Works, by Lucian

Saturnalian Letters

I

I to Cronus, Greeting.

I have written to you before telling you of my condition, how poverty was likely to exclude me from the festival you have proclaimed. I remember observing how unreasonable it was that some of us should be in the lap of wealth and luxury, and never give a share of their good things to the poor, while others are dying of hunger with your holy season just upon them. But as you did not answer, I thought I might as well refresh your memory. Dear good Cronus, you ought really to remove this inequality and pool all the good things before telling us to make merry. The world is peopled with camels and ants now, nothing between the two. Or, to put it another way, kindly imagine an actor, with one foot mounted on the tragic stilt and the other bare; if he walks like that, he must be a giant or a dwarf according to the leg he stands on; our lives are about as equal as his heights. Those who are taken on by manager Fortune and supplied with stilts come the hero over us, while the rest pad it on the ground, though you may take my word for it we could rant and stalk with the best of them if we were given the same chance.

Now the poets inform me that in the old days when you were king it was otherwise with men; earth bestowed her gifts upon them unsown and unploughed, every man’s table was spread automatically, rivers ran wine and milk and honey. Most wonderful of all, the men themselves were gold, and poverty never came near them. As for us, we can hardly pass for lead; some yet meaner material must be found. In the sweat of our face the most of us eat bread. Poverty, distress, and helplessness, sighs and lamentations and pinings for what is not, such is the staple of man’s life, the poor man’s at least. All which, believe me, would be much less painful to us, if there were not the felicity of the rich to emphasize it. They have their chests of gold and silver, their stored wardrobes, their slaves and carriages and house property and farms, and, not content with keeping to themselves their superfluity in all these, they will scarce fling a glance to the generality of us.

Ah, Cronus, there is the sting that rankles beyond endurance — that one should loll on cloth of finest purple, overload his stomach with all delicacies, and keep perpetual feast with guests to wish him joy, while I and my like dream over the problematic acquisition of a sixpence to provide us a loaf white or brown, and send us to bed with a smack of cress or thyme or onion in our mouths. Now, good Cronus, either reform this altogether and feed us alike, or at the least induce the rich not to enjoy their good things alone; from their bushels of gold let them scatter a poor pint among us; the raiment that they would never feel the loss of though the moth were to consume it utterly, seeing that in any case it must perish by mere lapse of time, let them devote to covering our nakedness rather than to propagating mildew in their chests and drawers.

Further let them entertain us by fours and fives, and not as they now do, but more on principles of equality; let us all share alike. The way now is for one to gorge himself on some dainty, keeping the servant waiting about him till he is pleased to have done; but when it reaches us, as we are in the act of helping ourselves it is whisked off, and we have but that fleeting glimpse of the entrée or fag-end of a sweet. Or in comes a sucking-pig; half of it, including the head, falls to the host; the rest of us share the bones, slightly disguised. And pray charge the butlers not to make us call unto seven times, but bring us our wine when we ask for it first; and let it be a full-sized cup and a bumper, as it is for their masters. And the same wine, please, for every one at table; where is the legal authority for my host’s growing mellow on the choicest bouquet while my stomach is turned with mere must?

These things if you correct and reform, you will have made life life, and your feast a feast. If not we will leave the feasting to them, and just kneel down and pray that as they come from the bath the slave may knock down and spill their wine, the cook smoke their sauce and absent-mindedly pour the pea-soup over the caviare, the dog steal in while the scullions are busy and make away with the whole of the sausage and most of the pastry. Boar and buck and sucking-pigs, may they rival in their roasting Homer’s oxen of the Sun! only let them not confine themselves to crawling 1, but jump up and make off to the mountains with their spits sticking in them! and may the fat fowls, all plucked and trussed, fly far away and rob them of their unsociable delights!

But we can touch them more closely than that. May Indian gold-ants 2 come by night, unearth their hoards and convey them to their own state treasury! May their wardrobe-keepers be negligent, and our good friends the mice make sieve-work of their raiment, fit for nothing but tunny-nets! May every pretty curled minion, every Hyacinth and Achilles and Narcissus they keep, turn bald as he hands the cup! let his hair fall off and his chin grow bristly, till he is like the peak-bearded fellows on the comic stage, hairy and prickly on cheek and temple, and on the top smooth and bare! These are specimens of the petitions we will send up, if they will not moderate their selfishness, acknowledge themselves trustees for the public, and let us have our fair share.

120:1 Homer, Od. xii. 395. Odysseus’s crew had killed and begun to cook the oxen of the Sun. ‘And soon thereafter the Gods chewed forth signs and wonders to my company. The skins were creeping, and the flesh bellowing upon the spits, both the roast and raw, and there was a sound as of the voice of kine.’—Butcher and Lang.

120:2 Herodotus, iii. 102. ‘And in this desert and sandy tract’ (in North India) ‘are produced ants, which are in size smaller than dogs but larger than foxes . . . These ants there make their dwelling under ground and carry up the sand just in the same manner as the ants found in the land of the Hellenes . . . and the sand which is brought up contains gold.’—Macaulay’s translation.

II

Cronus to his well-beloved me, Greeting.

My good man, why this absurdity of writing to me about the state of the world, and advising redistribution of property? It is none of my business; the present ruler must see to that. It is an odd thing you should be the only person unaware that I have long abdicated; my sons now administer various departments, of which the one that concerns you is mainly in the hands of Zeus; my own charge is confined to draughts and merry-making, song and good cheer, and that for one week only. As for the weightier matters you speak of, removal of inequalities and reducing of all men to one level of poverty or riches, Zeus must do your business for you. On the other hand, if any man is wronged or defrauded of his holiday privileges, that is a matter within my competence; and I am writing to the rich on the subject of dinners, and that pint of gold, and the raiment, directing them to send you what the season requires. The poor are reasonable there; it is right and proper for the rich to do these things, unless it turns out that they have good reasons to the contrary.

Speaking generally, however, I must tell you that you are all in error; it is quite a misconception to imagine the rich in perfect bliss; they have no monopoly of life’s pleasures because they can eat expensive food, drink too much good wine, revel in beauty, and go in soft raiment. You have no idea of how it works out. The resulting anxieties are very considerable. A ceaseless watch must be kept, or stewards will be lazy and dishonest, wine go sour, and grain be weeviled; the burglar will be off with the rich man’s plate; agitators will persuade the people that he is meditating a coup d’état. And these are but a minute fraction of their troubles; if you could know their apprehensions and cares, you would think riches a thing to be avoided at all costs.

Why, look at me; if wealth and dominion were good things, do you suppose I should have been fool enough to relinquish them, make room for others, and sit down like a common man content with a subordinate position? No, it was because I knew all the conditions the rich and powerful cannot escape that I had the sense to abdicate.

You made a great fuss in your letter about their gorging on boar’s head and pastry while your festival consists of a mouthful of cress or thyme or onion. Now, what are the facts? As to the immediate sensation, on the palate, there is little to choose between the two diets — not much to complain of in either; but with the after effects it is quite otherwise. You get up next morning without either the headache the rich man’s wine leaves behind, or the disgusting queasiness that results from his surfeit of food. To these effects he adds those of nights given to lust and debauchery, and as likely as not reaps the fruit of his luxury in consumption, pneumonia, or dropsy. It is quite a difficult matter to find a rich man who is not deathly pale; most of them by the time they are old men use eight legs belonging to other people instead of their own two; they are gold without and rags within, like the stage hero’s robes. No fish dinners for you, I admit; you hardly know what fish tastes like; but then observe, no gout or pneumonia either, nor other ailments due to other excesses. Apart from that. though, the rich themselves do not enjoy their daily over-indulgence in these things; you may see them as eager, and more, for a dinner of herbs as ever you are for game.

I say nothing of their other vexations — one has a disreputable son, another a wife who prefers his slave to himself, another realizes that his minion yields to necessity what he would not to affection; there are numberless things, in fact, that you know nothing about; you only see their gold and purple, or catch sight of them behind their high-steppers, and open your mouths and abase yourselves before them. If you left them severely alone, if you did not turn to stare at their silver-plated carriages, if you did not while they were talking eye their emerald rings, or finger their clothes and admire the fineness of the texture, if you let them keep their riches to themselves, in short, I can assure you they would seek you out and implore the favour of your company; you see, they must show you their couches and tables and goblets, the sole good of which is in the being known to possess them.

You will find that most of their acquisitions are made for you; they are not for their own use, but for your astonishment. I am one that knows both lives, and I write this for your consolation. You should keep the feast with the thought in your minds that both parties will soon leave this earthly scene, they resigning their wealth, and you your poverty. However, I will write to them as I promised, and am confident that they will not disregard what I say.

H.

III

Cronus to the Rich, Greeting.

I lately received a letter from the poor, complaining that you give them no share of your prosperity. They petitioned me in general terms to institute community of goods and let each have his part: it was only right that equality should be established, instead of one’s having a superfluity while another was cut off from pleasure altogether. I told them that had better be left to Zeus; but their particular festival grievances I considered to belong to my own jurisdiction, and so I undertook to write to you. These demands of theirs are moderate enough, it seems to me. How can we possibly keep the feast (they ask), when we are numb with frost and pinched with hunger? if I meant them to participate, I must compel you to bestow on them any clothes that you do not require, or find too heavy for your own use, and also to vouchsafe them just a slight sprinkling of gold. If you do this, they engage not to dispute your right to your property any further in the court of Zeus. Otherwise they will demand redistribution the next time he takes his seat upon the bench. Well, this is no heavy call, considering the vast property on the possession of which I congratulate you.

They also requested me to mention the subject of dinners; you were to ask them to dinner, instead of closing your doors and living daintily by yourselves. When you do entertain a few of them at long intervals, they say you make it rather a humiliation than an enjoyment; everything is done to degrade them — that monstrous piece of snobbishness, for instance, the giving different people different wines. It is really a little discreditable to them that they do not get up and walk out in such a case, leaving you in sole possession. But that is not all; they tell me there is not enough to drink either; your butlers’ ears are as impervious as those of Odysseus’s crew. Other vulgarities I can hardly bring myself to name. The helpings and the waiters are complained of; the latter linger about you till you are full to repletion, but post by your poor guests at a run — with other meannesses hardly conceivable in the house of a gentleman. For mirth and good-fellowship it is essential that all the company be on the same footing; if your carver does not secure equality, better not have one, but a general scramble.

It rests with you to obviate these complaints and secure honour and affection; a liberality that costs you nothing appreciable will impress itself permanently by its timeliness on the memory of recipients. Why, your cities would not be habitable, if you had not poor fellow citizens to make their numberless contributions to your well-being; you would have no admirers of your wealth if you lived alone with it in the obscurity of isolation. Let there be plenty to see it and to marvel at your silver and your exquisite tables; let them drink to your health, and as they drink examine the goblet, feel and guess at its weight, enjoy its storied workmanship enhanced by and enhancing the preciousness of the material. So you may not only gain a reputation for goodness and geniality, but also escape envy; that is a feeling not directed against people who let others participate in their prosperity to a reasonable extent; every one prays that they may live long to enjoy it. Your present practice results in an unsatisfying life, with none to see your happiness, but plenty to grudge you your wealth.

It is surely not so agreeable to gorge yourself alone, like a lion or an old wolf that has deserted the pack, as to have the company of well-bred people who do their best to make things pleasant. In the first place they banish dull silence from your table, and are ready with a good story, a harmless jest, or some other contribution to entertainment; that is the way to please the Gods of wine and love and beauty. And secondly they win you love by spreading abroad next morning your hospitable fame. These are things that would be cheap at a considerable price.

For I put it to you whether, if blindness were a regular concomitant of poverty (fancy is free), you would be indifferent to the want of any one to impress with your purple clothes and attendant crowds and massive rings. I will not dwell on the certainty that plots and ill-feeling will be excited against you by your exclusiveness; suffice it to say that the curses they threaten to imprecate upon you are positively horrible; God forbid they should really be driven to it! You would never taste sausage or pastry more; if the dog’s depredations stopped short of completeness, you would still find a fishy flavour in your soup, the boar and the buck would effect an escape to the mountains from off the very roasting-jack, and your birds (no matter for their being plucked) would be off with a whiz and a whirr to the poor men’s tables. Worst of all, your pretty cup-bearers would turn bald in a twinkling — the wine, by the way, having previously all been spilt. I now leave you to make up your minds on the course that the festival proprieties and your own safety recommend; these people are extremely poor; a little relief will gain you friends worth having at a trifling cost.

H.

IV

The Rich to Cronus, Greeting.

Do you really suppose, Sire, that these letters of the poor have gone exclusively to your address? Zeus is quite deaf with their clamour, their appeals for redistribution, their complaints of Destiny for her unfairness and of us for refusing them relief. But Zeus is Zeus; he knows where the fault lies, and consequently pays them very little attention. However, as the authority is at present with you, to you we will address our defence. Having before our eyes all that you have laid down on the beauty of assisting out of our abundance those who are in want, and the delight of associating and making merry with the poor, we adopted the principle of treating them on such equal terms that a guest could not possibly have anything to complain of.

On their side, they started with professions of wanting very little indeed; but that was only the thin edge of the wedge. Now, if their demands are not instantly and literally satisfied, there is bad temper and offence and talk; their tales may be as false as they will, every one believes them: they have been there; they must know! Our only choice was between a refusal that meant detestation, and a total surrender that meant speedy ruin and transfer to the begging class for ourselves.

But the worst is to come. At table that filling of the stomach (of which we have by no means the monopoly) does not so completely occupy them but that, when they have drunk a drop too much, they find time for familiarities with the attendants or saucy compliments to the ladies. Then, after being ill at our tables, they go home, and next day reproach us with the hunger and thirst they feelingly describe. If you doubt the accuracy of this account, we refer you to your own quondam guest Ixion, who being hospitably received by you and treated as one of yourselves distinguished himself by his drunken addresses to Hera.

For these among other reasons we determined to protect ourselves by giving them the entrée no longer. But if they engage under your guarantee to make only the moderate demands they now profess, and to abstain from outraging their hosts’ feelings, what is ours shall be theirs; we shall be only too glad of their company. We will comply with your suggestions about the clothes and, as far as may be, about the gold, and in fact will do our duty. We ask them on their side to give up trading on our hospitality, and to be our friends instead of our toadies and parasites. If only the’ will behave themselves, you shall have no reason to complain of us.

H.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49