Odes Book 3.1

Give me comfort, not riches

by Horace

This, the first in Horace’s third book, is a famous ode which includes several of his most enduring phrases. It is our old friend “carpe diem” again, but with a difference. As usual, inevitable death is in the background, but is not mentioned by name. The focus is more on the troubles that life can bring, even for the rich and ambitious – politicians, merchants, large-scale farmers, developers, rich men wanting to impress with big, flashy houses, even built out over the sea. The more you have, the more you have to worry about, is the message. The solution in this poem is not to eat, drink and be merry, but to be content with a sufficiency of good things – just like Horace and his beloved Sabine farm, a gift from his patron and friend Maecenas.

The beginning is unusually solemn: Horace claims to speak as a priest and a prophet as well as a poet, addressing the young, the future of Rome, with his salutary message, which reflects some of the basic ideas and values of Epicurean philosophy: living (comparatively) simply and avoiding both pain and excess. It is no coincidence that Augustus was conducting a campaign to bring back the simpler and more austere standards of earlier days. The lesson did not stick, as some of the enormous and luxurious buildings of his successors’ times would go to prove.

The “arbusta” that the wine-grower’s labourer plants are the trees which the Romans used to grow their vines onto. The naked sword and the Sicilian feasts are a reference to the story of the sword of Damocles, suspended over his unfortunate head by a single hair. Arcturus and the Kids are constellations that set and rise in late autumn and early winter, when the sailing season is over and only the greediest merchants can be tempted to brave rough seas and stormy weather. Building into the sea was a stock poetic example of excess and presumption. Phrygian stone may have been something used in powdered form as a medicament.

See the illustrated blog post here.

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Odi profanum volgus et arceo.
favete linguis: carmina non prius
audita Musarum sacerdos
virginibus puerisque canto.

regum timendorum in proprios greges,
reges in ipsos imperium est Iovis,
clari Giganteo triumpho,
cuncta supercilio moventis.

est ut viro vir latius ordinet
arbusta sulcis, hic generosior
descendat in campum petitor,
moribus hic meliorque fama

contendat, illi turba clientium
sit maior: aequa lege Necessitas
sortitur insignis et imos,
omne capax movet urna nomen.

destrictus ensis cui super inpia
cervice pendet, non Siculae dapes
dulcem elaborabunt saporem,
non avium citharaeque cantus

somnum reducent: somnus agrestium
lenis virorum non humilis domos
fastidit umbrosamque ripam,
non Zephyris agitata Tempe.

desiderantem quod satis est neque
tumultuosum sollicitat mare
nec saevus Arcturi cadentis
impetus aut orientis Haedi,

non verberatae grandine vineae
fundusque mendax arbore nunc aquas
culpante, nunc torrentia agros
sidera, nunc hiemes iniquas.

contracta pisces aequora sentiunt
iactis in altum molibus: huc frequens
caementa demittit redemptor
cum famulis dominusque terrae

fastidiosus: sed timor et minae
scandunt eodem, quo dominus, neque
decedit aerata triremi et
post equitem sedet atra cura.

quodsi dolentem nec Phrygius lapis
nec purpurarum sidere clarior
delenit usus nec Falerna
vitis Achaemeniumque costum,

cur invidendis postibus et novo
sublime ritu moliar atrium?
cur valle permutem Sabina
divitias operosiores?

I despise the profane crowd, I banish them! Keep an auspicious silence, while I, the priest of the Muses, sing for the young, both boys and girls, such songs as have never been heard before. The power that kings have is over their own flocks, power over kings themselves belongs to Jupiter, glorious for his victory over the Titans, who moves the universe just with an eyebrow. A man may plant yet more trees to support another man’s vines: another goes down into the Campus Martius as a candidate for office relying on his high birth, while another campaigns on superior character and reputation: another’s entourage of clients may be larger. Destiny casts their lots by her equal law, be they highly placed or the lowest of the low: her capacious urn shakes every name together. If a man has a naked sword hanging over his impious neck, even Sicilian feasts will not bring out their delicious savours for him, nor will birdsong or the lyre restore his sleep. But gentle sleep does not shirk the simple homes of country people, or the shaded bank, or the vale of Tempe, refreshed by the west wind. If a man desires just to have enough, the turbulent sea does not worry him, nor the fierce shock of Arcturus as he sets or the Kid as it rises, nor vineyards beaten down by hail, nor a farm, which puts the blame for poor results now on rains, now on heatwaves parching the fields and now on unseasonable winter weather. Fish feel the sea contract around them as new buildings are thrown up high and down into the depths: throngs of contractors with their slaves and the arrogant owner of the land may keep pouring rubble down, but fear and threats can climb wherever he does: for all its brass fittings, black care has not left his fine ship, and when he goes on horseback, she sits behind him. And so, if neither Phrygian stone, nor wearing purple brighter than a star, nor the Falernian vine nor choice Persian herbs can relieve his pain, why should I rear up a lofty atrium in the newest fashion, with fancy portals that will only cause envy? When they cause so much trouble, why exchange riches for my Sabine valley?