Satires I & II

Satire I: A Justification   SatI:1-18 Unbearable Stuff!


Must I be a listener forever? Never reply,

Tortured so often by throaty Cordus’s Theseus?

Must I let this fellow recite his Roman comedies,

Unpunished, and that one his elegies? Unpunished,

Consuming my whole day on some endless Telephus,

Or unfinished Orestes, the cover full and the margins?

A man knows his own house less well than I know

The grove of Mars or that cave of Vulcan’s right by

The Aeolian cliffs; what the winds do, which shade

Aeacus torments, where he’s from, he with the golden

Stolen fleece, how big that ash tree Monychus hurled –

Fronto’s plane-trees, cracked marble, and columns

Fractured by non-stop readings, ring with this stuff.

Expect the same, then, from this best and worst of poets.

I too have snatched my hand out of reach of the cane,

I too have given old Sulla ‘good advice’: get lost, enjoy

A good rest. It’s false mercy, when you trip over poets

Everywhere, to spare the paper they’re all ready to waste.


SatI:19-44 Why Choose Satire?


Why I still choose to go driving over the very plain

Where Lucilius the great, from Aurunca, steered his team,

I’ll explain, if you’ve time to hear my reasons, quietly.

When a tender eunuch takes him a wife; when Mevia

Fights a Tuscan boar, with bare breasts, gripping the spear;

When a fellow can match all the aristocrats in wealth,

Who made me cry with pain when he used to shave me;

When a pleb from the Nile, when a slave from Canopus,

One Crispinus, hitching his Tyrian cloak on his shoulder,

Wafts the gold of summer about on his sweaty fingers,

Simply unable to suffer the dreadful weight of a gem;

It’s hard not to write satire! For who’s so tolerant of Rome’s

Iniquities, so made of steel they can contain themselves

When along comes that lawyer Matho’s brand new litter,

Full of himself; behind, one who informed on a powerful

Friend, ready to steal any scraps from the noble carcase,

Whom Massa the stool-pigeon fears, and Carus sweetens

With gifts, like Thymele, in the farce, fed by fearful Latinus;

When you’re shoved by men who earn a place in the will

By night, men raised to the gods by the wide road now

To highest advancement, by a rich old woman’s ‘purse’?

To Proculeius just one twelfth share, but to Gillo eleven,

Each heir gets the portion that matches their performance.

May they turn truly pale as they snatch their blood-money,

Like a man with bare feet who’s stepped on a snake,

Or the next loser to speak, at Caligula’s altar in Lyon.


SatI:45-80 It’s a Litany of Crime


How can I describe the fierce anger burning my fevered gut,

When people are crushed by the herd behind some despoiler

Who prostituted his ward, or one found guilty in a wasteful

Trial? How could disgrace matter if the money’s safe?

Marius Priscus, in exile, drinks all afternoon, enjoying

The gods’ displeasure, while you, the dutiful winner, weep.

Isn’t that worth shining a light on, one lit by old Horace?

Isn’t that my task? What better? No dull tales of Hercules,

Please, or Diomedes, or that bellowing in the labyrinth,

Or the sea struck by the wing-wrecked son of a flying artisan,

When a husband accepts a wife’s lover’s gifts, and no law

Against her cheating: expert now at staring up at the ceiling,

An expert too at snoring over his cup through vigilant nose?

When someone who’s lavished his wealth on the horses, blown

The family fortune, thinks he’s the right to expect a command,

Just for racing his speeding chariot down the Flaminian Way,

Like some puny Automedon? Yes, he was clutching the reins,

Himself, while showing off to his girlfriend, her in the cloak.

Surely I’m allowed to fill a fat notebook at the crossroads

When they carry past, on six shoulders, no less, some false

Signatory, exhibited, this side and that, in his almost bare

Litter, one, strongly resembling the effeminate Maecenas,

Who’s made himself distinguished and rich with the aid

Of a brief roll of paper, and a moist signet ring?

When a powerful lady is next, who mixes in dried toad’s

Venom, while offering her husband mellow Calenian wine,

Improves on Lucusta, by teaching her simple neighbours

How to bury their skin-blotched husbands to public acclaim.

If you want to be someone, do something worthy of prison,

Exile on tiny Gyara – the honest are praised, but neglected.

It’s crime brings the gardens, mansions, elaborate dinners,

Old silver plate, and those drinking-cups carved with goats.

Who can sleep, for seducers of greedy daughters-in-law,

Who can sleep, for impure brides and teenage adulterers?

If talent is lacking, then indignation can fashion my verse,

Of such kind as poets like me, or Cluvenius, produce.


SatI:81-126 And All About Money


Since the days when a rainstorm raised the water-level,

And Deucalion sailed mountains by boat, asked a sign,

And the malleable stone was gradually warmed to life,

And Pyrrha displayed newly-created girls to the men,

What humankind does, its prayers, fears, angers, and pleasures,

Delights and excursions, all that farrago’s in my little book.

And when was the flow of vice fuller? When did the palm

Open wider to greed? When did gambling arouse greater

Passion? See, they don’t flock to the gaming tables now

With their purses: they place the family treasure and play.

What battles you’ll see there, the croupier bringing forth

Warriors! It’s quite mad to go losing a hundred thousand,

Surely, and yet to begrudge a shirt to a shivering slave?

Who of our ancestors built such villas, dined in private

On seven courses? Now the paltry handout-basket sits

On the doorstep, snatched at by a toga-clad mob,

As the patron first takes a nervous look at the faces,

Lest they’ve come to make false claim in another’s name:

Known, and you’re in. He even instructs the herald to call

The ‘Trojan’ elite, they too vex the threshold among us

All. ‘Give first to the praetor, and then to the tribune.’

But a freedman is first. ‘I was the first, here.’ he says.

‘Why should I fear, why should I hesitate, though I was

Born by Euphrates? The effeminate holes in my ears

Would proclaim it, if I denied it. Yet my five taverns

Bring in four hundred thousand, what more can the purple

Provide? While some Corvinus herds his leased sheep

There, in Laurentine fields, I possess more than Pallas

More than Licinus?’ Well, let the tribunes wait, then,

Let cash be the conqueror; let the slave just arrived here,

With chalk-whitened feet, not yield to high office;

After all, among us, the greatness of riches is sacred,

Though fatal Pecunia (Cash) has no temple as yet

To dwell in, and as yet we’ve set up no altars to money,

As we worship now, Peace, Loyalty, Victory, Virtue,

Or Concord, with clatter of storks when we hail her.

But while the highest official reckons at year-end

What the handouts brought in, how much added fat,

What will his clients do for their togas and shoes,

Bread and fuel at home? Jam-packed the litters arrive

For their hundred pence, a wife who’s pregnant or sick

Follows a husband doing the rounds, a craftier man

Plays the old trick, claims for his wife in her absence,

Pointing instead to an empty, close-curtained sedan,

‘There’s my Galla,’ he cries, ‘quick now, why the delay?

Show your face, Galla.’ ‘No need, she might be asleep.’


SatI:127-146 The Reward of Greed


The very day is distinguished by splendid things:

The handout, then the Forum, Apollo expert in law,

And the insignia, among which some customs-man

Out of Egypt, a nobody, dares to display his titles,

On whose statue it’s fine to take not merely a piss.

Aged and weary his clients abandon the forecourts,

Relinquish their aims; since the hope of eating lasts

Longest in man, they must buy firewood and greens.

Meanwhile his lordship is dining on all of the best

Produce of forest and sea, himself, amid empty couches.

Now at their table, one of those lovely large round

Antique ones, these people consume a whole fortune.

Soon there’ll be no parasites left. Who can bear

Such vulgar luxury? What a monstrous maw that feeds

On a whole wild boar, a creature that’s fit for a banquet!

There’s swift punishment though, when bloated you doff

Your cloak, and go for a bath, with a part-digested peacock

Inside. Then for the old it’s death, intestate and sudden.

The news is passed round at dinner, with never a tear;

And the funeral’s performed to the cheers of irate friends.


SatI:147-171 The Dangers of Satire


Posterity will need to add nothing to how we behave,

Our children will do and desire exactly the same;

All depravity stands at the edge of a chasm. Set sail,

Spread all your canvas. Perhaps you’ll say ‘Where

Is the power to match your subject? Where will you find

The frankness of those who wrote as they chose

With passionate spirit?’ Well who do I dare not name?

What matter if Mucius could never forgive my words?

‘Well, try Tigellinus, and you’ll be the flame to his torch

That scorches men upright, their bound throats smoking,

And score a wide track with your corpse over the sand.’

Do I let him ride by, then, that man who’s poisoned three

Of his uncles, and despise us from his feather cushions?

‘Yes, button your lip, instead, when he sallies by:

If you even say: ‘that’s him’, you’ll be marked, an informer.

It’s fine to pit pious Aeneas against the fierce Rutulian,

There’s no problem with old Achilles pierced by a shaft,

Or a Hylas, chasing his pitcher, searched for by many:

But when fiery Lucilius roars as if waving his naked

Blade, the hearer whose criminal mind is long-frozen,

Reddens and sweats, his conscience new-stricken by guilt.

Then, there’ll be anger and tears. So think about it first,

Before you go sounding your trumpet: too late to regret

Arming when you’re at war.’ Then I’ll see what they can do

To me, whose ashes the Via Latina and Via Flaminia shroud.


Satire II: Effeminate Rome   SatII:1-35 Put no Trust in Appearances

I’d like to flee this place, go far beyond the Sarmatians and icy

Ocean, while those who pretend to the Curii’s virtue, but live

Like Bacchanals, have the gall to preach to us of morality.

Lesson one: they’re ignorant, though their houses you’ll find

Filled with plaster busts of Chrysippus; for the most perfect

Is he who’s bought the most lifelike Aristotle, or Pittacus,

And ordered an antique Cleanthes to watch over his bookcase.

Put no trust in appearances; after all isn’t every street packed

With sad-looking perverts? How can you castigate sin, when you

Yourself are the most notorious of all the Socratic sodomite holes?

Though hairy members, and those stiff bristles all over your arms,

Promise a rough approach, your arse turns out to be smooth enough

When the smiling doctor lances away at your swollen piles.

Few words and a marked urge for silence is what they possess,

Hair cut shorter than their eyebrows. Peribomius the pathic’s

More open and honest than they; who admits his affliction

In his looks and his walk, all of which I attribute to fate.

The vulnerability of such is pitiful, and their passion itself

Deserves our forgiveness; far worse, are those who attack them

With Herculean rectitude, and waggle their bottoms while

Talking of virtue. ‘How can I respect you, Sextus, when I see

You wiggling your arse:’ cries notorious Varillus, ‘who’s better?’

The upright should scorn to limp, and white counter the black.

Where’s the sense in the Gracchi carping about revolution?

How could sky not be confounded with land, sea with sky,

Should Verrus the thief object to stealing, or Milo to murder,

Should Clodius condem adultery, Catiline his ally Cethegus,

Should Sulla’s Triumvirate, his disciples, jib at his death-list.

That’s how Domitian, that recent adulterer, behaved, defiled

By a fatal union, he who revived such bitter laws in his day,

To terrify everyone, even the deities, even Venus and Mars,

While Julia, his niece, ditched the contents of her ripe womb

With abortifacients, and shed lumps resembling her uncle.

Is it not just then and right, when the extremes of depravity

Sneer at every false Scaurus, and bite back when castigated?


SatII:36-63 Hypocritical Adulterers


Laronia, the adulteress, couldn’t abide that grim individual

Forever shouting: ‘Whose bed now, you breaker of Julian law?’

Grimacing she said: ‘O happy age, that set you on to carp at

Our morals. Let Rome be ashamed now, a third Cato falls

From  the sky! But just as a matter of interest where did you buy

The essence of balsam that wafts from your hairy neck?

Don’t hesitate to tell us who owns the shop it came from.

If it’s a matter of quoting neglected laws and statutes, cite

The Scantinian laws before all the rest, men and not women

Scrutinise first: they behave worse, but then they have safety

In numbers, united behind their phalanx of close-linked shields.

Great is the union of effeminates, nor will you find

So detestable an example set by any one of our sex.

Tedia never licks Cluvia, Flora is never all over Catulla,

But Hispo yields to young men and gets sick both ways.

We never plead cases, do we? Is it we who learn civil law?

When do we disturb your courts by making an uproar?

There aren’t many women wrestlers, girls on an athlete’s diet.

But you men tease the wool, and draw back the finished fleece

In its basket, you tweak the spindle pregnant with finest thread

More deftly than ever Penelope did, more cleverly than Arachne,

More than any dishevelled mistress does, as she sits on the chest.

Why Hister had made provision for his freedman alone in his will,

Is well-known, why he gifted his wife so much while he lived.

She who sleeps third in a bed will end up wealthy.

Marry, and be quiet: secrets garner cylinder-seals.

And after all that, do you dare sentence us as guilty?

Acquit the ravens, and bring censure on the doves?’


SatII:64-81 Hypocritical Aristocrats


As she uttered a manifest truth the quivering Stoics

Fled; was there any one thing Laronia said that was false?

But what should women do when you dress in muslin,

Creticus, while people stare at your clothes, as you rail

At Procula and Pellita? Let Fabulla be an adulteress,

Find even Carfinia guilty if you like: guilty as she is,

She won’t dress in a toga! ‘But it’s hot this July, I’m

Boiling.’ Then go naked: even madness is far less vile.

Behold what you wear, when citing laws and statutes,

To a victorious people, one with its wounds still raw,

Or mountain folk who are just come from the plough!

How you would protest if you caught a judge wearing

Such clothes! I doubt muslin’s decent even for witnesses.

You fierce indomitable champion of liberty, Creticus,

You’re so transparent. This stain is contagious and so

Will spread further, just as the whole herd of swine dies

In the field, because of the mange and scab on a single pig.

Just as a grape becomes tainted by touching another grape.


SatII:82-116 Those In the Closet


Some day you’ll dare something worse than that clothing;

No one’s wholly corrupted overnight. Little by little,

You’ll be received by those who, at home, in private, wear

Wide bands on their brow, necks all decked out in jewellery,

And placate the Good Goddess, like women, with a bowl of wine

And a young sow’s udder. But, in a change to the usual rule,

Women are challenged afar, and turned from the threshold,

The goddess’s altar open to men alone. ‘Hence, you profane ones,’

They cry, ‘no flute-playing girl with her mellow pipe here.’

Such secret rites were performed to torchlight, the Baptae

Accustomed to tiring the goddess, Cecropian Cotyto.

One man has blackened his eyebrows, moistened with soot,

Extends them with slanting pencil, and flutters his eyelids,

While applying the make-up; another drinks from a phallus-

Shaped glass, his bouffant hair filling a gilded hair-net,

Dressed in a chequered blue or a yellow-green satin,

While the master’s servant swears by the feminine Juno.

One holds a mirror, the pathic Otho’s constant companion,

‘The spoils of Auruncian Actor’ (Virgil), in which he used

To admire himself armed, as he issued the order for battle.

It’s worth noting in modern annals, and current histories:

A mirror was essential equipment to raise civil war.

It’s the mark of a supreme general, of course, to kill Galba

While powdering your nose, the maximum self-possession

Shown on Bebriacum’s field, to aspire to the Palatine throne

While your fingers plaster your face with a mask of dough,

What not even Semiramis, the archer, in her Assyrian city,

Tried, nor Cleopatra, in grief, in her flagship, at Actium.

Here there’s no shame in their language, or reverence at table,

Here is Cybele’s foulness, the freedom to speak in a woman’s

Voice, and an old fanatical white-haired man who’s the priest

Of the rites, a rare and memorable example, an enormous

Throat, a gluttonous specimen, an expert well worth his hire.

Why are they waiting? Isn’t it time already to use their knives,

To carve their superfluous flesh in the Phrygian manner?


SatII:117-148 And Those Out of It


Gracchus has given a dowry of four thousand gold pieces

For a horn-player, or one perhaps who plays the straight pipe;

The contract’s witnessed, ‘felicitations!’, a whole crowd

Asked to the feast, the ‘bride’ reclines in the husband’s lap.

O, you princes, is it a censor we need, or a prophet of doom?

Would you find it more terrible, think it more monstrous

Truly, if a woman gave birth to a calf, or a cow to a lamb?

He’s wearing brocade, the long full dress, and the veil,

He who bore the sacred objects tied to the mystic thong,

Sweating under the weight of shields. O, Romulus, Father

Of Rome, why has this evil touched the shepherds of Latium?

Where is it from, this sting that hurts your descendants, Mars?

Can you see a man noted for birth, wealth, wed to another man,

And your spear not beat the ground, your helmet stay firm,

And no complaint to the Father? Away then, forsake the stern

Campus’s acres, you neglect now. ‘I’ve a ceremony to attend

At dawn, tomorrow, down in the vale of Quirinus.’ ‘Why’s that?’

‘Why? Oh, a friend of mine’s marrying a male lover of his:

He’s asked a few guests.’ Live a while, and we’ll see it happen,

They’ll do it openly, want it reported as news in the daily gazette.

Meanwhile there’s one huge fact that torments these brides,

That they can’t give birth, and by that hang on to their husbands.

But it’s better that Nature grants their minds little power over

Their bodies: barren, they die; with her secret medicine chest,

Swollen Lyde’s no use, nor a blow from the agile Luperci.

Yet Gracchus beats even this outrage, in tunic, with trident,

A gladiator, circling the sand, as he flits about the arena:

He’s nobler in birth than the Marcelli, or the Capitolini,

Than the scions of Catulus and Paulus, or the Fabii,

Than all the front-row spectators, including Himself,

The one who staged that show with the nets and tridents.


SatII:149-170 Rome’s a Disgrace!


That ghosts exist at all, or the realms of the Underworld,

Cocytus, and the whirl of black frogs in the Styx,

Or all those thousands crossing the flood in one boat,

Not even children believe, unless wet behind the ears.

But suppose it were true: what would the shade of Curius feel,

What of the shades of the Scipios, of Fabricius or Camillus?

What of the legion at Cremera, the young men ruined at Cannae,

The dead of all those wars, what would they feel when a ghost

Descended from here? They’d desire purification, if they had

There, the sulphur, the flaming torches, and the moist laurel.

Down there, alas, we’d be paraded in shame. We may have

Sent troops beyond Ireland’s shores, and recently captured

The Orkneys, beaten the Britons familiar with midnight suns,

But the nations we’ve defeated don’t get up to what people

Get up to now, in victorious Rome. ‘Yet nevertheless one

Zalaces, they say, an Armenian lad, more effeminate than all

The rest of the boys, gave himself to a passionate tribune.’

Look what foreign trade yields: he came here as a hostage,

We make them men of the world, if such boys stay longer

Adopting Roman ways, they’ll never lack lovers, doffing

Their breeches, and little knives, their bridles and whips.

Those are the teenage ways they’ll take home to Armenia.