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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Juvenal (c. 40–125)

The Emperor’s Turbot

From “Satires”

WHEN the last Flavius, drunk with fury, tore

The prostrate world, which bled at every pore,

And Rome beheld, in body as in mind,

A bald-pate Nero rise, to curse mankind,

It chanced that, where the fane of Venus stands,

Reared on Ancona’s coast by Grecian hands,

A turbot, wandering from the Illyrian main,

Fill’d the wide bosom of the bursting seine.

Monsters so bulky, from its frozen stream,

Mæoris renders to the solar beam,

And pours them, fat with a whole winter’s ease,

Through the bleak Euxine, into warmer seas.

The mighty draught the astonished boatman eyes,

And to the emperor’s table dooms his prize.

For who would dare to sell it, who to buy,

When the coast swarmed with many a practised spy,

Mud-rakers, prompt to swear the fish had fled

From Cæsar’s ponds—ingrate!—where long it fed,

And, thus recaptured, claimed to be restored

To the dominion of its ancient lord?

Nay, if Palphurius may our credit gain,

Whatever rare or precious swims the main,

Is forfeit to the crown, and you may seize

The obnoxious dainty when and where you please.

This point allowed, our wary boatman chose

To give what, else, he had not failed to lose.

Now were the dogstar’s sickly fervors o’er;

Earth, pinched with cold, her frozen livery wore;

The old began their quartan fits to fear,

And wintry blasts deformed the beauteous year,

And kept the turbot sweet; yet on he flew,

As if the sultry South corruption blew.

And now the lake, and now the hill he gains,

Where Alba, though in ruins, still maintains

The Trojan fire, which, but for her, were lost,

And worships Vesta, though with less of cost.

The wondering crowd, that gathered to survey

The enormous fish, and barred the fisher’s way,

Satiate, at length retires; the gates unfold;

Murmuring, the excluded senators behold

The envied dainty enter. On the man

To great Atrides pressed, and thus began:

“This, for a private table far too great,

Accept, and sumptuously your genius treat;

Haste to unload your stomach, and devour

A turbot, destined to this happy hour.

I sought him not; he marked the toils I set,

And rushed, a willing victim, to my net.”

Was flattery e’er so rank? Yet he grows vain,

And his crest rises at the fulsome strain.

When, to divine, a mortal power we raise,

He looks for no hyperboles in praise.

But when was joy unmixed? No pot is found,

Capacious of the turbot’s ample round.

In this distress, he calls the chiefs of state,

At once the objects of his scorn and hate,

In whose pale cheeks distrust and doubt appear,

And all a tyrant’s friendship breeds of fear.

Scarce was the loud Liburnian heard to say,

“He sits,” ere Pegasus was on his way;

Yes, the new bailiff of the affrighted town

(For what were prefects more?) had snatched his gown,

And rushed to council. From the ivory chair

He dealt out justice with no common care;

But yielded oft to those licentious times,

And where he could not punish, winked at crimes.

Then old, facetious Crispus tripped along,

Of gentle manners and persuasive tongue.

None fitter to advise the lord of all,

Had that pernicious pest, whom thus we call,

Allowed a friend to soothe his savage mood,

And give him counsel, wise at once and good.

But who shall dare this liberty to take,

When, every word you hazard, life’s at stake?

Though but of stormy summers, showery springs—

For tyrants’ ears, alas! are ticklish things.

So did the good old man his tongue restrain,

Nor strove to stem the torrent’s force in vain.

Not one of those, who, by no fears deterred,

Spoke the free soul, and truth to life preferred.

He temporized—thus fourscore summers fled,

Even in that court, securely o’er his head.

Next him appeared Acilius hurrying on,

Of equal age, and followed by his son;

Who fell, unjustly fell, in early years,

A victim to the tyrant’s jealous fears.

But long ere this were hoary hairs become

A prodigy among the great at Rome;

Hence, I had rather owe my humble birth,

Frail brother of the giant-brood, to earth.

Poor youth! in vain the ancient sleight you try;

In vain, with frantic air and ardent eye,

Fling every robe aside, and battle wage

With bears and lions on the Alban stage.

All see the trick and, spite of Brutus’ skill,

There are who count him but a driveler still;

Since, in his days, it cost no mighty pains

To outwit a prince with much more beard than brains.

Rubrius, though not, like these, of noble race,

Followed with equal terror in his face,

And, laboring with a crime too foul to name,

More, than the pathic satirist, lost to shame.

Montanus’ belly next, and next appeared

The legs on which that monstrous pile was reared.

Crispinus followed, daubed with more perfume,

Thus early, than two funerals consume.

Then bloodier Pompey, practised to betray,

And hesitate the noblest lives away.

Then Fuscus, who, in studious pomp at home,

Planned future triumphs for the arms of Rome.

Blind to the event, those arms a different fate,

Inglorious wounds and Dacian vultures, wait.

Last, sly Veiento with Catullus came,

Deadly Catullus, who at beauty’s name

Took fire, although unseen, a wretch whose crimes

Struck with amaze e’en those outrageous times—

A base, blind parasite, a murderous lord,

From the bridge-end raised to the council-board,

Yet fitter still to dog the traveler’s heels,

And whine for alms to the descending wheels.

None dwelt so largely on the turbot’s size,

Or raised with such applause his wondering eyes;

But to the left (oh, treacherous want of sight)

He poured his praise: the fish was on the right!

Thus would he at the fencer’s matches sit,

And shout with rapture at some fancied hit;

And thus applaud the stage machinery, where

The youths were rapt aloft, and lost in air.

Nor fell Veiento short. As if possessed

With all Bellona’s rage, his laboring breast

Burst forth in prophecy, “I see, I see

The omens of some glorious victory!

Some powerful monarch captured! Lo, he rears,

Horrent on every side, his pointed spears!

Arviragus hurled from the British car.

The fish is foreign, foreign is the war.”

Proceed, great seer, and what remains untold,

The turbot’s age and country, next unfold;

So shall your lord his fortunes better know,

And where the conquest waits, and who the foe.

The emperor now the important question put,

“How say ye, fathers, shall the fish be cut?”

“Oh, far be that disgrace!” Montanus cries;

“No, let a pot be formed, of amplest size,

Within whose slender sides the fish, dread Sire,

May spread his vast circumference entire!

Bring, bring the tempered clay, and let it feel

The quick gyrations of the plastic wheel.

But, Cæsar, thus forewarned, make no campaign,

Unless your potters follow in your train!”

Montanus ended. All approved the plan,

And all, the speech, so worthy of the man!

Versed in the old court luxury, he knew

The feasts of Nero and his midnight crew;

Where oft, when potent drafts had fired the brain,

The jaded taste was spurred to gorge again;

And, in my time, none understood so well

The science of good eating. He could tell,

At the first relish, if his oysters fed

On the Rutupian or the Lucrine bed;

And from a crab or lobster’s color, name

The country, nay, the district, whence it came.

Here closed the solemn farce. The fathers rise,

And each, submissive, from the presence hies—

Pale, trembling wretches, whom the chief, in sport,

Had dragged, astonished, to the Alban court;

As if the stern Sicambri were in arms,

Or the fierce Catti threatened new alarms;

As if ill news by flying posts had come,

And gathering nations sought the fall of Rome!