Commentary notes can be accessed by clicking on a blue square. The Latin text can be accessed by clicking on a green square.




A Pelasgian master is preparing for the festival.

Today we celebrate the feast sacred to Saturn, during which the master serves his servant. And today the more servants a man has to serve, the unhappier he is. But now I see myself to be a blessed man, since I have only one.
SERVANT Is this how it befits me, the master, to wait for the festivities? Pour wine for your Jove, my Ganymede. First I’ll drink off an entire bumper for the god. (Drinks.) Oh, what kind of wine are you giving your master, you villain?
MASTER This is raisin wine, master, that is excellent wine that’s been mulled.
SERV. Watch out, or I’ll take a mallet to your head, you rascal, if you mull it again in that way for the holiday. Fly, get me pure Falernian. (Exit the master.) D’you hear me? D’you hear me?
MAST. (Reentering.) Is my master calling Curius?
SERV. Forget the Falernian, hunt up some Caecuban. (The master leaves again.) Quickly, quickly, let no delay slow you down. Hey, d’you hear me?
MAST. You’re calling for Curius again?
SERV. I’ve changed my mind now, I want the raisin wine. For it’s royal, and when you drink it straight it’s like nectar. Is everything else ready for the holiday?
MAST. See, master, everything is ready at hand.
SERV. Master, not all things are ready. Am I to eat with unwashed hands? Where’s the washing-basin? Isn’t it here?
MAST. Everything’s ready, master.
SERV. When I used to be a servant, I didn’t go about my work so slackly, you rascal. Oh my keenly ingenious genius! How I verbally sport with my master, and mock him with his own words. This is his own style, now he’s humoring me. He was first to invent these words and tongue-lashings, and wrote his messages on my back with his whips, engraved in scars so I wouldn’t forget them. Today, master, a strict accounting of everything you have entrusted to me will be given, for everything I have suffered this past year I shall faithfully pay back to you today. (Enter the master, with water.) From what far-distant source is this water fetched? Waters fetched from afar are clear, so take it. (He dashes his master with the water and wipes his face with a towel.) Wipe these rain-clouds from your face, Orion, let the rain stop so you don’t drench my servant. Pretty little boy, how does your beauty shine forth now? Why do you hide such a handsome face behind a dirty cloud?
MAST. This holiday won’t last forever, slave. You’re going to submit to no light yoke of servitude, and when I’m your master again, I’ll be the man to hold the whip once more. You’ll wretchedly pay for your pertness.
SERV. Are you muttering to yourself in good cheer? You don’t like what’s happened? You’re issuing threats? I’ll forestall them.
MAST. Woe’s me, am I engaged in a struggle? Saturn himself forbids this. I’ll serve at the altar as long as the holiday rule commands.
SERV. [To himself.] I’ve got it. I’ll make Curius believe he’s one of those mutts from Malta, and I’ll quickly find a stick to beat the dog. Oh the wonderful transformation! Who’s this quadruped here? Get away, get away, you stinkard!
MAST. I’m not a dog, I’m Curius.
SERV. I hear Curius’ voice, but I don’t see Curius, I only see a dog. Get away, get away, you stinkard! Where’s my Curius? Come here Curius. But here’s a low-down dog. D’you hear, d’you hear, Curius? But here, I say, is a dog. Where’s my Curius now?
MAST. Here, master.
SERV. Where?
MAST. Here.
SERV. Where? I hear a doggish voice, why I should not believe it’s a dog?
MAST. Master, spare the dog, spare him, spare him. Its mind belongs to Curius, even if it has the shape of a dog. Please spare him.
SERV. (Producing a collar.) Stick out your neck so this may adorn it. Thus I can distinguish my dog from all the rest.
MAST. Alas, will nobody set me free? What’s going to become of my unhappy self? (Exeunt. Enter Hercules, alone.)
HERC. Having lately cut off Geryon’s head, and as their owner stoutly driving off his fierce cattle, I happened to hear a cowherd’s voice. He told his friend sitting nearby that the Saturnalia was at hand. Groaning deeply, he gave signs of a sad mind, saying, “Oh baleful gods, oh impious rites! To speak the truth, this unholy holiday! On these days the Pelasgians are wont to appease the god with a human victim. Oh the unheard-of evil! Lately Lycaeon butchered a man sent as a hostage (they say he was born of the Molossan race) at the very altar with his treacherous and savage hand, so that he made a blood-offering to his unspeakable god. And he got his just reward. Now, being a wild wolf, he howls among the wild beasts.” Thus spoke the shepherd, Woe for you, wretch. Were you the inventor of this piety, Hercules, you shameful man? Why do you allow the gods, your pious friends, for whom you first dedicated this holiday, to be called murderers because of death, although life has sanctified them? (Enter the slave and the master.) Oh the crime! Is that man there bringing a dog, hateful to me, into the temple? Doesn’t he know that this is my shrine, and it is forbidden by law for anybody to bring in a dog? But stop, I’m wrong — I’ll beat retreat so in my ignorance I may discover what he wants.
MAST. E e e ec ec cec. I can breathe!
SERV. Hang me if you’re not pretending, you wretch. (Curius succumbs, as if having been choked.) Has such a gentle collar killed you? It was the fear of death, not death itself, which did you in. Hey, master Curius, I’m freeing you from the collar. Your shape is not doggish, now its human, and as far as I’m concerned you’re free to revive. Has the timid deer fled? I wasn’t aiming at your death, master, as perhaps you fear. But, knowing that the rest of the god’s ministers have now gone off and are celebrating the holiday, I brought you here (master) to make you sacrifice me to the god, so you could inflict a heavy punishment on me in my guilt. Woe’s me, now I myself am the priest, and I am destined to be the unhappy sacrifice, since that’s what the Fates desire. Oh how happily I’ll do the job! Thus I’ll please you, master, thus the god will please you. Thus in an instant death will free me from this lifelong slavery it has appointed. Oh hand! Bravely do your duty. Be a provider of a quick death, oh knife, and happily fly from this prison, my soul.
HERC. Stop, you bloody man.
SERV. Who is impeding my holy vows and holding my hand?
HERC. Hercules.
SERV. Pray let me go. The heavenly god will punish me with with savage death. Tomorrow my master will be savage. By my death now I’ll escape that death and my master, and by my dying I will appease the god.
HERC. A death be pleasing to a god? A murder will be pleasing? Who said that. Who commanded this crime to be done?
SERV. Apollo of Delphi his very self.
HERC. I’m to believe that?
SERV. It’s obvious. Look here, read the oracle inscribed on this tablet.


Fare forth the Sicels, Saturnian land to seek,
Aborigines’ Cotyle, too, where floats an isle;
With these men mingling, to Phoebus send a tithe,
And heads to Hades, and send to the sire a man.

HERC. What sacrifice does Apollo command to be made here?
SERV. Men.
HERC. You’re wrong. Go, fetch me two lanterns. (Exit the servant.) The wonderful blindness of men! Stupid Pelasgians, the worst of idiots! Don’t they know their own language? Good gods, what a bane, what slaughter is inflicted by a single ambiguous word! (Enter the servant with two lanterns.). Come here, I want you to study the tablet yourself, so that your blind error and strange crime might become clear. Where does it command a human sacrifice?
SERV. With this word φῶτα.
HERC. Jupiter! How dark your mind is, your wit lacks illumination! For φῶτα has a double meaning. Apollo scarcely meant “men” by φῶτα, φῶτα means “lanterns.” And that’s what the god is demanding.
SERV. Can such great crime lurk in a little word? Oh happy day, on which such a horrendous sin is revealed!
HERC. Since this Delphic sword has been double-edged, it has inflicted these sorry slaughters. This is the source from which have flowed those rivers of blood. But so that things may go happily that were unhappy before, henceforth let consecrated candles be lit for the god in place of men. Let blood never again pollute the altar, for Saturn is sated with human gore. And you, servant, should not lay violent hands on yourself. Live, everything will turn out well. Trust me, I’ll appease your master for you. (He gives the servant a priest’s vestments.) I want you take these tokens of your freedom. From now on you’ll be a priest in this temple, which I have been the first to dedicate to Time and my friends. This one thing advise, that you read this tablet with its true meaning, and this sacred fire suffices to atone for the crime that has been committed. Henceforth, so that each man might congratulate his neighbor on the holiday, I want them to borrow each other’s light. I want these candles to brighten this festival everywhere, take care that the god does not lack his light. Let them transform the holiday, let everything else be duly ordained.
SERV. [To the audience.] “Let them transform the holiday, let everything else be duly settled?” Must I repeat everything. I should bore you, and my guilt would be increased by saying more. Whatever it may be now, it begs for pardon. This is the single ancient law of the Saturnalia, that amidst all these crimes (even the greatest) each man should not forget this will be his means of atonement. I pray that this law be duly ordained.