Gesta Romanorum Vol. I (1871)/Of an exemplary Life

Gesta Romanorum Vol. I  (1871) 
Anonymous, translated by Charles Swan
Of an exemplary Life



We read of a certain Roman Emperor, who built a magnificent palace. In digging the foundation, the workmen discovered a golden sarcophagus, ornamented with three circlets on which were inscribed, "I have expended—I have given—I have kept—I have possessed—I do possess—I have lost—I am punished." In the front also, was written, "What I expended, I have; what I gave away, I have." (13) The Emperor, on seeing this, called to him the nobles of his empire, and said, "Go, and consider amongst ye, what this superscription signifies." The nobleman replied, "Sire, the meaning is, that an Emperor, who reigned before your Majesty, wished to leave an example for the imitation of his successors. He therefore wrote, 'I have expended'—that is, my life; judging some, admonishing others, and governing to the best of my ability. 'I have given,'—that is, military equipments, and supplies to the needy; to every one according to his desert. 'I have kept,'—that is, exact justice; shewing mercy to the indigent, and yielding to the labourer his hire. 'I have possessed,'—that is, a generous and true heart; recompensing faithfully those who have done me service, and exhibiting at all times a kind and affable exterior. 'I do possess,'—that is, a hand to bestow, to protect, and to punish. 'I have lost,'—that is, my folly; I have lost the friendship of my foes, and the lascivious indulgences of the flesh. 'I am punished,'—that is, in hell; because I believed not in one eternal God, and put no faith in the redemption."
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The Emperor hearing this, ever after regulated himself and his subjects with greater wisdom, and finished his life in peace.


My beloved, the Emperor is any Christian, whose duty it is to raise a fair structure,—that is, a heart prepared for the reception of God. If he dig deep, led onward by sincere contrition for past offences, he will find a golden sarcophagus,—that is, a mind gilded with virtue and full of the divine grace. Three golden circlets will ornament it, and these are faith, hope, and charity. But what is written there? In the first place, "I have expended." Tell me, my beloved, what have you expended? The good Christian may reply, "Body and soul in the service of God." Whosoever of you, thus expends his life, will secure the rewards of eternity. The second legend saith, "I have kept." Tell me, my beloved, what have you kept? The good Christian may answer, "A broken and contrite spirit." The third inscription says, "I have given." Tell me, my beloved, what have you given? The good Christian may reply, "My whole heart to God." Et sic de cæteris.

[From hence, the morals have been abridged, and merely the chief heads of them given.]

Note 13.Page 80.

"What I expended, I have; what I gave away, I have."

From hence, in all probability, Robert Byrkes derived the quaint epitaph, which is to be found, according to Gough, in Doncaster church, "new cut" upon his tomb in Roman capitals.

"Howe: Howe: who is heare:
I, Robin of Doncaster, and Margeret my feare[1]
That I spent, that I had:
That I gave, that I have:
That I left, that I lost.
A.D. 1579.
Quod Robertus Byrkes,
who in this worlde
did reygne thre
score yeares and seaven,
and yet lived not one."

Note 14.Page 81.

The story seems here to be defective; "what I expended, I have: what I gave away, I have," receives no explanation. It may be filled up thus: "What I expended, I have," that is, having expended my property with judgment, I have received various benefits which remain to me in my posterity. "What I gave away, I have," that is, my donations have procured for me the thanks of the poor, and the blessing of heaven.

  1. Wife—properly companion, comrade.