The Wasps

From Vespa

The Wasps by Aristophanes

Lines 986-1121

BDELYCLEON. Ah! my dear father, be good! be humane! Take this voting pebble and rush with your eyes closed to that second urn[105] and, father, acquit him.

PHILOCLEON. No, I know no more how to acquit than to play the lyre.

BDELYCLEON. Come quickly, I will show you the way.

PHILOCLEON. Is this the first urn?


PHILOCLEON. Then I have voted.

BDELYCLEON (aside). I have fooled him and he has acquitted in spite of himself.

PHILOCLEON. Come, I will turn out the urns. What is the result?

BDELYCLEON. We shall see.—Labes, you stand acquitted.—Eh! father, what’s the matter, what is it?

PHILOCLEON. Ah me! ah me! water! water!

BDELYCLEON. Pull yourself together, sir!

PHILOCLEON. Tell me! Is he really acquitted?

BDELYCLEON. Yes, certainly.

PHILOCLEON. Then it’s all over with me!

BDELYCLEON. Courage, dear father, don’t let this afflict you so terribly.

PHILOCLEON. And so I have charged my conscience with the acquittal of an accused being! What will become of me? Sacred gods! forgive me. I did it despite myself; it is not in my character.

BDELYCLEON. Do not vex yourself, father; I will feed you well, will take you everywhere to eat and drink with me; you shall go to every feast; henceforth your life shall be nothing but pleasure, and Hyperbolus shall no longer have you for a tool. But come, let us go in.

PHILOCLEON. So be it; if you will, let us go in.

CHORUS (Parabasis). Go where it pleases you and may your happiness be great. You meanwhile, oh! countless myriads, listen to the sound counsels I am going to give you and take care they are not lost upon you. ‘Twould be the fate of vulgar spectators, not that of such an audience. Hence, people, lend me your ear, if you love frank speaking. The poet has a reproach to make against his audience; he says you have ill-treated him in return for the many services he has rendered you. At first he kept himself in the background and lent help secretly to other poets,[106] and like the prophetic Genius, who hid himself in the belly of Eurycles,[107] slipped within the spirit of another and whispered to him many a comic hit. Later he ran the risks of the theatre on his own account, with his face uncovered, and dared to guide his Muse unaided. Though overladen with success and honours more than any of your poets, indeed despite all his glory, he does not yet believe he has attained his goal; his heart is not swollen with pride and he does not seek to seduce the young folk in the wrestling school.[108] If any lover runs up to him to complain because he is furious at seeing the object of his passion derided on the stage, he takes no heed of such reproaches, for he is only inspired with honest motives and his Muse is no go-between. From the very outset of his dramatic career he has disdained to assail those who were men, but with a courage worthy of Heracles himself he attacked the most formidable monsters, and at the beginning went straight for that beast[109] with the sharp teeth, with the terrible eyes that flashed lambent fire like those of Cynna,[110] surrounded by a hundred lewd flatterers who spittle-licked him to his heart’s content; it had a voice like a roaring torrent, the stench of a seal, a foul Lamia’s testicles,[111] and the rump of a camel. Our poet did not tremble at the sight of this horrible monster, nor did he dream of gaining him over; and again this very day he is fighting for your good. Last year besides, he attacked those pale, shivering and feverish beings[112] who strangled your fathers in the dark, throttled your grandfathers,[113] and who, lying in the beds of the most inoffensive, piled up against them lawsuits, summonses and witnesses to such an extent, that many of them flew in terror to the Polemarch for refuge.[114] Such is the champion you have found to purify your country of all its evil, and last year you betrayed him,[115] when he sowed the most novel ideas, which, however, did not strike root, because you did not understand their value; notwithstanding this, he swears by Bacchus, the while offering him libations, that none ever heard better comic verses. ‘Tis a disgrace to you not to have caught their drift at once; as for the poet, he is none the less appreciated by the enlightened judges. He shivered his oars in rushing boldly forward to board his foe.[116] But in future, my dear fellow-citizens, love and honour more those of your poets who seek to imagine and express some new thought. Make their ideas your own, keep them in your caskets like sweet-scented fruit.[117] If you do, your clothing will emit an odour of wisdom the whole year through.

Formerly we were untiring, especially in other exercises,[118] but ’tis over now; our brow is crowned with hair whiter than the swan. We must, however, rekindle a youthful ardour in these remnants of what was, and for myself, I prefer my old age to the curly hair and the finery of all these lewd striplings.

Should any among you spectators look upon me with wonder, because of this wasp waist, or not know the meaning of this sting, I will soon dispel his ignorance. We, who wear this appendage, are the true Attic men, who alone are noble and native to the soil, the bravest of all people. ‘Tis we who, weapon in hand, have done so much for the country, when the Barbarian shed torrents of fire and smoke over our city in his relentless desire to seize our nests by force. At once we ran up, armed with lance and buckler, and, drunk with the bitter wine of anger, we gave them battle, man standing to man and rage distorting our lips.[119] A hail of arrows hid the sky. However, by the help of the gods, we drove off the foe towards evening. Before the battle an owl had flown over our army.[120] Then we pursued them with our lance point in their loins as one hunts the tunny-fish; they fled and we stung them in the jaw and in the eyes, so that even now the barbarians tell each other that there is nothing in the world more to be feared than the Attic wasp.

Oh! at that time I was terrible, I feared nothing; forth on my galleys I went in search of my foe and subjected him.[121] Then we never thought of rounding fine phrases, we never dreamt of calumny; ’twas who should prove the strongest rower. And thus we took many a town from the Medes,[122] and ’tis to us that Athens owes the tributes that our young men thieve to-day.

Look well at us, and you will see that we have all the character and habits of the wasp. Firstly, if roused, no beings are more irascible, more relentless than we are. In all other things, too, we act like wasps. We collect in swarms, in a kind of nests,[123] and some go a-judging with the Archon,[124] some with the Eleven,[125] others at the Odeon;[126] there are yet others, who hardly move at all, like the grubs in the cells, but remain glued to the walls[127] and bent double to the ground. We also pay full attention to the discovery of all sorts of means of existing and sting the first who comes, so as to live at his expense. Finally, we have among us drones,[128] who have no sting and who, without giving themselves the least trouble, seize on our revenues as they flow past them and devour them. ‘Tis this that grieves us most of all, to see men who have never served or held either lance or oar in defence of their country, enriching themselves at our expense without ever raising a blister on their hands. In short, I give it as my deliberate opinion that in future every citizen not possessed of a sting shall not receive the triobolus.


[105] There were two urns, one called that of Conviction, the other of Acquittal.

[106] Meaning, that he had at first produced pieces under the name of other poets, such as Callistrates and Phidonides.

[107] Eurycles, an Athenian diviner, surnamed the Engastromythes ([Greek: muthos], speech, [Greek: en gastri], in the belly), because he was believed to be inspired by a genius within him.—The same name was also given to the priestesses of Apollo, who spoke their oracles without moving their lips.

[108] Some poets misused their renown as a means of seduction among young men.

[109] Cleon, whom he attacked in ‘The Knights,’ the first Comedy that Aristophanes had produced in his own name.

[110] Cynna, like Salabaccha, was a shameless courtesan of the day.

[111] The lamiae were mysterious monsters, to whom the ancients ascribed the most varied forms. They were depicted most frequently with the face and bosom of a woman and the body of a serpent. Here Aristophanes endows them with organs of virility. It was said that the blood of young men had a special attraction for them. These lines, abusive of Cleon, occur again in the ‘Peace,’ II. 738-42.

[112] Socrates and the sophists, with whom the poet confounds him in his attacks.

[113] He likens them to vampires.

[114] The third Archon, whose duty was the protection of strangers. All cases involving the rights of citizenship were tried before him. These were a frequent cause of lawsuit at Athens.

[115] ‘The Clouds’ had not been well received.

[116] Aristophanes lets it be understood that the refusal to crown him arose from the fact that he had been too bold in his attack.

[117] To perfume their caskets, etc., the Ancients placed scented fruit, especially oranges, in them.

[118] The pastimes of love.

[119] At Marathon, where the Athenians defeated the Persian invaders, 490 B.C. The battle-field is a plain on the north-east coast of Attica, about twenty-seven miles from Athens.

[120] A favourable omen, of course. The owl was the bird of Athené.

[121] An allusion to Cimon’s naval victories.

[122] The Cyclades islands and many towns on the coast of Asia Minor.

[123] The tribunals.

[124] The six last Archons presided over the civil courts and were styled Thesmothetae (see above).

[125] Magistrates, who had charge of criminal cases.

[126] Built by Pericles. Musical contests were held there. Here also took place distributions of flour, and the presence of the magistrates was no doubt necessary to decide on the spot any disputes that might arise regarding this.

[127] This, says the Scholiast, refers to magistrates appointed for the upkeep of the walls. They were selected by ballot from amongst the general body of Heliasts.

[128] The demagogues and their flatterers.

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