“Just say what kind of god you want Claudius to be,” said the deified Augustus to the gods in heaven, “An Epicurean one? Impossible, as the Greek goes, ‘They take no shit and give no shit.’ Stoic, then? But how could he be ‘Round,’ says Varro, ‘with no head, not even the smallest protrusion’? Ah, now I see it, there is something about him of a Stoic god: neither hide nor hair of a head or heart.

            “Jesus Christ, if he asked Saturn for this favor he wouldn’t get it, even after celebrating Saturnalia all year—a real Prince of Saturn—nor from Jove, whom he judged for his incest… as it were.

            “And for what? ‘Because,’ you say, ‘in Rome the mice at least get to lick the millstone.’ He is going to be the one who makes it all add up? He doesn’t know what goes on in his own closet, and now he’s going to give the heavens an audit? He wants to be a god. Why, so they can pray to find a merciful moron like they would a penny on the ground?

            “In summary, let him just say a couple things briefly and he can have me as his maid. Who would worship this god? Who would believe in him? To the rest of you, as long as you make men like these gods, no one will believe you are gods. I move he be officially damned and not be given a stay of proceedings: first of all, he shall be deported, and then he shall leave heaven within thirty days and Olympus within three.”


            Without delay, Mercury hauled him by the collar out of heaven down to hell.

            While they went down the sacred way, Mercury wondered what this concourse of humans meant—Claudius’ funeral? And it was all so fancy and expensive, you could plainly see that they were burying a god: trumpets, horns, a brass section for every genre in so big a jam, so great a symphony that even Claudius could hear it. They were all happy, relieved even: the whole Roman populace walked around as if it’d been freed.

            Agatho and a few other lawyers wept, but honestly this time. The rest of the lawyers, pale and emaciated, scarcely even having breath, staggered out of the dark exactly as if they had just recently been brought back from the dead. One of them, when he saw Agatho’s bunch leaning on each other and weeping for their reverse of fortune, came and said to them, “I told you it won’t always be Saturnalia.”

            Narcissus, his freedman, had taken a shortcut to beat his employer to hell. Now, glowing from a bath, he went up to the new arrival and said, “What are gods doing among men?”

            “Look ali—sharp,” said Mercury, “Announce that we’re coming.”

            No sooner had the words left his mouth than Narcissus flew off.

            “Claudius,” he announced, “Is coming!”

            With applause they came out, singing, in Greek no less, “We have found him, let us rejoice!”

            Here were Silius, consul-elect, and Juncus the praetor, as well as Traulus, Helvius, Troga, Cotta, Vettius, and Fabius, all of them nobles Narcissus had had killed for Claudius. In the middle of the crowd of singers was Mnester the mime, mummed by Claudius out of a sense of decency. Rumor spread that Claudius had arrived and they came from all over: firstly his freedmen Polybius, Myron, Harpocras, Amphaeus, and Pheronactus (all of whom Claudius had “sent ahead” so he wouldn’t be left anywhere unaccompanied), then the prefects Catonius and Pollio, then his consul friends Lusius, Asinius, Lupus, and Pedo. Last were his niece, his other niece, and various in-laws, all his family that was in hell, actually. They swarmed Claudius like ants.

            “Everywhere is full of friends,” Claudius exclaimed (in Greek, of course) when he saw them all, “How did you all get here?”

            “I’m sorry, what did you say, Creul-ius?” Pedo asked, “Did you ask ‘how’? Who sent us here besides you, the killer of all his friends? Let’s go to court and I will show you the bench.”

            He led Claudius to the court of Aeacus, who presided over cases concerning the Cornelian Law, i.e., that pertaining to assassinations. Pedo requested that Claudius’ name be taken down and brought out his warrant: “Senators killed, 35; other nobility, 221; the rest, to quote the Iliad, ‘as many as both sand and dust.’”

            An advocate did not intervene until finally Petronius, an old, old friend of his and a man versed in the Claudian dialect, requested an adjournment.

            “Not granted.”

            Pedo prosecuted the case with loud flourishes and when the defense began to move to reply, Aeacus wouldn’t allow it. He kept a fair, dare I say the fairest, court and so, after hearing only one side of the case, he declared Claudius guilty, saying, in Greek of all things, “He’ll take exactly what he gave, as justice would want to come out symmetrical.”

            The method of his punishment, how he ought to suffer, had a longer debate. There were those that said that Sisyphus had already carried his burden, that Tantalus would die of thirst if he wasn’t relieved soon, or that poor Ixion’s wheel had to stop rolling at some point.

            It was deemed better though not to let any of these veterans off, otherwise Claudius might get release into his head. It should be a new penalty, devised to be a real motherfucker of a task for him to do with the appearance of some reward but always without satisfaction.

            Aeacus had it.

            “Effective immediately Claudius shall play dice in a sieve: when he goes to find them, they shall flee, and he shall make no progress.”

           And so, my friends, for that Caesar, the die was never truly cast.

Original ↓

Modo dic nobis, qualem deum istum fieri velis. Ἐπικούρειος θεὸς non potest esse: οὔτε αὐτὸς πρᾶγμα ἔχει τι οὔτε ἄλλοις παρέχει; Stoicus? Quomodo potest 'rotundus' esse, ut ait Varro, 'sine capite, sine praeputio'? Est aliquid in illo Stoici dei, iam video: nec cor nec caput habet. Si mehercules a Saturno petisset hoc beneficium, cuius mensem toto anno celebravit, Saturnalicius princeps, non tulisset illud, nedum ab Iove, quem quantum quidem in illo fuit, damnavit incesti...


'Quia Romae' inquis 'mures molas lingunt.' Hic nobis curva corrigit? quid in cubiculo suo faciat, nescio, et iam 'caeli scrutatur plagas'? Deus fieri vult… ut deum orant μωροῦ εὐιλάτου τυχεῖν;"



Ad summam, tria verba cito dicat, et servum me ducat. Hunc deum quis colet? Quis credet? Dum tales deos facitis, nemo vos deos esse credet... Placet mihi in eum severe animadverti, nec illi rerum iudicandarum vacationem dari, eumque quam primum exportari, et caelo intra triginta dies excedere, Olympo intra diem tertium." Pedibus in hanc sententiam itum est. Nec mora, Cyllenius illum collo obtorto trahit ad inferos, a caelo


"illuc unde negant redire quemquam."


Dum descendunt per viam sacram, interrogat Mercurius, quid sibi velit ille concursus hominum, num Claudii funus esset. Et erat omnium formosissimum et impensa cura, plane ut scires deum efferri: tubicinum, cornicinum, omnis generis aenatorum tanta turba, tantus concentus, ut etiam Claudius audire posset. Omnes laeti, hilares: populus Romanus ambulabat tanquam liber, Agatho et pauci causidici plorabant, sed plane ex animo. Iurisconsulti e tenebris procedebant, pallidi, graciles, vix animam habentes, tanquam qui tum maxime reviviscerent. Ex his unus cum vidisset capita conferentes et fortunas suas deplorantes causidicos, accedit et ait: "dicebam vobis: non semper Saturnalia erunt."




Antecesserat iam compendiaria Narcissus libertus ad patronum excipiendum, et venienti nitidus, ut erat a balineo, occurrit et ait: "Quid di ad homines?" "Celerius" inquit Mercurius "et venire nos nuntia." Dicto citius Narcissus evolat...


Et magna voce "Claudius" inquit "veniet." Cum plausu procedunt cantantes: εὑρήκαμεν, συγχαίρωμεν. Hic erat C. Silius consul designatus, Iuncus praetorius, Sex. Traulus, M. Helvius, Trogus, Cotta, Vettius Valens, Fabius equites R. quos Narcissus duci iusserat. Medius erat in hac cantantium turba Mnester pantomimus, quem Claudius decoris causa minorem fecerat. Ad Messalinam—cito rumor percrebuit Claudium venisse—convolant: primi omnium liberti Polybius, Myron, Arpocras, Amphaeus, Pheronactus, quos Claudius omnes, necubi imparatus esset, praemiserat. Deinde praefecti duo Iustus Catonius et Rufrius Pollio. Deinde amici Saturninus Lusius et Pedo Pompeius et Lupus et Celer Asinius consulares. Novissime fratris filia, sororis filia, generi, soceri, socrus, omnes plane consanguinei. Et agmine facto Claudio occurrunt. Quos cum vidisset Claudius, exclamat: πάντα φίλων πλήρη "quomodo huc venistis vos?" Tum Pedo Pompeius: "Quid dicis, homo crudelissime? Quaeris, quomodo? Quis enim nos alius huc misit quam tu, omnium amicorum interfector? In ius eamus, ego tibi hic sellas ostendam."


Ducit illum ad tribunal Aeaci: is lege Cornelia quae de sicariis lata est, quaerebat. Postulat, nomen eius recipiat; edit subscriptionem: occisos senatores XXXV, equites R. CCXXI, ceteros ὅσα ψάμαθός τε κόνις τε. Advocatum non invenit. Tandem procedit P. Petronius, vetus convictor eius, homo Claudiana lingua disertus, et postulat advocationem. Non datur. Accusat Pedo Pompeius magnis clamoribus. Incipit patronus velle respondere. Aeacus, homo iustissimus, vetat, et illum altera tantum parte audita condemnat et ait: αἴκε πάθοις τ ἔρεξας, δίκη εὐθεῖα γένοιτο...


De genere poenae diu disputatum est, quid illum pati oporteret. Erant qui dicerent, Sisyphum satis diu laturam fecisse, Tantalum siti periturum nisi illi succurreretur, aliquando Ixionis miseri rotam sufflaminandam. Non placuit ulli ex veteribus missionem dari, ne vel Claudius unquam simile speraret. Placuit novam poenam constitui debere, excogitandum illi laborem irritum et alicuius cupiditatis speciem sine effectu. Tum Aeacus iubet illum alea ludere pertuso fritillo. Et iam coeperat fugientes semper tesseras quaerere et nihil proficere.

Translator's Note

I personally wouldn’t mind being exiled to Corsica, but Seneca was raw enough about it that when his banisher Claudius died and was officially deified, Seneca wrote the satire Apocolocyntosis, or “Pumpkinification,” a play on apotheosis, or “deification.” The work is specifically a “Menippean” satire, that is, written as a medley of prose and verse in the style of the Greek poet Menippus. However, where I couldn’t cut verse entirely, like the song sung by the crowd to “mourn” Claudius’ death, I rendered it into prose, like the abundant Greek verse borrowed from Greek poets. This decision to elide verse or otherwise make it prosaic is owed in the greatest part to my tin ear for verse, but I also found the poetic digressions to be flow-breaking and often tedious. Finally, in reflecting on the genre it is worth noting that none of Menippus’ own works survive.

Because satire is so tied up in the current events at the time of composition, I am a usually a little doubtful of how timeless the genre is even capable of being. However, the Apocolocyntosis has a unique relevance to the political events that have taken place in the United States in recent years. Seneca depicts Claudius Caesar as supremely capricious, an enemy to all his friends. He uses a quote from Varro to suggest that Caesar overused his “protrusion” and earlier in the work jokes about the elderly emperor’s incontinence. Any of these are jabs that could’ve been leveled by a late night host at America’s own pumpkin Caesar. Furthermore, I chose to translate the section that I did not just for cohesion and brevity, but because the two courts, one in heaven and the other in hell, reflect the two impeachment trials of the prior administration and the underlying moral struggle of a powerful nation in flux.

Despite all the miraculous relevance that not even some Early Modern satires are capable of today, it is difficult to escape how idiomatic satire is as a genre. Not every obscurity can be plastered over, for example, by a simple “Jesus Christ” or a tidy “motherfucker.” I had to take the phrase “mures molas lingunt” and practically wring it out grammatically to produce “the mice at least get to lick the millstones.” That is, in a society as prosperous as Rome even the least among the citizens is entitled to the least bit of breadmaking and by extension bread, or in the case of the Roman Claudius, that the least among the deified is entitled to at least the tiniest heavenly domain.

But that pales in comparison to having to pull from thin air something not in the Latin, “And so, my friends, for that Caesar, the die was never truly cast,” in order to explain the relevance of Claudius’ infernal punishment. It’s an explanation that still requires prior knowledge of what Julius Caesar said when he crossed the Rubicon: “the die is cast.” Obscurer still is the title of the damn thing. You might remark, “A pumpkinification instead of a deification, how absurd,” with, if you’re being generous, a mostly internal chuckle. However, it isn’t truly absurd but is meant to conjure the dice-like rattling of a dry gourd, a reference that might still be obscure to the average agriculturally-removed modern reader. Right there is where you find the greatest barrier to relevance and to comedy in general, the stumbliest stumbling block to present translators: having to explain the joke.

Mark Thayer


In the Classroom