Odes 2.18

Luxury versus the simple life

by Horace

This Ode deals with a well-precedented subject. The idea that the good life involves avoiding luxury, and contentment with moderation and simple country living, goes back to Horace’s ancient Greek lyric models and was echoed by contemporaries including Lucretius, the Epicurean philosopher-naturalist, and Vergil in his Georgic poems on agriculture. That said, Horace makes it his own, here and elsewhere in the Odes, and it sits well with his consistent presentation of himself as settled, unassuming but proudly fulfilled by his art as a poet, and devoted to the Emperor Augustus and his minister Maecenas, the patron who gave him his Sabine farm.

The metre is one that Horace uses only here: ancient sources suggest that Alcaeus, perhaps his favourite Greek model, may have used it, but no example has survived: there is only one other, obscure, example of it in Latin poetry.  The even rhythm, and the presence of a pronounced caesura or break after the fifth syllable in each longer line, lend it a chanting, sing-song character. It is called Hipponactaean, consisting (in case you are a metrical buff) of couplets with a catalectic trochaic dimeter followed by a catalectic iambic trimeter.

A few references: Attalus, King of Pergamon, unexpectedly turned out to have bequeathed his kingdom to Rome when he died in 133 BC; Spartan purple cloth was a prestige product (though there is something a bit odd about the text here); Baiae was Rome’s rich man’s seaside resort; jumping boundaries was a serious transgression, and every Roman encountering this poem would know that Romulus killed his twin, Remus, for doing it; Tantalus is a mythical figure with a rich provenance, but his significance here is that his punishment in Hades was always to be desiring what was out of his reach; Prometheus was the Titan who took fire from the Gods and gave it to man, and Charon is the ferryman who takes dead souls across the Styx to the underworld – and makes sure they can’t go back.

I acknowledge the help given by Stephen Harrison’s Cambridge edition of Odes 2 in presenting this poem: he often makes good suggestions for translating Horace’s turns of phrase, and I have followed several of them.

See the illustrated blog post here.

To listen, press play:

To scroll the original and English translation of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.

Non ebur neque aureum
mea renidet in domo lacunar;
non trabes Hymettiae
premunt columnas ultima recisas
Africa, neque Attali
ignotus heres regiam occupavi,
nec Laconicas mihi
trahunt honestae purpuras clientae.
At fides et ingeni
benigna vena est pauperemque dives
me petit; nihil supra
deos lacesso nec potentem amicum
largiora flagito,
satis beatus unicis Sabinis.
Truditur dies die
novaeque pergunt interire lunae;
tu secanda marmora
locas sub ipsum funus et sepulcri
inmemor struis domos
marisque Bais obstrepentis urges
summovere litora,
parum locuples continente ripa.
Quid quod usque proximos
revellis agri terminos et ultra
limites clientium
salis avarus? Pellitur paternos
in sinu ferens deos
et uxor et vir sordidosque natos.
Nulla certior tamen
rapacis Orci fine destinata
aula divitem manet
erum. Quid ultra tendis? Aequa tellus
pauperi recluditur
regumque pueris, nec satelles Orci
callidum Promethea
revexit auro captus. Hic superbum
Tantalum atque Tantali
genus coercet, hic levare functum
pauperem laboribus
vocatus atque non vocatus audit.

No ivory gleams in my home,
and no gilded, coffered ceiling;
no architraves of Attic marble
crush down on pillars quarried
in farthest Africa, nor have I taken
over Attalus’s kingdom as his
unwitting heir, nor do any high-born
client ladies weave Spartan purple cloth
for me. But there is loyalty there
and a rich vein of talent, and the
rich man actually courts me, though I
am poor: I do not bother the Gods
for anything more, pester my rich friend
for greater wealth, blessed enough just
in my Sabine lands. One day is jostled
along by the next and new moons hurry on
to die: you, however, on the verge of your
own funeral, let a contract for quarrying
marble; with no thought for the tomb,
you pile up your mansions, pressing ahead
to shift the shores of the sea that breaks
against Baiae, not rich enough with just what
is on dry land, and do you really go so far
as to pull up your neighbour’s field-markers
and leap over your clients’ boundaries in
your greed? Husband and wife are driven out,
with their household gods and dishevelled
children clutched to their bosom. Even so,
no palace awaits its master more surely than
the end fixed by greedy Hades. What more
are you striving for? The earth lies open in fairness
both to the pauper and to the sons of kings,
nor did Hades’ guardian, won over by gold,
bring Prometheus, for all his wiliness, back
to life: here he confines proud Tantalus and all
of his descent; here, whether they like it or not, Charon answers the call to grant relief  to poor men whose labours are done.