Juvenal and Persius/The Satires of Juvenal/Satire 4

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A Tale of a Turbot

Crispinus once again! a man whom I shall often have to call on to the scene, a prodigy of wickedness without one redeeming virtue; a sickly libertine , strong only in his lusts, which scorn none save the unwedded.—What matters it then how spacious are the colonnades which tire out his horses, how large the shady groves in which he drives, how many acres near the Forum, how many palaces, he has bought? No bad man can be happy; least of all the incestuous seducer wilh whom lately lay a filleted[1] priestess, doomed to pass beneath the earth with the blood still warm within her veins.

11To-day I shall tell of a less heinous deed, though had any other man done the like, he would fall under the censor's lash; for what would be shameful in good men like Seius or Teius sat gracefully on Crispinus. What can you do when the man himself is more foul and monstrous than any charge you can bring against him? Crispinus bought a mullet for six thousand sesterces—one thousand sesterces for every pound of fish, as those would say who make big things bigger in the telling of them. I could commend the man's cunning if by such a lordly gift he secured the first place in the will of some childless old man, or, better still, sent it to some great lady who rides in a close, broad-windowed litter. But nothing of the sort; he bought it for himself: we see many a thing done nowadays which poor niggardly Apicius[2] never did. What? Did you, Crispinus—you who once wore a strip of your native papyrus round your loins—give that price for a fish? A price bigger than you need have paid for the fisherman himself, a price tor which you might buy a whole estate in some province, or a still larger one in Apulia. What kind of feasts are we to suppose were guzzled by our Emperor himself when all those thousands of sesterces—forming a small fraction, a mere side-dish of a modest entertainment—were belched up by a purple-clad parasite of the august Palace—one who is now Chief of the Knights, and who once used to hawk, at the top of his voice, a broken lot of his fellow-countrymen the sprats? Begin, Calliope! let us take our seats. This is no mere fable, but a true tale that is being told; tell it forth, ye maidens of Pieria, and let it profit me that I have called you maids!

37What time the last of the Flavii was flaying the half-dying world, and Rome was enslaved to a bald-headed Nero,[3] there fell into a net in the sea of Hadria, in front of the shrine of Venus reared high on Dorian Ancona, a turbot of wondrous size, filling up all its meshes,—a fish no less huge than those which the lake Maeotis conceals beneath the ice till it is broken up by the sun, and then sends forth, torpid through sloth and fattened by long cold, to the mouths of the Pontic sea. This monster the master of the boat and line designs for the High Pontiff[4]; for who would dare to put up for sale or tobuy so big a fish in days when even the sea shores were crowded with informers? The inspectors of sea-weed would straightway have taken the law of the poor fisherman, ready to affirm that the fish was a run-away that had long feasted in Caesar's fishponds; escaped from thence, he must needs be restored to his former master. For if Palfurius[5] is to be believed, or Armillatus,[5] every rare and beautiful thing in the wide ocean, in whatever sea it swims, belongs to the Imperial Treasury. The fish therefore, that it be not wasted, shall be given as a gift.

56And now death-bearing Autumn was giving way before the frosts, fevered patients were hoping for a quartan,[6] and bleak winter's blasts were keeping the booty fresh; yet on sped the fisherman as though the South wind were at his heels. And when beneath him lay the lake where Alba, though in ruins, still holds the Trojan fire and worships the lesser Vesta,[7] a wondering crowd barred his way for a while; as it gave way, the gates swung open on easy hinge, and the excluded Fathers gazed on the dish that had gained an entrance. Admitted to the Presence, "Receive," quoth he of Picenum, "a fish too big for a private kitchen. Be this kept as a festive day; hasten to fill out thy belly with good things, and devour a turbot that has been preserved to grace thy reign. The fish himself wanted to be caught." Could flattery be more gross? Yet the Monarch's comb began to rise: there is nothing that divine Majesty will not believe concerning itself when lauded to the skies! But no platter could be found big enough for the fish; so a council of magnates is summoned; men hated by the Emperor, and on whose faces sat the pallor of that great and perilous friendship. First to answer the Ligurian's call "Haste, haste! he is seated!" was Pegasus, hastily catching up his cloak—he that hadnewly been appointed as bailiff over the astonished city. For what else but bailiffs were the Prefects[8] of those days? Of whom Pegasus was the best, and the most righteous expounder of the law, though he thought that even in those dread days there should be no sword in the hand of Justice. Next to come in was the aged, genial Crispus.[9] whose gentle soul well matched his style of eloquence. No better adviser than he for the ruler of lands and seas and nations had he been free, under that scourge and plague, to denounce cruelties and proffer honest counsels. But what can be more dangerous than the ear of a tyrant on whose caprice hangs the life of a friend who has come to talk of the rain or the heat or the showery spring weather? So Crispus never struck out against the torrent, nor was he one to speak freely the thoughts of his heart, and stake his life upon the truth. Thus was it that he lived through many winters and saw his eightieth solstice, protected, even in that Court, by weapons such as these.

94Next to him hurried Acilius, of like age as himself, and with him the youth[10] who little merited the cruel death that was so soon hurried on by his master's sword, But to be both young and noble has long since become a prodigy; hence I would rather be a giant's[11] little brother. Therefore it availed the poor youth nothing that he speared Numidian bears, stripped as a huntsman upon the Alban arena. For who nowadays would not see through patrician tricks? Who would now marvel, Brutus, at that old-world cleverness of yours?[12] 'Tis an easy matter to befool a king that wears a beard.

104No more cheerful in face, though of ignoble blood, came Rubrius, condemned long since of a. crime that may not, be named, and yet more shameless than a reprobate who should write satire. There too was present the unwieldy frame of Montanus; and Crispinus, reeking at early dawn with odours enough to out-scent two funerals; more ruthless than he Pompeius,[13] whose gentle whisper would cut men's throats; and Fuscus,[14] who planned battles in his marble halls, keeping his flesh for the Dacian vultures. Then along with the sage Veiento came the death-dealing Catullus,[15] who burnt with love for a maiden whom he had never seen—a mighty and notable marvel even in these days of ours: a blind flatterer, a dire courtier from a beggar's stand, well fitted to beg at the wheels of chariots and blow soft kisses to them as they rolled down the Arician hill. None marvelled more at the fish than he, turning to the left as he spoke; only, the creature happened to be on his right. In like fashion would he commend the thrusts of a Cilician gladiator, or the machine which whisks up the boys into the awning.

123But Veiento was not to be outdone; and like a seer inspired, O Bellona, by thine own gadfly, he bursts into prophecy; "A mighty presage hast thou, O Emperor! of a great and glorious victory. Some King will be thy captive; or Arviragus[16] will be hurled from his British chariot. The brute is foreign-born; dost thou not see the prickles bristling upon his back?" Nothing remained for Fabricius but to tell the turbot's age and birthplace.

130" What then do you advise?" quoth the Emperor. "Shall we cut it up?" "Nay, nay," rejoins Montanus; "let that indignity be spared him. Let a deep vessel be provided to gather his huge dimensions within its slender walls; some great and unforeseen Prometheus is destined for the dish! Haste haste, with clay and wheel! but from this day forth, O Caesar, let potters always attend upon thy camp!" This proposal, so worthy of the man, gained the day. Well known to him were the old debauches of the Imperial Court, which Nero carried on to midnight till a second hunger came and veins were healed with hot Falernian. No one in my time had more skill in the eating art than he. He could tell at the first bite whether an oyster had been bred at Circeii, or on the Lucrine rocks, or on the beds of Rutupiae;[17] one glance would tell him the native shore of a sea-urchin.

144The Council rises, and the councillors are dismissed; men whom the mighty Emperor had dragged in terror and hot haste to his Alban castle, as though to give them news of the Chatti, or the savage Sycambri,[18] or as though an alarming despatch had arrived on wings of speed from some remote quarter of the earth.

150And yet would that he had rather given to follies such as these all those days of cruelty when he robbed the city of its noblest and choicest souls, with none to punish or avenge! He could steep himself in the blood of the Lamiae;[19] but when he became a terror to the common herd he met his doom.[20]


  1. The vitta, or fillet, was worn round the hair by Vestal Virgins.
  2. A celebrated gourmand.
  3. i.e. the emperor Domitian.
  4. The Pontifex Maximus, i.e. Domitian himself.
  5. 5.0 5.1 These were two lawyers.
  6. i.e. a fever recurring every fourth day—an improvement upon a "tertian," one recurring every third day.
  7. i.e. as compared with the larger temple of Vesta in Rome.
  8. The Praefectus Urbi, under the Emperors, was the head magistrate in Rome, and exercised many important functions.
  9. Vibius Crispus; see Tac. Hist. ii. 10.
  10. Acilius Glabrio the younger was exiled, and afterwards put to death by Domitian.
  11. i.e. "son of a clod." Giants were supposed to be sprung from earth (γηγενεῖς).
  12. Brutus feigned madness to elude the suspicion of Tarquin. A simple "bearded" monarch was easily imposed upon.
  13. Evidently an informer.
  14. Cornelius Fuscus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard. He was killed in Domitian's Dacian wars, A.D. 86-88.
  15. Fabricius Veiento and Catullus Messalinus, informers under Domitian.
  16. A British prince, as in Cymbeline.
  17. Richborough.
  18. The Chatti and the Sycambri were two of the most powerful German tribes, between the Rhine and the Weser.
  19. Taken as a type of the ancient noble families of Rome.
  20. Domitian was murdered, as the outcome of a conspiracy by the hand of a freedman, Stephanus, on September 18 A.D. 96.