First, before tackling today’s ode, I’d like to go back for just a moment to the ode in my last posting, “Iustum et Tenacem.” A few days after finishing up that ode, I saw Vittorio de Sica’s masterful “Umberto D.” The film reminded me of Horace’s iustum et tenacem propositi virum—you know—the morally upright guy who stays the course no matter the head winds.
Umberto D is assailed by several forces, none of which he can control. When he loses all hope, he decides to commit suicide—and take his dog with him—by jumping in front of an on-coming train. The dog jumps out of his master’s arms, and, in that split second, Umberto realizes what he was about to do, rights his course, as it were, and decides to live. The movie ends with Umberto and his dog playing in a nearby park.
So what made me think of “Iustum et Tenacem”? It was this: both ode and film treat a very serious subject: moral integrity. Both end with a reminder not to take things too seriously. Is de Sica’s film based on a cultural notion of gravity tempered with joy, and does this notion stretch back to the days of Rome? At least, I thought so as the final credits flickered on my television screen.
Then I watched a documentary about de Sica that came with the cd and was surprised to hear what de Sica thought about the film. It was a film about man’s inability to communicate with his fellow man, he said. I was shocked. That thought hadn’t crossed my mind. I had been so wrapped up with my own take on his film that I forgot rule number one when considering a work of art: the opinion of its creator trumps whatever anyone else may think. Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and, sure, the artist may fail miserably to attain his goal; nevertheless, we the public must carefully consider what the artist thinks his work is about before spouting off—especially when dealing with a master like de Sica or . . . Horace.
Horace left us little about his private thoughts. Although there is his Ars Poetica, a poem about some aspects of writing poetry especially as it pertains to drama, and there are bits and pieces that one might glean from various writings, nevertheless, we have nothing as clear as de Sica’s comment on his own film.
This is too bad because today’s ode “Descende Caelo” is badly in need of some guidance from the poet.
First of all, there is the text which seems corrupt in parts. These scribal errors[?] are noted below in red. (Red should also be the color of Niall Rudd’s face, who did the 2004 edition of Horace: Odes and Epodes for the Loeb Classical Library. His sin? Basing his translation of line 9 on a textual variant that he forgot to include!)
Second, and more important than the textual variants is this: what is the ode about? Horace calls on the muse Calliope to help him craft a song. Then he talks about how special he is and how nothing is impossible especially with the Roman muses, the Camenae, at his side.
Next, he riffs on the power of the gods and the Gigantomachy, the War of the Giants. Suddenly he blindsides us with the notion that power must be tempered because, if it isn’t, one may end up like the fools recorded in the ancient stories who still suffer for their arrogance by having their livers continually fed upon by vultures, by wearing three-hundred chains, or by being buried under Mount Aetna. It seems that Horace has stuffed this ode, his longest, with ideas and it is bursting at the seams.
A corrupt text, confusing ideas—just the kind of stuff scholars love to sink their teeth into. For two thousand years, they have pushed and pulled and poked at this poem trying to make it fit into what they think Horace was doing when he began his ode with a call to Calliope to descend from heaven and entertain him with song. Maybe he was talking about the emperor and the Roman state. Maybe he was going on a moral rant. Maybe, just maybe—and this is my take on the ode—Horace was talking about what it means to be a creative person—to be possessed by the voice of a muse then assailed by the giants of self-doubt and left to suffer in agony over what one has failed to do.
Maybe Horace would have laughed at “my take.” But something tells me he would not have. Creative people look at the world differently. For them, the world is one of possibilities. They will try anything. “Temptabo,” Horace says in line 31: I will try. They are filled with soul: animosi [ln. 20]. They are, but for that short moment in the presence of their muse, inviolati [ln. 36].
All right. Maybe I have gone too far. Maybe Horace would have been shocked at what I have just said, just as shocked as I was at hearing what de Sica had to say.
Come down from the sky and sing now,
O Queen, an epic song, O Calliope, with flute,
or do you think a high voice better
or a lute or Apollo’s cithara?
Hear anything? Is love-madness toying
with me? I think I hear [her] wandering
through the sacred groves where water
and sweet breezes go by.
On the Apulian Mt. Vulture1, beyond the
threshold of Nurse Pullia, tired out from play
and asleep, storied wood pigeons covered
me, a boy, with fresh leaves.
Amazing how it was to all who
have a perch in high-up Acherontia,2
a wooded pasture in Bantia,
a fat field in lower Forentum,
how I slept—safe from black vipers
and bears—how I was pressed down with
sacred laurel and gathered myrtle,
a lively child—not without the gods.
Yours, Camenae, yours I am, carried
to the lofty Sabines, whether it be frigid
Praeneste, or Tibur supine,3 or
liquid Baiae—they have pleased me.
Me—a lover of your fountains and dancing—
the battle line in retreat at Philippi didn’t
finish off, nor the damned tree,
nor Palinurus in a wave from Sicily.4
Whenever you are with me, I am ready,
a sailor, to take on the insane Bosphorus;
a traveler, the burning sands
of the Syrian shore.
I’ll visit Britons cruel to foreigners
and the Concanus5 happy with horse blood,
I’ll visit the quivered Geloni
and the Scythian river—unharmed.
You lofty Caesar (now that from the campaign
he’s sent his wearied troops home,
looking for an end to hardship)
restore within a Pierian5 cave.
You give gentle counsel and happily so,
kind one; we know how he brought down
the ungodly Titans and the monstrous
crowd with a sudden thunder bolt—
the one who tempers the immovable earth,
the windy sea, cities and sad kingdoms,
ruling the gods and throngs of mortals
alone6 with an even command.
They had brought great terror to Jove,
that youth bristling with hands
and the brothers who tried to put
Mt.Pelion on shady Olympus.7
But what are they capable of—Typhoeus
and stout Mimas or Porphyrius with his
threatening stature, Rhoetus and Enceladus,8
daring hurler of uprooted trunks,
rushing against the singing Minervan
shield? Here stands Vulcan earnest, here
the matron Juno and the one never
to put a bow on his shoulders,
the one who washes his loosened hair
in the pure dew of Castalia, who holds the
Lycian9 thickets and his home forest:
Apollo of Delos and Patara.
Force without counsel ruins its own strength,
Force tempered, the gods exalt even more,
at the same time, they hate the forces
stiring up all the evil in the mind.
Witnesses for my opinions: Gyges
the hundred-handed and Orion, famous
temptor of the virgin Diana, yet
conquered by the maiden’s arrow.
The earth, injected with monsters, suffers,
and grieves for the offspring sent by lightning
to lurid Orcus; lava has not consumed
Aetna, placed over them,10
neither has the winged one, added guardian
against wantonness, left libidinous Tityos’ liver11
alone, three hundred chains
restrain Pirithous the lover.12
[translation © 2012 by James Rumford]
1 Vultur, a mountain in present-day Basilicata, now Mount Vulture; Horace was born in Venusia, which is on the Apulian side of Mt. Vulture. As for Nurse Pullia, no one now knows what the original text was. Scholars believe Pullia might be a scribal error, since Horace, they say, wouldn’t have used Apulia and Pullia in the same stanza. Worse yet, some say that Horace intended to say Nurse Apulia!
2 Acherontia, now Acerenza, in present-day Basilicata. Bantia is Banzi, Forentum Forenza, Praeneste Paletrina, Tibur Tivoli, and Baiae is Baia on the Bay of Naples near Pozzuoli.
3 I have retained Horace’s adjectives in English. Supine might mean ‘extended’ or ‘sloping’ or even a pun about the Sabine region. A ‘liquid’ town on the coast—as odd as it is—seems intriguing in English.
4 Palinurus: perhaps Cap Palinuro, which faces Sicily and is forty miles down the coast from Salerno. Does Horace mean that he almost drowned in a wave that came from Sicily? Perhaps. The other two events, the rout at Philippi and the tree that almost killed him have been mentioned in other odes.
5 Concani: Spanish tribe. Geloni: Ukranian tribe. Pierian: of Thessaly, sacred to the Muses.
6 Alone: unus, reminds me of a new translation of the Hebrew God is one as God is alone.
7 Bristling with hands: Hecatoncheires, the 100-handed sons of Uranus and Gaius who would eventually help Zeus overthrow the Titans, other children of Uranus and Gaius. Brothers: the Aloadae, Otus and Ephialtes, who are the two sons of Poseidon and Iphimedea, Queen of Aloeus. Otus and Ephialtes tried to reach heaven by placing mountains one on top of the other.
8 Typhoeus, Mimas, Porphyrius, Rhoetus, and Enceladus are all giants who were defeated by Jupiter in the Gigantomachy, the War of the Giants. They are imprisoned under Aetna.
9 Castalia: a spring on Parnassus, sacred to Apollo and the Muses. Lycia: country in Asia Minor.
10 Jupiter hured Aetna on top of giants such as Enceladus, See note 8 above. The offspring are the children of Gaia, whom her mate Uranus imprisoned in the earth, causing Gaia great pain.
11 Tityos was a giant and son of Jupiter who was punished for attacking Latrona by having his liver constantly fed upon by a vulture.
12 Pirithous went with Theseus to the Underworld to carry away Proserpine, but the two were seized and held captive. Hercules was able to save only Theseus.
In Prose ::
Caelo descende et age dic, [o] Regina Calliope, melos longum, seu nunc voce acuta mavis, seu fidibus citharave Phoebi. [Vos] auditis an ‹insania amabilis› me ludit? Et videor audire [eam] errare per lucos pios, [per] quos ‹et aquae et aurae amoenae› subeunt.
In Vulture, Apulo, extra limina nutricis Pulliae, palumbes fabulosae me, puerum ludo somnoque fatigatum, nova fronde texere, quod mirum omnibus foret, quicumque nidum Acherontiae celsae saltusque Bantinos et arvum pingue Forenti humilis tenent, ut ‹corpore ab viperis atris et ursis tuto› dormirem, ut lauroque sacra myrtoque collata premerer, infans animosus non sine dis.
Vester, Camenae, vester in Sabinos arduos tollor, seu Praeneste frigidum seu Tibur supinum seu Baiae liquidae mihi placuer[unt]. Non acies [in] Philippis versa retro, non arbor devota, nec Palinurus unda Sicula ‹me amicum fontibus et choris vestris› exstinxit. Utcumque vos mecum eritis, navita Bosphorum insanientem et viator harenas urentes litoris Assyrii libens temptabo. [Ego] inviolatus, ‹Britannos hospitibus feros› visam et ‹Concanum sanguine equino laetum›, ‹Gelonos pharetratos› et ‹amnem Scythicum› visam.
Vos Caesarem altum, simul cohortes fessas [ex] militia [in] oppidis abdidit labores finire quaerentem, antro Pierio recreatis, vos consilium lene datis et dato gaudetis, almae, scimus ut [Iuppiter] Titanas impios turbamque immanem fulmine caduco sustulerit, qui terram inertem, qui mare ventosum temperat et urbes regnaque tristia, divosque turmasque mortales unus imperio aequo regit.
Illa iuventus fidens horrida bracchiis terrorem magnum Iovi intulerat fratresque Pelion Olympo opaco imposuisse tendentes. Sed quid Typhoeus et Mimas validus aut quid Porphyrio statu minaci, quid Rhoetus truncisque evulsis Enceladus iaculator audax contra aegida sonantem Palladis ruentes [facere] possent? Hinc stetit Volcanus avidus, hinc matrona Iuno et Apollo Delius et Patareus, numquam arcum [in] umeris positurus, qui crines solutos rore puro Castaliae lavit, qui dumeta Lyciae silvamque natalem tenet.
Vis, consili expers, mole sua ruit. Di quoque vim temperatam in maius provehunt, idem vires moventes animo omne nefas oder[unt].Gyges centimanus testis sententiarum mearum, et Orion notus, temptator Dianae integrae, sagitta virginea domitus. Monstris suis iniecta, Terra dolet, maeretque partus ad Orcum luridum fulmine missos. Nec ignis celer Aetnen impositam peredit, nec ales, custos nequitiae additus, iecur Tityi incontinentis reliquit, catenae trecentae Pirithoum amatorem cohibent. [revised March 27, 2015]
Delphin Ordo ::
O Princeps Calliope, veni ex Olympo; et cantionem longiorem cane fistulâ, sive placet magis, voce clarâ, vel chordis vel lyrâ Apollinis. An auditis? An me decipit jucundus furor? Videor audire et cernere illam ambulantem in sacris nemoribus, per quæ rivi penetrant ac venti. Me puerum deffessum ludendo, somnoque oppressum celebratæ palumbes recentibus foliis cooperuere in Vulture Appulo extra fines Apuliæ nutricis meæ; quæ res admirationem cunctis faceret, quotquot sublimis Acherontiæ domos incolunt, et Bantiæ campos, agrosque opimos Ferenti depressi, quo pacto somnum caperem securo corpore à nigris viperis atque ursis: quâ etiam ratione contectus essem sacratâ lauro et myrto congestâ, puerulus ego non sine numinum tutelâ impavidus. Vester, ô Musæ, vester sum ; seu vehor ad Sabinos asperos ; sive algidum Præneste, seu declive Tibur, seu Baias amœnas adire liberit. Vestros fontes et choros amantem haud me vitâ privavit actus in fugam exercitus apud Philippos, neque arbor execranda, neque Palinurus in mari Siciliæ. Quandocunque mihi vos aderitis, ultro Bosporum æstuosum navigabo, et peragrabo sicca sabula finium Syriæ : pergam ad Britannos advenis crudeles, atque ad Concanos cruoris equini potu gaudetes : Gelonos pahretram gestantes, atque fluvium Scythæ adibo illæstus. Vos magnum Augustum finem laboribus petentem oblectatis in specu Piero, quando fatigatas bello turmas in urbibus collocavit. Vos mansuetum animum et donatis, et donato benignæ lætamini. Novimus quomodo sceleratos gigantes, ac ferocem phalangem misso fulmine profligârit is, qui terram immobilem, qui mare ventis obnoxium moderatur, atque oppida, mœstasque regiones, Deosque et homines solus gubernat postestate legitimâ. Jovi metum ingentem incusserant immanes illi juvenes, lacertis confisi, et fratres Pelion superaddere conati Olympo umbroso. Verùm quid Typhon, et fortis Mimas, vel quid Porphyrion staturâ terribili, quid Rhœtus, et Enceladus eradicatas arbores torquere nisus, valeant adversùs crepantem Minervæ clypeum irrumpentes? Ex hâc parte certabat ardens Vulcanus, et domina Juno, necnon Phœbus arcum semper humeris gestans, qui Castalii fontis aquâ liguidâ passos capillos perfundit, qui Lyciæ nemora et silvam natalem obtinent, Patareus atque Delius hinc dictus. Robur sine prudentiâ proprio cadit pondere. Moderatum robur ipsa numina promovent ad amplius ; vires autem quodlibet scelus machinantes aversantur. Dicta mea manifestè comprobat Gyas centum manus habens, pariter et Orion oppugnator castæ Dianæ hujus Virginis telis confossus. Terra suis portentis imposita ægrè fert ; atque filios ad fœtida Tartara fulmine detrusos dolet. At vorax flamma non absumit Ætnam injectam : neque libidinosi Tityi hepar demittit vultur luxuriæ vindex oppositus ; amantem verò Piritoum trecenta coërcent vincula.
Original Ode ::
Descende caelō et dīc age tībiā
Rēgīna longum Calliopē melōs,
seu vōce nunc māvīs acūtā,
seu fīdibus citharāque[ve] Phoebī.
audītis an mē lūdit amābilis
insānia? audīre et videor piōs
errāre per lūcōs et amoenae
quōs et aquae subeunt et aurae.
mē fābulōsae Vultūre in āpulō[in āviō]
nūtrīcis extra līmina Pūlliae[pergulae/limen]
lūdō fatīgātumque sommō
fronde novā puerum palumbēs
texēre, mīrum quod foret omnibus,
quīcumque celsae nīdum Acherontiae
saltūsque Bantīnōs et arvum
pingue tenent humilis Forentī,
ut tūtō ab ātrīs corpore vīperīs
dormīrem et ursīs, ut premerer sǎcrā
laurōque collātāque myrtō,
nōn sine dīs animōsus infāns.
vester, Camēnae, vester in arduōs
tollor Sabīnōs, seu mihi frīgidum
Praeneste seu Tībur supīnum
seu liquidae placuēre Bāiae.
vestrīs amīcum fontibus et chorīs
nōn mē Philippīs versa aciēs retrō,
dēvōta nōn exstinxit arbor
nec Siculā Palinūrus undā.
utcumque mēcum vōs eritis libēns
insānientem nāvita Bosphorum
temptābō et ūrentıs harēnās
lītoris Assyriī viātor,
vīsam Britannōs hospitibus ferōs
et laetum equīnō sanguine Concanum,
vīsam pharētrātōs Gelōnōs
et Scythicum inviolātus amnem.
vōs Caesarem altum, mīlitiā simul
fessās cohortıs abdidit oppidīs
fīnīre quaerentem labōrēs,
Pīeriō recreātis antrō,
vōs lēne consīlium datis et datō
gaudētis, almae, scīmus ut impiōs
Tītānas immānemque turbam
fulmine sustulerit cadūcō,
quī terram inertem, quī mare temperat
ventōsum et urbıs[urbēs, umbras] regnaque tristia,
dīvōsque mortālısque turmās
imperiō regit unus aequō.
magnum illa terrōrem intulerat Iovī
fīdēns iuventus horrida bracchiīs
frātrēsque tendentēs opācō
Pelion imposuisse Olympō.
sed quid Typhōeus et validus Mimās
aut quid minācī Porphyrion statū,
quid Rhoetus ēvulsīsque truncīs
Enceladus iaculātor audax
contrā sonantem Palladis aegida
possent ruentēs? hinc avidus stetit
Volcānus, hinc mātrōna Iūnō et
numquam umerīs positūrus arcum,
quī rōre pūrō Castaliae lavit
crīnıs solūtōs, quī Lyciae tenet
dūmēta nātālemque silvam,
Dēlius et Patareus Apollō.
vīs consilī expers mōle ruit suā:
vim temperātam dī quoque prōvehunt
in māius, idem ōdēre vīrıs
omne nefas animō moventıs.
testis meārum centimanus Gyges[Gyās]
sententiārum, nōtus et integrae
temptātor ōrīōn Diānae
virgineā domitus sagittā.
iniēcta monstrīs terra dolet suīs
maeretque partūs fulmine lūridum
missōs ad Orcum, nec perēdit
impositam celer ignis Aetnen,
incontinentis nec Tityī iecur
relīquit āles, nēquitiae additus
custōs; amātōrem trecentae
Pīrithoum cohibent catēnae.
:: 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.