The Emperor's Fish
Once more behold Crispinus! and often shall I have to call him on the stage. A monster! without one virtue to redeem his vices—of feeble powers, save only in his lust. It is only a widow's charms this adulterer scorns.
What matters it then in what large porticoes he wearies out his steeds—through what vast shady groves his rides extend—how many acres close to the forum, or what palaces he has bought? No bad man is ever happy. Least of all he that has added incest to his adultery, and lately seduced the filleted priestess, that with her life-blood still warm must descend into the earth.
But now we have to deal with more venial acts. Yet if any other man had committed the same, he would have come under the sentence of our imperial censor. For what would be infamous in men of worth, a Titius or Seius, was becoming to Crispinus. What can you do when no crime can be so foul and loathsome as the perpetrator himself? He gave six sestertia for a mullet. A thousand sesterces, forsooth! for every pound of weight, as they allege, who exaggerate stories already beyond belief. I should commend the act as a master-stroke of policy, if by so noble a present he had got himself named chief heir in the will of some childless old man. A better plea still would be that he had sent it to some mistress of rank, that rides in her close chair with its wide glasses. Nothing of the sort! He bought it for himself! We see many things which even Apicius (mean and thrifty compared with him) never was guilty of. Did you do this in days of yore, Crispinus, when girt about with your native papyrus? What! pay this price for fish-scales? Perchance you might have bought the fisherman cheaper than the fish! You might have bought a whole estate for the money in some of our provinces. In Apulia, a still larger one. What kind of luxuries, then, may we suppose were gorged by the emperor himself, when so many sestertia, that furnished forth but a small portion, a mere side-dish of a very ordinary dinner, were devoured by this court buffoon, now clothed in purple. Chief of the equestrian order now is he who was wont to hawk about the streets shads from the same borough with himself.
Begin, Calliope! here may we take our seats! This is no poetic fiction; we are dealing with facts! Relate it, Pierian maids! and grant me grace for having called you maids.
When the last of the Flavii was mangling the world, lying at its last gasp, and Rome was enslaved by a Nero, ay, and a bald one too, an Adriatic turbot of wonderful size fell into the net, and filled its ample folds, off the temple of Venus which Doric Ancona sustains. No less in bulk was it than those which the ice of the Maeotis incloses, and when melted at length by the sun's rays, discharges at the outlets of the sluggish Euxine, unwieldly from their long sloth, and fattened by the long-protracted cold.
This prodigy of a fish the owner of the boat and nets designs for the chief pontiff. For who would dare to put up such a fish to sale, or to buy it? Since the shores too would be crowded with informers; these inspectors of sea-weed, prowling in every nook, would straightway contest the point with the naked fisherman, and would not scruple to allege that the fish was a "stray," and that having made its escape from the emperor's ponds, where it had long reveled in plenty, ought of course to revert to its ancient lord. If we place any faith in Palfurius or Armillatus, whatever is pre-eminently fine in the whole sea, is the property of the exchequer, wherever it swims. So, that it may not be utterly lost, it will be made a present of, though now sickly autumn was giving place to winter, and sick men were already expecting their fits of ague, though the rude tempest whistled and kept the fish fresh, yet the fisherman hurries on as though a mild south wind were blowing. And when the lakes were near at hand, where, though in ruins, Alba still preserves the Trojan fire, and her Lesser Vesta, the wondering crowd for a short space impeded his entrance; as they made way for him, the folding-doors flew open on ready-turning hinge. The senators, shut out themselves, watch the dainty admitted. He stands in the royal presence. Then he of Picenum begins, "Deign to accept what is too great for any private kitchen: let this day be celebrated as the festival of your genius, haste to relieve your stomach of its burden, and devour a turbot reserved to honor your reign. It insisted on being caught." What could be more fulsome? and yet the great man's crest rose. What flattery is there that it is not prepared to believe, when power is praised as equal to the gods. But there was no dish of sufficient size for the fish. Therefore the senators are summoned to a council—men whom he hated! men on whose faces sat the paleness engendered by the wretched friendship with the great! At the loud summons of the Liburnian slave, "Run! the emperor is already seated!" the first to snatch up his cloak and hurry to the place was Pegasus, lately set as bailiff over the amazed city; for what else were the praefects of Rome in those days? of whom he was the best and most conscientious dispenser of the laws, though in those days of terror he thought all things ought to be administered by justice unarmed. Crispus came too, that facetious old man, with high character equal to his eloquence and mild disposition. Who could have been a more serviceable minister to one that ruled seas, and lands, and peoples, if, under that bane and pest of mankind, he had been allowed to reprobate his savage nature and give honest advice? But what is more ticklish than a tyrant's ear, with whom the life even of a favorite was at stake, though he might be talking of showers or heat, or a rainy spring? He, therefore, never attempted to swim against the stream, nor was he a citizen who dared give vent to the free sentiments of his soul, and devote his life to the cause of truth: and so it was that he saw many winters and eighty summers; safe, by such weapons, even in a court like that. Next to him hurried Acilius, a man of the same time of life; with a youth that ill deserved so cruel a death as that which awaited him, so prematurely inflicted by the tyrant's swords; but nobility coupled with old age, has long since been a miracle. Consequently, for myself, I should prefer being a younger brother of the giants. It was of no avail therefore to the wretched man, that as a naked huntsman in the amphitheatre of Alba, he fought hand to hand with Numidian bears. For who, in our days, is not up to the artifices of the patricians? Who would now admire that primitive cunning of thine, Brutus? It is an easy thing to impose on a king that wears a beard!. Then came Rubrius not a whit less pale, though he was no noble, one accused of an ancient and nameless crime, and yet more lost to shame than the pathic satirist. There too is to be seen Montanus' paunch, unwieldy from its size, and Crispus reeking with unguent though so early in the day, more than enough to furnish forth two funerals; and Pompeius, still more ruthless even than he at cutting men's throats by his insinuating whisper; and he that kept his entrails only to fatten the Dacian vultures, Fuscus, that studied the art of war in his marble palace; and the shrewd Veiento with the deadly Catullus, who raged with lust for a girl he could not see, a monster and prodigy of guilt even in our days, the blind flatterer, a common bridge-beggar invested with this hateful power, whose worthiest fate would be to run begging by the carriages on the road to Aricia, and blow his fawning kisses to the chariot as it descends the hill. No one showed more astonishment at the turbot, for he was profuse in his wonder, turning toward the left, but unfortunately the fish lay on the other side. This was just the way he used to praise the combat and fencing of the Cilician gladiator, and the stage machinery, and the boys caught up by it to the awning. Veiento is not to be outdone by him; but, like one inspired by the maddening influence of Bellona, begins to divine. "A mighty omen this you have received of some great and noble triumph. Some captive king you'll take, or Arviragus will be hurled from his British car. For the monster is a foreign one. Do you see the sharp fins bristling on his back like spears?" In one point only Fabricius was at fault, he could not tell the turbot's country or age. "What then is your opinion? Is it to be cut up?" "Heaven forefend so great dishonor to the noble fish!" says Montanus. "Let a deep dish be provided, whose thin sides may inclose its huge circumference. Some cunning Prometheus to act on this sudden emergency is required. Quick with the clay and potter's wheel! But henceforth, Caesar, let potters always attend your armies!" This opinion, worthy of the author, carried the day. He was well versed in the old luxury of the imperial court, and Nero's nights, and a second appetite when the stomach was fired with the Falernian. No one in my day was a greater connoisseur in good eating; he could detect at the first bite whether the oysters were natives from Circeii, or the Lucrine rocks, or whether they came from the Rutupian beds, and told the shore an Echinus came from at the first glance.
They rise; and the cabinet being dismissed, the great chief bids the nobles depart whom he had dragged to the Alban height, amazed and forced to hurry, as though he were about to announce some tidings of the Catti and fierce Sicambri; as though from diverse parts of the world some alarming express had arrived on hurried wing. And would that he had devoted to such trifles as these those days of horror and cruelty, in which he removed from the city those glorious and illustrious spirits, with none to punish or avenge the deed! But he perished as soon as he began to be an object of alarm to cobblers. This was what proved fatal to one that was reeking with the blood of the Lamiae!
End of The Emperor's Fish by Juvenal