The Golden Ass, Book X

Book X:1-5 The tale of the wicked stepmother – poisoning


What became of my gardener the following day I have no idea, but as for me, the soldier who had won such a lovely beating for his wondrously vile temper took me from the stable without anyone opposing him, and led me away. He piled me high with the luggage from what were his barracks I assume, and set me off up the road, festooned all over and kitted out in military fashion. I carried a brightly gleaming helmet, a shield which shone brighter still, and a spear with a great long shaft, all heaped on the top of his pile of baggage, like a miniature army on its travels, and not on account of regimental orders but to frighten poor travellers. At the end of a flat and easy journey, we arrived at a small town, where we lodged not at the inn but at the home of a councillor. Here the centurion gave me into the keeping of a slave, and set off straight away to report to his colonel, who had command of over a thousand men. A few days later a wicked and dreadful crime was committed in the town, which I’ll set down here so you can learn of it too.

The owner of my lodging had a young well-educated son, who was in consequence all obedience and good behaviour, the kind of son you would wish for your own. The boy’s mother had died years before. The father remarried, and had a twelve-year old boy by his second wife. The stepmother held sway, noted more for her beauty than character, and either through an innate disregard for her chastity or driven by fate to commit a wholly wicked crime she turned her eyes longingly on her stepson.

So, dear reader, now you know, this is no trivial tale but a tragedy, and you’ve risen from comic slippers to platform shoes.

As long as cupid remained an infant, nourished on simple fare, the stepmother hid her guilty blushes, and silently staved off the love-god’s weak assaults, but her heart slowly filling with raging flames, hot frenzied love at last blazed in her wildly, and she yielded to the savage god. Feigning illness, she tried to pretend her wounded heart was really bodily illness. Now, as we know, the usual effects on one’s appearance are exactly the same in the love-sick and those sick for other reasons: namely abnormal pallor, languid eyes, weak knees, restless sleep, and sighs which are more intense the more protracted the torment. You’d have thought in her case too a high temperature caused her fever, except that she was also full of tears. Alas the ignorance of medical minds, unable to diagnose from those throbbing veins, that variable complexion, the laboured breathing, the tossing from side to side! Yet, dear gods, any intelligent person, even one who’s not a specialist, knows the symptoms of desire, on seeing someone burning without a physical cause.

She became more and more agitated by her unbearable ardour, until at last breaking her long silence she summoned to her side this ‘son’ whom she would gladly have called by another name to spare her sense of shame. The youth responded at once to his stepmother’s request, entering the patient’s bedroom, with as anxious a brow as some melancholy old man, but only out of courtesy to his father’s wife and brother’s mother. She, long tormented and harassed by her secret, was now however aground on a shoal of doubt. Every time she grasped at a phrase appropriate for the moment at hand, she rejected it again; and even as her feelings of shame abated, she still hesitated as to how to begin her speech. But the youth it was who took the lead, suspecting nothing, with a respectful look asking the cause of her present illness. As they were alone she seized the moment to speak with dangerous boldness, and weeping floods of tears, hiding her face with the hem of her robe, she addressed him briefly in a quivering voice:

‘The whole root and origin of my present illness, as well as my only hope of cure and recovery, is you yourself. Those eyes of yours penetrated my eyes, and plunged to the depths of my heart, and set the fiercest flames burning in my marrow. Take pity on one who dies because of you, and don’t be concerned by your respect for your father, for his wife is at death’s door and you can save her for him. I am right to love you since I see his likeness in your face. And have no fear, we are alone, and there is time enough for what is needed. What none know of has scarcely happened.’

The young man was disturbed by this unexpected trouble, but though he recoiled from the act, he thought it best not to cause a crisis by the harshness of an inopportune refusal, but rather to defuse it by a guarded promise, and seek delay. He urged her, with a wealth of assurances, to be of good cheer and devote her time to rest and recuperation, until his father’s absence might allow them free time for dalliance. Then he hurried from her sight. Deciding that such a challenge to the family honour needed wise counsel, he took the matter to his old and learned tutor. After long deliberation they both decided that the safest course to escape this cruel storm of fortune was urgent flight.

But his stepmother, impatient over the slightest delay, with ready cunning invented some pretext or other that persuaded her husband to go and view the situation of his widely scattered rural estates. Once he had left she, wild with ripened expectation, impetuously demanded that the youth honour his pledge. But he gave one excuse after another, to avoid the sight of her whom he detested. When, from the messages she received, she realised he had finally reneged on his promise, the volatile woman showed her inconstancy, and illicit love turned to even fiercer hatred. She confided in a slave, acquired as part of her dowry, a villain ready for any crime, apprised him of her treacherous scheme, and agreed it was best to end the poor lad’s life. So off the scoundrel went to obtain some swift poison which he carefully dissolved in wine in preparation for the murder of the innocent boy.

But while those two were conferring as to when to offer him the wine, fate chanced to intervene. The younger boy, the stepmother’s own son, came home from morning school for his lunch, and feeling thirsty found the wine, already imbued with poison. Ignorant of the danger lurking there, he drank it in one great gulp, and swallowing the venom destined for his brother fell lifeless to the ground. His servant, terrified at this sudden collapse, raised a cry of horror that brought the mother running along with the whole household. When they realised the tragic turn of events, each called out accusations of monstrous crime. The vile woman, a perfect type of the wicked stepmother, was untroubled however by her own son’s cruel death, her guilt for the murder, the family’s grief, her husband’s mourning, or the pain of the funeral. Instead she used the catastrophe to further her revenge. She sent a messenger at once to give her husband the tragic news that sent him hastening back from his trip. Then, playing a role of extreme audacity, she claimed her stepson as the cause of her son’s death by poison. Indeed this was not quite utter nonsense, since the younger boy had indeed incurred the death intended for the elder. But she went on to accuse the stepson of murdering his young brother simply because she’d refused to meet his shameful demands when he sought to seduce her. And not content with these monstrous lies, she added that he’d threatened her too with a sword, on being accused of the crime.

So now the poor husband, blown about by the winds of misfortune, was threatened with the death of his other son. Having witnessed his younger son’s funeral, he also knew without a shadow of doubt that the elder would be sentenced to death for incest and fratricide. And then the feigned grief of a wife he loved too well had even quenched his love for his son.


Book X:6-9 The tale of the wicked stepmother – truth


The funeral was scarcely over, the procession and burial done, when the wretched man, his cheeks still wet with tears, his ash-strewn hair torn, hastened from the pyre to the forum. There he clutched the councillors’ knees, weeping and entreating, ignorant of his vile wife’s treacheries, calling, in the full flow of his emotions, for the execution of the living son. He decried him as an incestuous coveter of his father’s marriage bed, a murderer stained with a brother’s blood, an assassin bent on killing his stepmother. The father’s grief and anger roused the council and the people to such overwhelming pity and wrath that the crowd wished to dispense with the formality of a trial, since the prosecution case was abundantly clear and his defence would merely be a studied evasion. They shouted as one that this sin against themselves should be punished by themselves, and the murderer crushed beneath a hail of stones.

But the magistrates feared damage to their status if mob rule arose from a limited cause, with public order and civic government by-passed. Some of them interceded with the councillors, others remonstrated with the crowd, arguing that a verdict should be given after due process that the allegations on both side should be examined, and sentence delivered in a civilised way. In a time of peace and calm, they should not condemn a man unheard, as savages might, or barbarous tyrants: that would be a monstrous precedent for future generations.

Their wise advice was taken, and the town-clerk ordered to summon the judicial court to the council-chamber. All took their seats in order of rank and at a signal from the clerk the prosecutor first made his case. Eventually the defendant was summoned, and in accordance with Attic law and the Court of the Aeropagus, the clerk reminded the defence to avoid a long preamble or attempts to arouse pity.

This was how things went as I learned from overheard conversation, since I was not in court but tied to my manger. I can’t report the actual words the prosecution used, or how the defence sought to rebut the charges, the precise debate and discussion in effect; but though I can’t report what I didn’t hear, I’ll set down carefully what I reliably determined.

As soon as the lawyers had presented their case, it was decided that definitive test should be made of the truth and consistency of the charges, so as not to ground such a vital decision on mere speculation. In particular the slave who’d obtained the poison, and was thought to be the only witness to all that had happened, was made to take the stand. That candidate for the gallows was not the least bit deterred by the magnitude of the charge, the sight of the packed council-chamber, or his own guilty conscience, but gave his own false evidence as if it were truth, asserting that the youth, angered by his stepmother’s rejection, had summoned him to avenge the insult and kill his mistress’ own son, threatening him with death if he refused; then given him the poison, mixed with his own hands, to administer to the brother; and lastly suspecting him, the slave, of ignoring his orders, and keeping the poisoned chalice as evidence of crime, had given the brother the cup himself. This account, an all too plausible travesty of the truth, was delivered without a trace of nervousness, and so the trial came to an end.

All the councillors seemed convinced of the young man’s guilt, and that he should be sentenced, according to law, to be sewn in a sack and drowned. It only remained to return a unanimous guilty verdict, and cast their written votes in the bronze urn as had been done since time immemorial. Once the ballots were lodged, the defendant’s fate was sealed, the decision could not be altered, and the executioner was granted power over his life. At this moment however, one of the elders, an outstandingly well-respected physician of impeccable honesty, covered the mouth of the urn with his hands to stop anyone thoughtlessly casting his vote, and made the following speech to the court:

‘Having lived, happily, to a ripe old age and enjoyed a good reputation among you, there is no way I can allow a defendant to fall victim to false accusations: it would be tantamount to murder. Nor can I permit you, bound as you are by oath to judge rightly, to accept this perjury, the lies of a worthless slave. I cannot myself evade my moral obligation, and bring in a faulty verdict against my own conscience. Listen to me, and learn the facts.

This scoundrel of a slave came to me a while ago, and offered me a hundred gold pieces for a quick-acting poison. He claimed it was needed for a man who was ill, one tortured by the slow progression of an incurable disease, who wished to free himself from his torment. Hearing the clumsy pretext given by this garrulous rascal and thinking he might be planning some crime I gave him the poison but took precautions in case that were true. I did not take the money proffered, but told him to seal the sack of money with his ring, in case some of the gold was counterfeit, and I’d have it verified tomorrow in a banker’s presence. So I convinced him to set his seal on the business, and as soon as this case was called, I ordered a servant to run and bring the sack from my premises. He has arrived, and here’s the sack, which I set before you as evidence. Let him look and admit to his own seal. How can the brother be accused of buying the poison, when this slave it was who did so?’


Book X:10-12 The tale of the wicked stepmother – resurrection


At this the rascal of a slave began to tremble violently, his normal colour was succeeded by a deathly pallor, and a cold sweat bathed his entire body. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, scratched his head, and babbled such inarticulate nonsense through his half-closed mouth, that no one surely could have thought him free of guilt, yet recovering his composure he resolutely denied everything and repeatedly accused the doctor of lying. The latter finding his own honesty impugned, and the integrity of the legal process undermined, refuted the man’s words with redoubled energy, and finally, at the magistrates’ command, the officers of the court removed the iron seal-ring from the slave’s finger, and matched it to the wax impression on the sack. The exact fit confirmed their suspicions. Nor, in the Greek manner, did they then refrain from the torments of the wheel and the rack, yet the slave suffered them with marvellous obduracy, not yielding even to the soles of his feet being burned or beaten.

The doctor then exclaimed: ‘I cannot allow the court to commit injustice, and execute an innocent young man, or allow this rogue to make a mockery of our due process and escape the consequences of his evil deed. Now I must reveal all the facts. The rascal asked me for a deadly poison, yet I believe it against my profession to offer anyone the means to further death or destruction, since I was always taught that medicine is devised to heal and not to harm, yet I feared if I refused I would not prevent a crime by my peremptory denial, that he’d procure a fatal poison elsewhere, or accomplish his deadly design in the end by the use of a sword or other weapon. So I gave him a drug, mandragora, known for its soporific effect, which produces a death-like coma. No wonder the prisoner resisted your torture so readily, since with the death penalty decreed in case of murder, he is desperate to keep silence. However, the boy, if he only took the medicine I mixed with my own hands, is still alive, and in a sleep. Once rested, he will rouse from his deep coma and return to a waking state. But if he has been killed, if death has intervened, you must seek the reason for that death elsewhere.’

The old man’s testimony convinced them, and they hurried to the sepulchre where the boy’s body lay entombed. Councillors, nobles, commoners alike all streamed to the place in their excitement. The father raised the lid of the sarcophagus with his own hands, and behold he found his son rousing himself from a deathlike sleep, having been held back from the fatal threshold. Clasping him tightly, lost for words to express his joy at the event, he then led him outside to show the crowd. The boy was then brought before the court, swathed and cloaked as he was, in his burial shroud.

Now the naked truth was revealed, and the evil slave’s and the more evil stepmother’s crimes were clearly known. The stepmother was sentenced to perpetual exile, the slave was crucified, and by mutual agreement the good doctor was allowed to keep the gold paid for his opportune prescription. As for the father his tale of unwelcome notoriety and ill-fortune had an ending worthy of divine providence: he who barely a moment before, a brief instant, had been at risk of being rendered childless, was once more the father of two young sons.


Book X:13-16 Gluttony


As for me tossed about on the waves of fate, the soldier, who had never purchased me and acquired me at zero cost, sold me for eleven denarii, after the tribune sent him with despatches to the Emperor in Rome. The buyers were two brothers from the neighbourhood, household servants to a wealthy man. One was his pastry-cook, who baked bread and concocted honeyed desserts, the other his chef who cooked tasty dishes of tender meat, seasoned with flavoursome sauces. The brothers lived together, sharing their earnings, and bought me to carry the various utensils they needed whenever their master travelled around from place to place. I was accepted as the third comrade of those two, and never did fate treat me so kindly. In the evening after some luxurious banquet with all the trimmings, they would return to their lodgings with the remains; the chef bringing ample portions of fish, roast-pork, chicken, and other meats; his brother carrying bread and croissants, cakes, tarts, biscuits and many a honeyed dainty. As soon as they locked the house and went off to the baths to refresh themselves, I would dine to my satisfaction on that celestial fare. I was not after all, so true an ass, so complete a fool, as to neglect those sweet leftovers in favour of coarse hay.

For a while my cunning thefts went well, since I was stealing, cautiously and modestly, only a little from a vast array of food, and they were little mindful of an ass. But as I grew more confident in my deceit, and began to devour the richest spoils, and lick at the tastiest delights, the brothers’ minds were filled with deep suspicion. Though I was not considered, they set out eagerly to track down the culprit behind their daily losses. They even began, in the end, to suspect each other of being the wicked thief, and started to take careful precautions, keeping a sharper eye open and taking an inventory of the dishes. Finally, overcoming his reserve, one accused the other of the crime.

‘What you are doing, brother, is unjust and unreasonable, stealing the best of the day’s leftovers and selling them quietly to increase your profits, yet demanding an equal share of what remains. If you’re unhappy with our partnership, let’s dissolve our bond, and cease holding assets in common: we can still be brothers in all other respects, but I see this matter doing us enormous harm, and breeding violent quarrels.’

‘By Hercules,’ the other replied, ‘I congratulate you on your show of coolness, you’ve been secretly taking the remnants every day, now you pretend to suffer from my own cause for complaint, one I’ve tolerated silently while bemoaning it for many a long while, so as not to have to accuse my own brother of sordid theft. Still, it’s a good thing we’ve both spoken, and are seeking redress for our loss, otherwise we might have stayed mute and fought each other, as Eteocles and Polynices did, regarding the throne of Thebes.’

They ended the argument by swearing that neither was guilty of theft or deceit, and pledged to search out with all the skill they had whoever was responsible for their mutual loss. The ass, they agreed, the only other creature present, would find those sort of dishes unappetising, nevertheless the choicest morsels had been disappearing, and there were no signs of monstrous flies buzzing round the room like those Harpies that long ago robbed Phineus of his food.

I, stuffed each day meanwhile with ample nutriment, crammed to overflowing with human victuals, had grown obese, packed with solid fat, my sleek hide shiny with grease, my coat polished to a noble sheen. But this bodily excellence of mine led shamefully to my disgrace. The brothers began to notice my exceptional expansiveness of girth, and noticing my hay untouched directed all their attention to me. Locking the door as usual when off to the baths, they spied on me through a crack, and seeing me at work on the banquet around me they forgot their care for their losses, and dumbfounded by this ass’s gourmet tastes they fell about laughing. Then they summoned a couple of fellow-servants, and then many more, to view the lazy ass’s absurd gluttony. They were all in such fits of uncontained laughter that the sound reached their master’s ears as he passed by. He asked what in heaven’s name amused them so, and on hearing, he also took a look through the same crack. He too, richly amused, laughed so hard and long his stomach ached. Then he had them unlock the door, so he could enter and watch me openly. Seeing fortune’s face smiling somewhat kindly on me at last, and filled with confidence by the delight of those around me, I felt quite at ease and went on eating unconcernedly. The master of the house, enjoying the novel sight, ordered me to be led, or rather conducted me himself, to the dining room, where he had the table set and a whole variety of fresh dishes as yet all un-tasted placed before me. Though I was already well replete, I wanted to oblige him and win his favour, so I eagerly attacked the food laid before me. Choosing everything an ass would surely loathe, and seeking to try my taste, they offered me meat seasoned with giant fennel, peppered chicken, and fish in exotic dressings, while the banquet hall resounded to their wild laughter.

Then some jester among them, said: ‘Try your friend with a little wine!’ The master took up his suggestion: ‘That’s not such a bad idea you crazy fool. Our guest would surely like a cup of honeyed wine with his meal.’ So he turned to a slave, saying: ‘Here, lad, rinse this gold goblet carefully, mix some mead and offer it to my client here! And tell him I’ll drink to him, as well!’

The expectant audience were filled with anticipation and I, not in the least dismayed, slowly and happily curled my lips like a ladle and swallowed the huge cupful in one swift gulp. A clamour rose as, in unison, they all wished me good health.


Book X:17-22 Happy days, and nights!


The master was filled with delight, summoned the servants who’d bought me, then acquired me for four times the price. Next he turned me over to his favourite freedman, a man of means, ordering him to take good care of me. The man indeed granted me much kindness and respect, and to commend himself further to his patron went to vast trouble to devise new ways of amusing him with my clever tricks. He taught me to recline at dinner leaning on one elbow then taught me to wrestle and even dance with my forelegs in the air. Most wonderful of all he taught me to respond to words with gestures: I’d show approval by nodding my head and negation by tossing it backwards; when I was thirsty I’d look round at a servant and alternately wink my eyes to request a drink. It was trivial for me, of course, to perform all this without the need for a trainer, but I thought if I acted in too human a way without him, people would see me as an unlucky omen, condemn me as a monster, and serve me to the vultures for dinner. Soon word of me spread among the public, and my owner became famous, celebrated himself for my remarkable talents. ‘Here’s the man,’ they’d cry, ‘who treats his ass as a friend, and invites the beast to dinner, and it wrestles, dances, knows human language, and says what it wants with a nod.’

Now, before I go further, I must tell you at least as I should have done at the start who my owner was, and where it was he hailed from. Thiasus was his name, a native of Corinth, the capital city of all Achaea. In accord with his ancestry and status he’d risen through the ranks of public office and been nominated as one of the two chief magistrates. As a fitting response to the honour of receiving the rods and axe, he’d promised a three day spectacle, gladiatorial games, to demonstrate his munificence to all. In pursuit then of public glory he’d even travelled to Thessaly to purchase the fiercest wild beasts and the best gladiators there. Having bought everything to plan, he was all ready and prepared for his journey home. Scorning his fine carriages and his excellent wagons which, open and covered, followed his retinue, spurning his Thessalian horses and Gallic steeds as well, whose noble lineage commanded an equally noble price, instead he had me decked out with gold medallions, crimson saddle, purple horse-cloth, silver bridle, embroidered girth, and little tinkling bells; and it was me he rode. He talked to me often most fondly, in a kind and friendly way, proclaiming his pleasure at having in me a companion and mount combined.

After a journey by land and sea we arrived at last at Corinth, where hosts of citizens gathered, less to honour Thiasus it seemed than from a wish to see me. My reputation had spread so widely, that even there I was a source of no little profit to the man who looked after me. Noting how eager some of them were to watch me perform, he locked the door and only allowed them in one at a time, making a pleasant profit each day by charging for the admission.

Now among this crowd was a certain rich and powerful lady, who having paid with the rest and enchanted by my tricks was led by her constant sense of wonder to a great desire for me. She found no remedy for her kindling passion, but yearned ardently for the embrace of an ass, as Pasiphae yearned for that bull, so she struck a bargain with my keeper, paying a hefty price for a night with me. He agreed, not the least concerned whether I might object, but highly pleased by the profit.

Finishing supper and leaving the dining room, we found the lady had been waiting for some time in my room. Heavens, what magnificent and luxurious preparations! Four eunuchs hastened to make a bed on the floor, scattering a large heap of soft feather pillows for us, carefully overlaid with a cover of cloth of gold and Tyrian purple, with other smaller but no less numerous pillows on top, the kind that noblewomen use to support their heads and necks. Not wanting by their continued presence to delay their mistress’ pleasure, they quickly closed the bedroom door and went their way, leaving the wax candles to cast their glistening rays, and dispel for us the shadows of night.

She took off all her clothes, even the scarf of gauze with which she’d bound her beautiful breasts, and standing close to the light she rubbed herself all over with oil of balsam from a pewter jug, and lavishly did the same to me, with greater eagerness, moistening my nostrils with incense. Then she gave me a lingering kiss, not the sort of kisses hurled about in brothels, the cash-seeking kisses of whores or the cash-denying ones from customers, but a pure one and sincere. And she spoke to me with tender affection: ‘I love you’, ‘I want you,’ ‘I desire you alone,’ ‘I can’t live without you,’ with all the other expressions women employ to inflame their lovers and declare their feelings. Then she tugged my halter, and made me recline on the bed as I’d learned to do. I readily obliged, as the task at hand seemed not too new or difficult, and since I was about to enjoy the passionate embrace of a very lovely woman. Moreover I’d sated myself with a copious amount of vintage wine, and the heady fragrance of the ointment had roused my desire.

Still I was troubled and not a little anxious at the problem of how, possessing such a quantity of great legs, I was to mount so fragile a woman; or clasp that soft and glowing body, all made of milk and honey, with my hard hooves; or kiss those sweet lips moist with ambrosial dew with my vast misshapen mouth with teeth like granite; and even though she was itching for it, to the tips of her toes, how would she cope with my huge member? Alas for me, if I should injure the noble lady and be thrown to the wild beasts as part of my owner’s entertainment. Meanwhile she kept repeating her tender words, her assiduous kisses and sweet moans, with eyes that devoured me.  At last she gasped: ‘I have you, I have you now, my dove, my sparrow.’ And as she spoke, she revealed how idle my worries had been, how irrelevant my thoughts, as she clasped me tightly and swallowed me whole. Indeed, every time I tried to spare her and pull back, she thrust herself closer wildly, clasped my back and clung on ever harder, until, by Hercules, I feared I might fail to sate her desires, and that Pasiphae, who bore the Minotaur, might had have good reason to choose a bull for a lover. After a sleepless and relentless night, she left, avoiding the exposure of daylight, after agreeing the same price with my keeper for another session.


Book X:23-25 The condemned woman – the first murder


My keeper was little loathe to dispense these joys at her command, since he was not merely making a huge profit but also rehearsing the thing for his master’s benefit, to whom he freely disclosed the details of our whole performance. My master rewarded him richly, and decided I should form part of the entertainment. Since of course that illustrious lover of mine was precluded because of her position, and no one else could be found to play the part even at a price, he procured a vile woman already condemned to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. She would appear with me in front of the packed Circus, and be publicly shamed. This is what I learned of what led to her punishment.

She had a husband, whose father had ordered his wife, the young man’s mother, who was now heavily pregnant with another child, to kill the infant at once if it chanced to be female. During her husband’s absence she duly gave birth to a girl, but naturally possessed by maternal feelings, rebelled at the thought of obeying his command. She handed the child to a neighbour to nurture and, on her husband’s return, announced the birth and death of a girl. But when the lovely child was of marriageable age, and the mother wished to give a dowry matching the girl’s status, without her husband knowing, she revealed the secret to her son. She also feared, you see, that he, by chance, with the impulse of hot youth, might unwittingly seduce his sister, without either of them knowing of their relationship. But with an exemplary sense of duty, the young man religiously discharged his obligation to his mother, his duty to his sister. Entrusting the secrets of his honourable house to the guardianship of silence, he took on the task his ties of blood demanded while feigning on the surface to be acting from common humanity. For the girl, denied a parent’s affections, he provided a place in his own home not that of the kind neighbour, and soon married her off to one of his dearest and closest friends, giving a generous dowry from his own estate.

But these fine and admirable arrangements, made with such self-restraint, could not escape Fortune’s deadly notice, at whose instigation fierce Jealousy set a course for the young man’s house. And soon that wife of his, this woman now condemned to the wild beasts for her crimes, began to fear the girl was a rival, a concubine to share his bed, then to curse her and finally to seek her death by the cruellest of schemes.

She devised the following snare: secretly removing her husband’s signet ring, then setting off for the country but sending a servant faithful to her, but no servant of good faith itself, to tell the girl that the husband had left for his country house and wished to see her there, asking her to come alone and unaccompanied, and so that the girl would have no qualms gave the servant the ring to show as a guarantee of it being a true message. The girl, on seeing the ring and knowing it was her brother’s, lost no time in setting out according to the request, all alone as instructed. Once the girl was trapped in that web of cunning and deceit, caught fast in the snare, the wife, maddened to fury by the goads of passion, stripped her naked and flogged her cruelly. The girl screamed the truth, over and over again, that she was no rival, that the husband was her brother, that there was no reason for this cruel anger, but the wife, treating it all as lies concocted by the girl, went on to murder her savagely with a burning brand thrust between the thighs.

Summoned by news of her dreadful fate, her brother and her husband flew to the scene, mourned her with every show of lamentation then buried her. The young man, unable to suffer his sister’s death with calmness, a death so pitiful and inflicted so unfairly, shaken to the very core by grief, felt the furious workings of poisonous bile, and began to burn with such fiery fevers that he seemed in need of soothing drugs. His wife, one only in name, all loyalty lost, went to a dubious physician she knew, who had gained many a prize from his battles with disease and could count extensive trophies from the work of his right hand, and to buy her husband’s death promised him five hundred gold pieces down to sell her an instant poison. Once agreed, he made up a medicine, which purported to be a well-known mixture for soothing the innards and eliminating bile that the eminent called ‘the sacred potion’, but was instead another, sacred to Proserpine. Then, in the presence of the husband’s close family, and several friends and other relatives, the physician offered it, carefully mixed in a drink, to the patient with his own hand.


Book X:26-28 The condemned woman – and the rest


That shameless woman, however, seeking both to rid herself of her accomplice and avoid making the payment she’d promised, put her hand on the cup, in full view of all, saying: ‘Noble physician, you shall not give my dear husband that medicine until you have swallowed a portion yourself. Who knows, it might contain some harmful poison? If, as a devoted wife, anxious for her husband’s welfare, I show a proper sense of caution, I hope that does not offend so learned and careful a man as you.’

This savage woman’s astounding and daring stroke shocked the physician and drove all stratagems from his mind, while the urgency of responding allowed no room for thought, and so pinning his hopes on an antidote he knew of, afraid to show any signs of a bad conscience by showing anxiety or hesitation, he took a large sip of the medicine. Reassured by the sight, the husband now took the cup and swallowed the proffered dose. The doctor, having discharged his task, now wished to flee so as to take the antidote in time, but the evil woman with demonic persistence would not let him move a step until, as she said: ‘the medicine has first spread through the veins and its effect begins to show.’ After a long while, and much persistence, he swayed her with his pleading and protestations, and she granted him leave. Meanwhile the poison had worked its way through his veins and been absorbed to his very marrow. Ravaged by the drug, already attacked by fits of torpor, he eventually reached home. He had barely finished telling his wife the story, wildly insisting she make sure of the payment promised, when, choking violently, the illustrious doctor expired.

The young husband had fared no better, dying in a like manner, as his spouse wept false tears. Once he was buried and the week of funeral rites had passed, the doctor’s wife indeed sought compensation due. The murderess remained true to her character, and wearing the mask of straight-dealing, answered the doctor’s wife pleasantly, and promised her generous payment all in good time if she would provide a little more of the potion. In brief, the doctor’s wife, caught in the snare, agreed to this act of fresh wickedness, and to gain the lady’s favour ran home and returned with the whole jar. The woman, now with ample supplies for further crime, stretched her murderous reach further.

She had a baby daughter by the husband she had murdered, and was furious that the law gave the child right of inheritance, so in her desire for the entire estate she became a threat to the daughter too. Knowing the child’s legacy would revert to her as the mother, secretly tainted by crime though she was, she proved as evil a parent as a wife and, contriving a dinner party to suit, murdered the doctor’s wife and the child in the same manner as before. But while in the daughter’s case the fatal poison swiftly reached her vital organs and stopped the lungs, the doctor’s wife, as the foul drug worked its way through her body like some venomous storm destroying all in its path, suspected the truth, and when her breathing became laboured knew for certain. She ran to the governor’s house, and appealing loudly for his protection, set the crowd in an uproar by claiming she could reveal appalling crimes. The governor brought her inside and invited her to speak, and she had given a careful description of all the atrocities that ruthless murderess had committed, from the start, when suddenly her mind was gripped by a bout of dizziness, her half-open lips closed convulsively, a long rasping noise came from her grinding teeth, and she fell lifeless at the governor’s feet.

He, experienced in such matters, refusing to let pallid delay interfere with the swift sentencing of this venomous serpent, immediately arrested her servants and extracted the truth from them by torture. As for the murderess, because no other more fitting punishment sprang to mind, and though doubtless it was less than she deserved, he sentenced her to be thrown to the wild beasts.


Book X:29-32 The entertainment


This was the woman whom I was meant to solemnly wed in public, and I waited for the day of the show in terrible suspense and great torment, wishing every now and then I might kill myself rather than be tainted by pollution from that depraved woman, and shamed by being made a spectacle. But without human hands and fingers, only misshapen hooves, I couldn’t even draw a sword. In this hour of desperation, I consoled myself with one slight hope: spring at its inception was even now scattering flowery gems, and painting the meadows with brilliant light, and now the roses had burst from their thorny coverts and shone forth, exhaling their sweet spicy scent, roses that could restore me to the Lucius I once was.

The day appointed for the show came at last. I was led to the amphitheatre’s outer wall, by an enthusiastic crowd, in procession. The entertainment began with actor’s comic mimes, while I enjoyed myself by the gate browsing the rich and juicy grass growing at the entrance, and now and then refreshing my eyes with a glance at the show through the open portal.

There were boys and girls in the bloom of youth, outstanding in their fresh beauty, splendid costumes, and graceful movements, ready to perform the Pyrrhic dance. They moved in decorous unwavering order, now weaving in and out in a whirling circle, now linking hands in a slanting chain, now in wedges forming a hollow square, now separating into distinct troops. When the trumpet’s final note un-wove the knotted complexities of their intricate motion, the curtain was raised, the screens folded back, and the stage was set.

There stood a mountain of wood, built with noble skill to resemble that illustrious Mount Ida that Homer sang. It was planted out with living trees and bushes, and from its summit a stream of water flowed from a fountain made by the designer’s own hand. A handful of goats were cropping the grass and a youth, beautifully dressed in the manner of Paris, as Phrygian shepherd, an Asiatic robe flowing over his shoulders, a gold tiara on his brow, pretended to be tending the flock. Then a shining lad appeared, naked except for a cloak worn on his left shoulder, attracting all gazes with his blond hair, with little gold wings on either side projecting from his curls and a wand, proclaiming him as Mercury. He danced forward bearing in his right hand an apple covered in gold leaf, and offered it to the actor playing Paris. Then, relaying Jupiter’s instructions for the action to follow, he nodded, swiftly and gracefully retraced his steps, and vanished. Next arrived a respectable looking girl dressed as the goddess Juno, a pure white diadem on her brow and a sceptre in her hand. Then on came another you’d have recognised as Minerva, a shining helm crowned with an olive wreath on her head, holding a shield and brandishing a spear as if off to battle. Then another girl made her entrance, a real beauty with an ambrosial complexion, playing Venus, as Venus looked before marriage. Her exquisite naked form was bare except for a piece of silken gauze with which she veiled her sweet charms. An inquisitive little breeze kept blowing this veil aside in wanton playfulness so that it lifted now to show her ripening bud, or now pressed madly against her, clinging tightly, smoothly delineating her voluptuous limbs. The goddess’ very colouring offered interest to the eye, her body the white of heaven from which she came, her veil the cerulean blue of the sea from which she rose.

Each of the girls who played a goddess was accompanied by attendants; Juno by two lads from the acting troop, depicting Castor and Pollux, heads capped with helmets shaped like halves of the egg they came from, topped by stars to signify the Twins, their constellation. To the sound of an Ionian flute piping melodies, the goddess advanced with calm unpretentious steps, and with graceful gestures promised Paris rule over all Asia if he granted her the prize for beauty. The girl whose weapons denoted Minerva was guarded by two boys, depicting Terror and Fear, armour-bearers to the war-goddess, leaping forward with drawn swords. Behind them a piper played a battle tune in the Dorian mode, a deep droning intermingled with shrill screeches, stirring them to energetic dance. Minerva tossed her head, glared threateningly, and informed Paris in swift and abrupt gestures that should he grant her victory in the beauty contest then with her assistance he would be renowned for his bravery and his triumphs in war.

Then came Venus, to the audience’s loud applause, taking her place gracefully at centre-stage, sweetly smiling and ringed by a host of happy little boys, so chubby and milky-white you’d have thought them real cupids flown down from heaven or in from the sea. With little wings and archery sets and all the rest they truly fitted the part, lighting their mistress’ way with glowing torches as if they were off to a wedding feast. Next a crowd of beautiful girls streamed in, the most graceful of Graces, the loveliest of Hours, scattering garlands and loose flowers in tribute to their goddess, paying honour to the queen of all pleasure with the blossoms of spring.

Now flutes of many notes played Lydian airs in sweet harmony, and as their soft melodies charmed the hearts of the audience, Venus began a gentle dance, with slow hesitant steps and sinuously swaying body and head, advancing with delicate movements to the sweet sound of the flutes. Letting fly passionate or sharp and menacing glances, she often seemed to be dancing by means of her eyelids alone. As soon as she reached the judge, Paris, she promised with transparent gestures, that if he preferred her above the other two goddesses she would grant him a bride of marvellous beauty, the very image of herself. At this the Phrygian youth, gladly handed her the golden apple, in token of yielding her the victory.


Book X:33-35 Escape once more!


Why are you surprised then, oh worthless ones, you legal cattle, or to speak more accurately you vultures in togas, if jurors sell verdicts for a high price these days, since in the childhood of the world a judgement made by a mortal regarding divine beauty itself succumbed to beauty’s corrupting influence, and a rural shepherd chosen by mighty Jupiter to decide, opted to win its delights for himself, to the ruin of himself and his whole race? It was the same in another later case when Palamedes, a prince of the Achaeans, a man of great wisdom and learning, was condemned to death as a traitor by Agamemnon, through false accusations; and again when Ulysses was preferred to Ajax, his superior in martial valour. As for the Athenians, those brilliant lawmakers, those masters of every art and science, what sort of trial did they grant Socrates? That man of divine wisdom, he whom the Delphic oracle declared greater in knowledge than all other mortals, was faced with the malice and deceit of a wholly worthless faction, accused of corrupting the young whom rather he kept in hand, then murdered with a deadly cup of poisonous hemlock. Yet his legacy to his fellow citizens is a permanent reminder of their injustice, since to this day the greatest philosophers are of his noble persuasion, and in studying the highest happiness swear by his very name.

Lest you disapprove of my fit of indignation, and say to yourself: ‘Is every ass to turn philosopher now?’ I’ll revisit the tale where I left off.

Once the judgment of Paris had been delivered, Juno and Minerva, in sorrow and in anger, left the stage, miming their indignation at their defeat. But Venus declared her happiness by dancing joyfully in her delight, accompanied by her chorus of attendants. Then, from a pipe concealed on the very top of the mountain, wine mixed with saffron spurted into the air and rained down in a perfumed shower, sprinkling the goats grazing all around until, dyed to a richer beauty, their naturally white coats were stained deep yellow. The amphitheatre having filled with the lovely fragrance, a chasm yawned and swallowed the wooden mountain.

Now, at the audience’s clamour, a soldier ran from the theatre to fetch the murderess from prison, condemned as I said to the wild beasts for her multiple crimes and doomed to a notorious union with me. To that end, a couch gleaming with Indian tortoiseshell, to serve as our nuptial bed, was being readied, with a high feather mattress and a flowery coverlet of silk.

But I was not only deeply ashamed of performing the act in public and polluting myself by intercourse with that tainted woman, but tormented greatly by fear of death, since once we were linked together in Venus’ embrace whatever wild creature might appear to devour the murderess was scarcely likely to be so astoundingly clever, so well-trained, so immoderately gentle, as to maul her but spare me, the un-convicted innocent fused to her thighs. I feared then not merely for my honour, but for my very life. Now while my trainer was seeing to the assembly of our couch, and the slaves were busy preparing the hunting show or preoccupied with the delights of the scene, my thoughts were allowed free rein. None of them deemed a tame ass worthy of close attention, so I ambled forward carefully without being noticed, till, reaching the nearest gate, I raced away at top speed. Galloping six full miles fast as I could, I soon reached Cenchreae, which everyone knows is a famous slice of Corinthian territory on the Saronic Gulf, washed by the waters of the Aegean. There the port is safe for shipping and always crowded with people, so I avoided the harbour and chose a secluded stretch of shore where, next to the breaking surf, I stretched out full length on a soft bed of sand to ease my weary body, and now the sun’s chariot had rounded the final turning-post of its daily course, surrendered myself to the quiet of evening, to be conquered by sweet sleep.