This is a poem written to a friend worried about dying. Horace reminds him of their solid friendship, their lucky stars that led to his friend’s triumph at the theater and Horace’s own escape from being crushed by a tree, and ultimately of the thanks owed the many gods.
The friend is Maecenas, who has appeared in many of Horace’s poems. Gaius Cilnius Maecenas was Horace’s rich patron and friend of the emperor. He even wrote poetry himself, of which a few odes still exist today. Such a patron of the arts was he [he also took Virgil under his wing] that a word fashioned from his name once existed to describe just such a benefactor: a maecenate.
Ode II:17 is pretty straightforward, except for the last few lines, where Horace is reminding Maecenas of his promises to the gods:
. . . . reddere victimas
aedemque votivam memento
nos humilem feriemeus agnam
. . . . remember to
offer victims and a votive shrine
we shall slaughter a humble ewe-lamb
Commentators take the ‘we’ in the last line to be non-inclusive, i.e, it doesn’t include Maecenas, and translators usually translate nos as I. But I am not so sure. What if Horace wants to include Maecenas? What if the ‘we’ refers to just the two of them, sacrificing a lamb together? To me, this seems more in tune with the rest of the poem, but then, perhaps Horace wants to end with an acknowledgement of their vast differences in station and wealth.
We’ll never know for sure. Latin is not like Polynesian languages which distinguish not only between a dual and plural ‘we’ but between a ‘we’ that includes you and me and a ‘we’ that excludes ‘you’ from ‘our’ group. Had Horace spoken Hawaiian, for example, he would have been forced to make the last line crystal clear by choosing one of the following:
na mākou e pepehi [i] ka hipa ha‘a.
we, not you, will slaughter a humble lamb
na kāua e pepehi
the two of us together will slaughter
na kākou e pepehi
we and you will slaughter
Differences among languages like these always amaze me. They show what speakers of a particular language consider to be important. Hawaiians always want to know who is and isn’t part of the group. The language demands it, much to the consternation of the missionaries who first wondered how to translate ‘our Father.’ Is God one of us or not. They settled on ‘not.’ God is in heaven. We are not.
As for the Romans, they didn’t care about such fine distinctions. Sure, they qualified nos as in nos Romani, but for the most part, they liked the ambiguity of their nos. Think how many times they could leave the person they’re speaking to wondering: Am I part of the group or not? Think how Horace has left me wondering.
Chimera [χίμαιρα], a monstrous fire-breathing monster composed of several animals.
Gyas/Gyes [Γύης]: a monstrous giant of enormous strength, one of the children of the earth Gaia and the sky Uranus, and known along with his brothers Briareus [Βριάρεως] and Cottus [Κόττος] as the hundred-handed ones, the hecatonchires [ὲκατόγχειρες]. The hecatonchires tried to overthrow Olympus but failed and are buried under Mt. Aetna, a suitably fearful spot.
Capricorn’s western wave: During the time when Capricorn rules the skies, the winter storms push great waves from the west
rapid wings: I translate volucris as rapid, but the word also means ‘flying’ and should grammically modify Fate. I just couldn’t write ‘flying Fate.’
mercurial men: those born under the sign of Mercury, thus able to write poetry, to be eloquent. The god Mercury was eloquent, but he was also shrewd, swift, and thievish. Maybe Horace is having a bit of fun here.
Why are you driving me out of my mind
with your grumbling? Neither would it please me
nor the gods that you die first, Maecenas,
great in honor and pillar of my life.
Ah, if the Force rips away a part of
my soul by taking you first, how do I
stay on incomplete with the other part
not worth as much to me. That day will lead
one of us to ruin. I have sworn no
false oath “we shall go, we shall go.” Should you
precede me somehow, ready we will be
as comrades to continue the last journey.
The fire spirit Chimera won’t ever
tear me apart, nor will the hundred-armed
Gyas, should he rise again— if it so please
the Fates and the mighty goddess Justice.
Either Libra or fearful Scorpio,
the more violent one, looked down on me
at the hour of my birth, or Capricorn,
ruler absolute of the western waves;
for both of us, by some incredible
means, the stars aligned. You Jove’s resplendent
protection snatched from the underhanded
Saturn and slowed the rapid wings of Fate,
when the people going to the theater clapped
with joy three times. And me that tree about to
fall on my head would have carried me off
if Faunus, keeper of mercurial
men, had not lightened the blow with his right
hand. Remember to make offerings of
victims and to build the shrines you promised.
we shall slaughter an ordinary lamb.
Cur me querelis tuis exanimas? Nec dis nec mihi amicum est te prius obire, [o] Maecenas, grande decus columenque rerum mearum! A! Si vis te, partem animae meae, maturior rapit, quid alteram [partem] moror—[ego] nec carus aeque nec integer superstes? Illeque dies ruinam utram ducet.
Non ego sacramentum perfidum dixi. Ibimus. Ibimus utcumque praecedes, [nos] comites parati iter supremum carpere.
Nec spiritus Chimaerae igneae nec, si Gyas centimanus resurgat, umquam me [a te] divellet.
Sic placitum [est] potenti Iustitiae Parcisque.
Seu Libra seu Scorpios formidolosus, pars violentior [meae] horae natalis, seu Capricornus, tyrannus undae Hesperiae, me aspicit, astrum nostrum utrumque modo incredibili consentit—
Tutela Iovis, Saturno impio refulgens, te eripuit, alasque Fati volucrisque tardavit, cum populus, [in] theatris frequens, sonum laetum ter crepuit.
Truncus me cerebro illapsus sustulerat, nisi Faunus ‹custos Mercurialium virorum› ictum dextra [manu sua] levasset. Memento victimas aedemque votivam reddere. Nos agnam humilem feriemus.
[revised March 27, 2015]
Cūr mē querēlīs exanimās tuīs?
Nec dīs amīcum est nec mihi tē prius
obīre, Maecēnās, meārum
grande decus columenque rērum.
ā! tē meae sī partem animae rapit
mātūriōr vīs, quid moror alteram[altera],
nec cārus aequē nec superstes
integer? ille diēs utramque
dūcet ruīnam. nōn ego perfidum
dixī sǎcrāmentum: ībimus, ībimus,
utcumque praecēdēs, suprēmum
carpere iter comitēs parātī.
mē nec Chimaerae spīritus igneae
nec, sī resurgat centimanus Gyas,
dīvellet umquam: sīc potentī
Iustitiae placitumque Parcis.
seu Lībra seu mē Scorpios aspicīt
formīdolōsus, pars violentior
nātālis hōrae, seu tyrannus
Hesperiae Capricornus undae,
utrumque nostrum incrēdibilī modō
consentit astrum; tē Iovis impiō
tūtēla Sāturnō refulgēns
ēripuit volucrisque Fātī
tardāvit ālās, cum populus frequēns
laetum theātrīs ter crepuit sonum;
mē truncus illāpsus cerebrō
sustulerat, nisi Faunus ictum
dextrā levasset, Mercuriālium
custos virōrum. Reddere victimās
aedemque vōtivam mementō;
nōn humilem feriēmus agnam.
:: Latin books by James Rumford ::
For all 102 odes purchase Carpe Diem, Horace De-Poetized, for $11.50 at
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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.