The Satires

Satire X – The Vanity of Human Wishes

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved

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Satire X: The Vanity of Human  Wishes

SatX:1-55 Be Careful What You Ask For

In all the lands that stretch from Cadiz to the Ganges and the Dawn,

There are few who, free of a cloud of errors, can discern true good

From a host of opposites. What indeed do we wish for or fear that is

Rational? How often is what we conceive so far from wrong-headed

That we don’t regret both the effort, and the fulfilment of our desire?

Whole families have been ruined by the gods’ too ready compliance

With their prayers. They ask for what harms them whether in peace

Or war; to many people their own torrential flood of speech and their

Own eloquence is fatal; think of Milo of Croton who perished from

Relying on his own strength, and his awe-inspiring show of muscle;

More people are still undone by the money they gather with too much

Care, by a wealth that exceeds all other competing family fortunes,

As vast as a whale from British waters when compared to a dolphin.

That explains why in those dreadful times, Gaius Cassius Longinus

Was besieged, on the orders of Nero, by an entire cohort, as was

Seneca the millionaire’s vast garden, with the splendid mansion

Of the Laterani surrounded: soldiers rarely seek to invade a garret.  

Though you might only be carrying a few items of plain silver,

When you set out to travel at night, you’ll still be afraid of swords

And sticks, panic at the shadow of a reed stirring in the moonlight;

While an empty-handed traveller can whistle in the robber’s face.

The most popular prayer, as noted in all the temples, is for cash:

May my wealth increase, may my family treasure-chest hold the

Highest value of anyone’s in the Forum. Yet you’ll never imbibe

Poison from earthenware; the time to fear it is when you lift a cup

Studded with gems, when Setian wine glows in the golden bowl.

So, do you admire Democritus yet, that one of the two philosophers,

Who laughed at the human race, whenever he stirred a foot to move

From his threshold, while the other, Heraclitus, in contrast, cried?

We so readily censure the world with harsh derisive laughter, that

It’s a wonder where all the moisture flooding his eyes came from.

Democritus’ sides used to shake with perpetual laughter, despite

The fact that the cities of his day lacked togas with purple borders,

And togas with purple stripes, rods of office, litters, and tribunals.

What if he’d seen our eminent praetor standing there in his high

Chariot, in the midst of the dust in the Circus, in Jupiter’s tunic,

With that regal Tyrian ornamentation, on the embroidered toga

Falling from his shoulders, and a crown of such huge diameter,

That there isn’t a neck created made strong enough to bear it?

In fact a sweating slave holds it in public, and lest the praetor

Is over-pleased with himself, rides beside him in the same car.

Now add the bird that soars from his ivory sceptre, add the horn

Players over here, over there the long lines of his official escort

Leading the way, and the citizens in white who march at his bridle,

Transformed into friends by the hand-outs tucked in their purses.

In those days too Democritus found laughter in every encounter,

His shrewdness shows that men of excellence, great exemplars,

May yet be born in a dull climate, in a land of castrated sheep.

He laughed at people’s anxieties and at their delights as well,

And sometimes at their tears, while to Fortune’s menaces he

Himself would say: ‘Go hang!’ and show her his middle finger.

So what are the vacuous, pernicious things that people ask for?

Is there a point to those wax tablets, prayers at the gods’ knees?

SatX:56-113 The Emptiness Of Power

Some are destroyed by their power, downed by profound envy,

Some are sunk deep by their long and illustrious list of honours.

Noosed by a rope, their statues are dragged to the ground, even

The wheels of their chariots are smashed, and broken to pieces

With axes, while the legs of their innocent horses are shattered.

Now the flames roar, the bellows hiss, and that head idolised

By the people glows in the furnace, flames crackle around huge

Sejanus; the face of a man who was number two in the world

Is converted to jugs and basins, turned to pots and frying pans.

Deck your houses with laurel, lead a great bull whitened with

Chalk up to the Capitol: come see Sejanus dragged along by

A hook, everyone’s celebrating! ‘Look at the lips, look at the

Face on that! You can take it from me, he was never a man

That I liked’ ‘But what was the crime that brought him down?’

Who informed, what’s the evidence, where are the witnesses?’

‘That’s all irrelevant; a lengthy and wordy letter arrived from

Capri.’ ‘That’s fine, answer enough.’ But what of the Roman

Mob? They follow Fortune, as always, and hate whoever she

Condemns. If Nortia, as the Etruscans called her, had favoured

Etruscan Sejanus; if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously

Smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed

Their new Augustus. They shed their sense of responsibility

Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob

That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,

Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only,

Bread and circuses. ‘I hear that many will perish.’ ‘No doubt,

The furnace is huge.’ ‘My friend Bruttidius Niger looked

Rather pale, when I met him in front of the altar of Mars;

I’m scared that Tiberius, like a defeated Ajax, will exact

Punishment for being so poorly protected. Let’s run swiftly

And trample on Caesar’s foe, where he lies on the riverbank,

Making sure our slaves see us, so they can’t deny it and drag

Their terrified masters to justice, with nooses round our necks.’

Those were the crowd’s secret murmurings regarding Sejanus.

Would you like to be greeted as Sejanus, possess all that he

Possessed, be the one to grant highest office to some, appoint

Others to military posts, be seen as the Emperor’s guardian,

He who sits on the little constricted rock of Capri with a herd

Of Chaldean stargazers? Surely you’d like his troops, their

Spears, his excellent cavalry and private fortress; why

Wouldn’t you? Even those who have no wish to kill, enjoy

The power to do so. But what’s the value of fame and wealth,

If the good that delights is matched by an equal measure of ill?

Would you rather be wearing the purple-edged toga of him

Who’s being dragged along, or rule empty Gabii or Fidenae;

Lay down the law over weights and scales, break vessels that

Give short measure, as a ragged official in deserted Ulubrae?

So perhaps you’d admit Sejanus had no idea what to ask for?

Since he simply kept asking for greater honours, demanding

More and more wealth, he was building a lofty many-storied

Tower, from which the fall would only prove greater, whose

Collapse into shattered ruin would be only the more profound.

What destroyed the Crassi, the Pompeys, and that man Caesar

Who brought the Romans under his lash, and so tamed them?

Simply seeking that place at the top, using every trick that

Exists, simply extravagant prayer granted by spiteful gods.

Few kings go down to Ceres’ son-in-law, Dis, free from

Blood and carnage, few tyrants achieve a tranquil death.  

SatX:114-146 The Rewards of Fame and Eloquence

The fame and eloquence of a Demosthenes, or of a Cicero,

Is what lads pray for, and keep on praying for, all through

Minerva’s spring holidays, every lad with a slave to guard

His slim satchel, and a farthing to give to the thrifty goddess.

Yet both orators died for their eloquence, a rich overflowing

Stream of talent was what sent both of them to their deaths.

Talent had its hands and neck severed, no feeble advocate’s

Blood drenched the rostrum, it was Cicero’s, he who said:

‘O Rome, you are fortunate to be born in my consulate.’

If he’d always carried on in that vein, he might have denied

Antony’s swords. Rather risible verses than you, O immortal

Second Philippic, so conspicuous by your fame, the one that’s

Rolled out next on the scroll. Demosthenes, your inspiration,

He too, the wonder of Athens, was snatched by harsh death,

When he hauled at the twisted reins of the packed assembly.

He was born with the gods, and malignant fate, against him,

Being sent away from the coals, the tongs, and anvil of filthy

Vulcan, where eyes ran with the soot from the glowing ore,

From his father’s sword-manufacture, to a teacher of rhetoric.

The trophies of war too are considered to be more than human

Glories, the breastplate pinned to a bare tree trunk, cheek-piece

Hung from a shattered helmet, a chariot yoke short of its pole,

An ornament from the stern of a conquered ship, a sad captive

On the fortress’s heights, these are the things for which a Greek

Or Barbarian, or a Roman commander exerts himself, these are

The things that provide an incentive, for danger and hard work.

So much more intense is the thirst for fame than for virtue.

Who’d embrace virtue simply for itself, if you took away all

The reward? Yet nations have been destroyed by the ambition

Of a few, by their desire for fame and a title, a name that might

Cling to the stones that guard their ashes, those stones the barren

Fig tree’s malicious strength is capable of shattering, since

Even their very sepulchres are granted a limited span by fate.

SatX:147-187 The Paths Of Glory

Put Hannibal in the scales: how much do you find the greatest

General weighs? A man too big for North Africa, that stretches

From Moroccan ocean’s pounding to tepid Nile, then mounts it

As far as the Ethiopian tribes, and another species of elephant.

He adds Spain to his empire, and then vaults the Pyrenees.

Nature then bars his passage with the snowy Alps; whose rocks

He splits with vinegar and fire, bursting through the mountains.

He holds Italy now, yet aims to advance still further. ‘Nothing

Is won,’ he claims, ‘until our Carthaginian army has shattered

The City gates and I plant my flag at the heart of the Subura.’

O what a sight, what a painting it would make, the one-eyed

General riding an African elephant, his Mauretanian beast!

So how does it end? O Glory! That very man, defeated, sits

A noted dependant, in the King of Bithynia’s palace, there

To wait till his majesty chooses to wake. No sword, or stone,

Or javelin makes an end of a life that once troubled humanity,

But a little poisoned ring, avenging the rings, spoil from Cannae,

Repaying all that blood. Go, madman, and climb the hostile Alps

To entertain schoolboys, and provide matter for their speeches.

A world was not enough for that youth from Pella, Alexander,

Seething with discontent at the narrow confines of his universe,

As if trapped on some rocky prison isle, tiny Seriphus or Gyara:

But once he’s entered that city, Babylon, built of brick and clay,

He must be content with it as his coffin. For death alone reveals

How small the remnants of a human being. Then there’s Xerxes:

The tale that he sailed through Mount Athos, all the lies Greece

Tells as history, gained credence; the Hellespont bridged by his

Vessels, solid enough for vehicles to cross; we credit the stories

Of streams running dry, of deep rivers being drunk by the Medes

At their meals, all that Sosostris sang with drenched sleeves.

Yet what state did Xerxes return in, on relinquishing Salamis?

He vented his savage rage by lashing the winds, Caurus, Eurus,

Who’d never experienced the like even in their Aeolian prison,

He bound Poseidon, the Earthshaker himself, with chains,

(That was lenient. What? Didn’t he think him worth branding

Too? What god would have chosen to be that man’s slave?)

What state was he in? In a single ship, of course, sailing the

Bloodstained waves, his prow slowly pushing corpses aside.

So often that’s the price extracted for man’s desire for glory.

SatX:188-288 The Penalties Of A Long Life

‘Grant me a long life, grant me many years, Jupiter.’

But think of the many endless ills old age is full of!

Take a look, first of all, at its ugly face, repulsive,

And wholly altered, with an ugly hide in place of

Smooth skin, the drooping jowls, the wrinkles such

As those that the old mother ape scratches at on aged

Cheeks, in shadowy spreading groves of Numidia.

Between the young there are plenty of differences,

One’s better looking, one’s stronger than another,

But the old are alike, body and voice both trembling,

The head quite bald, the nose dripping, like a baby;

The poor wretch mumbles his bread with useless gums.

Even to his wife and children, and himself, he seems

So dire even Cossus the fortune-hunter feels disgust.

The pleasures of food and wine are no longer the same

As his palate dulls; and as for sex its now long-forgotten,

Or should you try, his limp prick with its swollen vein, just

Lies there, lies there though you pummel it all night long.

What else could you expect from such feeble white-haired

Loins? Desire that attempts oral sex without the strength

To perform it, is that not rightly suspect, too? Now take

Note of another lost power. What pleasure is there in music,

However fine the singer, what pleasure in Seleucus’s lyre,

Or the sound of the pipers, in cloaks of glittering gold?

What matter where he sits in the vast theatre, if he can

Barely hear the loud horn-player, the fanfare of trumpets? 

The slave-boy has to shout loudly, in his ear, to make his

Visitors’ names heard, or even tell him the time of day.

Moreover fever alone warms the few pints of blood in

His already icy body. A host of diseases of every strain

Encircle him, and if you asked me to name each of them

I could sooner tell you how many lovers Oppia has had;

Or how many patients Themison kills in a single autumn;

Or how many partners Basilus has swindled, how many

Wards Hirrus; how many men generous Maura sucks off

In a day, or how many pupils have been laid by Hamillus;

Quicker to run through the number of villas that man owns

Who made my fresh beard rasp, in shaving me, when young.

This old man’s shoulder’s impaired, that one’s groin, or

That one’s hip; he’s blind and jealous of the one-eyed; he

Takes food from another’s fingers between bloodless lips;

His jaws used to open wide when dinner appeared, now he

Just gapes like a baby-swallow when the selfless mother

Flies to it, bringing a mouthful. But worse than a physical

Decline is the onset of dementia, when his slaves’ names

Are forgotten, the face of his friend whom he dined with

The previous evening, and even the children he fathered,

And raised himself. In his will, he’ll cruelly deny his own

Heirs their inheritance, and leave everything to his dearest

Phiale; showing what the breath of a skilful mouth can do

That’s been employed for years deep in a whorish cavern.    

Even if his mental powers remain intact, he’s required to

Face the funerals of his sons, gaze on his beloved wife’s

Or brother’s pyre, on the urn containing his sisters’ ashes.

It’s the penalty for living a long life; to endure old age with

Domestic tragedy endlessly repeated, sorrow after sorrow,

Forever mourning, forever clothed in black. Nestor, King

Of Pylos, if you choose to give any credit to Homer’s tale,

Presents an example of survival second only to the ravens.

Surely he must have been happy, delaying his death for so

Many generations, counting his centuries on his finger-ends,

And toasting himself in so many new vintages? Well listen

A moment, to the complaints he made regarding the decrees

Of fate, and the length of his life’s thread, forced to see his

Ardent son Antilochus’s bearded body ablaze, questioning

Everyone there, as to why had survived to endure that day,

And what crime he had committed to deserve so long a life.

Peleus said the same, when he mourned the loss of Achilles,

And Laertes prematurely mourning the wandering Odysseus.

If Priam had died earlier, while proud Troy was still standing,

If he had died before Paris had begun to construct his brave

Fleet of ships, he would have joined the shade of his ancestor

Assaracus, his corpse borne, with great solemnity, held high

On the shoulders of his sons, Hector and his brothers, and

Accompanied by a host of Trojan women in tears, lead by

Cassandra and Polyxena, his daughters, their garments torn.  

What then did a long life bring him? He saw a world ending,

Asia Minor brought to defeat, swept by fire and the sword.

Then he removed his crown, and took up arms, a soldier

With trembling arm, to fall, at highest Jove’s altar, slain

Like an ox, too old for the thankless plough, offering its

Wretched, scrawny neck to the blade of its master’s knife.

At least he died a human being, while his wife, Hecuba,

Survived only to bark fiercely from a bitch’s gaping jaws.

I’ll turn to Roman examples, after passing swiftly over King

Mithridates of Pontus, and Croesus, ordered by eloquent Solon

The Just, to look to a long life’s end before calling it fortunate.

A long life led Marius to exile, prison, the Minturnine Marshes,

It was the cause of him begging his bread in ruined Carthage;

Could nature, or Rome, have displayed anyone more fortunate

Than that citizen, if his triumphal spirit had breathed its last,

When he’d led the massed ranks of his prisoners in procession,

And ridden amidst all that military pomp, at the very moment

When he finally chose to step down from his Teutonic chariot?

Campania, foreseeing his fate, offered Pompey a death by fever

He should have longed-for, but the prayers of people in many

Cities prevailed; so that Fortune, his own and Rome’s, saw him

Defeated, and severed that head she’d saved. That mangling

Lentulus  and Cethegus avoided; punished for their conspiracy,

They died whole, and the corpse of Catiline too lay there intact.

SatX:289-345 And As For Good Looks!

The anxious mother prays in a low murmur, for a sons’ good looks,

More loudly for a daughter’s, as she stares at the shrine of Venus,

With the most extravagant of requests. ‘Why criticise me?’ she’ll

Demand, ‘After all, Latona delights in her daughter Diana’s beauty.’

But Lucretia’s fate would inhibit me from praying for good looks

Like hers. Virginia would much have preferred to possess Rutila’s

Hunched back, and yield her own face to Rutila. Moreover, a son

With a handsome form always makes his parents so nervous and

Wretched: since it’s so rare for beauty to coincide with restrained

Behaviour. He’ll be denied his manhood, even though his family

Tradition is all for morality pure and simple, imitating the ancient

Sabines, even though nature may have endowed him generously

With a face that glows with blushing modesty, with an innocent

Disposition (What more, after all, could nature do for the lad;

Nature, who is more powerful than any chaperone’s vigilance?)

And why? Because of the unrestrained dishonesty of his seducer,

Who’ll even dare to corrupt the parents themselves: such is his

Confidence in the power of bribery. No tyrant in his barbaric

Fortress has ever sought to have an ugly adolescent castrated!

No bandy-legged scrofulous teenager, with a swollen belly

Or a hunched back, was ever the target of Nero’s foul desires!

Yet, carry on, and indulge your pride in your boy’s good looks,

And you must expect even greater dangers. He may well prove

A notorious adulterer, living in fear of whatever punishment

Some furious spouse may exact. His stars won’t make him

Any less likely than Mars to fall into the husband’s net. And

Resentment sometimes goes well beyond what the law allows:

There’s death by the sword, or a cruel scarring from the lash,

Some adulterers have even been buggered with dried mullets.

Still your Endymion seduces some married woman he’s fallen

In love with. Soon, when Servilia has handed over her money,

He’ll become hers whom he does not love, and strip her of all

Her personal jewellery; which of them, if she’s an Oppia or

A Catulla, is likely to deny that wetness between her thighs? 

‘But if he’s pure what harm can beauty do him? What good

Did it do Hippolytus or Bellerephon leading an austere life?

Stheneboa burned as hotly as did Phaedra, and both of them

Lashed themselves into a rage. Woman’s at her most savage

When she’s stirred to hatred by a sense of shame. What advice

Will you give Silius whom Claudius’s wife has determined

To ‘marry’? He’s the finest, most handsome member of the

Patrician race, yet a glance from Messalina is drawing him

To a wretched finale; she’s been waiting a while now, her

Bridal-veil all ready, her regal marriage bed’s prepared, all

Can see it in the garden; her dowry’s a thousand gold pieces,

And even the augur and witnesses have arrived not long ago.

Did you imagine this was a secret only shared with a few?

She won’t marry unless it’s legal. What’s your decision?

If you don’t choose to obey, you’ll be dead before evening;

If you commit the sin, there’ll be the briefest delay before

What’s known to Rome, and the mob, reaches Caesar’s ear.

Bow to her commands, if a few days of life are worth that.

Whichever decision you think is easier or more preferable,

You’ll still have to offer your fine white neck to the sword.  

SatX:346-366 So Much For Prayer

So is there nothing worth people praying for? If you’ll take

My advice, you’ll allow the gods to determine what’s right

For us, and what’s likely to benefit our situation; for

The gods grant us gifts that are more fitting than nice.

They show more care for us than we do for ourselves. We

Seek marriage and offspring driven by blind emotion, by

Vain desire, while the gods know all about the children

We’ll have, and what kind of wife ours will turn out to be.

Still, if you want a reason for prayer, for offering a pretty

White piglet’s innards, the sacred sausages, at the shrines,

Then you might pray for a sound mind in a healthy body.

Ask for a heart filled with courage, without fear of death,

That regards long life as among the least of nature’s gifts,

That can endure any hardship, to which anger is unknown,

That desires nothing, and gives more credit to all the labours

And cruel sufferings of Hercules, than to all the love-making

All the feasting, and all the downy pillows of Sardanapalus.

The prayer I offer you can grant yourself; without doubt,

The one true path that leads to a tranquil life is that of virtue.

If we were prudent, you’d possess no power, Fortune: it’s we

Who make you a goddess, and grant you a place in the sky.

End of Satire X