"Chapter Nine" by Petronius.
But Ascyltos, lost to all self-control, threw his arms up in the air, and turning the whole proceedings into ridicule, laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks. At this once of the freedmen among the guests, the same who occupied the place next above me, lost his temper and shouted:
"What are you laughing at, muttonhead? Isn't my master's elegant hospitality to your taste? You're a mighty fine gentleman, I suppose, and used to better entertainment. So help me the guardian spirits of this house, but I would have made him baa to some purpose, had I been next him. A pretty sprig indeed, to laugh at other people! a vagabond from who knows where, a night-raker, that's not worth his own piddle! Just let me piss round him, and he would not know how to save his life! By the powers, I'm not as a rule quick to take offense, but there! worms are bred in soft flesh. He's laughing; what's he got to laugh at? Did his father buy the brat for money? You're a Roman knight: and I'm a king's son. ‘Why did you serve as a slave then?' Why! because I chose to, and thought it better to be a Roman citizen than a tributary king. And henceforth I hope to live a life beyond the reach of any one's ridicule. I am a man now among men; I can walk about with my nose in the air. I owe nobody a brass farthing; I've never made composition; no one ever stopped me in the forum with a ‘Pay me that thou owest!' I've bought some bits of land, put by a trifle of tin; I keep twenty folks in victuals, to say nothing of the dog; I've purchased my bedfellow's freedom, that no man should wipe his hands on her bosom; I paid a thousand denars to redeem her; I was made a sevir, free gratis for nothing; I trust I may die and have no cause to blush in my grave.
"But you, are you so busy you can't so much as look behind you? You can spy a louse on a neighbor's back, and never see the great tick on your own. You're the only man to find us ridiculous; there's your master and your elder, he likes us well enough, I warrant. You! with your mammy's milk scarce dry on your lips, you can't say boo! to a goose; you crock, you limp scrap of soaked leather, you may be supple, but you're no good. Are you richer than other folk? then dine twice over, and sup twice! For myself I value my credit far above millions. Did any man ever dun me twice? I served forty years, but nobody knows whether I was slave or free. I was a long-haired lad when first I came to this town; the basilica was not built yet. But I took pains to please
my master, a great, grand gentleman and a dignified, whose nail-parings were worth more than your whole body. And I had enemies in the house, let me tell you, quite ready to trip me up on occasion; but-- thanks to his kind nature-- I swam the rapids. That's the real struggle; for to be born a gentleman is as easy as ‘Come here.' Whatever are you gaping at now, like a buck-goat in a field of bitter vetch?"
At this harangue Giton, who was standing at my feet, could no longer contain himself, but burst into a most indecorous peal of merriment. When Ascyltos' adversary noticed the fact, he turned his abuse upon the lad, screaming, "You're laughing too, are you, you curled onion? Ho! for the Saturnalia, is it December, pray? When did you stump up your twentieth? What's he at now, the crow's meat gallows-bird? I'll take care God's anger falls on you, you and your master who does not keep you in better order. As I hope to live by bread. I only keep my hands off you out of respect for my fellow freedmen; else would I have paid you off this instant minute. We're right enough, but your folks are good for nothing, who don't keep you to heel. Verily, like master like man. I can scarce hold myself, and I'm not a hot-headed man naturally; but if I once begin, I don't care twopence for my own mother. All right, I shall come across you yet in the open street, you rat, you mushroom, you! I'll never stir up nor down, if I don't
drive your master into a wretched hole, and show you what's what, though you call upon Olympian Jove himself to help you! I'll be the ruin of your rubbishy ringlets and your twopenny master into the bargain. All right, see if I don't get my teeth into you; either I don't know myself, or you shall laugh on the wrong side of your face, even if you have a beard of gold. I'll see that Minerva's down on you, and the man that first trained you to be what you are.
"I never learned Geometry and Criticism and such like nonsensical screeds, but I do understand the lapidaries' marks, and I can subdivide to the hundredth part when it comes to questions of mass, and weight and mintage. Well and good! if you have a mind, we'll have a little wager, you and I; come now, here I clap down the tin. You'll soon see your father wasted his money on you, though you do know Rhetoric. Now:
‘Which of us?-- I come long, I come wide:
now guess me.'
"I'll tell you which of us runs, yet never stirs from the spot; which of us grows, and gets less all the while. How you skip and fidget and fuss, like a mouse in a chamber-pot! So either hold your tongue altogether, or don't attack a better man than yourself, who hardly knows of your existence,-- unless perhaps you think I'm troubled by your yellow ringlets, that you stole from your doxy. God helps the man that helps himself! Let's away to the forum to borrow money; you'll soon see this bit of iron commands some credit. Aha! a fine sight, a fox in a sweat! As I hope to thrive and make such a good end the people will all be swearing at my death, hang me if I don't chivy you up hill and down dale till you drop! A fine sight too, the fellow that taught you so,-- a muff I call him, not a master! We learned something else in my time; the master used to say, ‘Are your things safe? go straight home; don't stop staring about, and don't be impertinent to your elders.' Now it's all trash; they turn out nobody worth twopence. That I am what I am, I owe to my own wits, and I thank God for it!"
Ascyltos was just beginning to answer his abuse; but Trimalchio, charmed with his fellow-freedman's eloquence, stopped him, saying, "Come, come! leave your bickerings on one side. Better be good-natured; and do you Hermeros, spare the young man. His blood is up; so be reasonable. To yield is always to win in these matters. You were a young cockerel yourself once, and then coco coco you went, and never a grain of sense in you! So take my advice, let's start afresh and be jolly, while we enjoy the Homerists."
Immediately there filed in an armed band, and clashed spears on shields. Trimalchio himself sat in state on his cushion, and when the Homerists began a dialogue in Greek verse, as is their unmannerly manner, read out a Latin text in a clear, loud voice. Presently in an interval of silence, "You know," says he, "what the tale is they are giving us? Diomed and Ganymede were two brothers. Their sister was Helen of Troy. Agamemnon carried her off and palmed a doe on Diana in her stead. So Homer relates how the Trojans and Parentines fought each other. He got the best of it, it seems, and gave his daughter Iphigenia in marriage to Achilles. This drove Ajax mad, who will presently make it all plain to you." No sooner had Trimalchio finished speaking than the Homerists raised a shout, and with the servants bustling in all directions, a boiled calf was borne in on a silver dish weighing two hundred pounds, and actually wearing a helmet. Then came Ajax, and rushing at it like a madman slashed it to bits with his naked sword, and making passes now up and down, collected the pieces on his point and so distributed the flesh among the astonished guests.
We had little time however to admire these elegant surprises; for all of a sudden the ceiling began to rattle and the whole room trembled. I sprang up in consternation, fearing some tumbler was going to fall through the roof. The other guests were no less astounded, and gazed aloft, wondering what new prodigy they were to expect now from the skies. Then lo and behold! the ceiling opened and a huge hoop, evidently stripped from
an enormous cask, was let down, all round which hung suspended golden wreaths and caskets containing precious ungents. These we were invited to take home with us as mementos.
Then looking again at the table, I saw that a tray of cakes had been placed on it, with a figure of Priapus, the handiwork of the pastry-cook, standing in the middle, represented in the conventional way as carrying in his capacious bosom grapes and all sorts of fruits. Eagerly we reached out after these dainties, when instantly a new trick set us laughing afresh. For each cake and each fruit was full of saffron, which spurted out into our faces at the slightest touch, giving us an unpleasant drenching. So conceiving there must be something specially holy about this dish, scented as it was in this ceremonial fashion, we rose to our feet, crying, "All hail, Augustus, Father of his Country!" But seeing the others still helping themselves to the dessert, even after this act of piety, we also filled our napkins,-- myself among the foremost, as I thought no gift good enough to pour into my beloved Giton's bosom. Meantime three slaves entered wearing short white jackets. Two of them set on the table images of the Lares with amulets round their necks, while the third carried round a goblet of wine, crying, "The gods be favorable! the gods be favorable!" Trimalchio told us they were named respectively Cerdo, Felicio and Lucrio. Then came a faithful likeness of Trimalchio in marble, and as everybody else kissed it, we were ashamed not to do likewise.
Then after we had all wished one another good health of mind and body, Trimalchio turned to Niceros and said, "You used to be better company; what makes you so dull and silent today? I beg you, if you wish to oblige me, tell us that adventure of yours." Niceros, delighted at his friend's affability, replied, "May I never make profit more, if I'm not ready to burst with satisfaction to see you so well disposed, Trimalchio. So ho! for a pleasant hour,-- though I very much fear these learned chaps will laugh at me. Well! let ‘em. I'll say my say for all that! What does it hurt me, if a man does grin? Better they should laugh with me than at me." "These words the hero spake," and so began the following strange story:
"When I was still a slave, we lived in a narrow street; the house is Gavilla's now. There, as the gods would have it, I fell in love with Terentius, the tavern-keeper's wife; you all knew Melissa from Tarentum, the prettiest of pretty wenches! Not that I courted her carnally or for venery, but more because she was such a good sort. Nothing I asked did she ever refuse; if she made a penny, I got a halfpenny; whatever I saved, I put in her purse, and she never choused me. Well! her husband died when they were at a country house. So I moved heaven and earth to get to her; true friends, you know, are proved in adversity.
"It so happened my master had gone to Capua, to attend to various trifles of business. So seizing the opportunity, I persuade our lodger to accompany me as far as the fifth milestone. He was a soldier, as bold as Hell. We got under way about first cockcrow, with the moon shining as bright as day. We arrive at the tombs; my man lingers behind among the gravestones, whilst I sit down singing, and start counting the gravestones. Presently I looked back for my comrade; he had stripped off all his clothes and laid them down by the wayside. My heart was in my mouth; and there I stood feeling like a dead man. Then he made water all round the clothes, and in an instant changed into a wolf. Don't imagine I'm joking; I would not tell a lie for the finest fortune ever man had.
"However, as I was telling you, directly he was turned into a wolf, he set up a howl, and away to the woods. At first I didn't know where I was, but presently I went forward to gather up his clothes; but lo and behold! they were turned into stone. If ever a man was like to die of terror, I was that man! Still I drew my sword and let out at every shadow on the road till I arrived at my sweetheart's house. I rushed in looking like a ghost, soul and body barely sticking together. The sweat was pouring down between my legs, my eyes were set, my wits gone almost past recovery. Melissa was astounded at my plight, wondering why ever I was abroad so late. ‘Had you come a little sooner,' she said, ‘you might have given us a hand; a wolf broke into the farm and has slaughtered all the cattle, just as if a butcher had bled them. Still he didn't altogether have the laugh on us, though he did escape; for one of the laborers ran him through the neck with a pike.'
"After hearing this, I could not close an eye, but directly it was broad daylight, I started off for our good Gaius's house, like a peddler whose pack's been stolen; and coming to the spot where the clothes had been turned into stone, I found nothing whatever but a pool of blood. When eventually I got home, there lay my soldier a-bed like a great ox, while a surgeon was dressing his neck. I saw at once he was a werewolf and I could never afterwards eat bread with him, no! not if you'd killed me. Other people may think what they please; but as for me, if I'm telling you a lie, may your guardian spirits confound me!"
We were all struck dumb with amazement, till Trimalchio broke the silence, saying, "Far be it from me to doubt your story; if you'll believe me, my hair stood on end, for I know Niceros is not the man to repeat idle fables; he's perfectly trustworthy and anything but a babbler. Now! I'll tell you a horrible tale myself, as much out of the common as an ass on the tiles!
"I was still but a long-haired lad (for I led a Chian life from a boy) when our master's minion died,-- a pearl, by heaven! a paragon of perfection at all points. Well! as his poor mother was mourning him, and several of us besides condoling with her, all of a sudden the witches set up their hullabaloo, for all the world like a hound in full cry after a hare. At that time we had a Cappadocian in the household, a tall fellow, and a high-spirited, and strong enough to lift a mad bull off its feet. This man gallantly drawing his sword, dashed out in front of the house door, first winding his cloak carefully round his left arm, and lunging out, as it might be there-- no harm to what I touch-- ran a woman clean through. We heard a groan, but the actual witches (I'm very particular to tell the exact truth) we did not see. Coming in again, our champion threw himself down on a bed and his body was black and blue all over, just as if he had been scourged with whips, for it seems an evil hand had touched him. We barred the door and turned back afresh to our lamentations, but when his mother threw her arms round her boy and touched his dead body, she found nothing but a wisp of straw. It had neither heart, nor entrails, nor anything else; for the witches had whipped away the lad and left a changeling of straw in his place. Now I ask you, can you help after this believing there are wise women, and hags that fly by night. But our tall bully, after what happened, never got back his color, in fact a few days afterward he died raving mad!"
We listened with wonder and credulity in equal proportions, and kissing the table, besought the Night-hags to keep in quarters, while we were returning home.
And indeed by this time the lights seemed to burn double and I thought the whole room looked changed, when Trimalchio exclaimed, "I call on you, Plocamus; have you nothing to tell us? no diversion for us? And you used to be such good company, with your amusing dialogues and the comic songs you interspersed. Heigho! all gone, ye toothsome titbits, all gone?" "Alas! my racing days are over, since I got the gout," replied the other; "but when I was a young man, I very nearly sang myself into a consumption. Dancing? dialogues? buffoonery? when did I ever find my match, eh?-- always excepting Appelles." And clapping his hand to his mouth, he spit out some horrid stuff that sounded like whistling, and which he told us afterwards was Greek.
Moreover Trimalchio himself gave an imitation of a horn-blower, and presently turned to his minion whom he called Crœsus. This was a lad with sore eyes and filthy teeth: he was playing with a little black bitch, disgustingly fat, twisting a green scarf round her, putting half a loaf of bread on the couch, and on the animal's refusing to eat it, being already overfed, cramming it down her throat. This reminding Trimalchio of a duty omitted, he ordered Scylax to be brought in, "the guardian of my house and home." Next moment a huge watchdog was led in on a large chain and took up a position in front of the table. Then Trimalchio tossed him a lump of white bread, observing, "There's no one in the house loves me better." The boy was enraged at hearing Scylax so lavishly praised, and setting his bitch down on the floor, cheered her on to attack the monster. Scylax, as was his nature to, filled the room with savage barking, and almost tore Crœsus's little "Pearl" into bits. Nor did this fight end the trouble; but a chandelier was upset over the table, smashing all the crystal, and scalding some of the guests with oil.
Trimalchio, not to appear disconcerted at the damage done, kissed the lad and told him to get up on his back. The latter mounted a-cockhorse without a moment's hesitation, and repeatedly slapping him on the shoulders with his open hand, laughingly shouted, "Buck! buck! how many fingers do I hold up?" After thus submitting for a while to be made a horse of, Trimalchio ordered them to prepare a capacious bowl of wine for all the slaves sitting at our feet, but on this condition, he added, "If any one won't take his whack, souse it over his head! Business in the daytime, now for jollity!"