The vulture that probes our inmost liver

A fragment of Petronius, quoted by Fulgentius (Mythologies 2.6):

[on Prometheus] although Nicagoras . . . records that Prometheus was the first to have embodied the image, and that he exposes his liver to a vulture, as if it portrays a metaphor for envy. From this Petronius also says: “The vulture that probes our inmost liver and tears out our heart and inmost entrails, is not a bird, as our witty poets claim, but the evils of our heart, envy and lust.”

[de Prometheo] quamvis Nicagorus . . . primum illum formasse idolum referat et, quod vulturi iecur praebeat, livoris quasi pingat imaginem. unde et Petronius Arbiter ait

“qui vultur iecur intimum pererrat
pectusque eruit intimasque fibras,
non est quem lepidi vocant poetae,
sed cordis <mala>, livor atque luxus.”

Reminiscent of Ishmael’s analysis of Ahab in ch.44 of Moby Dick:

God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.

Porcus Troianus

For all the sex and violence in Petronius’ Satyricon, the food in the Cena Trimalchionis (Dinner at Trimalchio’s) episode is what most stuck with me when I secretly read my father’s copy of the old penguin edition at age 10. This scene is from ch 40 (pg. 137) in the brand new Loeb edition with text and translation by Gareth Schmeling (who also has a wonderful 700 page commentary on the work):

Not yet did we know where to turn our expectations, when a large disturbance was raised outside the dining room, and Spartan dogs began to run about, even around the table. A tray followed them, on which had been placed a huge boar, wearing a cap of freedom, and from his tusks hung two little baskets woven from palm leaves, one filled with sweet Syrian dates and the other with dry Egyptian. The boar was surrounded by rather small piglets made of hard cake, hovering, as it were, over the teats, which indicated that it was a sow. These piglets were meant as gifts to be taken away. But that Carpus who had mangled the fowls did not come in to cut up the boar, instead a huge bearded man with cloth bands wrapped round his legs and dressed in a multicolored hunting coat. He drew a hunting knife and drove it vigorously into the boar’s side. From this gash thrushes flew out; fowlers were ready with limed reeds and quickly caught the birds as they flew around the dining room.

necdum sciebamus, <quo> mitteremus suspiciones nostras, cum extra triclinium clamor sublatus est ingens, et ecce canes Laconici etiam circa mensam discurrere coeperunt. | secutum est hos repositorium, in quo positus erat primae magnitudinis aper, et quidem pilleatus, e cuius dentibus sportellae dependebant duae palmulis textae, altera caryotis altera thebaicis repleta. | circa autem minores porcelli ex coptoplacentis facti, quasi uberibus imminerent, <qui> scrofam esse positam significabant. et hi quidem apophoreti fuerunt. | ceterum ad scindendum aprum non ille Carpus accessit, qui altilia laceraverat, sed barbatus ingens, fasciis cruralibus alligatus et alicula subornatus polymita, strictoque venatorio cultro latus apri vehementer percussit, ex cuius plaga turdi evolaverunt. | parati aucupes cum harundinibus fuerunt et eos circa triclinium volitantes momento exceperunt.

The term for this dish, according to Macrobius (Saturnalia 3.13.13), is porcus troianus (Trojan pig, turducken):

Nam Titius in suasione legis Fanniae obicit saeculo suo quod porcum Troianum mensis inferant, quem illi ideo sic vocabant, quasi aliis inclusis animalibus gravidum, ut ille Troianus equus gravidus armatis fuit.

Titius, in his speech supporting the law of Fannius reproaches his contemporaries for serving Trojan pig, so-called because it is “pregnant” with other animals enclosed within, just as the famous Trojan horse was “pregnant with armed men.

There is another instance a few chapters later in Petronius (49):

He was still babbling on and on, when a tray containing a large pig took possession of the table. We began to express astonishment at the speed of the cooking, swearing that not even a cock could have been thoroughly cooked so quickly, especially as the pig seemed to us to be much larger than the boar had been a little while earlier. Looking at it more and more closely Trimalchio said: “What’s all this? Hasn’t this pig been gutted? By god, it hasn’t been. Call the cook, get the cook here in our presence.” When the sad cook stood at the table and said that he had forgotten to gut it, Trimalchio shouted: “What’re you saying? You forgot? You’d think that he’d not added pepper and cumin. Off with his shirt!” Without delay the cook was stripped and stood there dolefully between two torturers. Then we all began to intercede for him and say: “This happens; we ask that you let him go; if he does it again, none of us will intercede on his behalf.” I felt very hard-hearted and could not contain myself, but leaned over to Agamemnon’s ear and said: “He just has to be the most completely worthless slave; how could someone forget to gut a pig? By god, I would not forgive him, if he forgot to gut a fish.” But not so Trimalchio, his face softened into a smile and he said: “Well, because you’re so forgetful, gut it right here in front of us.” The cook got back his tunic, seized the knife, and with an apprehensive hand slit the pig’s belly on this side and that. At once the slits widened from the pressure of the weight inside, and sausages seasoned with thyme and black pudding tumbled out.

 nondum efflaverat omnia, cum repositorium cum sue ingenti mensam occupavit. | mirari nos celeritatem coepimus et iurare, ne gallum quidem gallinaceum tam cito percoqui potuisse, tanto quidem magis, quod longe maior nobis porcus videbatur esse quam paulo ante apparuerat. | deinde magis magisque Trimalchio intuens eum “quid? quid?” inquit. | “porcus hic non est exinteratus? non mehercules est. voca, voca cocum in medio.” | cum constitisset ad mensam cocus tristis et diceret se oblitum esse exinterare, “quid? oblitus?” Trimalchio exclamat “putares illum piper et cuminum non coniecisse. despolia.” | non fit mora, despoliatur cocus atque inter duos tortores maestus consistit. deprecari tamen omnes coeperunt et dicere: “solet fieri; rogamus, mittas; postea si fecerit, nemo nostrum pro illo rogabit.” | ego, crudelissimae severitatis, non potui me tenere, sed inclinatus ad aurem Agamemnonis “plane” inquam “hic debet servus esse nequissimus; aliquis oblivisceretur porcum exinterare? non mehercules illi ignoscerem, si piscem praeterisset.” | at non Trimalchio, qui relaxato in hilaritatem vulto “ergo” inquit “quia tam malae memoriae es, palam nobis illum exintera.” | recepta cocus tunica cultrum arripuit porcique ventrem hinc atque illinc timida manu secuit. | nec mora, ex plagis ponderis inclinatione crescentibus thumatula cum botulis effusa sunt.

A sort of exaggerated combo of the two pigs had the honor/horror of making it into Fellini’s gruesome adaptation of the scene:

Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas – an addendum

Another to yesterday’s list of translations – Helen Waddell’s rendering of Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas from her Mediaeval Latin Lyrics:

Delight of lust is gross and brief
And weariness treads on desire.
Not beasts are we, to rush on it,
Love sickens there, and dies the fire.
But in eternal holiday,
Thus, thus, lie still and kiss the hours away.
No weariness is here, no shamefastness,
Here is, was, shall be, all delightsomeness.
And here no end shall be,
But a beginning everlastingly.

Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas

Today, a comparison of translations and adaptations, plus a possible personal cryptomnesiac cribbing. I started The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (ed. David Vieth) earlier and ran across an adaptation of one of Petronius’s more memorable poems.

First, Petronius’ original (poem 28 in the Loeb text) with the Loeb rendering and – since the Loeb’s is more meh than normal – my own five minute effort afterwards. Neither effort does near justice to the playfully allusive legerdemain of the original but together they can give some idea (and, incidentally, I believe there’s a new Loeb edition of Petronius scheduled for later this year so maybe that one will improve the situation).

Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas
et taedet Veneris statim peractae.
Non ergo ut pecudes libidinosae
caeci protinus irruamus illuc
(nam languescit amor peritque flamma);
sed sic sic sine fine feriati
et tecum iaceamus osculantes.
Hic nullus labor est ruborque nullus:
hoc iuvit, iuvat et diu iuvabit;
hoc non deficit incipitque semper.

The pleasure of the act of love is gross and brief, and love once consummated brings loathing after it. Let us then not rush blindly thither straightway like lustful beasts, for love sickens and the flame dies down; but even so, even so, let us keep eternal holiday, and lie with thy lips to mine. No toil is here and no shame: in this, delight has been, and is, and long shall be; in this there is no diminution, but a beginning everlastingly.

Filthy and brief is the pleasure taken in sex
and passion carried to its end straightaway disgusts.
And so let us not like rutting beasts
blind and headlong rush to the end
(for desire withers and the flame dies);
But let us lie like this, just like this,
playing idly without end and kissing.
Here is no exertion and no reason to turn red:
This has pleased, does please, and long will please;
This does not cease and ever is just beginning.

Now Ben Jonson’s translation – which I remembered existed but haven’t read in years, similarity of final lines notwithstanding:

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay.
But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,
Let us together closely lie and kiss,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

And finally, John Wilmot’s adaptation – which carries the improbable title ‘The Platonic Lady

I could love thee till I die,
Would’st thou love me modestly,
And ne’er press, whilst I live,
For more than willingly I would give:
Which should sufficient be to prove
I’d understand the art of love.

I hate the thing is called enjoyment:
Besides it is a dull employment,
It cuts off all that’s life and fire
From that which may be termed desire;
Just like the bee whose sting is gone
Converts the owner to a drone.

I love a youth will give me leave
His body in my arms to wreathe;
To press him gently, and to kiss;
To sigh, and look with eyes that wish
For what, if I could once obtain,
I would neglect with flat disdain.

I’d give him liberty to toy
And play with me, and count it joy.
Our freedom should be full complete,
And nothing wanting but the feat.
Let’s practice, then, and we shall prove
These are the only sweets of love.

At that moment they conceived the notion of putting those adventures into practice

From Marcel Schwob’s Petronius: Novelist in his Imaginary Lives (the translation is not mine and is not the best but I’m not typing this up). I will always find Paolo Uccello the most ambitious and richest of Schwob’s lives but I like Petronius, love Don Quixote, and appreciate this recasting of the former through the latter.

When [Petronius] arrived at the age of adolescence he did up his beard in an ornate sheath and began to look about him. Then a slave named Syrus, who had served in the arenas, showed him some things he had never seen before. Not of noble race, Petronius was a swarthy little squint-eyed fellow with the hands of an artisan and cultivated tastes. It pleased him to fashion words together and to write them down, though they resembled nothing the old poets had imagined, for they strove only to imitate the things Petronius found around him. Later he developed a grievous ambition for making verses.
Through Syrus he came to know barbarian gladiators, braggarts of the street corners, shifty-looking men of the market-places, curly-headed boys on whom the senators leaned during their promenades, curbstone orators, pimps with their upstart girls, fruit vendors, tavern landlords, shabby poets, pilfering servants, unauthorized priestesses and vagabond soldiers. With his squint eyes he saw them all, catching the precise manner of them and their ways. Syrus took him down to see the slaves in their baths, to the dens of the prostitutes and through those underground cells where the circus gladiators practiced with wooden swords. Sitting by the tombs beyond the city gates, he heard tales of men who change their skins – tales and stories passed from mouth to mouth by blacks and Syrians and innkeepers and guardians who carried out the crucifixions. Absorbed in these vivid contrasts which his free life allowed him to examine, he began, when about thirty, to write the story of those errant slaves and debauchees he knew. In the luxurious society of the city he recognized their morals, though transformed, and he found their ideas and their language among the polite conversations at high ceremonies. Alone, bent over his parchment at a table of odorous cedar, with the sharp point of his calm detachment he pictured the adventures of an ignored people. Under the painted ebony wainscoting, by the light of his tall windows, he imagined smoky torch lit taverns, absurd nocturnal struggles, the twisted candelabras of carved wood, the locks suddenly forced by the axes of police slaves, and the harsh commands of slave drivers shrill above the shuffling rush of miserable people clad in torn curtains and filthy rags.
When his six books were finished Petronius read them to Syrus. And the slave is said to have howled his laughter aloud and clapped his hands for glee. At that moment they conceived the notion of putting those adventures into practice. Tacitus has falsely written that Petronius was present at Nero’s court, telling how his death was brought about by the jealousy of Tigillinus. But Petronius did not vanish murmuring lewd little verses as he stepped delicately into a marble bath. He ran away with Syrus to end his life on the roads.

Ainsi Pétrone vécut mollement, pensant que l’air même qu’il aspirait fût parfumé pour son usage. Quand il fut parvenu à l’adolescence, après avoir enfermé sa première barbe dans un coffret orné, il commença de regarder autour de lui. Un esclave du nom de Syrus, qui avait servi dans l’arène, lui montra les choses inconnues. Pétrone était petit, noir, et louchait d’un œil. Il n’était point de race noble. Il avait des mains d’artisan et un esprit cultivé. De là vint qu’il prit plaisir à façonner les paroles et à les inscrire. Elles ne ressemblèrent à rien de ce que les poètes anciens avaient imaginé. Car elles s’efforçaient d’imiter tout ce qui entourait Pétrone. Et ce ne fut que plus tard qu’il eut la fâcheuse ambition de composer des vers.

Il connut donc des gladiateurs barbares et des hâbleurs de carrefour, des hommes aux regards obliques qui semblent épier les légumes et décrochent les pièces de viande, des enfants frisés que promenaient des sénateurs, de vieux babillards qui discouraient des affaires de la cité aux coins des rues, des valets lascifs et des filles parvenues, des marchandes de fruits et des patrons d’auberges, des poètes minables et des servantes friponnes, des prêtresses interlopes et des soldats errants. Il tenait sur eux son œil louche et saisissait exactement leurs manières et leurs intrigues. Syrus le conduisit dans les bains d’esclaves, les cellules de prostituées et les réduits souterrains où les figurants de cirque s’exerçaient avec leurs épées de bois. Aux portes de la ville, entre les tombes, il lui raconta les histoires des hommes qui changent de peau, que les noirs, les Syriens, les taverniers et les soldats gardiens des croix de supplice se repassaient de bouche en bouche.

Vers la trentième année, Pétrone, avide de cette liberté diverse, commença d’écrire l’histoire d’esclaves errants et débauchés. Il reconnut leurs mœurs parmi les transformations du luxe; il reconnut leurs idées et leur langage parmi les conversations polies des festins. Seul, devant son parchemin, appuyé sur une table odorante en bois de cèdre, il dessina à la pointe de son calame les aventures d’une populace ignorée. A la lumière de ses hautes fenêtres, sous les peintures des lambris, il s’imagina les torches fumeuses des hôtelleries, et de ridicules combats nocturnes, des moulinets de candélabres de bois, des serrures forcées à coups de hache par des esclaves de justice, des sangles grasses parcourues de punaises, et des objurgations de procurateurs d’ilot au milieu d’attroupements de pauvres gens vêtus de rideaux déchirés et de torchons sales.

On dit que lorsqu’il eut achevé les seize livres de son invention, il fit venir Syrus pour les lui lire, et que l’esclave riait et criait à haute voix en frappant dans ses mains. Dans ce moment, ils formèrent le projet de mettre à exécution les aventures composées par Pétrone. Tacite rapporte faussement qu’il fut arbitre des élégances à la cour de Néron, et que Tigellin, jaloux, lui fit envoyer l’ordre de mort. Pétrone ne s’évanouit pas délicatement dans une baignoire de marbre, en murmurant de, petits vers lascifs. Il s’enfuit avec Syrus et termina sa vie en parcourant les routes.

He that disembarks on distant sands, becomes thereby the greater man.

Petronius, poem 78 in the Loeb edition.  The politely archaizing translation is Michael Heseltine’s from the same edition.

Linque tuas sedes alienaque litora quaere,
o iuvenis: maior rerum tibi nascitur ordo.
Ne succumbe malis: te noverit ultimus Hister,
te Boreas gelidus securaque regna Canopi,
quique renascentem Phoebum cernuntque cadentem:
maior in externas fit qui descendit harenas.

Leave thine home, O youth, and seek out alien shores: a larger range of life is ordained for thee. Yield not to misfortune; the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind, and the untroubled kingdoms of Canopus,2 and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or upon his setting: he that disembarks on distant sands, becomes thereby the greater man.


This poem is one of three epigraphs – along with verses by George Herbert and Louis MacNeice –  to one of my favorite books, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel narrative of walking across Europe in the 1930s, A Time of Gifts.  Of its personal significance he says the following in his introductory letter to that work:

During the last days, my outfit assembled fast. Most of it came from Millet’s army surplus store in The Strand: an old Army greatcoat, different layers of jersey, grey flannel shirts, a couple of white linen ones for best, a soft leather windbreaker, puttees, nailed boots, a sleeping bag (to be lost within a month and neither missed nor replaced); notebooks and drawing blocks, rubbers, an aluminium cylinder full of Venus and Golden Sovereign pencils; an old Oxford Book of English Verse. (Lost likewise, and, to my surprise—it had been a sort of Bible—not missed much more than the sleeping bag.) The other half of my very conventional travelling library was the Loeb Horace, Vol. I, which my mother, after asking what I wanted, had bought and posted in Guildford. (She had written the translation of a short poem by Petronius on the flyleaf, chanced on and copied out, she told me later, from another volume on the same shelf: ‘Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores… Yield not to misfortune: the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind and the untroubled kingdom of Canopus and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or upon his setting…’ She was an enormous reader, but Petronius was not in her usual line of country and he had only recently entered mine. I was impressed and touched.