Odes 3.5

Courage and decadence: the Regulus ode

by Horace

In a famous Roman military disaster, the Parthians crushed an expeditionary force led by Crassus in 53 BCE. This ode was written about thirty years later, when a new war against Parthia seemed to be in the offing (in practice an agreement in 20 BCE avoided one: Crassus’s legions’ captured standards were returned, which would have helped Roman national pride). As well as expressing straightforward patriotism, the poem conveys the important messages that national prestige is safe with Augustus, and that accepting defeat must never be the Roman way.

Regulus is a famously principled and courageous figure. Captured by the Carthaginians with others during the Punic wars, he was sent to Rome, under an oath to return, to pass on peace proposals and a request for exchange of prisoners. According to legend, as described by Horace here, he advised the Senate not to accept, and returned to Carthage to a certain and painful death, keeping his oath. There is a clear echo of the campaign that Augustus was waging to restore traditional Roman and family values. Like the rock-hard Regulus, “proper” Romans should be prepared to face death and spit in its eye, rather than take a safe but dishonourable way out. The gulf between these traditions and the Romans we meet partying and fornicating away in writers like Ovid and Propertius could not be deeper.

Tarentum was a resort town in southern Italy founded originally by Greek colonists: hence the reference to Sparta.

Metre: Alcaic

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Caelo tonantem credidimus Iovem
regnare; praesens divus habebitur
Augustus adiectis Britannis
imperio gravibusque Persis.

milesne Crassi coniuge barbara
turpis maritus vixit et hostium –
pro curia inversique mores –
consenuit socerorum in armis,

sub rege Medo Marsus et Apulus,
anciliorum et nominis et togae
oblitus aeternaeque Vestae,
incolumi Iove et urbe Roma?

hoc caverat mens provida Reguli
dissentientis condicionibus
foedis et exemplo trahentis
perniciem veniens in aevum,

si non periret immiserabilis
captiva pubes. ‘signa ego Punicis
adfixa delubris et arma
militibus sine caede’ dixit

‘derepta vidi; vidi ego civium
retorta tergo bracchia libero
portasque non clausas et arva
Marte coli populata nostro.

auro repensus scilicet acrior
miles redibit. Flagitio additis
damnum: neque amissos colores
lana refert medicata fuco,

nec vera virtus, cum semel excidit,
curat reponi deterioribus.
si pugnat extricata densis
cerva plagis, erit ille fortis,

qui perfidis se credidit hostibus,
et Marte Poenos proteret altero
qui lora restrictis lacertis
sensit iners timuitque mortem.

hic, unde vitam sumeret inscius,
pacem duello miscuit. o pudor!
o magna Carthago, probrosis
altior Italiae ruinis!’

fertur pudicae coniugis osculum
parvosque natos ut capitis minor
ab se removisse et virilem
torvus humi posuisse voltum,

donec labantis consilio patres
firmaret auctor numquam alias dato,
interque maerentis amicos
egregius properaret exsul.

atqui sciebat quae sibi barbarus
tortor pararet; non aliter tamen
dimovit obstantis propinquos
et populum reditus morantem,

quam si clientum longa negotia
diiudicata lite relinqueret,
tendens Venafranos in agros
aut Lacedaemonium Tarentum.

We thought Jove the Thunderer lived in
the sky: Augustus will be held a God here
when the Britons and dangerous Persians
have been added to the Empire.

Has the soldier of Crassus lived as the base
husband of a barbarian wife – oh, for the Senate
and the reversal of standards! – and grown old with
his enemy in-laws, a soldier in their army,

a Marsian or Apulian under a Persian king,
forgetting the sacred shields, his name, the toga
and eternal Vesta, while Jove and
the City of Rome stand safe?

This is what the perceptive mind of Regulus
feared when he rejected the shameful terms,
inferring ruin for ages to come
from the example,

should the young captives not die
without pity. “I have seen Roman standards
set up in Punic shrines and weapons taken
from our soldiers without bloodshed,” he said,

“I have seen the arms of free citizens tied
behind their backs, city gates
not shut, and the fields wasted by us
in war being tilled again.

Oh yes, a soldier who has been ransomed
with gold will come back all the keener! You are
adding loss of money to disaster: dyed wool
does not get back its lost colour,

nor does true virtue, once it’s gone,
care to be replanted in devalued men.
That man will be brave, if a deer will fight,
freed from the tangled hunting nets,

oh yes, the man who has surrendered to a treacherous
enemy will crush the Carthaginians in a new war,
the man who has felt the bonds tighten on his wrists,
feared death and done nothing!

Not knowing how to save his life, he has
confused peace and war. For shame!
O great Carthage, higher than
the shameful ruins of Italy!”

It’s said he kept himself apart from his
chaste wife’s kiss and little children, as being
no longer a citizen, and stubbornly turned
his manly face to the ground

until he could stiffen the wavering Senators,
a source of advice never else given,
and hasten through his grieving friends,
a famous exile.

And yet he knew what the barbarian torturer
was preparing for him: nonetheless, he moved
aside the relatives who tried to stop him
and the crowd trying to delay him

as though he were just leaving court after
a long case for clients, the outcome decided,
setting off for the fields of Venafrum
or Spartan Tarentum.