“Is it not lunacy to lose $100,000 on one roll of the dice at a casino, yet begrudge a shirt for your shivering slave? Why, it’s harder not to be writing satires,” the Roman poet Juvenal wrote 1,900 years ago.
Here are more excerpts from Juvenal’s Satires.
Our armies march through the world, but the conquered peoples abhor the vices that flourish in our nation’s capital. Who, however callous at heart, could endure this monstrous city, and swallow his rage? Look: Here comes another brand new car, crammed with its corpulent owner, some chiseling politician. And who’s next? An informer. Lesser informers dread him, but they grease his fat palm, begging for favors.
If you want to be someone today you must nerve yourself for deeds that could get you years on the lam or in jail. Honesty’s praised, but honest men cringe. Wealth grows from crime: Landscape gardens, palaces, teak desks, antique silver cups embossed with prancing goats — all are tainted.
Not a soul is safe from this man’s randy urges: the lady of the house, her virgin daughter, her daughter’s fresh-faced husband. And if none are to hand, he’ll cheerfully lay his best friend’s grandmother — anything to ferret out secrets and get a hold over other people.
What prospective son-in-law ever passed muster for him if he was short on cash to match his daughter’s dowry? We live in a teetering city, propped up by dishonest landlords’ gimcrack rigging. That’s how they shore up their collapsing apartments, reassuring the tenants they can sleep securely in those houses of cards.
He has no respect for anyone.
“What synagogue do you sleep in? Speak up, or I’ll kick your teeth in!”
It makes no difference what you say, you’ll get beaten up anyway. Then your irate “victim” takes you to court on a charge of assault and battery. Such is the poor man’s freedom. After being beaten to a pulp, he’ll beg as a favor to be left with his few remaining teeth.
So farewell, my nation’s capital. I leave you to sanitary engineers, a man who will swear black is white to land the juicy contracts: a giant shrine to something, draining a swamp, building cemeteries — then he pockets the cash and files a fraudulent bankruptcy petition.
Once this fellow was just an entertainer, puffing himself up in cheap road shows. Now he stages gladiatorial combats, and at the mob’s thumbs-down he’ll butcher a loser to pump up his own popularity, then filch a few million more from a contract for building public latrines. Why not? This is a man whom the goddess Fortune, for a joke, made our boss.
What could I do in such a capital? I never learned how to lie. I give those jobs to people who know how to do it. I refuse to become an accomplice in theft, so no congressman will hire me. I’m a cripple. I cannot and will not plot any man’s death as a way to oblige someone else.
All too soon, my powerful friend, when you undress and waddle into the bath, your belly swollen with undigested peacock meat, comes a lightning heart attack.
The story will go the rounds as a dinner-table joke. But no one will care about you. Your corpse will be carried out to cheers from the friends you’ve cheated.
So what were all your possessions worth, in the end?
What is to be done when you yourself are so much more revolting than any charge we can bring against you?
How fortunate were our ancestors, how happy those days, when our nation made do with a single prison.
(Decimus Iunius Juvenalis was a Roman satirist who lived from about 55 to about 130 A.D. Sixteen of his Satires, written in dactylic hexameter, have survived. This prose rendition of selections from his first five Satires is based on the Penguin Classics’ English translation by Peter Green, published in 1967. The excerpts have been rearranged and lightly edited.)