Odes 1.2

Rome: disaster and salvation

by Horace

This, the second of Horace’s Odes, is not easy for a modern reader to warm to – the references to mythology and recent events seem obscure and it is an egregious piece of flattery by our standards. But it deserves attention because of what it says at the beginning of Horace’s great new work about his intentions in composing these innovatory poems based on Greek lyric models of the past. In the very first Ode, Horace has just asserted his debt to his friend and patron, Maecenas, and spelt out what he wants the Odes to achieve as poetry; now he turns to his second central theme: the dreadful times through which Rome has recently come, and the monumental achievement of Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian, now the Emperor Augustus, in re-establishing much-missed peace and security.

The first part of the poem establishes the displeasure of the Gods, expressed as extreme weather, floods and other portents, and its causes in civil war. In the second half, it declares that only a god can restore Rome’s fortunes. Horace canvasses a number of candidates before settling on a candidate, Mercury, and identifying Augustus with him as, effectively, a god on Earth.

It is only natural to wonder about the sincerity of this kind of panegyric addressed to to the head of a ruling regime, and Horace did, after all, fight against Octavian at the battle of Philippi, which saw the destruction of Julius Caesar’s assassins. But Horace has assimilated fully to the new order, Octavian/Augustus has been firmly in the saddle for several years by the time the first three Books of Odes were “published” in 23 BCE,  and Horace would not be the only one  if he felt strongly and sincerely the benefits of the peace that Augustus had brought.

The Regia was the ancient headquarters of the Pontifex Maximus, Rome’s high priest. Pyrrha was the wife of Deucalion, the Noah figure in the Graeco-Roman equivalent of the biblical flood legend. The shape-shifting Proteus, with his flock of seals, was a sea-deity. Ilia had nothing to do with Troy: she was the mother of Romulus and Remus, to whom she gave birth after Mars, the war-God, forced himself on her. She was condemned (no wonder Horace shows her complaining) to be drowned in the Tiber, but saved when the river-God made her his wife. There has been a lot of learned debate about why Horace settled on Mercury as the God-on-Earth to personify Augustus, but Mercury was the bearer of messages from Jupiter and the Gods, and perhaps we do not need any more subtle explanation than that.

Metre: Sapphics.

See the illustrated blog post here.

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Iam satis terris nivis atque dirae
grandinis misit pater et rubente
dextera sacras iaculatus arcis
terruit urbem,

terruit gentis, grave ne rediret
saeculum Pyrrhae nova monstra questae,
omne cum Proteus pecus egit altos
visere montis,

piscium et summa genus haesit ulmo,
nota quae sedes fuerat columbis,
et superiecto pavidae natarunt
aequore dammae.

vidimus flavum Tiberim retortis
litore Etrusco violenter undis
ire deiectum monumenta regis
templaque Vestae,

Iliae dum se nimium querenti
iactat ultorem, vagus et sinistra
labitur ripa Iove non probante u-
xorius amnis.

audiet civis acuisse ferrum,
quo graves Persae melius perirent,
audiet pugnas vitio parentum
rara iuventus.

quem vocet divum populus ruentis
imperi rebus? prece qua fatigent
virgines sanctae minus audientem
carmina Vestam?

cui dabit partis scelus expiandi
Iuppiter? tandem venias precamur
nube candentis umeros amictus
augur Apollo;

sive tu mavis, Erycina ridens,
quam Iocus circum volat et Cupido;
sive neglectum genus et nepotes
respicis, auctor

heu nimis longo satiate ludo,
quem iuvat clamor galeaeque leves
acer et Marsi peditis cruentum
voltus in hostem;

sive mutata iuvenem figura
ales in terris imitaris almae
filius Maiae, patiens vocari
Caesaris ultor:

serus in caelum redeas diuque
laetus intersis populo Quirini
neve te nostris vitiis iniquum
ocior aura

tollat; hic magnos potius triumphos,
hic ames dici pater atque princeps
neu sinas Medos equitare inultos
te duce, Caesar.

Now Father Jupiter has sent enough ill-omened snow and hail against the world and, his right arm red with blood, targeted the holy citadels and terrified the City; terrified mankind, that the grievous age might return when Pyrrha wailed at portents till then unknown, when Proteus drove all his flock (of seals) to see the mountain heights, fish clung to the top of the elm-trees, once the familiar perch for doves, and timid deer swam in the waters spread above them! We have seen the Tiber, tawny in flood, his torrents flung back from his far bank, go raging to throw down the Regia and the temple of Vesta, boasting of his role as avenger of Ilia, his loudly-complaining wife, and flood ominously in his husbandly zeal over his left bank, in defiance of disapproving Jove! Citizens will hear the sword sharpened (for them), which it would have been better for the threatening Parthians to perish by; the youth of Rome, reduced in number by the crimes of their parents, will hear the sound of battles! Which of the Gods will the citizens of a collapsing state call on to rescue their affairs? With what prayers will the virgin priestesses weary Vesta, when she does not want to hear their singing? To which God will Jupiter assign the task of expiating crime? May you finally come, cloaking your shining shoulders in cloud, Apollo, God of prophecy; or if you would prefer, laughing Venus, as mirth and amorous Cupid flit about you; or if you, (Mars,) will weary of the game of war, too long as it has been, alas, and turn your face again to the race and the descendants that you have created and neglected, you whom the war-cry delights, and the cruel face of the Marsian infantryman turned on the bloodied enemy; or if you, (Mercury,) son of Maia, winged one, will change your appearance to that of a youth here on Earth, deigning to be called Caesar’s avenger: long may it be ere you return to heaven, long may your propitious stay among the people of Romulus endure, nor may the breezes take you from us more swiftly than we would wish, unable to tolerate our faults; here rather may you joy in mighty triumphs, here rejoice to be called father and first citizen of the nation; nor may you allow the Parthians to ride immune from vengeance while you remain our leader – Augustus!