Although I haven’t been tagged with the meme of funny moments in ancient literature (see son of the fathers, Sitz im Leben), I thought it would be fun to post on the brief story of Phalaris and Perillus in Ovid’s Tristia 3.11 (and mentioned very briefly again in 5.1). As it is known, Ovid had been exiled by the emperor Augustus (for some ‘error’ he wrote). 3.11 has often, as in other places in the Tristia, been taken as a swipe against Augustus. This time Ovid tells a story of one of the cruelest tyrants, Phalaris, well known for roasting men alive in a bronze bull. Ovid may very well be comparing Augustus to Phalaris. Although it is a gruesome story, I admit that I did chuckle while translating the passage a few months ago. Here is Peter Green’s translation of 3.11.39-54:
harsher you are than grim Busiris, harsher even
than he [Perillus] who heated the brazen bull at a slow
fire, and presented this bull (so it’s said) to Sicilian
Phalaris the tyrant, touting his handiwork thus:
‘In this gift, my lord, there lies more usefulness than appearance
might suggest: it’s not just my art’s beauty merits praise.
Do you observe, here, how the bull’s right flank will open?
Thrust in any man you want
to destroy, shut him up, then bake him over slow-burning
coals, hear him bellow just like a real bull.
For this invention, to balance one favour with another,
give me, please, a reward
commensurate with my talent.’ ‘Most noteworthy purveyor
of torture,’ Phalaris answered, ‘handsel your own
oustanding invention in person!’ And straightway, cruelly roasted
by the fire he’d set up, he bellowed in double wise,
man and bull both. …
Green takes a step further by saying ‘man and bull both.’ Literally it is, ‘he produced double sounds with a groaning mouth’ (line 54, exhibuit geminos ore gemente sonos)! The inventor’s ingenious creation backfires on him. Maybe it isn’t as funny as it seems but it sure was when translating it. Maybe I have a streak of dark humor.. At any rate, Ovid again briefly mentions the episode (my translation) in 5.1.51-54:
Do you require that no groans should follow my torments,
and do you forbid me to weep with a serious wound taken?
Phalaris himself allowed Perillus in the bronze
to emit moans and to bewail through the mouth of the bull.