Gesta Romanorum Vol. I (1871)/Of perfect Life

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



When Titus was Emperor of Rome, he made a decree that the natal day of his first-born son should be held sacred; and that, whosoever violated it by any kind of labor, should be put to death. This edict being promulgated, he called Virgil (57) to him and said, "Good friend, I have established a certain law; but as offences may frequently be committed without being discovered by the ministers of justice, we desire you to frame some curious piece of art, which may reveal to us every transgressor of the law." Virgil acquiesced, and immediately commenced his operations. He constructed a magic statue, and caused it to be erected in the midst of the city. By virtue of the secret powers with which it was invested, it communicated to the Emperor whatever was done amiss. And thus, by the accusation of the statue, an infinite number of persons were convicted and punished. Now there was a certain carpenter, called Focus, who pursued his occupations every day alike. Once, as he lay in bed, his thoughts turned upon the accusations of the statue, and the multitudes which it had caused to perish. In the morning, he clothed himself, and proceeded to the statue, which he addressed in the following manner: "O statue! statue! because of thy informations, many of our citizens have been apprehended and slain. I vow to my God, that if thou accusest me, I will break thy head." Having so said, he returned home. About the first hour, the Emperor, as he was wont, despatched sundry messengers to the statue, to enquire if the edict had been strictly complied with. After they had arrived, and delivered the Emperor's pleasure, the statue exclaimed—"Friends, look up; what see ye written upon my forehead?" They looked, and beheld three sentences which ran thus: "Times are altered. Men grow worse. He who speaks truth has his head broken."—"Go," said the statue, "declare to his majesty what you have seen and read." The messengers obeyed, and detailed the circumstances as they had happened.

The emperor, therefore, commanded his guard to arm, and march to the place on which the statue was erected; and he further ordered, that if any one presumed to molest it, they should bind him hand and foot, and drag him into his presence. The soldiers approached the statue and said, "Our Emperor wills you to declare the name of the scoundrel who threatens you." The statue made answer, "It is Focus the carpenter. Every day he violates the law, and moreover, menaces me with a broken head, if I expose him." Immediately Focus was apprehended, and conducted to the Emperor, who said, "Friend, what do I hear of thee? Why hast thou broken my law?"—"My lord," answered Focus, "I cannot keep it; for I am obliged to obtain every day eight pennies, which, without incessant labor, I have not the means of acquiring."—"And why eight pennies?" said the Emperor. "Every day through the year," returned the carpenter, "I am bound to repay two pennies which I borrowed in my youth; two I lend; two I lose; and two I spend."—"For what reason do you this?" asked the Emperor. "My lord," he replied, "listen to me. I am bound, each day, to repay two pennies to my father; for, when I was a boy, my father expended upon me daily, the like sum. Now he is poor, and needs my assistance, and therefore, I return what I borrowed formerly. Two other pennies I lend to my son, who is pursuing his studies; in order, that if by any chance, I should fall into poverty, he may restore the loan, just as I have done to his grandfather. Again, I lose two pennies every day on my wife; for she is contradictious, wilful, and passionate. Now, because of this disposition, I account whatsoever is given to her, entirely lost. Lastly, two other pennies I expend upon myself in meat and drink. I cannot do with less; nor can I obtain them without unremitting labor. You now know the truth; and, I pray you, judge dispassionately and truly."—"Friend," said the Emperor, "thou hast answered well. Go, and labour earnestly in thy calling." Soon after this, the Emperor died, and Focus the carpenter, on account of his singular wisdom, was elected in his stead, by the unanimous choice of the whole nation. He governed as wisely as he had lived; and at his death, his picture, bearing on the head eight pennies, was reposited among the effigies of the deceased Emperors.


My beloved, the Emperor is God, who appointed Sunday as a day of rest. By Virgil is typified the Holy Spirit, which ordains a preacher to declare men's virtues and vices. Focus is any good Christian who labors diligently in his vocation, and performs faithfully every relative duty.

Note 57.Page 189.

"He called Virgil."

The Latin original says, Magistrum Virgilium, Master Virgil, signifying one skilful in the occult sciences.

"This story is in the old black-lettered history of the Necromancer Virgil, in Mr. Garrick's collection.

"Vincent of Beauvais relates many wonderful things, mirabiliter actitata, done by the poet Virgil, whom he represents as a magician. Among others, he says, that Virgil fabricated those brazen statues, at Rome, called Salvacio Romæ, which were the gods of the provinces conquered by the Romans. Every one of these statues held in its hand a bell, framed by magic; and when any province was meditating a revolt, the statue or idol of that country struck his bell."—Warton.

The following ingenious hypothesis may explain the cause of the necromancy so universally attributed to Virgil during the dark ages.

"Maium illum, avum Virgilii, exemplaria vitæ omnia Magum vocant. At cùm ejus filia, Virgilii mater, juxta omnes Maia dicta sit: omninò Maiæ pater fuit Maius, non Magus: indeque ortum existimo, ut Virgilius magicis artibus imbutus fuisse creditus sit ab Elinando monacho aliisque sequioris seculi scriptoribus: quod et Eclogâ septimâ magica quædam sacra descripsisset, et peritus esset multarum artium, et præcipuè avum habuisse Magum diceretur."—Hist. P. Virg. Mar. a Car. Ruæo.[1]

  1. Rough translation of citation from Ruaeus's Life of Virgil: Maius, Virgil's grandfather, is called Magus [literally magician] in all the biographies, but since his daughter, Virgil's mother, is nearly always called Maia, her father was certainly Maius, not Magus. I consider this to be the origin of the belief by the monk Hélinand and other writers of his time that Virgil had been instructed in the magic arts: that he described certain magic rites in his seventh Eclogue, that he was an expert in numerous skills, and above all that he was reputed to have a grandfather named Magus. (Wikisource contributor note)