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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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.