Stories from the Greek Comedians - Alfred J. Church


There seem to have been two editions of the play entitled The Plutus  (God of Riches). One was produced in 408 B.C.; the other in 388 B.C. According to the Argument or Introduction commonly prefixed, we have the second of these two editions. It is said to have been the last play which the poet exhibited in his own name. His career as a dramatist had then lasted thirty-nine years; his first comedy, The Banqueters, had been produced, though not in his own name, in 427 B.C. The character of The Plutus  suits this position in the catalogue of the poet's works. It is mainly a comedy of morals, and in spirit resembles the dramas which are classed as the New Comedy, though the form is the same as that to which we are accustomed in the earlier plays; and there is something of the same savage satire on individuals.

[Illustration] from Stories from Greek Comedians by Alfred J. Church


Once upon a time two travellers, a master, Chremylus by name, and his slave Cario, might have been seen painfully making their way from Delphi to Athens. The strange thing about them was that they were following the guidance of a blind man, a proceeding on which the master insisted, much to the annoyance of his slave. The latter bewailed the hard fate which compelled a sensible man to follow the caprices of a foolish one, blamed the god of the oracle, who, though he had the reputation of being both a physician and a prophet, had sent an inquirer away in a condition of madness. "For what," said the slave to himself, "could be a greater proof of madness than for a man who can see to follow the leading of one who is blind; and a fellow, too, who won't answer a syllable to any question?" At last the slave made up his mind to speak to his master. "Tell me," he said, "who this man is that you seem determined to follow. You know that I have always done my best for you."— "That is so," said Chremylus, "that is so; I have always found you the most faithful of my slaves—and the greatest thief. However, I'll have no secrets from you. You know that I am a pious and honest man, and that I have always been unlucky and poor."

Cario.   "I know it perfectly well."

Chremylus.   "And that robbers of temples, informers, politicians, and scoundrels of all sorts are rich. Well, I went to consult Apollo about it. My days, I knew, were pretty nearly over; but I wanted to know about my only son. Was he to give up my virtuous ways and turn into a villain, as it was only the villains who prospered? The answer was this: 'Follow the first person whom you see after leaving my temple; don't lose sight of him, but make him go home with you.' "

Car.   "And who was the first person you saw?"

Chrem.   "That man there."

Car.   "Well, master, that is very stupid of you. Of course Apollo meant that you were to bring up the boy as a villain. Everybody is a villain; therefore the first person you meet will be a villain; therefore you must follow a villain. Even a blind man could see so much."

Chrem.   "Apollo meant nothing of the kind, but something much more serious. If we can only find out who the man is, and what he wants, then we should know what the god meant."

For a time the stranger refused to speak; at last, under compulsion, and after a promise that he should be released when he had answered, he revealed his name and condition. "I am the god of wealth," he said.

Chrem.   "You the god of wealth! and in this miserable plight!"

Plutus.   "That is easily accounted for. I am just come from the house of a miserly fellow who never went to the bath from the day of his birth, or let me go either."

Chrem.   "And how came you to be blind?"

Plu.   "When I was a lad I said that I intended to visit only the wise and good. Thereupon Zeus made me blind, that I might not know them. He is jealous of the wise and good."

Chrem.   "And yet it is only they who honour him."

Plu.   "It is so."

Chrem.   "Tell me, now; if you could recover your sight, would you keep to your intention, and avoid the bad?"

Plu.   "I certainly would."

Chrem.   "And keep company with the good?"

Plu.   "Certainly; it is many a long day since I saw one of that sort."

Chrem.   "Just as it has been with me, and yet I can see."

Plu.   "Now, then, you'll let me go."

Chrem.   "Let you go indeed No; we'll stick to you closer than ever."

Plu.   "Ah! that is just what I feared."

Chrem.   "My dear friend, don't leave me; you won't find a more honest man than I am to live with."

Plu.   "So they all say; but as sure as ever I come to them, they turn into the worst rogues of all."

Chrem.   "Ah! but you may trust me. And now listen to me, and I'll tell you what you will get by coming home with me; I hope, please the gods, to recover you of your blindness."

Plu.   "No, no; I don't want to see."

Chrem.   "Why not?"

Plu.   "Because I am afraid what Zeus might do to me."

Chrem.   "Don't be afraid of Zeus. You are a much greater power than he. Why do men pray to Zeus? For the sake of money, to be sure. Don't they pray for this in so many words? And could you not stop all this if you chose?"

Plu.   "How could I stop it?"

Chrem.   "Because no man could offer an ox, no, not even a barley-cake, without your good-will. You find the money for it. So it is clear that you have only to say the word, and the power of Zeus topples down."

Plu.   "Do you really mean that I have all this to do with sacrifices?"

Chrem.   "Yes, indeed; and everything on earth that has splendour or beauty about it comes from you; and you are the cause of every art and every craft that has ever been discovered. You make the cobbler squat, and the brazier hammer, and the carpenter ply his adze, and the goldsmith melt the gold—you give him the gold. Aye, and you make one man filch people's clothes from the bath, and another break into houses."

Plu.   "Dear me! I knew nothing of all this."

Chrem.   "You give all his glory to the Great King, call together the Public Assembly, man the ships of war, pay the soldiers, make us bear Mr. Vulgar's manners and listen to Mr. Dryasdust's stories."

Plu.   "Can I really do all this?"

Chrem.   "Yes, indeed; and much more than this. You are the one thing of which men can never have enough. Of everything else they get a surfeit,—of love, for instance."

Car.   "And of bread."

Chrem.   "Of poetry."

Car.   "And of sweetmeats."

Chrem.   "Of honour."

Car.   "And cheesecakes."

Chrem.   "Of courage."

Car.   "And figs."

Chrem.   "Of glory."

Car.   "And hasty-pudding."

Chrem.   "Of office."

Car.   "And pease-pudding."

Chrem.   "But of you they never can have enough. If a man has thirteen talents, does he not straight-way want sixteen? And if he gets sixteen, does he not want forty, if life is to be worth living?"

Plu.   "You seem to be a very sensible man. But there is one thing I am afraid of. Tell me: if I get this power, shall I be able to keep it?"

Chrem.   "They are quite right in saying that wealth is the most timid of creatures."

Plu.   "Not timid at all. This was a slander that a burglar invented, when he got into my house and found everything locked up. Because I am cautious he said I was timid."

Chrem.   "Well, never mind. Trust me, and I will make you keen-sighted as a lynx."

Plu.   "But how will you contrive it? You're only a man.

Chrem.   "I have good hopes that Apollo will help me."

Plu.   "Does he know what you are doing?"

Chrem.   "Yes; he does. I'll help you, if I die for it, and so will all my friends and neighbours. Cario, go and call them; it is only right that they should have a share of my good luck. And now, Plutus, come into my house."

Plu.   "I tell you that I don't at all like going into another man's house. I never got any good from doing it. If my host has been of the frugal sort, he has buried me in the ground; aye, and if a good fellow came to borrow a silver coin, has sworn that he has never set eyes upon me. If he has been one of the wild young fellows, then I am given over to bad company and dice, and turned naked out of doors at a moment's notice."

Chrem.   "That is because you never happened to light upon a moderate man. I like to save; no man more. And I like to spend, at the proper time. But come in; I should like you to see my wife and my son. He is my only son, you must understand; and I love him better than anything else in the world,—of course after you."

Meanwhile Cario had been inviting the neighbours to come to his master's house. They were not slow to answer the call, but left their work in the fields, and hurried up, followed by one Blepsidemus, who was the principal person among them. Blepsidemus was suspicious. His friend, he had heard, had become suddenly rich. This was in itself an unusual circumstance, and, put together with the mysterious answers which he got to his questions, inclined him to believe that his friend had committed some crime. When he heard that the god of riches was actually an inmate in his neighbour's house, his astonishment was great, nor was it diminished at being told that Chremylus's intention was to make his friends sharers in his good luck. He agreed with the notion that the god should, if possible, be cured of his blindness, but did not see how it could be done. This, indeed, puzzled both of the friends, till Chremylus suggested that the best plan would be to make him pass a night in the temple of ∆sculapius. Scarcely had they resolved on this course when a strange visitor appeared, Poverty, a lean and spectral figure, from whom the two men fled in terror. However, they plucked up courage, and came back, wondering what it could be. "A Fury escaped from a tragedy, perhaps," said one of them. "It has a mad, tragical look."

"No," replied the other, "it hasn't got a torch."

"Who do you think I am?" said the figure.

Chrem.   "The landlady of an inn, or an oyster-girl; you made such an uproar when no one had hurt you."

"I tell you," cried the Unknown, "that you are both intending to do a most villainous thing. Know that I am Poverty—your old inmate, Poverty."

Blep.   "Good heavens! I'm off."

Chrem.   "Coward, you are not going to run away?"

Blep.   "Yes, but I am."

Chrem.   "What! two men run away from one woman?"

Blep.   "Yes; but the one woman is Poverty, and a more terrible creature does not exist."

At last, however, Blepsidemus consented to stay, and the matter was argued out.

Chremylus argued on behalf of his plan for restoring eyesight to Plutus. He said: "Every one allows that good men ought to prosper, and that the bad and impious should fare ill. It has been our object to bring this about, and after much thinking we have devised a really good plan for doing so. If for the future Plutus should be able to see, and not wander about blindly, as he has hitherto done, then he will take up his abode with the good and shun the bad. So it will come about that all men will become good and pious. Is it possible to invent a better scheme than this? As for man's life, as it is at present, it is nothing but sheer, raving madness. Bad men enjoy the wealth which they collected by the most villainous devices, and the good are next door to starvation."

Poverty.   "Now, you foolish old creature, listen to what I have got to say. Let Plutus divide his favours equally, and who would cultivate any art or knowledge? who would be a brazier, a shipwright, a tailor, a wheelwright, a shoemaker, a brickmaker, a dyer, or a skinner? who would sow and reap when he might sit at ease and enjoy himself?"

Chrem.   "Our slaves would do all this for us."

Pov.   "But where would you get your slaves?"

Chrem.   "Buy them, to be sure."

Pov.   "But who would take the trouble to sell them if he had money already?"

Chrem.   "The slave-dealer, I suppose."

Pov.   "Not a bit of it. Who would risk his life for money, when he could get it without? No; you will have to do all these things for yourselves. No more lying on couches, for couches there won't be; no more fine robes, for who will care to weave? no more perfumes, not even on your wedding day. And what will be the good of your riches without these things? But stick to me, and you will have the necessaries of life in plenty. It is I who stand by and drive men to work by my strong compulsion."

Chrem.   "Oh, I know the sort of life you will give us,—bawling children, and cross old women, and buzzing gnats, and biting fleas, all bidding us get up and work; and rags instead of clothes, and rushes for feather beds, and a mat for a carpet, and a stone for a pillow."

Pov.   "This is the way in which beggars live."

Chrem.   "Well, is not Poverty sister to Beggary?"

Pov.   "So you say; but then, you don't know the difference, I suppose, between Dionysius the tyrant, and Thrasybulus the patriot. A beggar may live as you say, but a poor man lives frugally and sticks to his work."

Chrem.   "Yes; happy man and dies without leaving enough to bury him."

Pov.   "Yes; you may laugh, but I make better men than wealth can make,—better in mind, better in body, not gouty, big-bellied, thick-legged creatures, but spare, and small-waisted, and terrible fellows to fight."

Chrem.   "Spare enough, I dare say, for you starve them pretty well."

Pov.   "And as for good manners, you find them with me; it is wealth that is insolent."

Chrem.   "Oh, yes! excellently good manners—to steal and break into houses!"

Pov.   "Then look at the politicians. While they are poor, they are honest; let them get a taste of the public money, and good by to their honesty."

Chrem.   "I don't say that you're wrong here. Still this shall not help you."

Pov.   "And how about Zeus? Isn't he poor? At the Olympic games, where all Greece meets every four years, what is the prize that he gives to the conquerors? A wreath of wild olive. If he had been rich, would it not have been of gold?"

Chrem.   "He satisfies them with a trifle, and keeps the riches to himself."

All Poverty's arguments having proved to be unavailing, she was driven away, though not without warning her adversaries that it would not be long before they sent for her. The next thing was to cure Plutus of his blindness. The story of how this was done was told next morning by Cario to his mistress.

"The first thing that we did was to take him down to the shore and bathe him in the sea. After that we went up to the temple, offered on the altar the usual sacrifices, and then laid Plutus down, every one of us at the same time making his own bed. He was not the only suppliant. Indeed, I noticed another blind man, who, however, is a cleverer thief than most people with eyes, and there were other persons suffering from all manner of diseases. Then an attendant came round, put out the light, and bade us go to sleep, telling us to be silent in case we should hear any noise. As for me, I could not get to sleep; there was an old woman near me, and a little way off from her head was a pitcher of porridge, for which I had quite an inspired longing, so good did it smell. And when I opened my eyes I saw the priest snatching the pastry and figs from the holy table, and then going the round of the altars to see if there was a cake left on any of them. Whatever he found he consecrated into a wallet that he had. When I found that this was a devotion practised in the place, I crept up to the porridge-pitcher. The old woman heard me coming, and put out her hand to hold the porridge, and I hissed like a serpent, and bit it. Thereupon she drew it back, and covered her head with the bed-clothes. As for me, I had a good meal from the porridge, and lay down in my bed. After a while ∆sculapius himself came round with his two daughters, Recovery and All-Healer, followed by a boy who carried a stone mortar, a pestle, and a small chest. I was very much frightened and covered myself up; still I could see what was done through a peep-hole in my cloak—I had a good choice of peep-holes. The god began by making an ointment to plaster on the eyes of that blind thief I spoke of; he mixed together three heads of garlic, fig-tree sap, and mastic, and moistened it with vinegar. Then he turned the fellow's eyelids out—to hurt him more, you understand. The thief roared like a bull, and ran out of the temple. The god laughed and said, 'There, there; now you may learn not to forswear yourself.' After this he came and sat down by Plutus. The first thing that he did was to stroke his head; then he took a clean napkin, and wiped his eyelids with it. Next, All-Healer covered his head with a purple kerchief. Then the god whistled, and two huge serpents came out of the sanctuary. These put their heads under the kerchief, and, I imagine, licked the eyelids; and—in less time than you could drink a pint of wine—Plutus stood up seeing as you or I. I clapped my hands for joy, and woke my master; the god and his serpents vanished into the sanctuary, and we all wished Plutus joy of his recovery, and watched till the day broke. And now he is coming with a great crowd of people after him rejoicing and singing."

The slave had scarcely finished his narrative when Plutus appeared, and returned thanks in solemn fashion for his recovery:—

"First the great Sun I reverence; then the plain,

The famous plain where holy Pallas dwells,

And Cecrops' hospitable land, my home.

The past I do remember sore ashamed,

In what ill company I spent my days,

Unknowing; how all ignorant I fled

From worthier friends, unhappy that I was!

Choosing the bad I erred; I erred no less

The good refusing. But this self-same hour

I changed my ways in all things, so that man

May know me to have sinned against my will."

And indeed the change was something marvellous. Chremylus, who had not been popular in the days of his poverty, now found himself the object of admiring attention from friends without number. In his house everything was changed. The bin, in old times generally empty, was full of the finest flour, the jar of delicious wine, the coffers of gold and silver. The well was brimming over with oil, and the oil-cruse with perfume. The fish-platters, once of wood and half-rotten, were found to be silver, the dresser was ivory; the very slaves played at odd and even with gold pieces.

Not less wonderful was the crowd of visitors that came to pay their respects to the god. The first arrival was a good man, who had been poor. He had been left a comfortable fortune, he explained, by his father, and had thought that the best use he could make of it would be to help his friends. If he should come to need, of course they would help him. Naturally he had not been long in reaching the bottom of his purse, and then he found that his friends could not so much as see him. Thanks to this change in the god, he was now well off, and he was coming to dedicate to him the ragged cloak and worn-out shoes which he had worn in the days of his poverty. The next comer was as much disgusted at the new order of things as his predecessor had been pleased. He was an informer, and came in a condition of frantic hunger; his business had failed him, and he threatened the most fearful penalties against those who had ruined him. All the satisfaction he got was to be stripped of his fine clothes, have the good man's cloak wrapped round him, and the shoes fastened on his forehead. Next came an elderly lady, who had lost the suitor who had paid her attentions on account of her wealth, but now, being rich himself, had transferred them elsewhere. She too got nothing by her visit. The succeeding visitor showed that the influence of the revolution had reached to heaven itself. Hermes presented himself, complaining that since Plutus had recovered his sight, no one had offered to the gods so much as a grain of frankincense, a twig of laurel, or a cake. "I," said the god, "am a peculiar sufferer. You know that I am a little friendly to rogues, and these, in return, used to give me some perquisites. That is all over now; I go hungry all day long. Give me," he went on, addressing the slave Cario, "a loaf and a piece of the flesh."

Car.   "I can't. The things are not to be taken out."

Hermes.   "Ah! my man, don't you remember how I used to help you when you filched anything of your master's?"

Car.   "Yes, but only on condition of having your share."

Her.   "Which share you always ate yourself."

Car.   "And very right. Who got the stripes, if I was found out?"

Her.   "Well, well, let's have an amnesty now that the battle is over. For heaven's sake, make me one of your household here!"

Car.   "What! you going to leave the gods and stay here!"

Her.   "Yes; you seem to be much better off."

Car.   "A deserter is a mean sort of creature."

Her.   "Listen:— "My country is the land where best I fare."

Car.   "But what good will you be to us?"

Her.   "I will be your turnkey."

Car.   "We want none of your turns."

Her.   "Your merchant, then."

Car.   "We are rich; we want no huckstering."

Her.   "Your master of craft?"

Car.   "We want no craft; simple ways are the fashion now."

Her.   "Your guide?"

Car.   "The god has his sight, and will want no more guiding."

Her.   "Your Chief of the Sports? for, of course, he will do well to have musical competitions and games."

Car.   "What a thing it is to have a number of titles! At last he has hit upon some capacity in which he may be useful to us. Well, go to the spring and wash these haunches for me, that you may learn to make yourself useful and handy."

A priest now came, with the same complaint that Hermes had made,—he was starving. No one wanted anything; therefore, no one offered sacrifices. He was glad to take service with the new deity.

A procession was now organized to conduct Plutus to his temple. The elderly lady who had come back in very gay attire was induced to carry the pots of boiled pulse, on the promise that her suitor should return to her, and the god of wealth was solemnly enthroned as the one and only deity thenceforward to be worshipped in Athens.