Horace, Ode

Desiring I, to sing of your victories,

Apollo played harsh notes upon my lyre 1

Lest I set sail on such a task

With my little craft.2 O Caesar, your reign

Restores the fields to fertility

And tears down our banners

from lofty Parthian columns,

returning them to Jupiter.

Caesar has closed the Janus Gate,3

Restoring order and restraining license.

He ties the hands of the wicked

And restores the ways of our ancestors,

by which the Latin name has grown

and the fame of Italy and majesty of empire

spread from the land of the rising of the sun

to the place where it completes its circuit.

In Caesar’s safe-keeping, no civil furor

nor naked force will drive out peaceful leisure,4

Nor will the wrath that hammers out swords

any longer threaten our cities.

Those men who drink the waters of the Danube

will not dare break your laws, nor will Geta,

nor Seres nor the infidel Persians,

nor those born by the river Don.

Ever will we go with candles and offerings,

Surrounded by the joyous gifts of Bacchus,[5]

With our children and our wives

Duly praying to the gods as in ancient days

Let us sing of our captains and the deeds of our fathers

Mixing flute and song in Lydian tunes.

Let us sing of Troy and Anchises

and the children of Mother Venus.

  1. Horace indulges in some wordplay here.  The Latin increpuit, which I have translated as ‘play harsh notes’ can either mean to strike an instrument loudly or to complain about something.  Lyra can either refer to lyric poetry or to a lyre, a stringed instrument.  Thus, Horace’s phrase increpuit lyra simultaneously means “Apollo played harsh notes upon my lyre,” and “Apollo complained about my verses.”
  2. The translator’s play on words here (craft as lyrical skill and craft as a boat) is not intended to replicate Horace’s Latin, but rather to capture the essence of Horace’s metaphor: that is, trying to sing of Augustus’s military glory with a lack of skill (craft) would be like setting out on a dangerous ocean in a little boat (craft).  
  3. The gates at the Temple of Janus, the Roman god of doors and boundaries, were only to be closed when Rome was at peace.  Augustus brags about closing the doors in the Res Gestae.
  4. Horace’s word choice, otium, is ambiguous here.  The Romans had traditionally considered otium a vice, akin to laziness.  Around the time of Augustus, the word began to take on the more positive connotations associated with leisure.  Whether or not Horace is taking a veiled dig at Augustus, the positive use of the word otium reveals a shift in Roman values under the principate.