The year is 26 BC. There is to be a military expedition led by Aelius Gallus to Arabia. Horace's friend, Iccius, has decided to do what Horace never thought he would: abandon his books and his studies and seek his fortune as a soldier in Happy Arabia, the Arabia Felix of untold wealth.
But this is a don't-count-your-chickens-before-they're-hatched poem: war doesn't always lead to wealth. It's a now-I've-seen-everything poem: bibliophiles don't always make good soldiers.
Thus, there is a warning implied in this poem: Iccius, be careful.
There is also irony: Iccius, you may have read the works of Panaetius, a Stoic philosopher, who wrote the book On Duties (Περὶ τοῦ Καθήκοντος), but is it your duty to enrich yourself on the spoils of war?
Early commentators remarked on the irony of this poem. Centuries later, editors wielding commas, periods, and question marks emphasized irony, for, to those who know Horace's poetry well, this poem comes as a surprise. Usually this Roman Rudyard Kipling is quick to rattle the saber and hoist the banner for the sake of the Empire, but not, for some reason, in the case of Iccius.
Who was this friend of his? A Mr. Milktoast, who although caught up in the fever of war, might perish in the sands of Arabia? Or was this a Lawrence of Arabia, destined for greatness? Or was he Horace's alter ego—a scholar who would abandon libri for loricae? Did Horace want to go,too, but, since he was unable, decided to ridicule his friend's efforts instead? All we know for sure is that Aelius Gallus' expedition ended in disaster. Most of the soldiers perished in the sands of Araby. Did Horace's friend die there, too?
Horace uses a few exotic words to add to the allure of the East. Gaza, treasure, comes from the Persian word ganj, گنج, which came to Latin via the Greek γάζα. (Ganj is found in the Bible, predictably in the Book of Esther, chapter iii:9 as גנזי המלכ.) The Sabaeae are the Sabeans or Shebans from Yeman, famous for their perfumes and one of the reasons that Arabia was so 'happy,' as traders came from all over the world to get the fragrances their customers desired. The word Sericas, 'Chinese' is also exotic. It means 'silk peoples' and comes ultimately from the Chinese word si 絲, silk.
Iccius—you greedy now for the rich treasures
of the Arabs? Prepared for a tough army life?
Even before Sheba's kings are conquered? Before
you've put the horrible Mede in chains? Which of the
barbarous maidens, her husband dead, will serve you?
What prince, his hair oiled, taught to shoot Chinese arrows
with his father's bow, will stand by ready with the
wine ladle? Who'd ever deny streams could flow up
steep hills or the Tiber flow backwards now that you,
destined for better things, wish to trade for Spanish
breastplates the books on famous Panaetius and
the Socratic school you purchased here and there?
translation © 2010 by James Rumford
Icci, nunc gazis beatis Arabum invides et militiam acrem paras non ante regibus Sabaeae devictis, Medoque horribili catenas nectis?
Quae barbara virginum, sponso necato, tibi serviet?
Quis puer ex aula, capillis unctis, sagittas Sericas arcu paterno tendere doctus, ad cyathum statuetur?
Quis neget rivos pronos posse montibus arduis relabi et Tiberim reverti, cum tu tendis libros ‹Panaeti nobilis undique coemptos› et domum Socraticam loricis Hiberis mutare?
Meliora pollicitus [es]!
[revised March 27, 2015]
links: an interesting site with links to Latin dictionaries of all kinds: http://www.lexilogos.com/english/latin_dictionary.htm
Iccī, beātīs nunc Arabum invidēs
gāzīs et acrem mīlitiam parās
nōn ante dēvictīs Sabaeae
rēgibus horribilīque Mēdō
nectis catēnās? quae tibi virginum
sponsō necātō barbara serviet?
puer quis ex aulā capillīs
ad cyathum statuētur unctīs,
doctus sagittās tendere Sēricās
arcū paternō? quis neget arduīs
prōnōs relābī posse rīvōs
montibus et Tiberim revertī,
cum tū coēmptōs undique nōbilis
librōs Panāetī Sōcraticam et domum
mūtāre lōrīcīs Hibērīs,
pollicitus meliōra, tendis?
:: 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.