Odes 1.3

Virgil’s perils on the sea

by Horace

One great poet wishes another a safe voyage. Horace and Virgil were friends and shared a powerful patron in Augustus’s trusted lieutenant, Maecenas. We know that Virgil was to die in the Italian port of Brundisium when returning from a voyage to Athens in 19 BCE. That cannot be the voyage in this poem, if the first three books of the Odes were finished by 23 BCE, and must be another, earlier trip that Virgil took or thought about taking. The theme of man’s impiety in impinging on the divinely-ordained boundaries of the natural world is a conventional one that Horace addresses elsewhere in the Odes.

The powerful Goddess of Cyprus is Venus, the brothers of Helen (of Troy) are Castor and Pollux, important stars in the night sky, and the father of the winds is Aeolus, whom Homer in the Odyssey described confining the winds in leather bags in his cave. Iapyx is the west-north-west wind that would give a good crossing from Brundisium to Greece. Acheron is one of the infernal rivers, which Hercules had to cross when his labours took him to the underworld.

See the illustrated blog post here.

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

Sic te diva potens Cypri,
sic fratres Helenae, lucida sidera,
ventorumque regat pater
obstrictis aliis praeter Iapyga,

navis, quae tibi creditum
debes Vergilium; finibus Atticis
reddas incolumem precor
et serves animae dimidium meae.

illi robur et aes triplex
circa pectus erat, qui fragilem truci
conmisit pelago ratem
primus: nec timuit praecipitem Africum

decertantem Aquilonibus
nec tristis Hyadas nec rabiem Noti,
quo non arbiter Hadriae
maior, tollere seu ponere volt freta;

quem mortis timuit gradum
qui siccis oculis monstra natantia,
qui vidit mare turbidum et
infamis scopulos Acroceraunia?

nequiquam deus abscidit
prudens oceano dissociabili
terras, si tamen inpiae
non tangenda rates transiliunt vada.

audax omnia perpeti
gens humana ruit per vetitum nefas:
audax Iapeti genus
ignem fraude mala gentibus intulit;

post ignem aetheria domo
subductum macies et nova febrium
terris incubuit cohors
semotique prius tarda necessitas

Leti corripuit gradum;
expertus vacuum Daedalus aera
pennis non homini datis;
perrupit Acheronta Herculeus labor.

nil mortalibus ardui est:
caelum ipsum petimus stultitia neque
per nostrum patimur scelus
iracunda Iovem ponere fulmina.

Ship, you that owe us Virgil, entrusted to your care, may the mighty Goddess of Cyprus, and Helen’s brothers, those shining stars, and the patriarch of the winds, tying off all others except the south-easter,

so guide your course, that you bring him
back safe to us from the borders of Athens,
I pray, and save
half of my own soul.

That man had solid oak and three layers of brass around his breast, whoever first committed a fragile vessel to the savage ocean. He did not fear the headlong wind from Africa,

contending with the northerlies, nor the stormy stars
of the Hyades, nor the rage of the south wind,
than which none is more potent either to rouse or to calm the seas of the Adriatic.

In what form could approaching death
daunt him, if he could look dry-eyed
on the monsters of the waters and
the rocks of Epirus?

A prudent God separated the lands
with an estranging ocean
in vain, if sacrilegious ships still sail
the sea-roads that should stay untouched.

Bold enough to dare anything, the human race rushes on through the forbidden and unholy; boldly, Prometheus, the son of Iapetus, brought fire to mankind through a wicked fraud.

After fire was brought down
from the halls of heaven, starvation
and a new troop of sicknesses lay upon the lands, and the doom of a death once distant

hastened its slow approach. Daedalus
ventured on the empty air with wings
not meant for man, Hercules by his labour
burst through Acheron.

For mortals, nothing is too hard: we seek
the heavens themselves in our stupidity,
and because of our crimes will not allow Jove to lay down the thunderbolts of his wrath.


More Poems by Horace

  1. Hector visits Aeneas in a dream
  2. Aeneas learns the way to the underworld
  3. Turnus the wolf
  4. The Fury Allecto blows the alarm
  5. Dido and Aeneas: Hell hath no fury …
  6. The death of Dido.
  7. Mercury’s journey to Carthage
  8. Souls awaiting punishment in Tartarus, and the crimes that brought them there.
  9. The Aeneid begins
  10. Dido and Aeneas: royal hunt and royal affair
  11. Virgil predicts a forthcoming birth and a new golden age
  12. Mourning for Pallas
  13. The portals of sleep
  14. Charon, the ferryman
  15. The farmer’s starry calendar
  16. Aeneas saves his son and father, but at a cost
  17. Aeneas joins the fray
  18. Signs of bad weather
  19. Aeneas’s oath
  20. More from Virgil’s farming Utopia
  21. Turnus is lured away from battle
  22. Love is the same for all
  23. Aeneas tours the site of Rome
  24. Juno is reconciled
  25. Palinurus the helmsman is lost
  26. Aeneas comes to the Hell of Tartarus
  27. Anchises’s ghost invites Aeneas to visit the underworld
  28. The infant Camilla
  29. Laocoon and the snakes
  30. Virgil’s poetic temple to Caesar
  31. Aeneas rescues his Father Anchises
  32. Aeneas finds Dido among the shades
  33. Dido’s release
  34. King Latinus grants the Trojans’ request
  35. How Aeneas will know the site of his city
  36. New allies for Aeneas
  37. Aeneas sees Marcellus, Augustus’s tragic heir
  38. Fire strikes Aeneas’s fleet
  39. Aeneas’s ships are transformed
  40. Aristaeus’s bees
  41. The Harpy’s prophecy
  42. Rites for the allies’ dead
  43. Help for Father Aeneas from Father Tiber
  44. The farmer’s happy lot
  45. Omens for Princess Lavinia
  46. Laocoon warns against the Trojan horse
  47. Storm at sea!
  48. The death of Euryalus and Nisus
  49. The Syrian hostess
  50. Aeneas prepares to tell Dido his story
  51. The natural history of bees
  52. Aeneas’s vision of Augustus
  53. Juno throws open the gates of war
  54. Jupiter’s prophecy
  55. Aeneas is wounded
  56. The Trojan Horse enters the city
  57. King Mezentius meets his match
  58. Turnus at bay
  59. In King Latinus’s hall
  60. Aeneas reaches the Elysian Fields
  61. The journey to Hades begins
  62. Sea-nymphs
  63. The Trojans prepare to set sail from Carthage
  64. Aeneas arrives in Italy
  65. A Fury rouses Turnus to war
  66. Catastrophe for Rome?
  67. Virgil begins the Georgics
  68. Vulcan’s forge
  69. Rumour
  70. The Trojans reach Carthage
  71. The death of Pallas
  72. Dido falls in love
  73. The death of Priam