THE GOLDEN ASS, OR METAMORPHOSES
The story of the wicked stepmother -- sold again -- the pastrycook and the chef -- caught in the act -- Lucius the almost human -- the noble mistress and the ignoble substitute -- degraded to make a Corinthian holiday - -the Judgement of Paris -- escape to Cenchreae
What happened next day to my master the gardener I never found out. Nobody objected when I was taken off by the soldier whose outrageous violence had earned him such a sound thrashing to what I took to be his quarters and loaded up with his personal gear. When he led me out on to the road I was arrayed in full military panoply: I was carrying a brilliantly polished helmet and a shield that was visible for miles, plus a spear with a remarkably long point. These arms were carefully set out and displayed on the top of the heap of gear in proper campaigning style, not of course for genuine military reasons but to put the fear of God into unfortunate wayfarers. We came by a quite easy road through flat country to a small town, where we put up, not at an inn, but at the house of one of the town councilors. The soldier handed me over to one of the servants and immediately went in accordance with his orders to report to his commanding officer, who was in charge of a thousand men.
A few days later I remember that there was committed in that place a particularly wicked and horrible crime: which I write down so that you too can read about it. The master of the house had a young son, to whom he had given so excellent an education that he was all that a dutiful and modest boy ought to be, just such a son as you, dear reader, would wish to have yourself. His mother had died years before, and the husband had remarried and had another son by his second wife, who was now in his thirteenth year. His stepmother, who owed the powerful position she occupied in her husband's home more to her looks than her morals, whether because she was unchaste by nature or whether it was Fate that impelled her to this ultimate infamy, cast lustful eyes on her stepson. And with that, dear reader, you know that it's a tragedy, no mere tale, that you're reading: from the sock we mount the buskin.
So long as the infant passion was still in the early stages of its growth, the woman was easily able to resist Cupid's as yet feeble power and control her blushes in silence. But when the frenzy blazed up and took entire possession of her, when Love raged and seethed unrestrained deep in her breast, then she yielded to the cruel god and, pretending to feel ill, passed off the wound in her heart as bodily indisposition. As everybody knows, the outward signs and symptoms of sickness and lovesickness are identical: a sickly pallor, languid eyes, no strength in the legs, sleepless nights, and sighs which grow ever deeper as the torment is prolonged. One might have thought that it was merely the heat of fever that made her toss and turn, were it not that she also wept. 'Alas, the unknowing minds of doctors!' What do you make of the case, gentlemen? The throbbing pulse, the hectic flush, the laboured breathing, the constant tossing from side to side in bed? For God's sake, isn't the diagnosis obvious to anybody who's taken a course in the school of Venus, even if he doesn't have a medical diploma, when you see somebody on fire without a temperature?
So finally, unable to control the passion which shook her to the core, she broke silence and sent for her son, though she would have preferred, had it been possible, not to call him by that name, which was a reminder of her shame. The boy instantly obeyed his sick mother's command, and, as his duty to his father's wife and his brother's mother demanded, came to her room wearing a worried frown that was older than his years. For a long time in her distress and torment she could not utter a word; aground, as it were, on the shoals of indecision, every time anything occurred to her that fitted the occasion, she would have second thoughts, and with her chastity still poised in the balance she hesitated, not knowing how best to begin. The boy, who as yet suspected nothing amiss, took the initiative and respectfully asked what was the matter with her. They were alone together: embracing the fatal opportunity she threw caution to the winds, and veiling her face in her robe and weeping bitterly she spoke to him briefly in a trembling voice: 'The cause and the source of my pain, but also the only remedy and cure for it, is you, you yourself. It is your eyes that have shot through mine to the depths of my heart and kindled a fierce blaze in my inmost being. Pity then her who is dying because of you, and do not be held back by scruples about duty to your father. You will be saving a wife for him who would otherwise die. It is his likeness that I see in you: no wonder I love you. We are alone, and have nothing to worry about; the opportunity is here -- you cannot refuse. What nobody knows about to all intents and purposes hasn't happened.'
The young man was aghast at this bombshell, but though his first reaction to the idea of such a crime was one of horror, he thought it better to calm the situation by delaying tactics -- diplomatic promises rather than an abrupt and outright refusal, which would only aggravate matters. So he heaped assurances on her, urging her insistently to cheer up and to concentrate on getting well again, and to wait until his father had to be away, when they would be free to enjoy themselves. Then as soon as he could he removed himself from his stepmother's loathed presence. Thinking that in this dire family crisis there was need of expert advice, he went straight to the wise and experienced old man who had been his tutor. After much deliberation it was decided that the best course was to escape the disastrous rage of Fortune by an immediate departure. The wife, however, could not endure any delay, however short, and inventing some pretext or other with amazing artfulness quickly managed to persuade her husband to hurry off to visit some outlying estates. With his departure, in a frenzy at the realization of her hopes, she immediately demanded that the boy fulfil his promise and gratify her lust. He, with one excuse after another, contrived to put off the abominable rendezvous, until she realized that all these contradictory messages meant that he was clearly not going to keep his promise. At this with lightning fickleness her wicked love was transformed to yet more wicked hate. She at once enlisted the aid of a villainous slave, part of her dowry, a fellow to whom crime had become a way of life, and to him she confided her treacherous plans. It was decided that the best course was to murder the unfortunate young man. Accordingly this villain was sent to obtain a particularly deadly poison, and this was carefully mixed with wine and laid by for the destruction of her innocent stepson.
But while these vile creatures were considering when would be the best opportunity to administer the drink, it so happened that the younger boy, this dreadful woman's own son, came back home one day after his morning lessons, ate his lunch, and felt thirsty. Finding the cup of wine with the poison lurking in it, unaware of the danger, he drained it at a draught; and having drunk the death that had been prepared for his brother, he fell lifeless to the ground. His attendant, terrified by the boy's sudden seizure, set up a piercing outcry which brought his mother and the whole household on to the scene. As soon as it was realized that the poisoned drink was responsible for his death, everybody began to accuse everybody else of this fearful crime. However, that she-devil, that unique exemplar of step-motherly malignity, so far from being moved by her son's untimely death, or the guilt of murder, or the calamity to their house, or her husband's grief; or the distress of the funeral, was interested only in using the family disaster to further her revenge. She immediately sent a courier to find her husband and announce to him the ruin of his house; and when he returned, which he did at once, she put on a breathtakingly bold front and charged her stepson with the crime of poisoning her son. This was not totally untrue, in so far as the one boy had anticipated the death meant for the other; but she pretended that her stepson had made away with his younger brother because she had refused to yield to his criminal lust and resisted his attempt to rape her. Even these monstrous lies did not satisfy her: she added that he had also threatened her with his sword for denouncing his crime. The wretched father, reeling from the loss of two sons, was tossed to and fro on a stormy sea of suffering. His younger son he had to see buried before his eyes, and the elder must inevitably, it seemed, be condemned to death for incest and fratricide. On top of this, the wife whom he loved all too dearly was all the time, with her vocal pretence of heartfelt grief, inciting him to a relentless hatred of his own flesh and blood.
Scarcely was the funeral over and his son buried than the poor old man went straight from the pyre, his face still streaming with tears and his white hair torn and smeared with ash, to the marketplace. There, weeping and pleading and embracing the knees of the town councilors, ignorant as he was of his wicked wife's treachery, he set himself, with all the passion at his command, to secure his remaining son's destruction. He was, he said, incestuous he had violated his father's bed; a parricide -- he had murdered his brother; an assassin -- he had threatened to cut his stepmother's throat. His grief kindled such pity and anger, not only in the council but also in the townspeople, that they were all for dispensing with the tedious formality of a trial, the presentation of the evidence by the prosecution, and the carefully rehearsed twists and turns of the defence, clamouring for instant public vengeance on this public menace by stoning.
Meanwhile, however, the magistrates became alarmed at the possible consequences to themselves if these minor manifestations of anger were allowed to develop into riots and the total subversion of public order in the city. Some of them therefore reasoned with the councilors, while others calmed down the crowd, and got them to agree to hold a regular trial in the traditional manner and arrive at a verdict and sentence according to law after the allegations on both sides had been properly examined. That, they said, was surely preferable to condemning a man unheard, in the manner of a savage tribe or an irresponsible despot; in a time of peace and tranquility that would set a shocking example and be a blot on the age.
This sensible advice carried the day, and the herald was at once ordered to convene the council. As soon as the members had taken their usual seats in order of precedence, the voice of the herald was again heard, and the accuser entered. Then the accused was summoned and appeared in his turn; and following Athenian legal practice as observed in the court of the Areopagus, the herald formally reminded the advocates that introductory speeches and appeals to pity were not allowed, All this I learned from overhearing various conversations. However, the exact words used by the prosecutor in urging his case and the precise terms used by the defendant in rebuttal, the various speeches and exchanges. all that, not having been in court but tied up to my manger, I don't know and am in no position to report to you; what I did reliably learn, I will set down in this account.
Directly the speeches on both sides were over, it was agreed that the truth and credibility of the charges in such an important case must be established by reliable proofs, not on the basis of mere guesswork and suspicions; and that the first priority was to put on the stand the slave who was supposed to be the only person who knew what had really happened. That gallows-meat was not in the slightest degree perturbed either by the uncertain outcome of a trial such as this or the sight of the packed court, let alone the consciousness of his crime. He launched straight into his totally fictitious story, stoutly and repeatedly affirming the truth of what he was saying. The young man (so it ran), angry at being rebuffed by his stepmother, had enlisted his help; in revenge for that indignity he had told him off to murder her son; he had promised a large sum of money as the price of his silence; he had threatened him with death when he refused to cooperate; he had mixed the poison with his own hands and given it to him to administer to his brother; finally, suspecting that he was disobeying his orders and holding on to the cup of poison as evidence, he had poisoned the boy himself. All this the villain trotted out as plausibly as you please, with a show of nervousness; and that concluded the trial.
By now not a single councilor remained impartial; all were agreed that the young man was clearly guilty of parricide and deserved to be sewn up in the sack. The unanimous votes, every one bearing the word 'Guilty', were about to be dropped into the bronze urn in accordance with immemorial custom -- and once that was done, it was all up with the defendant; there was no going back, and his life was delivered into the hands of the executioner -- when there arose a senior councilor, a man noted for his integrity and a highly respected doctor. He covered the mouth of the urn with his hand to prevent any votes being cast prematurely, and addressed the council as follows.
'It has been a great satisfaction to me, gentlemen, in the course of a long life, to have earned your esteem; and therefore I cannot allow the murder -- for that is what it amounts to -- of a man falsely accused, or allow you, who are sworn to reach a just verdict, to be led to perjure yourselves by the lies of a despicable slave. Speaking for myself: I cannot trample on the reverence I owe the gods or break faith with my conscience by giving an untrue verdict. So, learn from me the real facts of this case.
'This scoundrel came to me not long ago, anxious to purchase an instantaneous poison, for which he offered a hundred gold pieces. His story was that he needed it for a sick man who was in the lingering agony of an incurable illness and wanted desperately to be quit of a life that was mere torture. However, I saw through the scoundrel's patter and his clumsy explanations, and had no doubt that he was hatching some diabolical crime or other. So I gave him his potion all right; but with the possibility of a subsequent inquiry in mind, I declined to take the money then and there. "Just in case," I said to him, "any of these coins turn out to be counterfeit or below standard, let them stay in the bag and seal it with your signet, and then later on we can get a banker and have him test them." He was persuaded and sealed up the money; and directly he was called as a witness I sent one of my staff post-haste to fetch it from my office and bring it to me -- and, gentlemen, here it is, and I now show it to the court. Let him look at it and acknowledge his seal. How can the brother be taxed with the poison, when it was this fellow who procured it?'
At this the scoundrel was seized with panic, his natural complexion became deathly pale and a cold sweat broke out all over him; he shuffled his feet back and forth and scratched his head all over; and mouthing through half-closed lips he stuttered out a lot of nonsense -- nobody could reasonably have believed him innocent. Then, however, his natural cunning reasserted itself and he stoutly denied everything and persisted in calling the doctor a liar. He, quite apart from his juror's oath, seeing his private honour publicly impugned, pressed home his accusations against the scoundrel even more vehemently. Finally the magistrates ordered the public officers to examine the villain's hands, on which they found an iron ring, which they compared with the seal on the bag; the comparison confirmed everybody's suspicions. The wheel and the rack, as usual in Greece, were immediately brought into action, but he held out against torture with extraordinary obstinacy, and neither flogging nor even the fire made him give in.
Finally the doctor spoke out: 'No, I will not allow it, I will not allow you to punish this innocent young man and let this fellow escape the penalty for his crime and make a mockery of justice. I will give you a clear proof of the real state of affairs. When this rascal was so eager to buy a deadly poison, I thought it improper for one of my profession to provide anybody with the means of death. I had been taught that medicine had been invented to save life, not destroy it. However, I feared that if I declined to give it to him, I should merely be aiding and abetting his crime and more harm than good by my refusal; he would acquire his deadly potion from somebody else or in the last resort carry out his abominable plan with a sword or some other weapon. So I gave him his "poison"; but it was a soporific draught of mandragora, a proven narcotic, as you know, which induces a sleep indistinguishable from death. You need not be surprised that this desperate villain, knowing that he must suffer the extreme penalty of the law as laid down by our ancestral custom, braves these tortures as light in comparison. But if what the boy drank was really the drink that I compounded, he is alive and sleeping peacefully, and soon he will shake off his torpor and return to the light of day. If, however, death has claimed him, we must look for the cause elsewhere.'
The old man's speech carried conviction, and not a moment was lost in hastening to the tomb where the boy's body had been laid. The whole council, all the chief citizens, in fact the entire population, converged on the spot, in a fever of curiosity. It was the father himself who removed the lid of the coffin with his own hands; and at once the boy shook off his death-like lethargy and sat up, risen from the dead. His father gathered him into his arms and embraced him, speechless for the moment with joy, and showed him to the people. Just as he was, still wrapped in his grave-clothes, the boy was carried back to the court. So finally the crimes of the wicked slave and the even wickeder stepmother were brought to light, and naked Truth came forward for all to See. The woman was sentenced to perpetual exile and the slave to crucifixion. All agreed that the good doctor should be allowed to keep the gold, as the price of that timely sleep. As for the old man, his famous, indeed fabulous, experience ended in a way worthy of divine Providence: in a matter of moments, seconds indeed, he was rescued from the prospect of total childlessness and suddenly found himself the father of two young sons.
As for me, I was once again launched on my fated voyage. The soldier who had bought me from no vendor and paid nothing for me received orders from his commanding officer to take a letter to the Emperor at Rome, and so sold me to two brothers for eleven denarii. These were the slaves of a rich master: one was a pastrycook, who produced bread and sweet cakes, the other a chef; who concocted savoury dishes seasoned with delicious sauces. They lived together and maintained a joint establishment; they had bought me to transport the large numbers of containers required for various purposes by their master, who traveled about a good deal. So I was admitted as a third member of this partnership, and never before or since did I find myself so well off. Every evening, after a luxurious dinner splendidly served, my masters would take home generous portions of the food. The chef brought back large helpings of pork, chicken, fish, and all sorts of ragouts; the pastrycook brought rolls, biscuits, cakes, fritters and pastries of all shapes and sizes, and various sweetmeats. Then when they locked up their quarters and went to the baths to refresh themselves, I would gorge myself on this heaven-sent banquet; for I was not such a fool or an actual ass as to reject this delicious food and make my dinner on rough spiky hay.
For some time my artful thievery went swimmingly; I was cautious and only stole a little from the plenty that was on offer, and they never thought of suspecting an ass of pilfering. But as I grew confident of avoiding detection I began to wolf down all the particularly choice bits and single out the most delicious sweetmeats to lick up, and that disturbed the brothers, who became extremely suspicious. Though even then they did not connect me with the matter, they set out to try to discover who was responsible for this daily thieving. In the end they began to tax each other with this sordid plundering, and they redoubled their precautions, maintaining an even stricter supervision and counting and checking off every dish. At last one could no longer contain himself and spoke out: 'It really isn't fair what you're doing -- it's no way for a man to behave -- to make away with the choice bits every day and sell them so as to increase your own nest-egg on the sly, and then claim an equal share of what's left. If you're dissatisfied with our partnership, we can go on being brothers in everything else, but give up this sharing arrangement. I can see that this dispute about our losses is going to get out of hand and provoke a disastrous quarrel between us.' To this his brother replied: 'I admire your nerve, I really do. Every day you've been quietly filching all the choice morsels, and now you get in ahead of me with the very complaint that I've held back all this time, suffering in secret because I didn't want to be seen accusing my brother of this squalid thieving. But it's just as well to thrash it out between us and look for a solution together; if we go on bottling up our feelings one of us might end up doing an Eteocles.'
After more recriminations of this kind, each swore solemnly that he was innocent of any deceit or theft; and they agreed that what they had to do was discover by fair means or foul the thief who was responsible for their common loss. The ass, they reasoned, the only other occupant of the premises, could not be attracted by this kind of food, but nevertheless the best bits were disappearing every day, and it couldn't be the flies that were invading the place -- they would have to be as big as the Harpies that used to carry off Phineus' dinner. Meanwhile, on this rich and lavish diet of human food I had rounded out and grown fat, my hide had become soft and supple, and my coat long and sleek. But my handsome appearance brought about shame and confusion for me. The brothers were struck by my increased bulk, and noticing that my daily ration of hay was untouched, they concentrated their attention on me. One evening they locked up the house at the usual time as if they were going to the baths, and then, looking through a small crack in the wall they saw me tucking in to the array of eatables. They were no longer bothered about their loss, only lost in wonder at this unnatural gourmandise on the part of an ass; roaring with laughter they called their fellow slaves one by one until there was a whole crowd of them there, and showed them this unheard-of vagary of appetite in a brute beast of burden.
Their laughter was so loud and hearty that it came to their master's ears as he was passing. He asked what they all found so comical; and when he was told he looked through the hole himself. He was highly amused and in fact laughed so much that he got a pain in his inside. He then had the door opened and came in to observe at close quarters. Seeing that Fortune was at last relenting to some degree and smiling on me, and reassured by the general hilarity, I was not in the least put out but went on eating at my ease. In the end the master was so pleased by this unusual spectacle that he ordered me to be brought into the house, indeed he conducted me into the dining-room himself, and had the table set out and laid with every kind of eatable and dish, all whole and intact. Though I was already pretty full, I wanted to play up to him and get into his good books, and so I fell to greedily on the assembled delicacies. They had taken great pains to work out what an ass would find most uncongenial, in order to see how domesticated I really was; so they served me meat seasoned with silphium, capons liberally peppered, and fish swimming in exotic sauces. All the while the whole company were in fits of laughter. Then said a wag who was present: 'Give our friend here some wine -- neat.' The master took him up: 'Not such a bad idea of yours, you rascal,' he said. 'It's quite possible that our guest would like a cup of honey-wine with his dinner', and turning to a slave, 'You there, wash out that gold bowl carefully, mix and fill it, and offer it to my guest -- and when you do so, tip him the wink that I've drunk his health.' The other guests were all agog. I was not in the slightest degree abashed, but quite at my ease and in convivial style I shaped the ends of my lips into a ladle and drank off the whole of this large bowl at a draught. This was greeted with a shout as all present with one voice wished me good health. The master was highly delighted, and calling in the slaves who had bought me ordered them to be given four times what they had paid; and he handed me over to his confidential freedman, a person of some substance, with orders to look after me well.
This man treated me with great humanity and kindness, and to ingratiate himself with his patron, he took great pains to entertain him with my clever tricks. First he taught me to recline at table on my elbow, then to wrestle and even to dance on my hind legs, and what was thought most extraordinary, to answer when spoken to, by nodding upwards for 'no' and downwards for 'yes'; and when I was thirsty to look at the wine-waiter and ask for drink by opening and shutting my eyes. I had no trouble in learning my lessons, for of course I could have done all these things without being shown. However, I was afraid that if I behaved untaught in too human a fashion, they would think this a sinister omen and kill me and consign me to the vultures to feast on as a monster and a prodigy. Meanwhile the news got around, and my master had become a public figure on account of my wonderful performances. Everybody had heard of him as the man who had an ass as boon companion, an ass that could wrestle and dance and understand human speech and express himself by nodding.
But first I should do what I ought to have done in the first place and tell you now who my master was and where he was from. His name was Thiasus and he came from Corinth, the capital of the province of Achaea. As one would expect of a man of his birth and rank, he had passed through the different grades of office to the quinquennial magistracy; and to honour the occasion in a suitably brilliant manner and by way of displaying his munificence to the full he had undertaken to provide a three-day gladiatorial show. So eager indeed was he for popularity that he had been as far afield as Thessaly to procure wild beasts and celebrated gladiators, and now that he had acquired and arranged all he needed he was preparing to return to Corinth. His luxurious carriages and splendid covered and uncovered wagons were left to trail along ignominiously at the rear of the procession, as were his Thessalian horses and Gaulish ponies and the rest of his expensive bloodstock. It was I whom he bestrode -- I, tricked out in golden ornaments and richly dyed saddle-cloths and purple housings and silver reins and embroidered girths and sweetly chiming bells -- all the time addressing me in terms of affectionate endearment and declaring that what pleased him most of all was that in me he had both a companion and a conveyance.
When, after a journey partly on land and partly by sea, we reached Corinth, great crowds of citizens turned out, not so much, it seemed, in honour of Thiasus as because they were dying to have a look at me. In fact I had become so famous in those parts also that my keeper did extremely well out of me. Seeing the numbers of those who could not contain their eagerness to watch my performances, he barred the doors and only let them in one at a time, and the tips that he took every day added up to a tidy sum.
There was in that select company a certain noble and wealthy lady who like everybody else paid to see me and was delighted by all my various antics. Gradually her continued admiration of me changed to an extraordinary passion for me. For this unnatural lust the only remedy she could devise was to play Pasiphae, this time with an ass for lover. Her whole heart thus set on enjoying my embraces, she finally offered my keeper a large fee for one night with me. He, not in the least worried about whether the affair would turn out agreeably for me, but only happy at the prospect of profit for himself, agreed.
So having dined we left the master's table and found the lady in my apartment, where she had been waiting for some time. Ye gods, what splendid preparations she had made! Four eunuchs busied themselves in making a bed for us on the ground with a heap of pillows puffed up airily with the finest down, over which they carefully draped a coverlet embroidered with gold and dyed with Tyrian purple; and on top of all they scattered an ample supply of smaller pillows, dainty affairs such as those on which elegant ladies are accustomed to rest their heads. Then, without delaying their mistress's pleasure by lingering any longer, they withdrew and shut the door, leaving the room brilliant lit by candles whose flames illuminated the darkness for us.
Now the lady removed every stitch of clothing, even the band confining her beautiful breasts, and standing by one of the lamps she anointed herself with quantities of balsam from a pewter vessel, which she also rubbed generously over me, paying special attention to my nostrils. Next she kissed me lovingly, not the sort of kisses that pass current in the brothel, those of whores eager to extract money or clients as eager to withhold it; hers were the real thing and heartfelt, as were her endearments -- 'I love you', 'I want you', 'You're the only one I love', 'I can't live without you', and all the other things women say to excite men and prove how much they care for them. Then she took hold of my halter and got me to lie down in the way I had learned. That was a simple matter: what I had to do presented itself to me as neither novel nor difficult, especially when after all this time I was about to go to bed with so beautiful and so willing a mistress. Moreover I had drunk copiously of the wine, which was extremely fine, and the sweet ointment had also aroused my desire.
No, what worried me a great deal as I thought about it was this -- how was I, with my four clumsy legs, to mount this exquisite lady? How could I embrace her soft white body, all milk and honey, with my horny hooves? How could I kiss those delicate red lips, fragrant as ambrosia, with my great ugly mouth and its teeth like a row of rocks? And how -- and this was what really troubled me -- though I was on fire to get started, every inch of me -- how was she going to cope with my immense organ? I was already mourning for myself: thrown to the beasts as an item in my master's games for splitting a patrician lady in two! Meanwhile she went on murmuring endearments and kissing me repeatedly and moaning tenderly and fluttering her eyelids seductively, and then finally, 'I have you,' she cried, 'I have you, my dove, my sparrow', and with that she showed how empty and foolish my worries and fears had been. For holding me tightly embraced she welcomed me in -- all of me, and I mean all. Every time I pulled myself back in an effort to go easy on her, she would thrust violently forward in her frenzy, and grasping my back would cling to me even more closely. I really believed that I might prove inadequate to satisfy her desires; and I could quite see how the mother of the Minotaur had found so much pleasure with a lowing lover. After a sleepless and laborious night she left me while it was still dark to avoid detection, having first agreed to pay the same price for another night.
My keeper was more than happy to allow her to enjoy me as often as she wanted, partly because he was making a very good thing out of it, and partly because here was a way of providing his master with a fresh spectacle. He therefore lost no time in letting him into the secret of our erotic performances. The master rewarded his freedman liberally and decided to make a public exhibition of me. Since, however, my noble 'wife' was ineligible because of her rank, and nobody else could be found to take her place at any price, he brought in a degraded creature whom the governor had condemned to the beasts to prostitute her virtue with me in front of the people -- this, he reckoned, was sure to pack the theatre. I found out why she had been condemned; the story was as follows.
Her husband's father, having to be away on a journey, left instructions with his wife, her mother-in-law, who was pregnant, that if the child turned out to be a member of the weaker sex, it should be put to death at birth. While he was away a girl was born; but mother-love was too strong for her, and disobeying her husband's orders she entrusted the child to neighbours to bring up. On his return she told him that it was a daughter and had been duly put to death. Meanwhile the girl grew up to be of marriageable age, but as she could not be given a dowry suitable to her rank without her father's knowledge, the wife did the only thing she could and revealed the secret to her son. There was also the fear, which worried her greatly, that by some mischance he might be carried away by the warmth of a young man's feelings and become involved with the girl, neither of them realizing that they were brother and sister. The young man, a model son and brother, behaved with scrupulous and dutiful respect towards both his mother and his sister. He consigned these family secrets to the safekeeping of religious silence, and passed off what he proceeded to do as an act of mere common decency, fulfilling his duty to his kin by taking his sister under his protection and receiving her into his house simply as a girl from the neighbourhood who had no family or parents to protect her. His next move was to marry her to a close friend to whom he was deeply attached, giving her a generous dowry from his own resources.
Admirable and entirely innocent as these arrangements were, they could not escape the deadly malevolence of Fortune, and at her prompting there came to the young man's house cruel jealousy. At once his wife, the woman condemned to the beasts because of this business, began first to suspect the girl as a rival who would supplant her in her husband's bed, then to hate her, and finally to lay a cruel and murderous trap for her. This was what she devised.
She surreptitiously possessed herself of her husband's ring and went to one of his country houses. From there she sent a slave who was as loyal to her as he was disloyal to Loyalty herself, with a message to the girl that the young man was at the place and wanted her to join him, adding that she was to come quite alone and as quickly as she could. In case the girl should hesitate about coming, she gave him the stolen ring to show her as authenticating the message. In obedience to her brother's orders (as she but nobody else knew him to be) and the sight of the ring, the girl at once did exactly as she was told and came unaccompanied as fast as she could. But directly the horrible trap closed on her and she was enmeshed in the snare, this admirable wife, goaded to inhuman frenzy by lustful fury, had her husband's sister stripped naked and flogged her to within an inch of her life; then, though the girl kept crying out, what was the truth, that there was no reason for her to be angry, that there had been no adultery, that he was her brother, her brother -- the woman called her a liar who had made all this up, and thrusting a white-hot firebrand between her thighs put her to a most cruel death.
At the news of the girl's grievous death her brother and husband came in haste and buried her with much mourning and lamentation. The brother could not come to terms with his sister's death, so pitiful and so little deserved; shaken to the core by grief and possessed by destructive passions, in his anger and melancholy he burned with a raging fever, so that he himself was clearly in need of medical help. His wife -- though she had long ago forfeited her right to that name along with her honour -- consulted a doctor, a notorious rascal with many victorious battles and many notable trophies of his prowess to his credit. She offered him fifty thousand sesterces if he would sell her an instant poison, thus enabling her to purchase her husband's death. This was agreed; what he made up purported to be a famous specific, one scholars call the Lifegiver, for calming internal disorders and eliminating bile. Instead what was administered was rather a Lifetaker. So, with the family and a number of friends and relatives all gathered around, the doctor carefully mixed the draught and was about to offer it to the sick man.
At this point, however, the shameless woman, thinking at once to eliminate her accomplice and save the money she had promised, laid hold of the cup before them all. 'Dear doctor,' she said, 'you shall not give this medicine to my dearest husband until you yourself have drunk a good half of it. How do I know that there isn't a deadly poison lurking in it? I know that a sensible professional man like yourself won't be offended by this expression of a devoted wife's care for her husband's health and the duty she must feel towards him.' Such an unexpected and outrageous ploy by this monstrous creature took the doctor totally by surprise. All his ideas deserted him, and there was no time for him to reflect; so at once, before any sign of agitation or hesitation could betray his guilty conscience, he took a deep draught of the medicine. Thus reassured, the young man took the cup from him and emptied it. His business done, the doctor was impatient to get home at top speed, in a hurry to cancel the deadly effect of the poison he had swallowed with an antidote. The audacious woman, however, would not be deflected from the wicked course on which she had embarked and forbade him to stir from her side, 'until,' she said, 'the medicine has been digested and we see its effects.' In the end, however, she allowed him to wear her down by his repeated pleas and entreaties and was reluctantly prevailed on to let him go. But all this time the hidden plague had been raging throughout his vitals and had penetrated to his very marrow; desperately ill and already sunk deep in a deathly torpor he barely got himself home. There he just managed to tell his wife the whole story and charge her at least to demand the agreed price for two deaths, not one, before in a violent paroxysm this ornament to his profession gave up the ghost.
The young man had maintained his grip on life no longer than the doctor, but expired in the same manner amid the feigned tears and pretended lamentations of his wife. After his funeral and the interval of a few days in which the last respects are paid to the dead, the doctor's widow appeared to claim payment for the two deaths. The woman, true to herself, dissembling her evil purposes under a show of good faith, answered her pleasantly with a whole series of promises, and undertook to pay the stipulated price directly -- all she asked was a little more of the potion to finish off what she had begun. In short, the widow fell into her wicked trap and readily agreed, immediately fetching the entire stock of the poison and handing it over to the woman. She, being now furnished with ample materials for criminality, proceeded to stretch her bloodstained hands far and wide.
She had a small daughter by her murdered husband. This child was by law her father's heir, a fact that the woman bitterly resented; avid to take the whole of her daughter's inheritance she planned to take her life as well. Knowing that a mother stood to inherit from a child prematurely deceased, she showed herself just such a parent as she had been a wife. At a dinner specially arranged for the occasion she poisoned at one stroke both the doctor's widow and her own daughter. The little girl's weak chest and delicate stomach succumbed at once to the deadly poison; the widow, feeling the noxious effects of the abominable draught spreading through her lungs like a hurricane, began to suspect the truth. Then, as she started to suffocate, she knew for certain, and made her way at speed to the house of the governor of the province, where with loud cries she invoked his protection, causing a noisy crowd to gather, On hearing of the dreadful crimes that she had come to reveal, the governor at once let her in and listened to her story. She told it all from the beginning of the cruel wife's atrocities; and then she fainted, overcome by a sudden vertigo, and tightly closing her half-open lips and grinding her teeth she let out a prolonged groan and fell dead at the governor's feet. An experienced administrator who did not let the grass grow under his feet, he lost no time in dealing with this fiendish poisoner's long series of crimes. He at once had the woman's personal attendants arrested and got the truth out of them under torture. The woman herself he sentenced to be thrown to the beasts --a better fate than she deserved, but nobody could devise a more suitable punishment for her.
This then was the woman with whom I was to be publicly joined in holy matrimony. It was with feelings of deep distress and painful anticipation that I looked forward to the day of the games. More than once I was minded to do away with myself rather than be defiled by contact with this wicked woman and be put to shame and disgraced by being made a public spectacle. However, lacking as I did hands and fingers, I could find no way with my stubby rounded hooves of drawing a sword. My one consolation and ray of hope -- slender enough -- in my desperate plight was that spring had come once more. Everywhere there was colour: flowers were in bud, the meadows were putting on their bright summer garments, and roses were just beginning to break out of their thorny coverings and diffuse their fragrant scent -- the roses which could make me once again the Lucius I had been.
Now the day of the games had arrived, and I was led to the theatre in ceremonial procession, escorted by crowds of people. While the show was being formally inaugurated by a troupe of professional dancers, I was left for a while outside the gate, where I had the pleasure of cropping the lush grass which was growing in the entrance. At the same time, as the gates were left open, I was able to feast my eyes on the very pretty sight inside.
First I saw boys and girls in the very flower of their youth, handsome and beautifully dressed, expressive in their movements, who were grouping themselves to perform a pyrrhic dance in Greek style. In the graceful mazes of their ballet they now danced in a circle, now joined hands in a straight line, now formed a hollow square, now divided into semi-choruses. Then a trumpet-call signaled an end to their complicated manoeuvres and symmetrical interweavings, the curtain was raised and the screens folded back to reveal the stage.
There was a hill of wood in the shape of that famous mount Ida sung by the poet Homer. It was a lofty structure, planted with shrubs and living trees, and on its summit the architect had contrived a spring from which a stream flowed down. Some goats were browsing on the grass; and a young man got up as the Phrygian shepherd Paris in a handsome tunic, draped in a mantle of oriental style, with a golden tiara on his head, was playing herdsman. To him there entered an extremely pretty boy, naked except for a cloak such as teenage boys wear over his left shoulder. From his blond hair, a striking sight, there projected a matching pair of little golden wings; the wand he carried identified him as Mercury. He danced forward and extended to the actor who represented Paris an apple plated with gold which he was carrying in his right hand, while with a nod he conveyed Jupiter's orders; then he gracefully retired and left the stage. Next there appeared a handsome girl representing Juno, with a shining diadem on her head and carrying a sceptre. She was followed by another girl, who could only be Minerva; she wore on her head a gleaming helmet with a wreath of olive round it and held aloft a shield and brandished a spear, just as she appears in battle.
After them there entered a third girl, the loveliest of the three, proclaimed as Venus by her ravishing ambrosial complexion, Venus as she was when still a virgin. She was completely naked, showing off her beauty in all its perfection, except for a wisp of thin silk that covered her pretty secrets. This little bit of material, however, the prurient wind in its amorous play now wafted aside to reveal the blossom of her youth and now skittishly flattened against her to cling closely and outline every detail of her voluptuous figure. The white colour of the goddess's skin, symbolizing her descent from heaven, contrasted with the blue oilier dress, recalling her connection with the sea.
Each of the girls enacting the goddesses had a supporting escort. Juno was attended by actors impersonating Castor and Pollux, wearing egg-shaped helmets with a star for crest. This actress with restrained and natural gestures performed a dignified piece of miming, moving to an accompaniment of airs on the Ionian pipe, in which she promised to confer on the shepherd, if he adjudged the prize of beauty to her, dominion over Asia. The girl whose warlike get-up had made a Minerva of her was flanked by two boys, the armed attendants of the goddess of battles, Terror and Fear, leaping about with naked swords. Behind them a Dorian piper sounded a martial strain, alternating bass notes with strident trumpet-like tones to stimulate their brisk and vigorous dancing This goddess, tossing her head and glaring threateningly, with rapid and complicated gestures indicated vividly to Paris that if he awarded her the victory in the beauty contest, he would with her aid be a great warrior with a glorious roll of battle-honours.
But now Venus, to immense applause from the audience, took centre stage. Surrounded by a throng of happy little boys, she stood sweetly smiling, an enchanting sight. These chubby children with their milk-white skin were for all the world like real Cupids just flown in from the sky or the ocean. Their little wings and their little bows and arrows and the rest of their costume made the resemblance perfect; and as if their mistress was on her way to a wedding-breakfast they lighted her footsteps with flaming torches. Next there entered a crowd of pretty unmarried girls, on this side the gracefullest of Graces, on that the loveliest of Hours, strewing garlands and flowers in honour of their goddess and in the intricacies of their artful dance essaying to delight the queen of heaven with all the rich bounty of the spring. Now the pipes breathed sweet Lydian harmonies; and while these were seducing the hearts of the spectators, Venus, even more seductive, began to dance. Advancing with slow and deliberate steps, her supple figure gently swaying and her head moving slightly in time to the music, she responded to the languishing melody of the pipes with elegant gestures. Now her eyes fluttered provocatively, now they flashed sharp menaces, and at times she danced only with them. As soon as she appeared before the judge it was plain from the movement of her hands that she was promising that, if she were preferred to the other goddesses, she would give Paris a wife of pre-eminent loveliness matching her own. At this the Phrygian youth readily handed the girl the golden apple he was holding as the token of her victory.
Now, you sweepings of humanity, you beasts of the bar, you gowned vultures, do you wonder that nowadays all judges and juries put their verdicts up for sale, when in the very dawn of time, in a suit between gods and men, the course of justice was perverted by corruption and subornation? When a judge chosen by the wisdom of great Jupiter, a rustic shepherd-boy, sold the first judicial decision in history to gratify his lust and destroyed his whole race into the bargain? Yes, and there was that later case between the two famous Greek generals, when the wise and learned Palamedes was falsely accused of treason and condemned to death and Ulysses was preferred to Ajax, greatest and most valiant of warriors. And what about that verdict that was returned by the Athenians, those acute lawgivers with their encyclopedic learning? An old man of godlike understanding, whom the Delphic oracle had pronounced the wisest of all human beings, ensnared by the malignant envy of a vile faction on the charge of corrupting the young, whom he had always curbed and restrained, was put to death by the deadly juice of a poisonous weed, leaving his fellow countrymen bearing the stigma of perpetual shame -- when now, all those years later, distinguished philosophers embrace his doctrines as holy writ and in their devoted pursuit of happiness swear by his name. But I have allowed myself to be carried away by my indignation, and my readers may be objecting -- 'Do we now have to put up with an ass playing the philosopher?' So I will come back to where I digressed in my story.
The Judgement of Paris being over, Juno and Minerva left the stage, looking glum and angry and expressing by their gestures their indignation at losing; while Venus, happy and smiling, manifested her delight in a dance with the whole troupe Then at the top of the mountain there burst forth from a hidden jet a shower of wine mixed with saffron, which rose high in the air and then drifted down over the browsing goats and drenched them in its sweet-smelling spray, so that beautified by this variegation they changed from their usual white colour to saffron yellow. Then the wooden mountain was swallowed up and disappeared into the ground, leaving the whole theatre perfumed with the sweet fragrance.
Now, in response to the demands of the crowd, a soldier came out and along the street to fetch the woman who, as I said, had for her series of crimes been condemned to the beasts and was to partner me in these brilliant nuptials of ours. Already what was to be our marital bed was being lovingly made up, an affair of polished Indian tortoiseshell, heaped high with cushions stuffed with down and bright with silken coverlets. Apart from the shame of having to do this act in public, and apart from the pollution of contact with this loathsome and detestable woman, I was in acute and grievous fear for my life. For I thought: there we should be, locked together in a loving embrace, and whatever animal was let loose to devour the woman was hardly likely to be so discriminating or well trained or so firmly in control of its appetites as to tear to pieces the woman at my side and spare me as the uncondemned and innocent party.
It was therefore no longer my honour but my life about which I was concerned. My master was fully occupied in seeing that the bed was properly set up, and the slaves were all either engaged in looking after the animals or lost in admiring enjoyment of the spectacle. That left me free to come to a decision. Nobody thought that much of a watch need be kept on so docile an ass; so I began to move step by step towards the nearest door, then once outside I took off at my fastest gallop and kept it up for six whole miles, until I arrived at Cenchreae. This town belongs to the famous colony of Corinth and lies beside the Aegean sea, on the Saronic gulf. It is a very safe harbour for shipping and has a large population. I steered clear of the crowds and found a secluded spot on the shore; and there in a soft sandy hollow near the breaking waves I stretched out and rested my weary limbs. By now the sun's chariot had covered the last leg of its course, and surrendering myself to the evening hush I was overcome by sweet sleep.