Use the Texts / Library button above to access texts.
The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Translated by Fowler, H W and F G. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 1905.
The Saturnalia, or Feast of Saturn, was celebrated in December. At this time, liberty was allowed to servants of finding fault, and making merry with their masters; probably in memory of the Saturnia Regna, or Golden Age, before the distinction of master and servant was known. At this season, friends sent Presents to each other and no war was to be proclaimed nor anyone executed; nothing reigned but mirth and freedom in every quarter. On this Festival, which is certainly a fair object of satire for Lucian, the following dialogue, empties all his quiver of ridicule'and sarcasm; taking occasion, at the same time, to laugh at the absurd tales propagated by the Priests and Poets, of Saturn devouring his Children, dividing his Kingdom, etc. which, notwithstanding, formed no inconsiderable part of the pagan religion.
- Based on Francklin
Cronus. His Priest
Pr. Cronus, you are in authority just now, I understand; to you our sacrifices and ceremonies are directed; now, what can I make surest of getting if I ask it of you at this holy season?
Cro. You had better make up your own mind what to pray for, unless you expect your ruler to be a clairvoyant and know what you would like to ask. Then, I will do my best not to disappoint you.
Pr. Oh, I have done that long ago. No originality about it; the usual thing, please,---wealth, plenty of gold, landed proprietorship, a train of slaves, gay soft raiment, silver, ivory, in fact everything that is worth anything. Best of Cronuses, give me some of these; your priest should profit by your rule, and not be the one man who has to go without all his life.
Cro. Of course! ultra vires; these are not mine to give. So do not sulk at being refused; ask Zeus for them; he will be in authority again soon enough. Mine is a limited monarchy, you see. To begin with, it only lasts a week; that over, I am a private person, just a man in the street. Secondly, during my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water,--such are the functions over which I preside. But the great things, wealth and gold and such, Zeus distributes as he will.
Pr. He is not very free with them, though, Cronus. I am tired of asking for them, as I do at the top of my voice. He never listens; he shakes his aegis, gets the thunderbolt ready for action, puts on a stern look and scares you out of worrying him. He does consent now and then, and make a man rich; but his selection is most casual; he will pass over the good and sensible, and set fools and knaves up to the lips in wealth, gaolbirds or debauchees most of them. But I want to know what are the things you can do.
Cro. Oh, they are not to be sneezed at; it does not come to so very little, if you make allowance for my general limitations. Perhaps you think it a trifle always to win at dice, and be able to count on the sice when the ace is the best the others can throw? Anyhow, there are plenty who get as much as they can eat just because the die likes them and does what it can for them. Others you may see naked, swimming for their lives; and what was the reef that wrecked them, pray? that little die. Or again, to enjoy your wine, to sing the best song at table, at the slaves' feast to see the other waiters 1 ducked for incompetence, while you are acclaimed victor and carry off the sausage prize is all that nothing? Or you find yourself absolute monarch by favour of the knucklebone, can have no ridiculous commands 1 laid on you, and can lay them on the rest: one must shout out a libel on himself, another dance naked, or pick up the flute-girl and carry her thrice round the house; how is that for a sample of my open-handedness? If you complain that the sovereignty is not real nor lasting, that is unreasonable of you; you see that I, the giver of it, have a short-lived tenure myself. Well, anything that is in my power--draughts, monarchy, song, and the rest I have mentioned--you can ask, and welcome; I will not scare you with aegis and thunderbolt.
Pr. Most kind Titan, such gifts I require not of you. Give me the answer that was my first desire, and then count yourself to have repaid my sacrifice sufficiently; you shall have my receipt in full.
Cro. Put your question. An answer you shall have, if my knowledge is equal to it.
Pr. First, then, is the common story true? used you to eat the children Rhea bore you? and did she steal away Zeus, and give you a stone to swallow for a baby? did he when he grew to manhood make victorious war upon you and drive you from your kingdom, bind and cast you into Tartarus, you and all the powers that ranged themselves with you?
Cro. Fellow, were it any but this festive season, when ’tis lawful to be drunken, and slaves have licence to revile their lords, the reward for thy question, for this thy rudeness to a grey-haired aged God, had been the knowledge that wrath is yet permitted me.
Pr. It is not my story, you know, Cronus; it is Homer's and Hesiod's; I might say, only I don't quite like to, that it is the belief of the generality.
Cro. That conceited shepherd 1? you do not suppose he knew anything worth knowing about me? Why, think. Is a man conceivable--let alone a God--who would devour his own children?--wittingly, I mean; of course he might be a Thyestes and have a wicked brother; that is different. However, even granting that, I ask you whether he could help knowing he had a stone in his mouth instead of a baby; I envy him his teeth, that is all. The fact is, there was no war, and Zeus did not depose me; I voluntarily abdicated and retired from the cares of office. That I am not in fetters or in Tartarus you can see for yourself, or you must be as blind as Homer.
Pr. But what possessed you to abdicate?
Cro. Well, the long and short of it is, as I grew old and gouty --that last, by the way, accounts for the fetters of the story--I found the men of these latter days getting out of hand; I had to be for ever running up and down swinging the thunderbolt and blasting perjurers, temple-robbers, oppressors; I could get no peace; younger blood was wanted. So I had the happy thought of abdicating in Zeus's favour. Independently of that, I thought it a good thing to divide up my authority--I had sons to take it on--and to have a pleasant easy time, free of all the petition business and the embarrassment of contradictory prayers, no thundering or lightening to do, no lamentable necessity for sending discharges of hail. None of that now; I am on the shelf, and I like it, sipping neat nectar and talking over old times with Iapetus and the others that were boys with me. And He is king, and has troubles by the thousand. But it occurred to me to reserve these few days for the employments I have mentioned; during them I resume my authority, that men may remember what life was like in my days, when all things grew without sowing or ploughing of theirs--no ears of corn, but loaves complete and meat ready cooked--, when wine flowed in rivers, and there were fountains of milk and honey; all men were good and all men were gold. Such is the purpose of this my brief reign; therefore the merry noise on every side, the song and the games; therefore the slave and the free as one. When I was king, slavery was not.
Pr. Dear me, now! and I accounted for your kindness to slaves and prisoners from the story again; I thought that, as you were a slave yourself, you were paying slaves a compliment in memory of your own fetters.
Cro. Cease your ribald jests.
Pr. Quite so; I will. But here is another question, please. Used mortals to play draughts in your time?
Cro. Surely; but not for hundreds or thousands of pounds like you; nuts were their highest stake; a man might lose without a sigh or a tear, when losing could not mean starvation.
Pr. Wise men! though, as they were solid gold themselves, they were out of temptation. It occurred to me when you mentioned that--suppose any one were to import one of your solid gold men into our age and exhibit him, what sort of a reception would the poor thing get? They would tear him to pieces, not a doubt of it. I see them rushing at him like the Maenads at Pentheus, the Thracian women at Orpheus, or his hounds at Actaeon, trying which could get the biggest bit of him; even in the holidays they do not forget their avarice; most of them regard the holy season as a sort of harvest. In which persuasion some of them loot their friends' tables, others complain, quite unreasonably, of you, or smash their innocent dice in revenge for losses due to their own folly.
But tell me this, now: as you are such a delicate old deity, why pick out the most disagreeable time, when all is wrapt in snow, and the north wind blows, everything is hard frozen, trees dry and bare and leafless, meadows have lost their flowery beauty, and men are hunched up cowering over the fire like so many octogenarians,--why this season of all others for your festival? It is no time for the old or the luxurious.
Cro. Fellow, your questions are many, and no good substitute for the flowing bowl. You have filched a good portion of my carnival with your impertinent philosophizings. Let them go, and we will make merry and clap our hands and take our holiday licence, play draughts for nuts in the good old way, elect our kings and do them fealty. I am minded to verify the saw, that old age is second childhood.
Pr. Now dry be his cup when he thirsts, to whom such words come amiss! Cronus, a bowl with you! ’tis enough that you have made answer to my former questions. By the way, I think of reducing our little interview to writing, my questions and your so affable answers, for submission to those friends whose discretion may be trusted.