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Aulus Gellius 4.20

Translation copyright 2001 Neil W. Bernstein; all rights reserved.

Concerning people who made certain inappropriate jokes before the censors and were punished by them; also, the deliberation concerning the punishment of a person who yawned while standing before them.

  1. The following three examples of the strictest discipline occur in the written record among the severe punishments inflicted by the censors.
  2. The first is of the following sort:
  3. A censor was conducting the formal oath concerning wives; the formula was as follows:
    "If it please you, do you have a wife?"
    A certain person who took the oath was a joker, an insolent dog, and an utterly ridiculous person.
  4. When the censor said, as was his custom,
    "If it please you, do you have a wife?"
    the man thought that this was an opportunity for him to tell a joke.
  5. He said,
    "Indeed I have a wife, but by Hercules! she doesn't please me." (1)
  6. Because he had made an inappropriate joke, the censor demoted him to a citizen of the lowest class [aerarius], and adduced the fact that the man had made a scurrilous joke in his presence as the reason for his punishment.
  7. Another example of censorial severity is of the same category and shows the same kind of discipline.
  8. There was a deliberation concerning the punishment of a man who was called as a witness before the censors by his friend. He yawned too loudly and clearly as he stood in court. He was on the point of being charged on the grounds that his yawning was the proof of a wandering and delusive mind, as well as of blatant and dissolute indifference.
  9. But when he swore that he had most unwillingly and resistingly been overcome by yawning, and that he suffered from a condition called oscedo [a morbid tendency to yawn], then he was exempted from the destined punishment.
  10. Publius Scipio Africanus, the son of Aemilius Paulus, included both stories in a speech which he delivered during his censorship, as he exhorted the people to observe the customs of their ancestors.
  11. Masurius Sabinus records another severe punishment in the seventh book of his Memorabilia. He writes:
    When the censors Publius Scipio Nasica and Marcus Popilius were conducting the census of the equestrian order, (2) they saw a horse that was too lean and badly cared for, but his rider was very well-off and well-dressed. They asked: "Why is it the case that you are better cared for than your horse?" He replied: "Because I care for myself, but Statius, a worthless slave, cares for my horse." This seemed to be an irreverent reply to them, and so he was demoted to a citizen of the lowest class [aerarius ], as was the custom.
  12. Moreover, "Statius" was the slave's name.
  13. In the past there were many slaves who had this name. The famous comic poet Caecilius Statius was a slave, and for this reason had the name "Statius". But afterwards this name was changed to a type of surname, and he was called Caecilius Statius.

Notes:

  1. The joke turns on the two meanings of the phrase ex sententia, "in all honesty" and "to my liking" (Oxford Latin Dictionary s.v. sententia 1.C-D). Cicero tells a similar joke at De Oratore 2.64, identifying the joker as Lucius Nasica and Cato as the censor.
  2. 159 BC.

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