Boris Johnson and the Turbot
The wonderful Mary Beard has suggested that the chef may have been trolling our Prime Minister when serving turbot at his dinner with Ursula von der Leyen. For those, like me, who were mystified by this suggestion I offer the following extracts from Juvenal’s Fourth Satire.
I will leave it to others to wonder who, if any, in Mr Johnson’s present Cabinet might stand in for the main characters in this story of corruption and failure to speak truth to power.
A dish was lacking large enough for the enormous turbot.
So the nobles, the Emperor hated, were summoned to a council, displaying in their faces the pallor of that vast and terrible friendship.
The first to snatch up his cloak and hasten there (as the Liburnian slave was calling: ‘Hurry, he’s seated now’) was Plotius Pegasus, slave – what else were prefects then, after all?
The aged and amiable Quintus Crispus was there as well, a gentle soul, with a character to match his eloquence. How much more useful a courtier he’d have been to that king of nations, lands and seas, if only he’d been allowed, while serving that ruinous plague, to condemn cruelty and offer honourable advice!
But what’s more deaf than the ear of a tyrant?
On his whim hangs the fate of a friend, who simply wants to speak of rain, heat, or the poor spring weather.
Thus, Crispus never extended his arms against the flood, not being the kind of citizen to dare to offer his thoughts freely, nor one to put his life at risk for the sake of truth.
That’s how he managed eighty summers and as many winters, protected by such armour even in that court.
No less in appearance, despite his humble background came Rubrius Gallus, guilty of an old unmentionable offence, yet more perverse than a pathic scribbling satire.
Montanus’s belly was present too, with weighty paunch;
And Crispinus drenched in that morning’s perfume, scarcely less odorous than a funeral cortege or two; … in company with the deadly Lucius Catullus Messalinus, inflamed with passion for a girl he had never seen. He’d be a great and notable monster even in our day, a blind sycophant, and a terrifying hired accomplice, worthy to be one of those beggars blowing obsequious kisses at the wheels of your carriage on the hill at Aricia.
‘So what do you recommend? Should we chop it in half?’ ‘Spare it such outrage’ cried Montanus, ‘have a deep dish made, thin-sided, but large enough for its vast dimensions. We need a prompt and mighty potter, like Prometheus. Ready the wheel and the clay swiftly, and from this time forth, let there be potters, Caesar, among your servants.’
The proposal, worthy of the man, won the day. He’d known the excesses of the old Imperium, and Nero’s late hours. … No one today has greater knowledge where food’s concerned: at first bite he could tell if the oysters came from Circeii, the Lucrine Lake, or the Kentish Coast by Richborough, or at a glance, a sea-urchin’s native shore.
They rose, the council over, the nobles ordered to leave, whom the great leader had called to his Alban fortress, forced to hasten there, gathered together in surprise, as though he’d news of the Chatti or fierce Sygambri, as though a disturbing letter had arrived on frantic wings, sent swiftly from some far-distant region of the world.
Oh, if only he’d chosen to devote the whole of that age, given to savagery, to such trivia, instead of depriving Rome of great and illustrious spirits, with impunity, and none to take revenge!
Yet he perished as soon as the working man began to fear him:
It did for him, to be drenched in blood.
Editor – Understanding Government