Classicophilia, Vol. II: Quintus Horatius Flaccus

Classicophilia is a new and occasional series on Traces. Last time you were introduced to the Greek historian Thucydides, author of the work that we call History of the Peloponnesian War.




Today, let’s travel forward in time some 400 years and westward, too, across the Adriatic Sea from Greece to Italy to meet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (all male Roman citizens had three names), also known as Horace (65-8 BCE). 


Why You Should Care

Imagine you’re talking to a friend. She’s being shy about something. You want her to take a chance. “Come on,” you say, “seize the moment!” And to let her know that your advice has a long and venerable history, you add: “Or as Horace said more than 2000 years ago, ‘Carpe diem!'” Don’t you think she’d be impressed?


And here’s another good one: sapere aude. It means, “Dare to be wise,” in the sense of aspiring to moral wisdom and integrity of character. Excellent counsel.


Horace is simply full of these pithy sayings. But a better reason to care is that this man said two millennia ago that his poems were a monument that would prove more lasting than bronze (aere perennius). And you know what? He was right. Give credit where credit is due.


The Basics

  • Horace wrote what he called verse satires, a word that has a somewhat different meaning today. Think of his Satires as “Pointed Observations, Amusing Stories, and Kvetching.”
  • He also wrote verse epistles. Think of these Epistles as “Musings” or “Reflections,” often with a philosophical cast. (The best known epistle has its own title: Ars Poetica or The Art of Poetry. The content of that one is obvious, I should think.)
  • Finally, he wrote Epodes and Odes, the latter of I take up below.
  • As for biography, I will not impose upon your goodwill. Know simply that he was a contemporary and friend of his fellow poet (and my hero) Vergil; that the mighty Augustus Caesar became his literary patron; and that in his later years, especially in being selected to compose a choral hymn for his patron’s grand Games of the Century (Ludi Saeculares), he was regarded as a sort of poet laureate of Rome.


Why His Poetry Matters

It doesn’t, unless you’re interested in truth and beauty.



Here’s what the Latin will have sounded like. Just for you to hear a couple of stanzas, if you’re interested. I imagine Horace’s voice rather high-pitched, actually. Here’s a translation of this first of the so-called Roman Odes, which were longer than most of the others and addressed Roman history and values.



A Few Thoughts

Horace’s Odes are lyric poems, the sort of poems that the Greek poet Sappho wrote — you’ve heard of her — along with other poets whom you may not know: Anacreon, Alcaeus, Pindar, et al. Horace claimed to be the first to adapt the complicated metrical schemes of Greek lyric for use with the Latin language. Here’s an example of a fairly well-known Horatian ode (1.5), translated by A. S. Kline (here’s Milton’s version).


What slender boy, Pyrrha, drowned in liquid perfume,
urges you on, there, among showers of roses,
deep down in some pleasant cave?
For whom did you tie up your hair,


with simple elegance? How often he’ll cry at
the changes of faith and of gods, ah, he’ll wonder,
surprised by roughening water,
surprised by the darkening storms,


who enjoys you now and believes you’re golden,
who thinks you’ll always be single and lovely,
ignoring the treacherous
breeze. Wretched are those you dazzle


while still untried. As for me the votive tablet
that hangs on the temple wall reveals, suspended,
my dripping clothes, for the god,
who holds power over the sea.


Pyrrha is a girl. She’s compared here to the fickle sea, where the weather can change from fair to deadly in a moment. Her lovers and other suitors are sailors subject to the stormy whims of that sea. So far, so meh.


The genius is in the composition. Here’s just one trivial example. The Latin for the third stanza, beginning “who enjoys,” is as follows:


qui nunc te fruitur credulus aurea,
qui semper vacuam, semper amabilem
sperat, nescius aurae
fallacis. Miseri, quibus


The word fallacis means “deceptive.” Note that it follows the noun it describes, aurae, “breeze, wind,” which Horace has placed in the previous line.(Kline translates it before, but that’s exactly the opposite of Horace’s word order.) You see how clever this is. Suppose you turn a corner and someone aptly named Trixie or Boo jumps out and frightens you. Same thing here. The word fallacis is “hiding” at the beginning of the verse following the word it modifies. The men are ignoring the breeze … the treacherous breeze. Content and form are beautifully aligned.


Horace is a master at this kind of thing. Read this final stanza aloud. Note that in classical Latin, ‘v’ sounded like our ‘w,’ and ‘c’ like our ‘k’. An ‘s’ was sibilant, i.e., like the sound a snake makes, not like our ‘z.’ Otherwise, just sound out each syllable.


intemptata nites. Me tabula sacer
votiva paries indicat uvida
suspendisse potenti
vestimenta maris deo.


Hear how Horace interlaces ‘w’ and ‘s’ and ‘p’ sounds? To my ear, the first suggests the sound of the storm winds (= Pyrrha, our golden girl) that could capsize the sailor (= our poet-narrator Horace). In the second two, I can hear the s-s-shaking and sp-sp-sputtering of the poor fellow, who drags himself from the surf (i.e., from infatuation with seductive girls like this Pyrrha) and hangs up his wet clothes in a temple, to be a thank offering to Neptune for his survival.


Just for fun, here’s an adaptation by Anthony Hecht. He calls his poem “An Old Malediction” (1980).


What well-heeled knuckle-head, straight from the unisex
Hairstylist and bathed in “Russian Leather,”
Dallies with you these late summer days, Pyrrha,
In your expensive sublet? For whom do you
Slip into something simple by, say, Gucci?
The more fool he who has mapped out for himself
The saline latitudes of incontinent grief.
Dazzled though he be, poor dope, by the golden looks
Your locks fetched up out of a bottle of Clairol,
He will know that the wind changes, the smooth sailing
Is done for, when the breakers wallop him broadside,
When he’s rudderless, dismasted, thoroughly swamped
In that mindless rip-tide that got the best of me
Once, when I ventured on your deeps, Piranha.

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