It was said
I was begotten by Nature
but unfinished
like an abandoned sculpture
a sketch
the damaged fragment of a poem

for years I played the half-wit
idiots live more safely
I calmly put up with insults
if I planted all the stones
thrown into my face
an olive ground would spring up
a vast oasis of palms

I received a many-sided education
Livy the rhetoricians philosophers
I spoke Greek like an Athenian
although Plato I could recall
only in the lying position

I completed my studies
in dock-side taverns and brothels
those unwritten dictionaries of vulgar Latin
bottomless treasuries of crime and lust

after the murder of Caligula
I hid behind a curtain
they dragged me out by force
I didn’t manage to adopt an intelligent expression
when they threw at my feet the world
ridiculous and flat

from then on I became the most diligent
emperor in universal history
a Hercules of bureaucracy
I recall with pride
my liberal law
giving permission to let out
sounds of the belly during feasts

I deny the charge of cruelty often made against me
in reality I was only absent-minded

on the day of Messalina’s violent murder-
the poor thing was killed I admit on my orders-
I asked during the banquet – Why hasn’t Madame come
a deathly silence answered me
really I forgot

sometimes it would happen I invited
the dead to a game of dice
I punished failure to attend with a fine
overburdened with so many labours
I might have made mistakes in details

it seems
I ordered thirty-five senators
and the cavalrymen of some three centurions
to be executed
well what of it
a bit less purple
fewer gold rings
on the other hand – and this isn’t a trifle –
more room in the theatre

no one wanted to understand
that the goal of these operations was sublime
I longed to make death familiar to people
to dull its edge
bring it down to the banal everyday dimension
of a slight depression or runny nose

and here is the proof
of my delicacy of feeling
I removed the statue of gentle Augustus
from the square of executions
so the sensitive marble
wouldn’t hear the roars of the condemned

my nights were devoted to study
I wrote the history of the Etruscans
a history of Carthage
a bagatelle about Saturn
a contribution to the theory of games
and a treatise on the venom of serpents

it was I who saved Ostia
from the invasion of sand
I drained swamps
built aqueducts
since then it has become easier
in Rome to wash away blood

I expanded the frontiers of the empire
by Brittany Mauretania
and if I recall correctly Thrace

my death was caused by my wife Agrippina
and an uncontrollable passion for boletus
mushrooms – the essence of the forest – became the essence of death

descendants – remember with proper respect and honour
at least one merit of the divine Claudius
I added new signs and sounds to our alphabet
expanded the limits of speech that is the limits of freedom

the letters I discovered – beloved daughters – Digamma and Antisigma
led my shadow
as I pursued the path with tottering steps to the dark land of Orkus

© Zbigniew Herbert
translated from Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter