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Eumolpus in the Art Gallery

From the book: Satyricon

Written 62-65 A.D. by Titus Petronius Arbiter (?-66 A.D. - ordered by Nero to commit suicide)

Translated from Latin by P.G. Walsh, Professor Emeritus of Humanity at the University of Glasgow.

[This is long and the first paragraphs are most important - I put is here because it gives insights on how the Romans viewed art and artists. Do not miss the satirical and funny element of the chapter. - Zafiris]

Chapter 8 - Eumolpus in the Art Gallery

83        I walked into an art gallery, which had an astonishing range of pictures. What I saw there included the handiwork of Zeuxis, not as yet overcome by the ravages of time, and with a kind of awe I scrutinized rough drawings by Protogenes which vied in authenticity with Nature herself. As for the painting by Apelles which the Greeks call ‘The Crippled Goddess’, I even bent the knee before it; for the outlines of his figures were so skillfully clear-cut that you could imagine that he had painted their souls as well. There was one picture in which an eagle aloft was bearing away the lad from Mt. Ida; in another, the fair-skinned Hylas was trying to fend off a persistent Naiad; a third depicted Apollo cursing his guilty hands and adorning his unstrung lyre with a newly sprung blossom. As I stood surrounded by these portrayals of lovers’ expressions, in a spirit of desolation I cried out: ‘So even the gods are pricked by love. Jupiter found no object for his affection in heaven, and though he visited earth to sin, he did violence to no one. The Nymph who took Hylas as her prize would have repressed her feelings had she believed that Hercules would appear to forbid the deed. Apollo summoned back the departed shade of his boy to turn him into a flower. All these stories, and not just the pictures, have described embraces enjoyed without a rival; but the person I hospitably befriended has turned out to be more cruel than Lycurgus.’

As I shared my disputation with the winds, a striking thing occurred: a grizzled veteran entered the gallery with a look of concentration on his face which offered a hint of greatness. But his dress did not match his handsome appearance, which made it perfectly clear that he was a man of letters, such as the rich love to hate. This was the fellow, then, that stood alongside me...

‘I am a poet,’ he said, ‘a poet of not inconsiderable genius—that is, if one can lend any credence to those awards often bestowed by influence on men without talent. You will be asking: “So why this shabby outfit of yours?” The reason is simply this: devotion to the intellect never made anyone rich.

Put trust in sea-trade, and your profits soar;
Soldiers don arms of gold to go to war;
Cheap crawlers loll on purple, crazed with gin;
Seducers of young brides are paid for sin.
Lone eloquence shivers in rags bone-stiff with frost; 
Impoverished tongue invoking arts now lost.

84        ‘The situation is undoubtedly this: if you confront all the vices, and start to tread an upright path in life, you first encounter hatred because your mode of life is different; for who has a good word for the man who tries to follow a different road? Secondly, those whose sole aim in life is piling up money, don’t like the world at large to regard any philosophy as superior to their own. So they use every possible means to denigrate lovers of literature, trying to show that such people too are slaves to money... In some sense, poverty is sister to integrity of mind...

‘I could only wish that the man who assails my honesty was sufficiently guilt-free for me to soften his attitude. But as things stand, he is an inveterate robber, more worldly wise than those very pimps...


85          ‘When I was taken to Asia as a paid assistant to the quaestor there, I was given accommodation at Pergamum. I was pleased with the residence there, not just because the lodging was elegant, but also because my host had a most handsome son; and I devised a way of lulling his father’s suspicions. Whenever the table-talk turned to the subject of sex with good-looking boys, I would seethe with such fury, and show such austere displeasure in refusing to have my ears outraged by foul gossip, that the boy’s mother in particular regarded me as a real Stoic. So in no time I had started escorting the young fellow to the exercise ground, organizing his studies, acting as his tutor and moral adviser, and ensuring that no one set foot in the house on the hunt for sex.

‘It so happened that a feast-day had allowed us to relax, and because our celebration went on quite late, we were dossing down in the dining-room. It must have been about midnight when I realized that the boy was awake. So very shyly I murmured a prayer: “Lady Venus,” I said, “if I can kiss this boy without his realizing it, I’ll present him with a pair of doves tomorrow.” When the boy heard the payment on offer for the pleasure, he began to snore. So as he feigned sleep, I planted a few fond kisses on him. I was satisfied with this modest beginning; I got up early next morning and discharged my vow by putting a pair of choice doves in his expectant hands.

86 ‘Next night opportunity again offered, and I stepped up my prayer. ‘If I can run my roguish hands over him without his feeling a thing, I’ll repay him for his trouble with a pair of really lively fighting-cocks.” On hearing this the young lad snuggled up to me without prompting; I suppose he was beginning to fear that I had fallen off to sleep. So I relieved his anxiety, and immersed myself in the exploration of his whole body, but without indulging in the final pleasure. When daylight came, he was delighted with the gift of what I had promised.

‘When a third night offered me the opportunity, I got up and spoke in his ear as he pretended to sleep. “Immortal gods,” I said, “if I can gain the full pleasure I long for from this boy, in return for the joy, tomorrow I shall give him the finest Macedonian stallion, so long as he doesn’t feel a thing.” Never did that young fellow enjoy deeper repose. So first I curled my hands round his milk-white breasts, then I gave him a lingering kiss, and finally all my longings were concentrated in the single act. Next morning he seated himself on his bed, awaiting the customary routine. But you know how much easier it is to purchase doves and cocks than a

stallion! And besides, I was afraid that a gift on that scale would make people eye my geniality with suspicion. So I took a stroll for a few hours, and on returning to the lodging all I gave the boy was a kiss. As he put his arms around my neck, his eyes wandered round, and he said: “Tell me, sir, where is the stallion?”

87 ‘By alienating him in this way, I had cut off the access which I had gained. But then I resumed my wanton behaviour, for after a few days’ interval I began to press the youth for a reconciliation. I begged him to allow me to satisfy his needs, and used all the other arguments which oppressive lust dictates. He was quite incensed. All he said was: ‘Go to sleep or I’ll tell my father.” But unscrupulousness can climb every mountain. Even as he was saying “I’ll wake my father”, I crept in close, and took my pleasure against his feeble resistance. He was not displeased by my wanton behaviour. After a long rigmarole about his having been deceived and made a figure of fun and scorn among his schoolmates, to whom he had boasted of my wealth, he said: “But you’ll see I’m not one of your kind. Have another go if you want.” So all animosity laid aside, I was back in the boy’s good books; and after exploiting his good will, I fell fast asleep. But he was now fully grown up, and at an age itching to play the partner; he was not content with a single repeat performance. So he roused me from my sleep, and asked: “Anything you want?” At this stage doing him a service was not tiresome, so with much panting and sweating I somehow wore him down, gave him what he wanted, and again fell asleep in contented exhaustion. Less than an hour elapsed when he began to poke me with his finger, saying: “Why don’t we go at it?” The I got really worked up at being wakened so often, and I answered him in his own words:

“Go to sleep, or I’ll tell your father.”’


88  I was stimulated by this conversation, and began to tap his superior knowledge about the dating of the pictures and the themes of some of them which I found mysterious. At the same time, I was trying to elicit the reason for our present decadence in which the noblest arts had died off, painting among them having left not the slightest trace.

His response was: ‘It was lust for money that induced this change. In the old days, when virtue unadorned was accepted, the noble arts flourished, and there was the fiercest competition between individuals to ensure that no benefit to posterity should lie undiscovered for long. So it was that Democritus squeezed out the juices of every plant, and devoted his life to experiments to ensure that the properties of stones and shrubs became known. Eudoxus grew old on the peak of the highest mountain, seeking to understand the movements of stars and firmament. Chrysippus cleansed his mind three times with hellebore to prevent his ideas drying up. Lysippus died through poverty as he concentrated on the lines of a single statue; and Myron, who almost caught in bronze the souls of men and wild beasts, has found no heir.

‘But our generation is obsessed with wine and the women of the street. We don’t presume to acquaint ourselves even with the most accessible arts. We censure the old ways, but teach and learn nothing but vices. What has happened to dialectic? And astronomy? What is the most secure path to wisdom? Whoever sets foot in a temple, and solemnly vows thanksgiving if he attains eloquence, or gets to grips with the sources of philosophy? No one aspires even to mental or bodily health; even before stepping on the sacred threshold, one promises a gift if he can bury his rich neighbour, another if he uncovers buried treasure, a third if he can make thirty million unscathed. Why, even the senate, our mentor as regards good and right conduct, often promises a thousand pounds of gold for the Capitoline temple; so just in case anyone should hesitate to lust after money, the senate adorns Jupiter with his little pile. So you shouldn’t wonder that painting is on the way out, when all gods and men alike regard a gold nugget as more beautiful than anything those crazy little Greeks Apelles and Phidias have created.

89 ‘But I can see that you are wholly captivated by the pic­ture which depicts the capture of Troy, so I’ll try to ex­pound the subject in verses:

‘Ten harvests now the Trojans had endured
In melancholy, poised ‘midst anxious fears.
Black fear engulfed them; should they trust
In the seer Calchas’ doubtful prophecy?
Now at Apollo’s prompting, Ida’s peaks 
Are shorn of forests. Trunks are dragged below,
And the sawn logs assembled in a mass
To fashion a menacing horse. And deep within,
A spacious hollow, a cavern lies concealed
To house an army. Valour lies cloaked therein, 
Its anger sharpened by ten warring years;
Crowding the corners, the oppressing Greeks
Lurk in the beast that they have vowed. Poor land!
We thought the thousand ships had been repelled,
That we had freed our native soil from war. 
The inscription on the beast, and Sinon’s role
In harmony with fate, and our own state of mind
With its capacity to seal our doom,
Strengthened our illusions.

The crowd feels free; now unoppressed by war, 
They hasten from the gates to pay their vows,
Cheeks wet with weeping; these are tears of joy,
Banished before by fear from troubled minds.
Neptune’s Laocoon with hair unbound
Incites the mob to uproar. Then, spear poised,    
He gashes the beast’s belly. But the fates
Debilitate his hands; the spear strikes home,
But then recoils. Greek guile thus wins our trust.
Again the priest essays with feeble hand,
As with an axe he strikes that lofty flank.
The enclosed warriors growl angrily;
The wooden monster snorts with alien fears.
The youths who lay within our hands emerge;
And Troy falls under theirs. This is a war
Conducted with unprecedented guile. 

Fresh portents follow. Swollen waves rear high
Where Tenedos’ high ridges span the sea.
The placid waters prised apart give place.
Over the silent night the plash of oars
Proclaims their distant message, as the ships
Pound the deep waters. The still surface groans
Under the burden of their wooden keels.
Our eyes are riveted. Twin coiling snakes
Are borne on ocean swell towards the rocks.
Their swollen breasts resemble lofty ships
Parting the sea-foam with their flanks; the deep
Echoes the impact of their tails; their crests
Range o’er the waters, conspiring with their eyes
Whose flashing gleam ignites the sea. The waves
Seethe with their hissing.

All are stupefied.
The priests adorned with headbands, and the twins,
Laocoon’s pledges, in their Phrygian garb,
Stand in attendance. Then, quite suddenly,
The glistening snakes enfold them with their coils.
They raise their tiny hands up to their face,
Striving to free each other, not themselves,
In compact of devotion. Death itself
Destroys the wretches as they share their fear.
The father, feeble helper, spreads his frame
Over his children’s corpses. But the snakes
Now gorged with death, attack the full-grown man,
Dragging his limbs down to the ground. The priest,
A sacrificial victim, strikes the earth,
Prostrate between the altars. Troy, its rites
First desecrated, doomed to imminent fall,
Surrenders the protection of its gods.

Now the full moon has raised her radiant light,
Guiding the lesser stars with glowing torch.
While Priam’s sons are buried in sleep and wine,
The Greeks unbar the door, disgorge their men. 
Their leaders, fully armed, rehearse; just so
A steed, released from its Thessalian yoke,
Charges with tossing head and lofty mane.
They draw their swords, brandish their shields in front,
Inaugurating battle. While one slays
The Trojans heavy-eyed with wine,
Their sleep extended into ultimate death,
Another ignites torches from the altars,
Thus summoning the sacred Trojan rites
Against the very Trojans.’

90  As he declaimed, some of the strollers in the colonnades threw stones at Eumolpus. Acknowledging this hearty reception of his genius, he covered his head and bolted from the temple. I feared that they would pin the label of poet on myself as well, so I followed him in his flight down to the sea-shore. As soon as we were out of the firing-line and could relax, I said: ‘Tell me, what will you do about this disease of yours? You’ve been in my company for less than two hours, and in that time you’ve spouted poetry more often than talked like a human being. It doesn’t surprise me that people chase after you with bricks; I’ll do the same myself—stuff my pockets with stones, and give your head a blood-letting whenever you threaten a take-off.’ He nodded his acknowledgement, and said: ‘Young man, today is not my first experience of this kind. In fact, whenever I step into a theatre to deliver a recitation, the crowd treats me to this kin~ of reception. However, to save brawling with you as well, I’ll go on a diet all day today.’

'Good enough,' I replied. 'If you forswear your madness for the day, we'll dine together.


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