flowed from his head caused by the earlier blow, begged the soldier in a comradely way to be more merciful and civil, offering his best wishes for the soldier’s future success. ‘Besides,’ he claimed, ‘this lazy ass has nothing less than the falling sickness, a terrible disease, and can barely carry a few little bags of vegetables from my market-garden without getting tired and winded, so think how badly suited he is for bearing large loads.’

But he soon perceived that the soldier far from responding to his appeals had grown more fiercely intent on harming him, resorting to extremes, reversing his vine-stick and striking the gardener’s skull with the thick end.  Feigning to clasp the soldier’s knees to beg for mercy, the gardener stooped down and bending grasped his feet, pulled his legs from under him, and sent him crashing to the ground. Then he pounded him, face, arms and sides, with fists, head and elbows, and finally a rock snatched from the road. Though the soldier, once down was unable to retaliate or even defend himself, he threatened the gardener over and over, crying out that if he could get to his feet he’d hack him to bits with his sword. At this, the gardener grasped the sword and threw it far away, returning again to deal even more savage blows. The soldier, flat on his back, hindered by this attack, and unable to think of anything else to save himself pretended to be dead.

Then the gardener, taking the sword, climbed on my back, and headed for town at full speed. Without stopping at his own smallholding he made for a friend’s house and told him the full tale, begging him to hide him from danger, along with me his ass, so that he could lie low for a few days and avoid arrest on a capital charge. The friend, in view of their long relationship, readily undertook to help. They hobbled my legs together and dragged me upstairs to the attic, while the gardener concealed himself in a chest in the ground-floor shop, pulling the lid tight over his hiding place.

Meanwhile, as I learned later, the centurion had reached town, stumbling like a man in a drunken stupor, weak from the pain of his various wounds, and barely able to support himself. Too ashamed to tell anyone there of his pathetic defeat, he swallowed the affront to his pride in silence. But on meeting a troop of fellow-soldiers he told them his tale of woe. They agreed he should hide in their quarters, since in addition to his personal humiliation the loss of his sword was a breach of his military oath, and an insult to the guardian deity. Meanwhile, noting our description, they would make a united effort to find us, and exact revenge.

Inevitably a treacherous neighbour was there to tell them exactly where we were hiding. The soldiers summoned the magistrates, claiming falsely they’d lost a valuable silver jug on the road, that the gardener had found it, refused to hand it back, and was concealed at the friend’s house. Once the magistrates heard the colonel’s name, and the magnitude of the loss, they soon arrived at the door, told our host in no uncertain terms that they knew he was hiding us, and ordered him to hand us over or risk capital punishment himself. He was not troubled in the least, however, and eagerly defended the reputation of his friend whom he’d sworn to save, confessing nothing, and claiming he’d not seen the gardener for several days. The soldiers, for their part, swore in the Emperor’s name that the gardener was there and nowhere else. Despite the friend’s stubborn denials, the magistrates determined to search, and find the truth. They ordered the lictors and various other officials to go round the four corners of the property and examine it carefully. They reported there was no one to be seen inside, not even the ass.

Then the argument grew more intense, the soldiers swearing time and again, in the Emperor’s name, that they’d received definite information, while the friend called the gods as witness to his rebuttal. Hearing the uproar their violent argument caused, and being inquisitive by nature and an ass with an impulse to restless action, I stuck my head through a little window trying to find the meaning for all the noise. Just then one of the soldiers, chancing to look in the right direction, caught sight of my shadow. He called to the others to look, and instantly a mighty clamour arose. Some of them ran upstairs, grabbed hold of me, and dragged me downstairs as their prisoner. Their perplexity resolved, they now searched inside the house, examining every corner thoroughly, and at last opening the chest found the wretched gardener, pulled him out, and handed him over to the magistrates, who carried him off to the public gaol, no doubt for execution.

In the meantime the soldiers never ceased from jokes and loud laughter about my peeping from the window. Such is the origin of those well-known proverbs about great quarrels from trivial causes that claim they’re over ‘a peeping ass’, or due to ‘an ass’s shadow’.

End of Book IX