Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 15: a just punishment.

Emperor Claudius (1 August 10 BC – 13 October AD 54) has always had a bad press amongst Roman historians: a ruler dominated by women and addicted to dice playing. Apart from that he was also ridiculed for having difficulty with walking, may be caused due to some illness as a child and because of this his mother and grandmother made fun of him and there was no maternal affection – his father Drusus died when Claudius was a little baby.
But he was also a prolific writer of books on history, a passion he must have taken over from Livy, who was his teacher. He also wrote an Etruscan dictionary, but nothing has survived, this to the great regret of modern historians and etruscologists.
The fact that a satire was written about him did not help the popularity of Claudius either. Seneca is the alleged writer of this satire, the Apocolocyntosis (divi) Claudii, literally `The Pumpkinification  of (the Divine) Claudius’. The pumpkin was symbol for stupidity and the title alludes to the apotheosis or deification of emperors after their death. But though his authorship is not quite certain, Seneca had some good reasons to dislike Claudius, as the latter sent him into exile. It was under pressure of his fourth wife Agrippina the Younger that Claudius called Seneca back to Rome to make him the teacher of Agrippina’s son from an earlier marriage: Nero. Seneca had the good sense or the lack of courage to write this satire after the death of Claudius, poisoned by Agrippina.
The  Apocolocyntosis  is a mixture of prose and poetry, the so-called Menippean satire. It is set on the moment Claudius dies and tells about the consternation at the Olympus when Claudius arrives there. From there Claudius is sent to Hades and there he is recognized by people who were killed on his request. Brought before Aeacus, judge of the underworld, he is sentenced to fulfil a useless task: playing dice with a box without bottom!
As for me, I like playing dice too as well as playing carts, so I wonder what punishment I will get in the afterlife. To my credit I must say that I have never sent a philosopher into exile, nor have I married four times.

Apocolocyntosis 15
Metrum: hexameter.

[15] Nam quotiens missurus erat resonante fritillo,
utraque subducto fugiebat tessera fundo.
Cumque recollectos auderet mittere talos,
fusuro similis semper semperque petenti,
decepere fidem: refugit digitosque per ipsos
fallax adsiduo dilabitur alea furto.
Sic cum iam summi tanguntur culmina montis,
irrita Sisyphio volvuntur pondera collo.

Then the deceased emperor Caligula comes, not to rescue him, but to use him as slave, working at the law court of the underworld. It is said of Claudius that he often acted as a judge, but took his decision after hearing only one side, trespassing against a Roman juridical saying: audite alteram partem `hear the other side too’.

missurus erat: about to throw
fritillus: dice-box
tessera: dice
subduco subduxi subductum: to take away
auderet: normally audeo means `to dare’, but here it is more like cupio `to desire’.
talus: knuckle-bone  (dice were made of knuckle-bones.)
fundo fudi fusum, to pour out, throw
peto petii/petivi petitum: to aim ad, seek
fusuro similis semper semperque petenti: similar to one who always throwing (dice) and always collecting
decepere = deceperunt
decepere fidem: the dice deceived his confidence
fallax, fallacis: deceptive, fallacious
adsiduus: constant
dilabor dilapsus sum : to fall, tumble, escape
alea: dice
furtum: theft, trick
culmen culminis (n.): top, summit
irrita Sisyphio volvuntur pondera collo: litt. `the useless stones are being rolled from the Sisiphian neck’, but should be understood as `in vain, the stones (pondus ponderis, n.) are being rolled from Sysiphus’ neck (collum).’

A felicitous translation by W.H. D. Rouse (1913):

"For when he rattled with the box, and thought he now had got 'em,
The little cubes would vanish thro' the perforated bottom.
Then he would pick 'em up again, and once more set a-trying:
The dice but served him the same trick: away they went a-flying.
So still he tries, and still he fails; still searching long he lingers;
 And every time the tricksy things go slipping thro' his fingers.
Just so when Sisyphus his rock once gets atop the mountain,
To his dismay he sees it come down on his poor head bounding!"

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