Odes 4.15

The final ode

by Horace

When he first thought he had written his last ode, Horace signed off in a poem which asserted that his poetry was a monument more lasting than bronze: you can read and hear it here. Years later, this really is his final ode, and it is primarily political, rather than personal. The ancient tradition is that he wrote his fourth book of odes after a long break at the instigation of Augustus and his circle to celebrate the advantages that his régime had brought to Rome, and this certainly looks like the coda to a work of propaganda.

It would therefore be easy for a modern reader to be cynical about the sentiments expressed, but we should be cautious about that. Augustus’s ascendancy had brought peace after many decades of disastrous civil war, and the gratitude that Horace is channelling would have been genuinely felt by many. He and his audience would also have been acutely aware of Augustus’s reputation for modest living, his promotion of traditional Roman social values, his generosity in funding temple building and public works, and the respect he showed to many of the institutions of the old republican system even as he established himself as a new kind of national leader. Augustus was not the luxurious and narcissistic autocrat that some of his successors were. No doubt the kind of grateful remembrance that Horace describes at the end, of a virtuous man who served Rome well, would have had a strong appeal for him.

As much as any, this ode relies on the metre – Alcaics, which Horace used for the solemnest subjects. Its flow creates three powerful crescendos – in the list of Augustus’s achievements, culminating in his attempts at social reform, in the catalogue of enemies beyond the borders who, thanks to him, are no longer able to threaten Rome and in the idyllic scene at the end of domestic thanksgiving for him and his legendary ancestry.

The poem ends with a masterly bit of ambiguity. Augustus claimed descent from the mythical Trojan prince, Aeneas, son of Anchises and the Goddess Venus. Neither Aeneas nor Augustus is mentioned by name as the divinely-descended hero whose praises an idealised Roman family of the future will be singing, but there is not much doubt about which one we are meant primarily to have in mind.

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.

Phoebus volentem proelia me loqui
victas et urbes increpuit lyra,
ne parva Tyrrhenum per aequor
vela darem. Tua, Caesar, aetas

fruges et agris rettulit uberes
et signa nostro restituit Iovi
derepta Parthorum superbis
postibus et vacuum duellis

Ianum Quirini clausit et ordinem
rectum evaganti frena licentiae
iniecit emovitque culpas
et veteres revocavit artes

per quas Latinum nomen et Italae
crevere vires famaque et imperi
porrecta maiestas ad ortus
solis ab Hesperio cubili.

Custode rerum Caesare non furor
civilis aut vis exiget otium,
non ira, quae procudit enses
et miseras inimicat urbes.

Non qui profundum Danuvium bibunt
edicta rumpent Iulia, non Getae,
non Seres infidique Persae,
non Tanain prope flumen orti.

Nosque et profestis lucibus et sacris
inter iocosi munera Liberi
cum prole matronisque nostris
rite deos prius adprecati,

virtute functos more patrum duces
Lydis remixto carmine tibiis
Troiamque et Anchisen et almae
progeniem Veneris canemus.

When I wanted to tell of battles and the fall of cities,
Phoebus struck his lyre
to warn me against spreading my little sails on the wide Tyrrhenian sea. Your era, Caesar,

has not just brought rich crops back to the fields,
not just brought back standards to the temple of Roman Jupiter torn from
the proud gates of the Parthians,

not just closed the temple of Janus on the Quirinal
because there are no wars, but reined in excess
that had overstepped the bounds of propriety, and brought back the traditional ways of life

through which the name of Rome and Italian virtues rose to greatness, and the fame and authority of her sovereign power extended to where the sun rises from his couch in the west.

While our affairs are in Caesar’s hands, no aggression or madness of civil conflict, no provocation, that forges swords and turns unhappy cities into enemies, will banish our peace.

The tribes who drink the deep waters of the Danube, the Thracian Getae, the Chinese and the treacherous Parthians, those born by the river Don, not one of them will violate the decrees of Augustus.

We, meanwhile, with our children and womenfolk amid the generous gifts of the wine-God, whether it is a feast-day or an ordinary one, when we have first made due prayers to the gods,

will celebrate as our forefathers did in song, mingled with the sound of the Lydian pipes, the leaders who have nobly done their duty, and Troy, and Anchises, and the offspring of kindly Venus.