Odes 3.2

What Roman youth should be

by Horace

Although it contains probably Horace’s most quoted line, this is quite a hard poem to follow. The first half is plain enough: as the Emperor Augustus has been advocating, young Romans should toughen up and soldier hard. The women watching the Roman fight from the city walls echo women watching heroes from the walls of Troy in Homer. Parthians had been a prospective enemy since inflicting a military disaster on Rome some years previously.

The focus shifting to Virtue and its independence from electoral opinion looks both like a compliment to Augustus, whose power comes, not from voters, but from his generally unquestioned acceptance as Rome’s first citizen, and like a criticism of the political class who have prevented some of the moral reforms that Augustus championed from being carried through. The passage towards the end about silence and the mystery cult of Ceres/Demeter is hard to interpret with certainty. Silence may be a proxy for doing what you are told (presumably by Augustus) without complaining, there may be reference to topical events that we do not understand, or the form of the poem may follow a lost Greek model – editors point out echoes of Simonides, a lyric poet of the sixth century BCE.

See Wilfred Owen’s first World War poem putting a quite different slant on “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” here.

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.

Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta

vitamque sub divo et trepidis agat
in rebus. illum ex moenibus hosticis
matrona bellantis tyranni
prospiciens et adulta virgo

suspiret “eheu”, ne rudis agminum
sponsus lacessat regius asperum
tactu leonem, quem cruenta
per medias rapit ira caedes.

dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidoque tergo.

Virtus, repulsae nescia sordidae,
intaminatis fulget honoribus
nec sumit aut ponit securis
arbitrio popularis aurae.

Virtus, recludens inmeritis mori
caelum, negata temptat iter via
coetusque volgaris et udam
spernit humum fugiente penna.

est et fideli tuta silentio
merces: vetabo, qui Cereris sacrum
volgarit arcanae, sub isdem
sit trabibus fragilemque mecum

solvat phaselon; saepe Diespiter
neglectus incesto addidit integrum,
raro antecedentem scelestum
deseruit pede Poena claudo.

As hard as oak, let our young Roman learn well through bitter soldiering to bear with deprivation; a terror on horseback, let him harry the fierce Parthians with his spear and live his life under open sky and dangerous fortunes. Looking out on him from the enemy’s walls, let the warring tyrant’s lady and the budding girl sigh, “Ah”, fearing that her royal bridegroom, new as he is to the battle-lines, might anger that raging lion by his touch, as his bloody wrath drives him through the thickest of the slaughter! It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for your country: death pursues the man who runs as well as the one who stands, and does not spare him because his knees are shaking or he has turned his back in fear.

Virtue knows nothing of ignominious rejection at the polls: it shines out with unspotted honours, and does not take up or set down the fasces, insignia of office, when dictated by the breeze of popular favour. Virtue, opening the way to heaven for those who do not deserve to die, attempts a way denied to others, spurns vulgar mobs and the damp earth, taking wing to leave them. There is a sure reward as well for faithful silence: I shall not allow anyone who has revealed the sacred rites of hidden Ceres to share a roof or cast off a fragile boat with me: when slighted, Jupiter has often lumped together the innocent and the guilty man, and Retribution has rarely given up the evil-doer she pursues, lame of foot though she may be.