Odes Book 1.4

Carpe diem, Sestius

by Horace

Give or take some particularly nice touches in the descriptions of spring in the first third, this Ode at first glance looks like a standard “carpe diem” poem which would have been easier to like had it concentrated slightly more on current pleasures and less on the grim inevitability of death. Why is it here, in prime position very close to the beginning of Horace’s first book of Odes?

The answer lies in the dedicatee, Sestius, a rich (“beatus”) entrepreneur, some of whose interests may be reflected in the poem’s references to activities like shipping and workshops. He was a consul in the year in which Horace’s first three books of Odes are believed to have been “published”, 23 BCE. In his young days, he had soldiered with Brutus against Octavian and Mark Antony in the war that followed Julius Caesar’s assassination. The fact that Octavian, now Augustus, has appointed him to the highest traditional office of State says a great deal for the new Emperor’s magnanimity, and his openness to reconciliation with past opponents. So Horace’s dedication is sending an unspoken, but powerful, message about contemporary politics and Augustus’s regime, and paying an oblique compliment to Augustus himself.

Horace, too, had fought with Brutus against Octavian, so it is not at all unlikely that he and Sestius had known one another for years and were on friendly terms. This would give scope for personal references and humour, not all of which would be obvious to us. The phrase “vitae summa brevis” (life’s short sum), for example, might allude to Sestius’s appointment, as became common under Augustus, being a “suffect” consulship: this meant that he served only a few months, rather than a full year.

Garlanded heads are “shining” because of the Roman practice of anointing with perfumed dressings. The Cyclopes were Vulcan’s workers, labouring in workshops conventionally located under volcanoes to forge thunderbolts for Jupiter. This is a spring activity because Jupiter will need the thunderbolts when the summer storms arrive. Faunus, a countryside God, had a festival in the City on 13 February, which seems a plausible time for signs of spring showing themselves.

The metre is couplets of an Archilochius major followed by an iambic trimeter catalectic. We do not know why Horace chose this very rare form: perhaps he had a Greek model in mind that we do not know about.

See the blog post with a Roman painting of Faunus/Pan here.

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Solvitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni
trahuntque siccas machinae carinas
ac neque iam stabulis gaudet pecus aut arator igni
nec prata canis albicant pruinis.
iam Cytherea choros ducit Venus imminente luna
iunctaeque Nymphis Gratiae decentes
alterno terram quatiunt pede, dum gravis Cyclopum
Volcanus ardens visit officinas.
nunc decet aut viridi nitidum caput impedire myrto
aut flore, terrae quem ferunt solutae,
nunc et in umbrosis Fauno decet immolare lucis,
seu poscat agna sive malit haedo.
pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
regumque turris. o beate Sesti,
vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat inchoare longam;
iam te premet nox fabulaeque Manes
et domus exilis Plutonia; quo simul mearis,
nec regna vini sortiere talis
nec tenerum Lycidan mirabere, quo calet iuventus
nunc omnis et mox virgines tepebunt.

The bitter winter is melting with the welcome return of the spring and the west wind, the winches are hauling the dry ships (to the sea); the herd no longer delights in the cowshed and the ploughman in the fire, and the meadows no longer show white with the frosts. Now Venus the Cytherean leads the dances as the moon shines above, and the comely Graces, arm-in-arm with nymphs, strike the dance-floor with each foot in turn, while glowing Vulcan inspects the grim workshops of the Cyclopes. Now is the time to twine your shining head with fresh green myrtle, or the flowers which the thawed earth is bearing; now is the time to sacrifice to Faunus in his shaded sacred groves, with a lamb if he requires it, or a kid if he prefers. With an impartial foot, pale Death strikes both the shanties of paupers and the towers of kings, o blessed Sestius, and the short sum of life forbids us to embark on hope that is long. At any moment, night and the fabled Shades and Pluto’s cramped home will close in upon you: once you have gone there, you will no longer cast lots with the dice for who will preside over the drinking, nor marvel at tender Lycidas, whom all the youths are burning for now, and for whom the feelings of the girls will soon grow warm.