Thrasyllus and Charite
From The Golden Ass, Book VIII
Translated by A. S. Kline
At cockcrow, a young man, apparently a servant of Lady Charite, she who had shared my suffering among the robbers, arrived from the nearby town. Sitting beside the fire amongst a crowd of his fellow-servants, he had a strange and terrible tale to tell, of her death and the ruin of her whole house:
‘Grooms, shepherds and herdsmen too, our Charite is no more: my poor mistress, and not alone, has joined the shades, in a dreadful disaster. I want you to know all, so I’ll relate what happened, in order: events that deserve to be recorded by some historian, more gifted than I, whom Fortune has blessed with a more stylish pen.
In the town nearby lived a young man of noble birth, whose wealth was equal to his status. But he was a devotee of the taverns, spending his time each day whoring and drinking, consorting with gangs of thieves and even staining his hands with human blood. Thrasyllus was his name. Such were the facts as Rumour relates.
When Charite first reached marrying age, he was among her principal suitors, and eager to win her. Though he was the most eligible of them all, and tried to win her parents’ favour with lavish gifts, yet because they disapproved of his character he nevertheless felt the pangs of rejection. Despite our young mistress’s union to the worthy Tlepolemus, Thrasyllus still nursed his thwarted desire, fuelled also by resentment at being denied the marriage bed. He sought the opportunity for an act of violence and, when such a chance presented itself, prepared to execute a plan he’d long meditated. On the very day the girl was freed from the robber’s threatening weapons, by Tlepolemus’ cleverness and courage, Thrasyllus, with overt expressions of joy, joined the host of well-wishers. He congratulated the newly weds on their fond re-union, and expressed the wish that their marriage might be blessed with children, and out of respect for his noble lineage, he was received in their home as a welcome guest. Hiding his guilty intentions, he passed as the truest of friends. Soon, by his frequent attendance, at dinner parties and in assiduous conversation, he became a closer and closer intimate, until gradually, unwittingly, he slipped deeper and deeper into the abyss of longing. Inevitably so, since while with its slight warmth the first flames of cruel love bring delight, with familiarity’s fuel they blaze higher and consume us totally with their incandescent heat.
Thrasyllus meditated for a long time on how to proceed. He could find no opportune way of speaking to her in private. The path to adultery was barred by a host of watchers, and even if the strong ties of her new and growing affection for her husband could be dissolved and the girl were willing, which seemed inconceivable, her inexperience in the deceits of marriage would thwart him. Yet he was impelled, by his ruinous obsession, towards the impossible, as though it were a possibility still. When love gains intensity with the passage of time, what once seemed difficult seems easily won. Watch then, and pay close attention to my tale of the ruinous violence of mad desire.
One day Tlepolemus rode out to the chase with Thrasyllus, intending to hunt wild beasts, if hinds can be classed as such, Charite being unable to endure the thought of her husband seeking creatures armed with tusks or horns. They came to a slope with a dense covering of trees, where the foliage hid the hinds from the hunters’ view. Hounds bred for tracking and pursuit were ordered in to flush the deer from their haunts, and the well-trained pack split to surround all the approaches. At first they held their noise and worked silently then, at a signal, they created a fine uproar with their harsh and frenzied barking. But no gentle female deer, no roe, no hind, gentlest of all the creatures appeared, rather a huge wild boar, the largest ever seen, bulging with muscle under its coarse hide, coated with shaggy matted hair, with a ridge of bristles flaring along its spine, and eyes alight with a menacing glare.
Out it shot like a lightning bolt, flailing its tusks, foaming at the mouth, and snorting savagely. At first it lunged, this way and that, at the boldest hounds which ran in close, slashing them to pieces with its tusks. Then it trampled the hunting net, that had halted its first charge, and broke right through. We servants, used to innocuous hunting parties, were seized with terror, lacking weapons too or means of defence, so we fled and hid behind tree-trunks and bushes. Thrasyllus however having hit on the perfect opportunity for his treacherous designs, cunningly tempted Tlepolemus: “Why are we standing here in dumb confusion, as stupidly afraid as those useless slaves of ours, trembling like frightened women? Why let so rich a prize slip from our grasp? Let’s mount and overtake him. You take your hunting-spear and I’ll fetch a lance.”
Without hesitation, in a trice, they leapt to their saddles and eagerly pursued the beast, which halted and wheeled about, confident of its natural defences. Burning with savage fire, it glared and whetted its tusks, hesitating whom to attack first. Tlepolemus began the action, hurling his spear from above into the creature’s back, but Thrasyllus ignored the prey and instead hamstrung the hind legs of Tlepolemus’ mount with his lance. Blood spurted and the horse sprawled sideways, hurling its master to the earth. In a moment the maddened boar attacked him where he lay, slashing his clothes as he tried to rise and then his flesh. Not only did his fine friend show no regret for his evil action but, as the stricken Tlepolemus tried to defend his lacerated legs and pitifully begged for help, Thrasyllus, not satisfied with merely waiting for the outcome of this cruel threat to his victim, drove his weapon through the right thigh, all the more resolutely, confident that the wound from his lance would be taken for a gash from the wild boar’s tusks. Only then did he run the creature through, with a simple blow.
When his young friend’s life had been ended in this way, Thrasyllus summoned us all from our several hiding places. Rushing to the spot, we grieved to find our master dead. Thrasyllus meanwhile, though overjoyed at his enemy’s demise, and the fulfilment of his plan, masked his delight, furrowing his brow, and pretending to mourn. Passionately embracing the dead man, that victim of his own devising, he cunningly imitated all the mannerisms of one bereaved, all except the tears which refused to flow. So by aping the emotions of we who were truly bereft, he laid the blame for his own actions on a wild beast.
The crime was scarcely committed before Rumour slipped away and in her winding course, reaching Tlepolemus’ home, first came to the ears of his unfortunate bride. When she heard the news, the worst imaginable, she lost her mind, and spurred on by madness, she ran delirious, raving, through the public streets then the open fields, wailing her husband’s fate in a crazed voice. Sorrowing citizens flocked to the scene: those she met followed her, sharing her grief; the whole city turned out at the spectacle. Behold, she sought her husband’s corpse, and with failing breath collapsed over the body, almost, at that moment, choosing to yield the life she had pledged to him. Yet, her relatives succeeded in dragging her away, and thus she remained, unwillingly, alive. Meanwhile the whole city followed after the funeral procession as his corpse was borne to the tomb.
The Vision in Sleep
Thrasyllus wailed louder and louder, beat his breast, and shed those tears absent from his former show of grief, no doubt through suppressed joy. He feigned Truth itself in his many terms of endearment, invoking the dead man as friend, old playmate, comrade and brother, and invoked his ill-starred name. Every now and then he caught Charite’s hands to stop her from beating her bruised breast, tried to restrain her mourning, quell her cries, and dull the sting of grief with sympathetic words, spinning tales of solace from past examples of the vagaries of fate. But all these false acts of devotion merely indulged his desire to touch her body, fuelling his odious desire with a perverse pleasure.
Once the funeral rites were duly complete, the girl was in haste to join her lost husband in the grave, considering all possible manners of dying but choosing the slow non-violent path, of pitiful starvation and self-neglect akin to encroaching sleep, hiding her self in the deepest shadows, already done with the light. But Thrasyllus, continued to urge her, partly alone, partly through family and friends, and then lastly through her parents, to care of her dull neglected flesh, to bathe and to eat. Out of respect for her parents, she reluctantly yielded from a sense of moral duty, exercising the daily acts of living, as they now pressed her, without a smile, but calmly and quietly. In her heart though, or rather deep in her marrow, she tormented her self with sorrow and grief. She spent every moment, night and day, in sad longing. She had statues made of the dead man in the guise of Dionysus, and slavishly worshipped them in sacred rites, tormenting her self in acts of devotion that gave her solace.
But Thrasyllus, as rash and headstrong as his name which signifies boldness, refused to wait till mourning had stilled her tears, the pain in her troubled mind had eased, and grief had ceased, spent by its own excess. Though she still wept for her husband, tore her clothing, ripped at her hair, he offered marriage, and imprudently betrayed the silent secrets of his heart, and his own unutterable guile. Charite shuddered in horror at his wicked words; her body trembling, her mind clouded, as though she’d been struck by the power of the sun, or the thunderous effect of Jove’s own lightning bolt. After a while she regained her breath and began to moan like some wild creature. Perceiving at last Thrasyllus’ vile plan, she asked her suitor to grant her a breathing space in order to form a scheme of her own. And in those hours of delay, her chaste sleep conjured the ghost of the murdered Tlepolemus, his flesh pale and lacerated, but stained with blood and gore.
“Wife,” he began, “though no one else should ever call you by that name, if the memory of me is locked in your heart but the bonds of our love are severed by my bitter fate and you choose to wed again and be happy, do not accept Thrasyllus’ impious hand and sleep with him, or share his table, or even speak with him. Spurn the blood-stained hand of my killer. Don’t enter into a union stained by murder. Those wounds whose blood your tears laved were not all made by the wild boar’s tusks. Thrasyllus’ wicked spear it was that parted us.” And the spirit added all the details of that scene in which the crime was committed.
Charite still lay with her face pressed against the bed, just as she had lain on falling asleep, exhausted from weeping. Now her cheeks were drenched again with a flood of tears, as she woke from her troubled dream as if in torment. She mourned once more with heart-felt cries, ripped her gown, and beat her sweet arms with cruel hands. Yet she kept that night-vision from everyone, concealing utterly its revelation of crime, while privately she fixed on punishing that foul assassin, and ending her life of suffering.
Behold, that detestable seeker of mindless pleasure was there again, his talk of marriage beating at her closed ears, but she rejected his offers mildly, playing a part with wondrous skill, as she fended off his endless harangues and his humble prayers. “The lovely face of your brother, my husband, still lingers in my eyes,” she said, “the cinnamon odour of his ambrosial body still haunts my nostrils; handsome Tlepolemus still lives within my heart. It would be in your own best interest to grant a wretched and unfortunate woman the true period of mourning, until the rest of a full year has passed. It is not a question simply of my own honour, but of your security and advantage, for a premature union might cause my husband’s wrathful spirit to rise up in righteous indignation, and put an end to your life.”
But Thrasyllus was neither chastened by her words, nor satisfied with the promise of winning her in time. He importuned her time and again with perverse whispers from his foul tongue, until at last she feigned to give way. “You must grant me this one thing, Thrasyllus, though, I beg” she cried, “we must keep our union secret, no one in my family must know of our clandestine relationship, until a full year has run.”
Thrasyllus yielded, subdued by the girl’s false promise. Suppressing his eagerness to possess her, he agreed to their meeting covertly.
“And be sure” she said, “to come to me alone, without a single servant, and shrouded in your cloak. Come silently to my door at midnight, then give a low whistle, my old nurse will be waiting behind the locked door, for your arrival. As soon as she lets you in, she’ll lead you to me in the dark, so no lamp can give us away.”
Thrasyllus was delighted with this fateful promise of union, suspecting nothing, but simply complaining, in the eagerness of his anticipation, at the length of day and the never-ending twilight. When the sun at last gave way to night, he appeared, cloaked as Charite had commanded and, lulled by the feigned caution of her nurse, slipped into the bedroom filled with hope. The old nurse, following her mistress’ orders, spoke soothingly to him, bringing cups and a jug of wine, secretly dosed with soporific drugs. He quaffed several cupfuls in quick succession, with greedy confidence, while she explained her mistress’ delay, with the lie that she was tending to her sick father. She soon had him asleep and, once he was flat on his back and defenceless against harm, called Charite. She entered, and stood by the murderer, bent on attacking him, and possessed by a man’s fury:
“See, my dear husband, see this mighty hunter now,” she cried, “your oh so loyal friend! Here is the hand that shed your blood; here is the brain that planned the fatal ambush to destroy you; here are the eyes that sadly found me fair, and now foreshadow future darkness, anticipate the punishment in store. Sleep peacefully, Thrasyllus, and sweet dreams! I shall not tackle you with sword and spear; you shall not know a death to match my husband’s. You shall survive, your eyes shall not, and you shall see nothing now except in mind. I shall have you feel your enemy’s death to be less pitiful than your life. No more light for you, you’ll need some servant’s hand, for you’ll not have Charite, there’ll be no marriage. You’ll know neither the peace of death nor the joys of life, but wander a restless phantom between Hades and the light, seeking to find whose hand destroyed your sight, and never knowing, a thing bitterer than all in your suffering, whom to accuse. With the blood from your eye-sockets I shall pour a libation over my Tlepolemus’ tomb, and dedicate your orbs as a funeral gift to his blessed spirit. But why should you profit now from my delay, and dream of my touch that instead shall bring you ruin and the torment you deserve? Leave the dark of sleep, wake to another; the darkness of avenging night. Raise your ruined face, know my revenge, realise your fate, enumerate your torments. So, let your eyes grant pleasure to a chaste woman, so let the torches darken your marriage chamber, for the Furies shall attend your nuptials, and Loss be your supporter, holder of the eternal sting of conscience.”
Foreshadowing her action with her words, she now took a pin from her hair, and drove it through Thrasyllus’ eyeballs, leaving him blind and rising now from sleep and drunkenness to inexpressible pain. Then grasping the naked sword which Tlepolemus once used to arm himself, she ran wildly through the streets, making for her husband’s tomb, clearly intending to do herself harm. All the people poured from their houses, and we pursued her, urging each other on to wrest the weapon from her hands. But, at the grave, Charite kept us all at bay with that gleaming blade. Seeing how copiously we wept and variously lamented, she cried out: “Quench your untimely tears! Don’t grieve for me, in ways ill-suited to my virtuous deed, who have found vengeance for my husband’s foul murder, by punishing a man who sought to destroy the sanctity of marriage. Soon I must seek with this sword the road to my dear husband.”
She told us then all the things that his ghost had told to her in dream, and the cunning way she had trapped Thrasyllus and harmed him, then she plunged the sword into her left breast, and fell in her own blood, murmuring incoherent words as she bravely breathed her last. It was left to Charite’s friends to bathe her body tenderly then swiftly lay her beside her husband, his eternal partner in a shared tomb.
All this being known, Thrasyllus sought a self-punishment to match the tragedy he himself had brought about; more than death by the sword, a means too slight for that great crime. He was led to the grave, crying out repeatedly: “Vengeful spirits, behold, here is a willing sacrifice!” Then he closed the doors of the tomb tightly on himself, condemned by his own sentence, intent on starving himself to death.’
Translation Copyright 2013, A. S. Kline, who kindly grants permission for reproduction/transmission of this work for non-commercial purposes.
Kline’s full translation of The Golden Ass may be found at the Poetry in Translation site.