Petronius, Satyricon 30-41

(tr. Alfred R. Anderson)


We had no opportunity of examining the numerous paintings more minutely, having by this time reached the banquet-hall, at the outer door of which the house-steward sat receiving accounts. But the thing that surprised me most was to notice on the doorposts of the apartment fasces and axes fixed up, the lower part terminating in an ornament resembling the bronze beak of a ship, on which was inscribed:


Underneath this inscription hung a lamp with two lights, depending from the vaulting. Two other tablets were attached to the doorposts. One, if my memory serves me, bore the following inscription:


The other showed the phases of the moon and the seven planets, while lucky and unlucky days were marked by distinctive studs.

When, sated with all these fine sights, we were just making for the entrance of the banquet-hall, one of the slaves, stationed there for the purpose, called out, "Right foot first!" Not unnaturally there was a moment's hesitation, for fear one of us should break the rule. But this was not all; for just as we stepped out in line right leg foremost, another slave, stripped of his outer garments, threw himself before our feet, beseeching us to save him from punishment. Not indeed that his fault was a very serious one; in point of fact the Intendant's clothes had been stolen when in his charge at the bath,--a matter of ten sesterces or so at the outside. So facing about, still right foot in front, we approached the Intendant, who was counting gold in the hall, and asked him to forgive the poor man. He looked up haughtily and said, "It's not so much the loss that annoys me as the rascal's carelessness. He has lost my dinner robes, which a client gave me on my birthday,--genuine Tyrian purple, I assure you, though only once dipped. But there! I will pardon the delinquent at your request."

Deeply grateful for so signal a favor, we now returned to the banquet-hall, where we were met by the same slave for whom we had interceded, who to our astonishment overwhelmed us with a perfect storm of kisses, thanking us again and again for our humanity. "Indeed," he cried, "you shall presently know who it is you have obliged; the master's wine is the cup-bearer's thank-offering."

Well! at last we take our places, Alexandrian slave-boys pouring snow water over our hands, and others succeeding them to wash our feet and cleanse our toe-nails with extreme dexterity. Not even while engaged in this unpleasant office were they silent, but sang away over their work. I had a mind to try whether all the house servants were singers and accordingly asked for a drink of wine. Instantly an attendant was at my side, pouring out the liquor to the accompaniment of the same sort of shrill recitative. Demand what you would, it was the same; you might have supposed yourself among a troupe of pantomime actors rather than at a respectable citizen's table.

Then the preliminary course was served in very elegant style. For all were now at table except Trimalchio, for whom the first place was reserved, by a reversal of ordinary usage. Among the other hors d'oeuvres stood a little ass of Corinthian bronze with a packsaddle holding olives, white olives on one side, black on the other. The animal was flanked right and left by silver dishes, on the rim of which Trimalchio's name was engraved and the weight. On arches built up in the form of miniature bridges were dormice seasoned with honey and poppy-seed. There were sausages, too, smoking hot on a silver grill, and underneath (to imitate coals) Syrian plums and pomegranate seeds.

We were in the middle of these elegant trifles when Trimalchio himself was carried in to the sound of music, and was bolstered up among a host of tiny cushions, a sight that set one or two indiscreet guests laughing. And no wonder; his bald head poked up out of a scarlet mantle, his neck was closely muffled, and over all was laid a napkin with a broad purple stripe or laticlave, and long fringes hanging down either side. Moreover he wore on the little finger of his left hand a massive ring of silver gilt, and on the last joint of the next finger a smaller ring, apparently of solid gold, but starred superficially with little ornaments of steel. Nay! to show this was not the whole of his magnificence, his left arm was bare, and displayed a gold bracelet and an ivory circlet with a sparkling clasp to put it on.

After picking his teeth with a silver toothpick, "My friends," he began, "I was far from desirous of coming to table just yet, but that I might not keep you waiting by my own absence, I have sadly interfered with my own amusement. But will you permit me to finish my game?" A slave followed him, bearing a draughtsboard of terebinth wood and crystal dice. One special bit of refinement I noticed; instead of the ordinary black and white men he had medals of gold and silver respectively.

Meantime, whilst he is exhausting the vocabulary of a tinker over the game, and we are still at the hors d'oeuvres, a dish was brought in with a basket on it, in which lay a wooden hen, her wings outspread round her as if she were sitting. Instantly a couple of slaves came up, and to the sound of lively music began to search the straw, and pulling out a lot of peafowl's eggs one after the other, handed them round to the company. Trimalchio turns his head at this, saying, "My friends, it was by my orders the hen set on the peafowl's eggs yonder; but by God! I am very much afraid they are half-hatched. Nevertheless we can try whether they are eatable." For our part, we take our spoons, which weighed at least half a pound each, and break the eggs, which were made of paste. I was on the point of throwing mine away, for I thought I discerned a chick inside. But when I overheard a veteran guest saying, "There should be something good here!" I further investigated the shell, and found a very fine fat beccafico swimming in yolk of egg flavored with pepper.

Trimalchio had by this time stopped his game and been helped to all the dishes before us. He had just announced in a loud voice that any of us who wanted a second supply of honeyed wine had only to ask for it, when suddenly at a signal from the band, the hors d'oeuvres are whisked away by a troupe of slaves, all singing too. But in the confusion a silver dish happened to fall and a slave picked it up again from the floor; this Trimalchio noticed, and boxing the fellow's ears, rated him soundly and ordered him to throw it down again. Then a groom came in and began to sweep up the silver along with the other refuse with his besom.

He was succeeded by two long-haired Ethiopians, carrying small leather skins, like the fellows that water the sand in the amphitheater, who poured wine over our hands; for no one thought of offering water.

After being duly complimented on this refinement, our host cried out, "Fair play's a jewel!" and accordingly ordered a separate table to be assigned to each guest. "In this way," he said, "by preventing any crowding, the stinking servants won't make us so hot."

Simultaneously there were brought in a number of wine-jars of glass carefully stoppered with plaster, and having labels attached to their necks reading:


Whilst we were reading the labels, Trimalchio ejaculated, striking his palms together, "Alackaday! to think wine is longer lived than poor humanity! Well! bumpers then! There's life in wine. 'Tis the right Opimian, I give you my word. I didn't bring out any so good yesterday, and much better men than you were dining with me."

So we drank our wine and admired all this luxury in good set terms. Then the slave brought in a silver skeleton, so artfully fitted that its articulations and vertebrae were all movable and would turn and twist in any direction. After he had tossed this once or twice on the table, causing the loosely jointed limbs to take various postures, Trimalchio moralized thus:

Alas! how less than naught are we;
   Fragile life's thread, and brief our day!
What this is now, we all shall be;
   Drink and make merry while you may.

Our applause was interrupted by the second course, which did not by any means come up to our expectations. Still the oddity of the thing drew the eyes of all. An immense circular tray bore the twelve signs of the zodiac displayed round the circumference, on each of which the Manoiple or Arranger had placed a dish of suitable and appropriate viands: on the Ram ram's-head peas, on the Bull a piece of beef, on the Twins fried testicles and kidneys, on the Crab simply a crown, on the Lion African figs, on a Virgin a sow's haslet, on Libra a balance with a tart in one scale and a cheesecake in the other, on Scorpio a small sea-fish, on Sagittarius an eye-seeker, on Capricornus a lobster, on Aquarius a wild goose, on Pisces two mullets. In the middle was a sod of green turf, cut to shape and supporting a honey-comb. Meanwhile an Egyptian slave was carrying bread around in a miniature oven of silver, crooning to himself in a horrible voice a song on wine and laserpitium.

Seeing us look rather blank at the idea of attacking such common fare, Trimalchio cried, "I pray you gentlemen, begin; the best of your dinner is before you."

No sooner had he spoken than four fellows ran prancing in, keeping time to the music, and whipped off the top of the tray. This done, we beheld underneath, on a second tray in fact, stuffed capons, a sow's paps, and as a centerpiece a hare fitted with wings to represent Pegasus. We noticed besides four figures of Marsyas, one at each corner of the tray, spouting out peppered fish-sauce over the fishes swimming in the Channel of the dish.

We all join in the applause started by the domestics and laughingly fall to on the choice viands. Trimalchio, as pleased as anybody with a device of the sort, now called out, "Cut!" Instantly the Carver advanced, and posturing in time to the music, sliced up the joint with such antics you might have thought him a jockey struggling to pull off a chariot-race to the thunder of the organ. Yet all the while Trimalchio kept repeating in a wheedling voice, "Cut! Cut!" For my part, suspecting there was some pretty jest connected with this everlasting reiteration of the word, I made no bones about asking the question of the guest who sat immediately above me. He had often witnessed similar scenes and told me at once, "You see the man who is carving; well; his name is Cut. The master is calling and commanding him at one and the same time."

Unable to eat any more, I now turned towards my neighbor in order to glean what information I could, and after indulging in a string of general remarks, presently asked him, "Who is that lady bustling up and down the room yonder?" "Trimalchio's lady," he replied; "her name is Fortunata, and she counts her coin by the bushelful!" "Before? what was she before?" "Why! my dear Sir! saving your respect, you would have been mighty sorry to take bread from her hand. Now, by hook or by crook, she's got to heaven, and is Trimalchio's factotum. In fact if she told him it was dark night at high noon, he'd believe her. The man's rolling in riches, and really can't tell what he has and what he hasn't got; still his good lady looks keenly after everything, and is on the spot where you least expect to see her. She's temperate, sober and well advised, but she has a sharp tongue of her own and chatters like a magpie between the bed-curtains. When she likes a man, she likes him; and when she doesn't, well! she doesn't.

"As for Trimalchio, his lands reach as far as the kites fly, and his money breeds money. I tell you, he has more coin lying idle in his porter's lodge than would make another man's whole fortune. Slaves! why, heaven and earth! I don't believe one in ten knows his own master by sight. For all that, there's never a one of the fine fellows a word of his wouldn't send scuttling into the nearest rat-hole. And don't you imagine he ever buys anything; every mortal thing is home grown,--wool, rosin, pepper; call for hen's milk and he'd supply you! As a matter of fact his wool was not first-rate originally; but he purchased rams at Tarentum and so improved the breed. To get home-made Attic honey he had bees imported direct from Athens, hoping at the same time to benefit the native insects a bit by a cross with the Greek fellows. Why! only the other day he wrote to India for mushroom spawn. He has not a single mule but was got by a wild ass. You see all these mattresses; never a one that is not stuffed with the finest wool, purple or scarlet as the case may be. Lucky, lucky dog!

"And look you, don't you turn up your nose at the other freedmen, his fellows. They're very warm men. You see the one lying last on the last couch yonder? He's worth his eight hundred thousand any of these days. A self-made man; once upon a time he carried wood on his own two shoulders. They do say,--I don't know how true it may be, but I've been told so,--he snatched an Incubo's hat, and so discovered a treasure. I grudge no man's good fortune, whatever God has seen good to give him. He'll still take a box o' the ear for all that, and keeps a keen eye on the main chance. Only the other day he placarded his house with this bill:


"But the other man yonder, occupying a freedman's place, what of him? Was he originally very well to do?" "I have not a word to say against him. He was master once of a cool million, but he came to sad grief. I don't suppose he has a hair on his head unmortgaged. Not that it was any fault of his; there never was a better man, but his rascally freedmen swindled him out of everything. Let me tell you, when the hospitable pot stops boiling, and fortune has once taken the turn, friends soon make themselves scarce." "What was the honorable calling he followed, that you see him brought to this?" "He was an undertaker. He used to dine like a King,--boars in pastry, cakes of every sort and game galore, cooks and pastry-cooks without end. More wine was spilt under his table than another man has in his cellar. A dream--not a life for a mere mortal man! Even when his affairs were getting shaky, for fear his creditors might think he was in difficulties, he posted this notice of sale:


This agreeable gossip was here interrupted by Trimalchio; for the second course had now been removed, and the company being merry with wine began to engage in general conversation. Our host then, lying back on his elbow and addressing the company, said, "I hope you will all do justice to this wine; you must make the fish swim again. Come, come, do you suppose I was going to rest content with the dinner you saw boxed up under the cover of the tray just now? 'Is Ulysses no better known?' Well, well! even at table we mustn't forget our scholarship. Peace to my worthy patron's bones, who was pleased to make me a man amongst men. For truly there is nothing can be set before me that will nonplus me by its novelty. For instance the meaning of that tray just now can be easily enough explained. This heaven in which dwell the twelve gods resolves itself into twelve different configurations, and presently becomes the Ram. So whosoever is born under this sign has many flocks and herds and much wool, a hard head into the bargain, a shameless brow and a sharp horn. Most of your schoolmen and pettifoggers are born under this sign."

We recommended the learned expounder's graceful erudition, and he went on to add: "Next the whole sky becomes Bull; then are born obstinate fellows and neatherds and such as think of nothing but filling their own bellies. Under the Twins are born horses in a pair, oxen in a yoke, men blessed with a sturdy brace of testicles, all who manage to keep in with both sides. I was born under the Crab myself. Wherefore I stand on many feet, and have many possessions both by sea and land; for the Crab is equally adapted to either element. And this is why I never put anything on that sign, so as not to eclipse my horoscope. Under the Lion are born great eaters and wasters, and all who love to domineer; under the Virgin, women and runaways and jailbirds; under the Scales, butchers and perfumers and all retail traders; under the Scorpion, poisoners and cutthroats; under the Archer, squint-eyed folks, who look at the greens and whip off with the bacon; under Capricorn, the 'horny-handed sons of toil'; under Aquarius or the Waterman, innkeepers and pumpkin-heads; under Pisces, or the Fishes, fine cooks and fine talkers. Thus the world goes round like a mill, and is for ever at some mischief, whether making men or marring them. But about the sod of turf you see in the middle, and the honeycomb a-top of it, I have a good reason to show too. Our mother Earth is in the middle, round-about like an egg, and has all good things in her inside, like a honey-comb!"

"Clever! clever!" we cry in chorus and with hands uplifted to the ceiling, swear Hipparchus and Aratus were not to be named in the same breath with him. This lasted till fresh servants entered and spread carpets before the couches, embroidered with pictures of fowling nets, prickers with their hunting spears, and sporting gear of all kinds. We were still at a loss what to expect when a tremendous shout was raised outside the doors, and lo and behold! a pack of Laconian dogs came careering round and round the very table. These were soon succeeded by a huge tray, on which lay a wild boar of the largest size, with a cap on its head, while from the tushes hung two little baskets of woven palm leaves, one full of Syrian dates, the other of Theban. Round it were little piglets of baked sweetmeat, as if at suck, to show it was a sow we had before us; and these were gifts to be taken home with them by the guests.

To carve the dish however, it was not this time our friend Cut who appeared, the same who had dismembered the capons, but a great bearded fellow, wearing leggings and a shaggy jerkin. Drawing his hunting knife, he made a furious lunge and gashed open the boar's flank, from which there flew out a number of fieldfares. Fowlers stood ready with their rods and immediately caught the birds as they fluttered about the table. Then Trimalchio directed each guest to be given his bird, and this done, added "Look what elegant acorns this wildwood pig fed on." Instantly slaves ran to the baskets that were suspended from the animal's tushes and divided the two kind of dates in equal proportions among the diners.

Meantime, sitting as I did a little apart, I was led into a thousand conjectures to account for the boar's being brought in with a cap on. So after exhausting all sorts of absurd guesses, I resolved to ask my former "philosopher and friend" to explain the difficulty that tormented me so. "Why!" said he, "your own servant could tell you that much. Riddle? it's as plain as daylight. The boar was presented with his freedom at yesterday's dinner; he appeared at the end of the meal and the company gave him his conge. Therefore today he comes back to table as a freedman." I cursed my own stupidity, and asked no more questions, for fear of their thinking I had never dined with good company before.

We were still conversing, when a pretty boy entered, his head wreathed with vine-leaves and ivy, announcing himself now as Bromius, anon as Lyaeus and Evous. He proceeded to hand round grapes in a small basket, and recited in the shrillest of voices some verses of his master's composition. Trimalchio turned round at the sound, and, "Dionysus," said he, "be free (Liber)!" The lad snatched the cap from the boar's head and stuck it on his own. Then Trimalchio went on again, "Well! you'll not deny," he cried, "I have a Father Liber (a freeborn father) of my own." We praised Trimalchio's joke, and heartily kissed the fortunate lad, as he went round to receive our congratulations.