Odes 1.16

Lovely mother, lovelier daughter

by Horace

Iambics are a poetic metre which, by long Greek and Roman tradition going back at least to the poet Archilochus in the seventh century BCE, was used for personal attacks and lampoons. Horace used them in earlier work, but now he makes it clear that he has moved on. This poem, which is written in much more sophisticated metre, Alcaics, itself belongs to a poetic genre which stems from early Greek lyric: the palinode, or recantation. The beauty to whom the poem is addressed, and her beautiful mother, seem likely to have been a real mother and daughter whom Horace wanted to compliment – why invent such a detail – but their identity is obscure.

The mood of the poem is calm and conciliatory, renouncing the anger and hostility with which iambic poetry was associated, although it consists of a dense web of references to violence and excess from nature, religion and myth. This juxtaposition is probably designed to mirror a central idea from Epicurean philosophy: that the greatest happiness comes from peace of mind generated by a moderate approach to life and the avoidance of fear and pain.

Cybele was a goddess originally from Asia Minor, who is said to have been introduced to Rome as a result of an oracle during the second war against Carthage at the end of the third century BCE. Her worship involved ecstatic ritual, eunuch priests and armed dancers (the Corybants). Noricum, which included much of modern Austria and Slovenia, was famous for fine steel. The lion is a reference to a myth in which Prometheus (“forethought”) and his brother Epimetheus (“afterthought”) were creating the animals. Epimetheus used up all the characteristics available before they got round to humans. Prometheus filled the gap by taking parts of the human make-up from all the other animals, giving humankind a composite character owing something to each of them. Thyestes was the uncle of Agamemnon and Menelaus, mythical Greek hero-kings of the Trojan war. In the darkest and most famous event in Thyestes’s long feud with his brother, Atreus, Atreus murdered Thyestes’s sons and served them to him at a feast. Marking the line of a new city’s walls with the plough was part of foundation ritual, so that driving a plough over a conquered city’s walls is symbolic of its utter annihilation. The image would certainly have called to mind the total destruction of Carthage and the massacre or enslavement of its people by a Roman army at the end of the third Punic war in 146 BCE.

All of these references would have been instantly clear to an educated audience of Horace’s time, and I suspect that not many tears would have been shed for the Carthaginians.

See the illustrated blog post here.

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O matre pulchra filia pulchrior,
quem criminosis cumque voles modum
pones iambis, sive flamma
sive mari libet Hadriano.

non Dindymene, non adytis quatit
mentem sacerdotum incola Pythius,
non Liber aeque, non acuta
sic geminant Corybantes aera,

tristes ut irae, quas neque Noricus
deterret ensis nec mare naufragum
nec saevus ignis nec tremendo
Iuppiter ipse ruens tumultu.

fertur Prometheus addere principi
limo coactus particulam undique
desectam et insani leonis
vim stomacho adposuisse nostro.

irae Thyesten exitio gravi
stravere et altis urbibus ultimae
stetere causae, cur perirent
funditus imprimeretque muris

hostile aratrum exercitus insolens.
conpesce mentem: me quoque pectoris
temptavit in dulci iuventa
fervor et in celeres iambos

misit furentem. nunc ego mitibus
mutare quaero tristia, dum mihi
fias recantatis amica
opprobriis animumque reddas.

A lovely mother’s lovelier daughter,
you can put an end to my libelous iambics
however you want: burn them if you like,
or throw them in the Adriatic.

Not Cybele, nor the Delphic presence
in Apollo’s inmost shrine, nor Bacchus either,
nor the Corybantes clashing their brass cymbals,
can strike such a blow to their priests’ sanity

as dark fits of anger, which neither swords
forged from Norican steel, nor the sea and its shipwrecks,
nor raging fire, nor Jupiter himself, thundering down
with a fearful crash, will deter.

They say that Prometheus was forced to snip
a piece from all the other species and add it
to our primaeval human clay, and put
the violence of a lion into our human temper.

With grim destruction, anger
smashed down Thyestes, and was
at the root of high cities
perishing down to their foundations,

and an arrogant army running the enemy’s plough
over their walls. Calm your fears: In my happy youth, I too
was tried by the burning passion of my heart,
and it set me, raging and reckless, to composing iambics.

But my aim now is to change grimness to gentleness,
provided, since I have recanted
those offensive poems, that you
will be my friend and give me back my heart.