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Letter XL. To Marcella.

Onasus, of Segesta, the subject of this letter, was among Jerome’s Roman opponents. He is here held up to ridicule in a manner which reflects little credit on the writer’s urbanity. The date of the letter is 385 a.d.

1. The medical men called surgeons pass for being cruel, but really deserve pity. For is it not pitiful to cut away the dead flesh of another man with merciless knives without being moved by his pangs? Is it not pitiful that the man who is curing the patient is callous to his sufferings, and has to appear as his enemy? Yet such is the order of nature. While truth is always bitter, pleasantness waits upon evil-doing. Isaiah goes naked without blushing as a type of captivity to come. 858 Jeremiah is sent from Jerusalem to the Euphrates (a river in Mesopotamia), and leaves his girdle to be marred in the Chaldæan camp, among the Assyrians hostile to his people. 859 Ezekiel is told to eat bread made of mingled seeds and sprinkled with the dung of men and cattle. 860 He has to see his wife die without shedding a tear. 861 Amos is driven from Samaria. 862 Why is he driven from it? Surely in this case as in the others, because he was a spiritual surgeon, who cut away the parts diseased by sin and urged men to repentance. The apostle Paul says: “Am I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?” 863 And so the Saviour Himself found it, from whom many of the disciples went back because His sayings seemed hard. 864

2. It is not surprising, then, that by exposing their faults I have offended many. I have arranged to operate on a cancerous nose; 865 let him who suffers from wens tremble. I wish to rebuke a chattering daw; let the crow realize that she is offensive. 866 Yet, after all, is there but one person in Rome

“Whose nostrils are disfigured by a scar?” 867

Is Onasus of Segesta alone in puffing out his cheeks like bladders and balancing hollow phrases on his tongue?

I say that certain persons have, by crime, perjury, and false pretences, attained to this or that high position. How does it hurt you who know that the charge does not touch you? I laugh at a pleader who has no p. 55 clients, and sneer at a penny-a-liner’s eloquence. What does it matter to you who are such a refined speaker? It is my whim to inveigh against mercenary priests. You are rich already, why should you be angry? I wish to shut up Vulcan and burn him in his own flames. Are you his guest or his neighbor that you try to save an idol’s shrine from the fire? I choose to make merry over ghosts and owls and monsters of the Nile; and whatever I say, you take it as aimed at you. At whatever fault I point my pen, you cry out that you are meant. You collar me and drag me into court and absurdly charge me with writing satires when I only write plain prose!

So you really think yourself a pretty fellow just because you have a lucky name! 868 Why it does not follow at all. A brake is called a brake just because the light does not break through it. 869 The Fates are called “sparers,” 870 just because they never spare. The Furies are spoken of as gracious, 871 because they show no grace. And in common speech Ethiopians go by the name of silverlings. Still, if the showing up of faults always angers you, I will soothe you now with the words of Persius: “May you be a catch for my lord and lady’s daughter! May the pretty ladies scramble for you! May the ground you walk on turn to a rose-bed!” 872

3. All the same, I will give you a hint what features to hide if you want to look your best. Show no nose upon your face and keep your mouth shut. You will then stand some chance of being counted both handsome and eloquent.



Isa. xx. 2.


Jer. 13:6, 7.


Ezek. iv. 9-16.


Ezek. xxiv. 15-18.


Amos 7:12, 13.


Gal. iv. 16.


John 6:60, 66.


Nasus. A play on the name Onasus.


Cf. Persius, l. 33.


Virg. A. vi. 497.


Onasus means “lucky” or “profitable;” it is another form of Onesimus.


Quoted from Quintilian i. 6, 34 (lucus a non lucendo).


Parcæ, from parcere, to spare.


Eumenides, the Greek name for the Furies.


Pers. ii. 37, 38.

Next: Letter XLI