[Bread and circuses reference in bold.]
The Vanity of Human Wishes
In all the lands that stretch from Gades to the Ganges and the Morn, there are but few who can distinguish true blessings from their opposites, putting aside the mists of error. For when does Reason direct our desires or our fears? What project do we form so auspiciously that we do not repent us of our effort and of the granted wish? Whole households have been destroyed by the compliant Gods in answer to the masters' prayers; in camp and city alike we ask for things that will be our ruin. Many a man has met death from the rushing flood of his own eloquence; others from the strength and wondrous thews in which they have trusted. More still have been ruined by money too carefully amassed, and by fortunes that surpass all patrimonies by as much as the British whale exceeds the dolphin. It was for this that in the dire days Nero ordered Longinus 1 and the great gardens of the over-wealthy Seneca 2 to be put under siege; for this was it that the noble Palace of the Laterani 3 was beset by an entire cohort; it is but seldom that soldiers find their way into a garret!
Though you carry but few silver vessels with you in a night journey, you will be afraid of the sword and cudgel of a freebooter, you will tremble at the shadow of a reed shaking in the moonlight; but the empty-handed traveller will whistle in the robber's face.
The foremost of all petitions----the one best known to every temple----is for riches and their increase, that our money-chest may be the biggest in the Forum. But you will drink no aconite out of an earthenware cup; you may dread it when a jewelled cup is offered you, or when Setine wine sparkles in a golden bowl. Then will you not commend the two wise men, one of whom 4 would laugh while the opposite sage 5 would weep every time he set a foot outside the door? To condemn by a cutting laugh comes readily to us all; the wonder is how the other sage's eyes were supplied with all that water. The sides of Democritus shook with unceasing laughter, although in the cities of his day there were no purple-bordered or purple-striped robes, no fasces, no palanquins, no tribunals. What if he had seen the Praetor uplifted in his lofty car amid the dust of the Circus, attired in the tunic 6 of Jove, hitching an embroidered Tyrian toga 6 on to his shoulders, and carrying a crown so big that no neck could bear the weight of it? For a public slave is sweating under the burden; and that the Consul may not fancy himself overmuch, the slave rides in the same chariot with his master. Add to all this the bird that is perched on his ivory staff; on this side the horn-blowers, on that the duteous clients preceding him in long array, with white-robed Roman citizens, whose friendship has been gained by the dinner-dole snugly lying in their purses,7 marching at his bridle-rein. Even then the philosopher found food for laughter at every meeting with his kind: his wisdom shows us that men of high distinction and destined to set great examples may be born in a dullard air, and in the land of mutton-heads.8 He laughed at the troubles, ay and at the pleasures, of the crowd, sometimes too at their tears, while for himself he would bid frowning fortune go hang, and point at her the finger of derision.
Thus it is that the things for which we pray, and for which it is right and proper to load the knees of the Gods with wax, are either profitless or pernicious! Some men are hurled headlong by over-great power and the envy to which it exposes them; they are wrecked by the long and illustrious roll of their honours: down come their statues, obedient to the rope; the axe hews in pieces their chariot wheels and the legs of the unoffending horses. And now the flames are hissing, and amid the roar of furnace and of bellows the head of the mighty Sejanus,9 the darling of the mob, is burning and crackling, and from that face, which was but lately second in the entire world, are being fashioned pipkins, pitchers, frying-pans and slop-pails! Up with the laurel-wreaths over your doors! Lead forth a grand chalked bull to the Capitol! Sejanus is being dragged along by a hook, as a show and joy to all! "What a lip the fellow had! What a face!"----"Believe me, I never liked the man!"----"But on what charge was he condemned? Who informed against him? What was the evidence, who the witnesses, who made good the case?"-----"Nothing of the sort; a great and wordy letter came from Capri." 10----"Good; I ask no more."
And what does the mob of Remus say? It follows fortune, as it always does, and rails against the condemned. That same rabble, if Nortia had smiled upon the Etruscan,11 if the aged Emperor had been struck down unawares, would in that very hour have conferred upon Sejanus the title of Augustus. Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things----Bread and Games!
"I hear that many are to perish."----"No doubt of it; there is a big furnace ready."----"My friend Brutidius 12 looked a trifle pale when I met him at the Altar of Mars. I tremble lest the defeated Ajax should take vengeance for having been so ill-defended." 13----"Let us rush headlong and trample on Caesar's enemy, while he lies upon the bank!"----"Ay, and let our slaves see us, that none bear witness against us, and drag their trembling master into court with a halter round his neck."
Such was the talk at the moment about Sejanus; such were the mutterings of the crowd. And would you like to be courted like Sejanus? To be as rich as he was? To bestow on one man the ivory chairs of office, appoint another to the command of armies, and be counted guardian of a Prince seated on the narrow ledge of Capri with his herd of Chaldaean astrologers? You would like, no doubt, to have Centurions, Cohorts, and Illustrious 14 Knights at your call, and to possess a camp of your own? Why should you not? Even those who don't want to kill anybody would like to have the power to do it. But what grandeur, what high fortune, are worth the having if the joy is overbalanced by the calamities they bring with them? Would you rather choose to wear the bordered robe of the man now being dragged along the streets, or to be a magnate at Fidenae or Gabii, adjudicating upon weights, or smashing vessels of short measure, as a thread-bare Aedile at deserted Ulubrae? 15 You admit, then, that Sejanus did not know what things were to be desired; for in coveting excessive honours, and seeking excessive wealth, he was but building up the many stories of a lofty tower whence the fall would be the greater, and the crash of headlong ruin more terrific. What was it that overthrew the Crassi, and the Pompeii, and him who brought the conquered Quirites under his lash? 16 What but lust for the highest place pursued by every kind of means? What but ambitious prayers granted by unkindly Gods? Few indeed are the kings who go down to Ceres' son-in-law 17 save by sword and slaughter----few the tyrants that perish by a bloodless death!
Every schoolboy who worships Minerva with a modest penny fee, attended by a slave to guard his little satchel, prays all through his holidays for eloquence, for the fame of a Cicero or a Demosthenes. Yet it was eloquence that brought both orators to their death; each perished by the copious and overflowing torrent of his own genius. It was his genius that cut off the hand, and severed the neck, of Cicero; never yet did futile pleader stain the rostra with his blood!
"O happy Fate for the Roman State
Was the date of my great Consulate!" 18
Had Cicero always spoken thus, he might have laughed at the swords of Antony. Better verses meet only for contempt than thou, O famous and divine Philippic, that comest out second on the roll! Terrible, too, was the death of him whom Athens loved to hear sweeping along and holding in check the crowded theatre. Unfriendly were the Gods, and evil the star, under whom was born the man whom his father, blear-eyed with the soot of glowing ore, sent away from the coal, the pincers and the sword-fashioning anvil of grimy Vulcan,19 to study the art of the rhetorician!
The spoils of war and trophies fastened upon stumps----a breast-plate, a cheek-strap hanging from a broken helmet, a yoke shorn of its pole, the flagstaff of a captured galley, or a captive sorrowing on a triumphal arch----such things are deemed glories too great for man; these are the prizes for which every General strives, be he Greek, Roman, or barbarian; it is for these that he endures toil and peril: so much greater is the thirst for glory than for virtue! For who would embrace virtue herself if you stripped her of her rewards? Yet full oft has a land been destroyed by the vainglory of a few, by the lust for honour and for a title that shall cling to the stones that guard their ashes----stones which may be rent asunder by the rude strength of the barren fig-tree, seeing that even sepulchres have their doom assigned to them!
Put Hannibal into the scales; how many pounds' weight will you find in that greatest of commanders? This is the man for whom Africa was all too small----a land beaten by the Moorish sea and stretching to the steaming Nile, and then, again, to the tribes of Aethiopia and a new race of Elephants! Spain is added to his dominions: he overleaps the Pyrenees; Nature throws in his way Alps and snow: he splits the rocks asunder, and breaks up the mountain-side with vinegar! And now Italy is in his grasp, but still on he presses: "Nought is accomplished," he cries, "until my Punic host breaks down the city gates, and I plant my standard in the midst of the Subura! " O what a sight was that! What a picture it would make, the one-eyed General riding on the Gaetulian monster! What then was his end? Alas for glory! A conquered man, he flees headlong into exile, and there he sits, a mighty and marvellous suppliant, in the King's antechamber, until it please his Bithynian Majesty 20 to awake! No sword, no stone, no javelin shall end the life which once wrought havoc throughout the world: that little ring 21 shall avenge Cannae and all those seas of blood. On! on! thou madman, and race over the wintry Alps, that thou mayest be the delight of schoolboys and supply declaimers with a theme!
One globe is all too little for the youth of Pella;22 he chafes uneasily within the narrow limits of the world, as though he were cooped up within the rocks of Gyara or the diminutive Seriphos; but yet when once he shall have entered the city fortified by the potter's art,23 a sarcophagus will suffice him! Death alone proclaims how small are our poor human bodies! We have heard how ships once sailed through Mount Athos, and all the lying tales of Grecian history; how the sea was paved by those self-same ships, and gave solid support to chariot-wheels; how deep rivers failed, and whole streams were drunk dry when the Persian breakfasted, with all the fables of which Sostratus 24 sings with reeking pinions. But in what plight did that king 25 flee from Salamis? he that had been wont to inflict barbaric stripes upon the winds Corus and Eurus----never treated thus in their Aeolian prison-house----he who had bound the Earth-shaker himself with chains, deeming it clemency, forsooth, not to think him worthy of a branding also: what god, indeed, would be willing to serve such a master?----in what plight did he return? Why, in a single ship; on blood-stained waves, the prow slowly forcing her way through waters thick with corpses! Such was the penalty exacted for that long-desired glory!
Give me length of days, give me many years, O Jupiter! Such is your one and only prayer, in days of strength or of sickness; yet how great, how unceasing, are the miseries of old age! Look first at the misshapen and ungainly face, so unlike its former self; see the unsightly hide that serves for skin; see the pendulous cheeks and the wrinkles like those which a matron baboon carves upon her aged jaws in the shaded glades of Thabraca.26 The young men differ in various ways: this man is handsomer than that, and he than another; one is stronger than another: but old men all look alike. Their voices are as shaky as their limbs, their heads without hair, their noses drivelling as in childhood. Their bread, poor wretches, has to be munched by toothless gums; so offensive do they become to their wives, their children and themselves, that even the legacy-hunter, Cossus, turns from them in disgust. Their sluggish palate takes joy in wine or food no longer, and all pleasures of the flesh have been long ago forgotten. . . .
And now consider the loss of another sense: what joy has the old man in song, however famous be the singer? what joy in the harping of Seleucus himself, or of those who shine resplendent in gold-embroidered robes? What matters it in what part of the great theatre he sits when he can scarce hear the horns and trumpets when they all blow together? The slave who announces a visitor, or tells the time of day, must needs shout in his ear if he is to be heard.
Besides all this, the little blood in his now chilly frame is never warm except with fever; diseases of every kind dance around him in a body; if you ask of me their names, I could more readily tell you the number of Oppia's paramours, how many patients Themison killed in one season, how many partners were defrauded by Basilus, how many wards corrupted by Hirrus, how many lovers tall Maura wears out in a single season; I could sooner run over the number of villas now belonging to the barber under whose razor my stiff youthful beard used to grate.27 One suffers in the shoulder, another in the loins, a third in the hip; another has lost both eyes, and envies those who have one; another takes food into his pallid lips from someone else's fingers, while he whose jaws used to fly open at the sight of his dinner, now only gapes like the young of a swallow whose fasting mother flies to him with well-laden beak. But worse than any loss of limb is the failing mind which forgets the names of slaves, and cannot recognise the face of the old friend who dined with him last night, nor those of the children whom he has begotten and brought up. For by a cruel will he cuts off his own flesh and blood and leaves all his estate to Phiale----so potent was the breath of that alluring mouth which had plied its trade for so many years in her narrow archway.
And though the powers of his mind be strong as ever, yet must he carry forth his sons to burial; he must behold the funeral pyres of his beloved wife and his brothers, and urns filled with the ashes of his sisters. Such are the penalties of the long liver: he sees calamity after calamity befall his house, he lives in a world of sorrow, he grows old amid continual lamentation and in the garb of woe. If we can believe mighty Homer, the King of Pylos 28 was an example of long life second only to the crow; happy forsooth in this that he had put off death for so many generations, and had so often quaffed the new-made wine, counting now his years upon his right hand.29 But mark for a moment, I beg, how he bewails the decrees of fate and his too-long thread of life, when he beholds the beard of his brave Antilochus 30 in the flames,31 and asks of every friend around him why he has lived so long, what crime he has committed to deserve such length of days. Thus did Peleus also mourn when he lost Achilles; and so that other father 32 who had to bewail the sea-roving Ithacan. Had Priam perished at some other time, before Paris began to build his audacious ships, he would have gone down to the shade of Assaracus 33 when Troy was still standing, and with regal pomp; his body would have been borne on the shoulders ot Hector and his brothers amid the tears of Ilion's daughters, and the rending of Polyxena's 34 garments: Cassandra 34 would have led the cries of woe. What boon did length of days bring to him? He saw everything in ruins, and Asia perishing by fire and the sword. Laying aside his tiara, and arming himself, he fell, a trembling soldier, before the altar of Almighty Jove, like an aged ox discarded by the thankless plough who offers his poor lean neck to his master's knife. Priam's death was at least that of a human being; but his wife 35 lived on to open her mouth with the savage barking of a dog.
I hasten to our own countrymen, passing by the king of Pontus 36 and Croesus,37 who was bidden by the wise and eloquent Solon to look to the last lap of a long life. It was this that brought Marius to exile and to prison, it took him to the swamps of Minturnae and made him beg his bread in the Carthage that he had conquered. What could Nature ever in all the world have produced more glorious than him, if after parading his troops of captives with all the pomp of war he had breathed forth his soul in glory as he was about to step down from his Teutonic car? 38 Kindly Campania gave to Pompey a fever, which he might have prayed for as a boon 39; but the public prayers of all those cities gained the day; so his own fortune and that of Rome preserved him to be vanquished and to lose his head. No such cruel thing befell Lentulus 40; Cethegus 40 escaped such punishment and fell whole; and Catiline's corpse lay unviolated.
When the loving mother passes the temple of Venus, she prays in whispered breath for her boys----more loudly, and entering into the most trifling particulars, for her daughters----that they may have beauty. "And why should I not?" she asks; "did not Latona rejoice in Diana's beauty?" Yes: but Lucretia forbids us to pray for a face like her own; and Verginia would gladly take Rutila's hump and give her own fair form to Rutila. A handsome son keeps his parents in constant fear and misery; so rarely do modesty and good looks go together. For though his home be strict, and have taught him ways as pure as those of the ancient Sabines, and though Nature besides with kindly hand have lavishly gifted him with a pure mind and a cheek mantling with modest blood----and what better thing can Nature, more careful, more potent than any guardian, bestow upon a youth?----he will not be allowed to become a man. The lavish wickedness of some seducer will tempt the boy's own parents: such trust can be placed in money! No misshapen youth was ever unsexed by cruel tyrant in his castle; never did Nero have a bandy-legged or scrofulous favourite, or one that was hump-backed or pot-bellied!
Go to now, you that revel in your son's beauty; think of the deadly perils that lie before him. He will become a promiscuous gallant, and have to fear all the vengeance due to outraged husbands; no luckier than Mars, he will not fail to fall into the net. And sometimes the husband's wrath exacts greater penalties than any law allows: one lover is slain by the sword, another bleeds under the lash; some undergo the punishment of the mullet. Your dear Endymion will become the gallant of some matron whom he loves; but before long, when Servilia has taken him into her pay, he will serve one also whom he loves not, and will strip her of all her ornaments; for what can any woman, be she an Oppia or a Catulla,41 deny to the man who serves her passion? It is on her passion that a bad woman's whole nature centres. "But how does beauty hurt the chaste?" you ask. Well, what availed Hippolytus or Bellerophon 42 their firm resolve? The Cretan lady flared up as though repelled with scorn; no less furious was Stheneboea. Both dames lashed themselves into fury; for never is woman so savage as when her hatred is goaded on by shame.
And now tell me what counsel you think should be given to him 43 whom Caesar's wife is minded to wed. Best and fairest of a patrician house, the unhappy youth is dragged to destruction by Messalina's eyes. She has long been seated; her bridal veil is ready; the Tyrian nuptial couch is being spread openly in the gardens; a dowry of one million sesterces will be given after the ancient fashion, the soothsayer and the witnesses will be there. And you thought these things were secret, did you, known only to a few? But the lady will not wed save with all the due forms. Say what is your resolve: if you say nay to her, you will have to perish before the lighting of the lamps; if you perpetrate the crime, you will have a brief respite until the affair, known already to the city and the people, shall come to the Prince's ears; he will be the last to know of the dishonour of his house. Meanwhile, if you value a few days of life so highly, obey your orders: whatever you may deem the easier and the better way, that fair white neck of yours will have to be offered to the sword.
Is there nothing then for which men shall pray? If you ask my counsel, you will leave it to the gods themselves to provide what is good for us, and what will be serviceable for our state; for, in place of what is pleasing, they will give us what is best. Man is dearer to them than he is to himself. Impelled by strong and blind desire, we ask for wife and offspring; but the gods know ot what sort the sons, of what sort the wife, will be. Nevertheless that you may have something to pray for, and be able to offer to the shrines entrails and presaging sausages from a white porker, you should pray for a sound mind in a sound body; for a stout heart that has no fear of death, and deems length of days the least of Nature's gifts; that can endure any kind of toil; that knows neither wrath nor desire, and thinks that the woes and hard labours of Hercules are better than the loves and the banquets and the down cushions of Sardanapalus.44 What I commend to you, you can give to yourself; for it is assuredly through virtue that lies the one and only road to a life of peace. Thou wouldst have no divinity, O Fortune, if we had but wisdom; it is we that make a goddess of thee, and place thee in the skies.
1. A famous lawyer banished by Nero.
2. Forced by Nero to commit suicide.
3. Plautius Lateranus was put to death by Nero for joining in Piso's conspiracy, A.D. 63.
4. Democritus of Abdera.
5. Heraclitus of Ephesus.
6. The tunica palmata, embroidered with palm, and the toga picta, with gold, were triumphal garments, described by Livy as Iovis optimi maximi ornatus (xx. 7).
7. In i. 95-6 ff, the sportula (properly a basket) is spoken of as a meal actually carried away by the clients. The present passage refers to the later practice which substituted a sum of 100 quadrantes (4 sesterces) for the meal in kind.
8. Abdera, in Thrace, the birthplace of Democritus, had the reputation of being a breeder of thick-heads.
9. The upstart favourite of Tiberius.
10. Tiberius was living in grim solitude in his rock fortress on the island of Capreae when he sent to the Senate the famous letter----the verbosa et grandis epistola----which hurried Sejanus to his doom on the 18th of October, a.d. 29. (The passage in Tacitus which described the whole event is unfortunately lost; but the fine account of Dion Cassius is given in my Annals of Tacitus, vol. i. pp. 344-353.----G. G. R.).
11. Sejanus was a native of Volsinii in Etruria; Nortia was the Etruscan Goddess of Fortune.
12. A famous orator.
13. Apparently Ajax here stands for Tiberius, who, it is thought, may revenge himself by punishing those who have not sufficiently guarded his person.14. The highest and richest class of Equites were called Equites Illustres or Splendidi.
15. Fidenae, Gabii, Ulubrae, small and deserted towns in Latium.
18. This line is taken from the poem (De suo Consulatu) which Cicero wrote to glorify the events of his Consulship. To the many who are not gifted with the divine faculty of poesy it may be a consolation to know that a writer of the most splendid prose could be guilty of such a rubbishy line as that here quoted.
19. Demosthenes' father, of the same name, was a blacksmith ----or at least a manufacturer of swords.
20. Prusias I, king of Bithynia.
21. Containing poison.
22. Alexander the Great, b. at Pella B.C. 356, d. at Babylon B.C. 323.
23. The famous walls of Babylon were built of brick.
24. An unknown poet.
26. A town in Numidia.
27. Referring to some barber who had made money, and was obnoxious to Juvenal as a rich parvenu.
29. i.e. had begun to count by hundreds.
30. Nestor's son.
31. ardentem, i.e. on the pyre.
32. Laertes, father of Ulysses.
33. Son of Tros, from whom the Trojans took their name.
34. Daughters of Priam.
37. The wealthy king of Lydia.
38. i.e. after the battle of Campi Raudii, near Vercellae, in B.C. 101.
39. When Pompey lay dangerously ill of a fever in B.C. 50 many of the towns of Italy offered vows and sacrifices for his recovery.
40. Accomplices in Catiline's conspiracy.
41. i.e. however noble the lady may be.
42. As Mr. Duff puts it, "Hippolytus and Bellerophon are the Josephs of the pagan mythology."
43. C. Silius, brought to ruin by the passion entertained for him by Messalina, wife of Claudius (Tac. Ann. xi. 12 and 26 ff.).44. The last king of the Assyrian empire of Nineveh. A proverb for luxury.
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