Juvenal: The Emptiness Of Power

Some are destroyed by their power, downed by profound envy,
Some are sunk deep by their long and illustrious list of honours.
Noosed by a rope, their statues are dragged to the ground, even
The wheels of their chariots are smashed, and broken to pieces
With axes, while the legs of their innocent horses are shattered.
Now the flames roar, the bellows hiss, and that head idolised
By the people glows in the furnace, flames crackle around huge
Sejanus; the face of a man who was number two in the world
Is converted to jugs and basins, turned to pots and frying pans.
Deck your houses with laurel, lead a great bull whitened with
Chalk up to the Capitol: come see Sejanus dragged along by
A hook, everyone’s celebrating! ‘Look at the lips, look at the
Face on that! You can take it from me, he was never a man
That I liked’ ‘But what was the crime that brought him down?’
Who informed, what’s the evidence, where are the witnesses?’
‘That’s all irrelevant; a lengthy and wordy letter arrived from
Capri.’ ‘That’s fine, answer enough.’ But what of the Roman
Mob? They follow Fortune, as always, and hate whoever she
Condemns. If Nortia, as the Etruscans called her, had favoured
Etruscan Sejanus; if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously
Smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed
Their new Augustus. They shed their sense of responsibility
Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob
That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,
Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only,
Bread and circuses. ‘I hear that many will perish.’ ‘No doubt,
The furnace is huge.’ ‘My friend Bruttidius Niger looked
Rather pale, when I met him in front of the altar of Mars;
I’m scared that Tiberius, like a defeated Ajax, will exact
Punishment for being so poorly protected. Let’s run swiftly
And trample on Caesar’s foe, where he lies on the riverbank,
Making sure our slaves see us, so they can’t deny it and drag
Their terrified masters to justice, with nooses round our necks.’
Those were the crowd’s secret murmurings regarding Sejanus.
Would you like to be greeted as Sejanus, possess all that he
Possessed, be the one to grant highest office to some, appoint
Others to military posts, be seen as the Emperor’s guardian,
He who sits on the little constricted rock of Capri with a herd
Of Chaldean stargazers? Surely you’d like his troops, their
Spears, his excellent cavalry and private fortress; why
Wouldn’t you? Even those who have no wish to kill, enjoy
The power to do so. But what’s the value of fame and wealth,
If the good that delights is matched by an equal measure of ill?
Would you rather be wearing the purple-edged toga of him
Who’s being dragged along, or rule empty Gabii or Fidenae;
Lay down the law over weights and scales, break vessels that
Give short measure, as a ragged official in deserted Ulubrae?
So perhaps you’d admit Sejanus had no idea what to ask for?
Since he simply kept asking for greater honours, demanding
More and more wealth, he was building a lofty many-storied
Tower, from which the fall would only prove greater, whose
Collapse into shattered ruin would be only the more profound.
What destroyed the Crassi, the Pompeys, and that man Caesar
Who brought the Romans under his lash, and so tamed them?
Simply seeking that place at the top, using every trick that
Exists, simply extravagant prayer granted by spiteful gods.
Few kings go down to Ceres’ son-in-law, Dis, free from
Blood and carnage, few tyrants achieve a tranquil death.  

Translated by A. S. Kline


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