Juvenal, Satires. (1918). Satire 15
[Translated by G. G. Ramsay]
An Egyptian Atrocity
Who knows not, O Bithynian Volusius, what monsters demented Egypt worships? One district adores the crocodile, another venerates the Ibis that gorges itself with snakes. In the place where magic chords are sounded by the truncated Memnon,1 and ancient hundred-gated Thebes lies in ruins, men worship the glittering golden image of the long-tailed ape. In one part cats are worshipped, in another a river fish, in another whole townships venerate a dog; none adore Diana, but it is an impious outrage to crunch leeks and onions with the teeth. What a holy race to have such divinities springing up in their gardens! No animal that grows wool may appear upon the dinner-table; it is forbidden there to slay the young of the goat; but it is lawful to feed on the flesh of man! When Ulysses told a tale like this over the dinner-table to the amazed Alcinous,2 he stirred some to wrath, some perhaps to laughter, as a lying story-teller. "What?" one would say, "will no one hurl this fellow into the sea, who merits a terrible and a true Charybdis with his inventions of monstrous Laestrygones and Cyclopes? For I could sooner believe in Scylla, and the clashing Cyanean rocks,3 and skins full of storms, or in the story how Circe, by a gentle touch, turned Elpenor 4 and his comrades into grunting swine. Did he deem the Phaeacians people so devoid of brains?" So might some one have justly spoken who was not yet tipsy, and had taken but a small drink of wine from the Corcyraean bowl, for the Ithacan's tale was all his own, with none to bear him witness.
I will now relate strange deeds done of late in the consulship of Juncus,5 beyond the walls of broiling Coptus; a crime of the common herd, worse than any crime of the tragedians; for though you turn over all the tales of long-robed Tragedy from the days of Pyrrha onwards, you will find there no crime committed by an entire people. But hear what an example of ruthless barbarism has been displayed in these days of ours.
Between the neighbouring towns of Ombi and Tentyra 6 there burns an ancient and long-cherished feud and undying hatred, whose wounds are not to be healed. Each people is filled with fury against the other because each hates its neighbours' Gods, deeming that none can be held as deities save its own. So when one of these peoples held a feast, the chiefs and leaders of their enemy thought good to seize the occasion, so that their foe might not enjoy a glad and merry day, with the delight of grand banquets, with tables set out at every temple and every crossway, and with night-long feasts, and with couches spread all day and all night, and sometimes discovered by the sun upon the seventh morn. Egypt, doubtless, is a rude country; but in indulgence, so far as I myself have noted, its barbarous rabble yields not to the ill-famed Canopus.7 Victory too would be easy, it was thought, over men steeped in wine, stuttering and stumbling in their cups. On the one side were men dancing to a swarthy piper, with unguents, such as they were, and flowers and chaplets on their heads; on the other side, a ravenous hate. First come loud words, as preludes to the fray: these serve as a trumpet-call to their hot passions; then shout answering shout, they charge. Bare hands do the fell work of war. Scarce a cheek is left without a gash; scarce one nose, if any, comes out of the battle unbroken. Through all the ranks might be seen battered faces, and features other than they were; bones gaping through torn cheeks, and fists dripping with blood from eyes. Yet the combatants deem themselves at play and waging a boyish warfare because there are no corpses on which to trample. What avails a mob of so many thousand brawlers if no lives are lost? So fiercer and fiercer grows the fight; they now search the ground for stones----the natural weapons of civic strife----and hurl them with bended arms against the foe: not such stones as Turnus or Ajax flung, or like that with which the son of Tydeus 8 struck Aeneas on the hip, but such as may be cast by hands unlike to theirs, and born in these days of ours. For even in Homer's day the race of man was on the wane; earth now produces none but weak and wicked men that provoke such Gods as see them to laughter and to loathing.
To come back from our digression: the one side, reinforced, boldly draws the sword and renews the fight with showers of arrows; the dwellers in the shady palm-groves of neighbouring Tentyra turn their backs in headlong flight before the Ombite charge. Hereupon one of them, over-afraid and hurrying, tripped and was caught; the conquering host cut up his body into a multitude of scraps and morsels, that one dead man might suffice for everyone, and devoured it bones and all. There was no stewing of it in boiling pots, no roasting upon spits; so slow and tedious they thought it to wait for a fire, that they contented themselves with the corpse uncooked!
One may here rejoice that no outrage was done to the flame that Prometheus stole from the highest heavens, and gifted to the earth. I felicitate the element, and doubt not that you are pleased; but never was flesh so relished as by those who endured to put that carcase between their teeth. For in that act of gross wickedness, do not doubt or ask whether it was only the first gullet that enjoyed its meal; for when the whole body had been consumed, those who stood furthest away actually dragged their fingers along the ground and so got some smack of the blood.
The Vascones,9 fame tells us, once prolonged their lives by such food as this; but their case was different. Unkindly fortune had brought on them the last dire extremity of war, the famine of a long siege. In a plight like that of the people just named, resorting to such food deserves our pity, inasmuch as not till they had consumed every herb, every living thing, and everything else to which the pangs of an empty belly drove them----not till their very enemies pitied their pale, lean and wasted limbs----did hunger make them tear the limbs of other men, being ready to feed even upon their own. What man, what God, would withhold a pardon from bellies which had suffered such dire straits, and which might look to be forgiven by the Manes of those whose bodies they were devouring? To us, indeed, Zeno 10 gives better teaching, for he permits some things, though not indeed all things, to be done for the saving of life; but how could a Cantabrian 11 be a Stoic, and that too in the days of old Metellus? 12 To-day the whole world has its Greek and its Roman Athens; eloquent Gaul has trained the pleaders of Britain, and distant Thule 13 talks of hiring a rhetorician. Yet the people I have named were a noble people; and the people of Zacynthos,14 their equals in bravery and honour, their more than equals in calamity, offer a like excuse. But Egypt is more savage than the Maeotid 15 altar; for if we may hold the poet's tales as true, the foundress of that accursed Tauric rite does but slay her victims; they have nought further or more terrible than the knife to fear. But what calamity drove these Egyptians to the deed? What extremity of hunger, what beleaguering army, compelled them to so monstrous and infamous a crime? Were the land of Memphis to run dry, could they do aught else than this to shame the Nile for being loth to rise? No dread Cimbrians or Britons, no savage Scythians or monstrous Agathyrsians,16 ever raged so furiously as this unwarlike and worthless rabble that hoists tiny sails on crockery ships, and plies puny oars on boats of painted earthenware! No penalty can you devise for such a crime, no fit punishment for a people in whose minds rage and hunger are like and equal things. When Nature gave tears to man, she proclaimed that he was tender-hearted; and tenderness is the best quality in man. She therefore bids us weep for the misery of a friend upon his trial, or when a ward whose streaming cheeks and girlish locks raise a doubt as to his sex brings a defrauder into court. It is at Nature's behest that we weep when we meet the bier of a full-grown maiden, or when the earth closes over a babe too young for the funeral pyre. For what good man, what man worthy of the mystic torch,17 and such as the priest of Ceres would wish him to be, believes that any human woes concern him not? It is this that separates us from the dumb herd; and it is for this that we alone have had allotted to us a nature worthy of reverence, capable of divine things, fit to acquire and practise the arts of life, and that we have drawn from on high that gift of feeling which is lacking to the beasts that grovel with eyes upon the ground. To them in the beginning of the world our common maker gave only life; to us he gave souls as well, that fellow-feeling might bid us ask or proffer aid, gather scattered dwellers into a people, desert the primeval groves and woods inhabited by our forefathers, build houses for ourselves, with others adjacent to our own, that a neighbour's threshold from the confidence that comes of union, might give us peaceful slumbers; shield with arms a fallen citizen, or one staggering from a grievous wound, give battle signals by a common trumpet, and seek protection inside the same city walls, and behind gates fastened by a single key.
But in these days there is more amity among serpents than among men; wild beasts are merciful to beasts spotted like themselves. When did the stronger lion ever take the life of the weaker? In what wood did a boar ever breathe his last under the tusks of a boar bigger than himself? The fierce tigress of India dwells in perpetual peace with her fellow; bears live in harmony with bears. But man finds it all too little to have forged the deadly blade on an impious anvil; for whereas the first artificers only wearied themselves with forging hoes and harrows, spades and ploughshares, not knowing how to beat out swords, we now behold a people whose wrath is not assuaged by slaying someone, but who deem that a man's breast, arms, and face afford a kind of food. What would Pythagoras say, or to what place would he not flee, if he beheld these horrors of to-day,----he who refrained from every living creature as if it were human, and would not indulge his belly with every kind of vegetable?
1. The famous statue of Memnon at Thebes, which emitted musical sounds at daybreak.
This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, Ipswich, UK, 2008. This file and all material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.
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