These three expressions from Ode II:15 say it all—
census privatus — private property
commune magnum — the common greatness
sumptus publicus — public expense
—and show the relevance of this poem for America today. We are engaged in a great debate over what constitutes the common good, the commonwealth, the common greatness. I like this last translation of commune magnum because to paraphrase an ancient Chinese king, how we take care of the least among us determines how great a people we are.
According to scholars, conspicuous consumption at the expense of the common good was a familiar theme of stoics in Rome during Horace's time. We've all seen movies of the excesses of the Romans, and some of us have looked around at our own way of life and seen similarities.
Having grown up in California, I saw the salty Lucrine-like lakes south of Los Angeles give way to housing developments, then giant houses, then, as someone said, looking over once beautiful, sleepy La Jolla, starter castles. I also saw the orange groves disappear one by one much as Horace saw the destruction of olive groves, and I saw the giant eucalyptus trees used as windbreaks systematically cut down so that their pungent, almost cat-pee smell, disappeared from the air. Horace, too, bemoaned the loss of the fragrance of olives and the elm trees that farmers used as trellises for their grape vines, wedding, as they described it, the climbing plant to the trunks of such trees–something impossible to do with celibate plane trees whose shade was so thick that no vine could survive.
So our problem in America is not unique. It is one of any great empire that fosters the excesses of the rich in order that they will think nothing of opening up their coffers to maintain and feed not the unwashed masses but vast armies to protect their wealth.
A few notes: Romulus founded Rome. Cato Intonsus was Cato the Censor (234—149 BC) or the Untonsured One because he didn't keep his hair trimmed. A grassy piece of sod was used for simple altars and for repairing roofs. The north in the poem is referred to as arktos (ἄρκτος), the bear constellation.
Soon starter castles'll leave little room for the plow.
All over you'll see koi ponds bigger than Lucrine.
Unmarried plane trees will take over the elms;
violet beds and myrtle—their smell will overwhelm
the abundant olive groves of owners past and thick
laurel branches will shut out the hammering sun.
Not this way the laws of Romulus or Unkempt
Cato or under the norms of the people of old.
To them private property was small, the common
land great; there were no porches for the private man
measured in rods that pointed to the shady north,
no laws that despised a bit of sod heaven sent,
but orders that the towns and temples of the gods
be faced at public expense with new-quarried stone.
translation © 2010 by James Rumford
in prose :
Iam moles regiae iugera pauca aratro relinquent. Undique stagna extenta ‹Lucrino lacu Latius› visentur, platanusque caelebs ulmos evincet. Tum violaria et myrtus et omnis copia narium odorem olivetis ‹domino priori fertilibus› spargent. Tum laurea spissa ictus fervidos ramis excludet.
Non ita praescriptum Romuli et [sub] auspiciis Catonis intonsi normaque veterum. Illis census privatus erat brevis, commune magnum.Nulla porticus ‹decempedis privatis metata› Arcton opacam excipiebat, nec leges sinebant caespitem fortuitum spernere, [sed erant leges] iubentes oppida et templa deorum saxo novo sumptu publico decorare. [revised March 27, 2015]
Iam pauca arātrō iugera rēgiae
molēs relinquent, undique Lātius
extenta vīsentur Lucrīnō
stagna lacū platanusque caelebs
ēvincet ulmōs; tum violāria et
myrtus et omnis cōpia nārium
spargent olīvētīs odōrem
fertilibus dominō priōrī;
tum spissa rāmīs laurea fervidōs
exclūdet ictūs. nōn ita Rōmulī
praescrīptum et intonsī Catōnis
auspiciīs veterumque norma.
prīvātus illīs census erat brevis,
commūne magnum; nūlla decempedīs
mētāta prīvātīs opācam
porticus excipiēbat Arcton,
nec fortuitum spernere caespitem
lēgēs sinēbant, oppida publicō
sumptū iubentēs et deōrum
templa novō decorāre saxō.
:: Latin books by James Rumford ::
For all 102 odes purchase Carpe Diem, Horace De-Poetized, for $11.50 at
For a Latin translation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at $12, click here:
To find out more about Carpe Diem go to the blog of March 26, 2015;
for more about Pericla Thomae Sawyer, go to the blog of November 22, 2016.