Aulus Persius Flaccus, frontispiece of Francesco Stelluti’s 1630 edition.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Persius’ ‘Satires’, translated by A.S. Kline. It is not so common to find valuable texts where we are invited to reflect upon diverse defects in devotional practice, as we are more flooded with well-wisher’s advices on ‘how’ to pray. Aulus Persius Flaccus ‘ vivid cameo of Roman daily life from the first century A.D. is telling as it seems that the superstitious and greedy nature of human kind does not change and his sharp mirroring views are still relevant up to our contemporary times. Marcus Tullius Cicero’s statement: ‘O tempora, O mores‘ seems to be an evergreen.
§ 2.1 Satire II:
‘Mark it with a finer pebble, Macrinus, this shining day that numbers the years, in your account, as they slip by. Pour pure wine for your guardian spirit. At least you’re not one to make requests of the gods in some grasping prayer, one only to be whispered to them in confidence; The majority of noble libations flow from a secret censer.
It’s not so easy to transport those murmurs and half-heard whispers from the temples, and speak your request openly.
‘Good sense, reputation, credit,’ he says aloud, for anyone to hear, but here’s what he murmurs to himself, inwardly, under his tongue: ‘O, to brag about uncle, his fine funeral!’ or: ‘O if Hercules would only grant a pot of silver clinking there under the hoe!’ ‘I’d love to wipe out my ward, I’m next in line to inherit; after all he has the mange and he’s swollen with jaundice. Nereus has already buried his third wife.’ To make such prayers chastely, you’ll even plunge your head two or three times in the Tiber’s stream at dawn, and purge the night away with river water.
So tell me, (one small thing only I’d like to know) what’s your view of Jove? Would you care to rank him higher than – who? ‘Who then?’ Well how about our good Staius? Does that make you hesitate? Who’s a safer judge, or better guardian for orphaned children? So then, tell Staius just how you go about bending Jove’s ear. ‘O, for Jupiter’s sake!’ he’d cry; wouldn’t Jupiter do the same?
Do you think you’re excused, because the lightning flash with Its sacred sulphur, shatters the oak rather than you and yours; Because you’re not lying, a sad object, in some grove, a place Lightning-struck, proscribed by Etruscans and their sheep-gut, Do you think he’s asking you then to tug at his stupid beard?
And what’s the bribe exactly you employ to buy an audience With the gods? An offering is it, of lungs and greasy guts?
Behold, some grandmother or aunt in awe of the gods lifts a boy-child from his cradle, purifies his wet lips and brow, first of all, with her middle finger, and propitiatory saliva, she being skilled at warding off that evil eye that withers; then rocks him in her arms and, with a prayer of entreaty, points her meagre prospect towards Licinus’ estates or at Crassus’ palace: ‘May some king or queen choose him for a son-in-law, may the girls grab at him; wherever he treads may there be roses.’ But I’d not trust a nurse’s prayer. Deny her wishes, Jupiter, even if she dresses in white to ask you.
Is it muscular strength and a body to rely on in old age, you ask for? Fine, but your vast dishes and loaded casseroles forbid the gods’ to grant it, and weigh on Jupiter himself.
You long to pile up wealth so kill an ox, and over its liver call out to Mercury: ‘Bring fortune to my house, give me herds and fertile flocks.’ How, exactly, you wretch, when the fat of so many of your cattle are melting in the flames?
Yet he’ll still strive for gain with entrails and sacrificial cake: ‘Already my land increases, and my sheepfold, already it’s being granted, now, now’ – until, deluded, and in despair He’ll sigh for the single coin left in the depths of his purse.
If I bring you silver bowls and gifts richly encrusted with Gold, you sweat, the drops go rolling down your left breast and your heart leaps impatiently: that’s what prompted it, coating divine images with triumphal gold. ‘Oh, grant the supremacy to those brothers in bronze who send us dreams that purge our humours most: let them wear golden beards.’
Gold has ousted Numa’s pots, and even Saturn’s bronze, transmutes the Vestal’s urns, the Etruscan earthenware.
O spirits bent to Earth, and unaware of celestial things, what use is it to impose our human ways on holy shrines, and seek heavenly virtues in this flawed flesh of ours?
This flesh that pollutes our olive oil with perfumed spice, that spoils Calabrian fleeces with misused Tyrian purple, that orders us to strip the pearl from its shell, and carve veins of glowing ore from the raw earth. The flesh sins, It sins, and gains from its weakness.
You priests, tell me what is the value of displaying gold in some sacred place? The same value as the dolls pubescent girls give to Venus. Why don’t we offer the gods something the blear-eyed Scion of the great Messalla can’t give from his vast dish?
Justice and right blended with the spirit, a mind pure to its inner depths, a heart steeped in nobility and honour. Let me bring these to the temple, corn-meal my offering.‘
‘Hunc, Macrine, diem numera meliore lapillo,
qui tibi labentis apponet candidus annos.
funde merum genio. non tu prece poscis emaci
quae nisi seductis nequeas committere diuis;
at bona pars procerum tacita libabit acerra. 5
haut cuiuis promptum est murmurque humilisque susurros
tollere de templis et aperto uiuere uoto.
‘mens bona, fama, fides’, haec clare et ut audiat hospes;
illa sibi introrsum et sub lingua murmurat: ‘o si
ebulliat patruus, praeclarum funus!’ et ‘o si 10
sub rastro crepet argenti mihi seria dextro
Hercule! pupillumue utinam, quem proximus heres
inpello, expungam; nam et est scabiosus et acri
bile tumet. Nerio iam tertia conditur uxor.’
haec sancte ut poscas, Tiberino in gurgite mergis 15
mane caput bis terque et noctem flumine purgas.
heus age, responde (minimum est quod scire laboro)
de Ioue quid sentis? estne ut praeponere cures
hunc—cuinam? cuinam? uis Staio? an—scilicet haeres?
quis potior iudex puerisue quis aptior orbis? 20
hoc igitur quo tu Iouis aurem inpellere temptas
dic agedum Staio. ‘pro Iuppiter, o bone’ clamet
‘Iuppiter!’ at sese non clamet Iuppiter ipse?
ignouisse putas quia, cum tonat, ocius ilex
sulpure discutitur sacro quam tuque domusque? 25
an quia non fibris ouium Ergennaque iubente
triste iaces lucis euitandumque bidental,
idcirco stolidam praebet tibi uellere barbam
Iuppiter? aut quidnam est qua tu mercede deorum
emeris auriculas? pulmone et lactibus unctis? 30
ecce auia aut metuens diuum matertera cunis
exemit puerum frontemque atque uda labella
infami digito et lustralibus ante saliuis
expiat, urentis oculos inhibere perita;
tunc manibus quatit et spem macram supplice uoto 35
nunc Licini in campos, nunc Crassi mittit in aedis:
‘hunc optet generum rex et regina, puellae
hunc rapiant; quidquid calcauerit hic, rosa fiat.’
ast ego nutrici non mando uota. negato,
Iuppiter, haec illi, quamuis te albata rogarit. 40
poscis opem neruis corpusque fidele senectae.
esto age. sed grandes patinae tuccetaque crassa
adnuere his superos uetuere Iouemque morantur.
rem struere exoptas caeso boue Mercuriumque 45
arcessis fibra: ‘da fortunare Penatis,
da pecus et gregibus fetum.’ quo, pessime, pacto,
tot tibi cum in flamma iunicum omenta liquescant?
et tamen hic extis et opimo uincere ferto
intendit: ‘iam crescit ager, iam crescit ouile, 50
iam dabitur, iam iam’;donec deceptus et exspes
nequiquam fundo suspiret nummus in imo.
si tibi creterras argenti incusaque pingui
auro dona feram, sudes et pectore laeuo
excutiat guttas laetari praetrepidum cor. 55
hinc illud subiit, auro sacras quod ouato
perducis facies. ‘nam fratres inter aenos,
somnia pituita qui purgatissima mittunt,
praecipui sunto sitque illis aurea barba.’
aurum uasa Numae Saturniaque inpulit aera 60
Vestalisque urnas et Tuscum fictile mutat.
o curuae in terris animae et caelestium inanis,
quid iuuat hoc, templis nostros inmittere mores
et bona dis ex hac scelerata ducere pulpa?
haec sibi corrupto casiam dissoluit oliuo, 65
haec Calabrum coxit uitiato murice uellus,
haec bacam conchae rasisse et stringere uenas
feruentis massae crudo de puluere iussit.
peccat et haec, peccat, uitio tamen utitur. at uos
dicite, pontifices, in sancto quid facit aurum? 70
nempe hoc quod Veneri donatae a uirgine pupae.
quin damus id superis, de magna quod dare lance
non possit magni Messalae lippa propago?
conpositum ius fasque animo sanctosque recessus
mentis et incoctum generoso pectus honesto. 75
haec cedo ut admoueam templis et farre litabo.‘
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