Understanding today’s epode means having a firm grasp of the letter a. To see if you are up to speed, I’ve made up a sentence, scrambled à la Horace and worthy of being included in a nineteenth-century Latin textbook:
Acuta ama a pulchra allata Diana arma.
If you’re good, much better than I am, you figured out that this is:
Acuta amā ā pulchrā allāta Diānā arma.
Love the sharp arms brought by beautiful Diana.
My question now is: how did you pronounce this sentence? Did you follow the advice of some modern grammarians and say aahh for ā and uh for a? If you did, you have probably made your life easier as an English speaker. If on the other hand, you are a Finnish speaker, you’d have no trouble keeping these two a’s apart. To Finns, their aa [ā] takes longer to say than does their a. It’s just that simple.
As for what the Romans did, no one seems to know for sure. Some of the other vowels like ō and o were differentiated (in imperial times) not only by length but by being articulated in different parts of the mouth. Ō was like coat (without diphthongization) and o was like cot (not for Californian speakers like me). This, by the way was talked about by the Romans themselves and attested by the behavior of the two sounds in Spanish (cf. flōs/flōrem > flor and porta > puerta). As for a in Spanish, it seems there was no change (cf āera > aire and aqua > agua). Because of this, some scholars seem to think that there was no ah vs. uh, but just ah, differentiated by length.
Of course, we don’t know how the Romans pronounced ā and a when they recited poetry. Every language I have ever heard makes a big distinction between normal speech sounds and poetic speech sounds. Nowhere is this more evident, by the way, than in Persian, were the difference between ā [ آ ]and æ [ ا ]is exaggerated to the point where ā becomes an awww-sound. I remember the first time I heard Persian poetry being recited: I was quite surprised and a bit mesmerized by the exaggeration, as in this famous beginning of a poem by Hāfiz (غزل ۴ در هروی):
اگر آن ترک شیرازی به دست آرد دل مارا
agar awwn torke shirawwzi be dast awwrad dele maww raww
If that Shirazi Turk takes my heart
به خال هندویش بخشم سمرقند و بهارارا
be khawwle henduyesh bakhsham samarqando bokhawwraww raww.
for that Hindu mole of hers I’ll give Samarkand and Bukhara.
But back to Latin. Back to trying to understand what Horace has written without the convenience of the macron or the fortune of hearing it as it must have sounded in imperial Rome. After studying the epode, you will see that there are four different uses of the letter a.
There is the first declension nominative/vocative a (luna, laesura, procera, aura, dolitura, constantia, and Neaera).
There is the neuter plural a (sidera minora, verba mea, and arcana).
There is the Greek accusative masculine a (Nirea).
And finally there is the ablative feminine ā (hederā, virtute meā, multā tellure, formā).
And what is more, you will notice that Horace has cleverly mixed things up a bit, spicing his phrasing with just the right amount of long a’s and short a’s.
For instance, take line 11:
o dolitura mea multum virtute Neaera
It almost looks as if mea should go with Neaera, “my Neaera,” but it can’t. It has to go with virtute, “my manliness.” Thus, mea is meā.
Then there is line 5:
artius atque hedera procera adstringitur ilex
Is the hedera (ivy) procera (long) or is it the ilex (oak) that is procera (tall)? It turns out that it is the oak. The ivy is that by which the oak was entwined. Thus we read the word as hederā.
My “favorite” line is 22.
formaque vincas Nirea
My Greek is pretty poor. So the fact that Nirea is in the accusative flew right by me. Without this bit of knowledge, I had no idea what to do with forma, which turns out to be in the ablative: formā.
Okay. By now, those of you in the know are raising objections: “Don’t you know that you can tell the length of a by its placement in the line and that if such placement calls for a long syllable, a has to be ā?” I know all of that, but, mehercule, I can’t seem to keep all of that inside my tiny skull.
Night it was; in a sky serene the moon
among the lesser stars kept shining
as you, ready to offend the power of the great gods,
with my words kept swearing—
more tightly than an oak entwined with ivy,
your soft arms clinging—
“As long as a wolf is hostile to cattle and Orion for sailors
enrages a winter’s sea,
and the breeze entangles Apollo’s unshorn hair,
“Our love shall ever be.”
ah, Neaera, you’ll come to miss my manliness most!
(if there’s any of my manhood in Flaccus,
who won’t bear the constant nights your putting out for a rival;
so angry he’ll seek a mate),
and constancy shall not yield to beauty once offended
when sure pain has made its way in.
So, whoever you are, are luckier than I, and proud
you exult in my misfortune.
You might be rich in cattle and much land, and
the Pactolus might flow for you,
and the teachings of Pythagoras reborn might not fool you,
and you in beauty might conquer Nireus,
but there’ll come a time. I’ll have the last laugh. Heh, heh—
and you’ll be sad over love sessions given to another.
translation © 2013 by James Rumford
procera : tall, used with trees (see also Ode III:25:15); large as with wolves (see Sermon 2:2:36); and long as in syllabae procerae, Varro.
ilex : holm oak
Orion infestus : sighting the constellation Orion heralded bad weather.
infestus : hostile (see also Ode III:8:19) and dangerous (see Ode II:10:13); used also with thieves (see Sermon 2.2.42.) Horace probably means that Orion is hostile, but I thought that he might mean that the wolf is. Horace’s salad mix of Latin words is so hard to come to terms with!
Flaccus: one of Horace’s names, flacid.
Pactolus : a river in Turkey, the Sart Çayı, where Midas washed his hands of gold.
Nireus : one of the Achaean leaders in the Trojan war, a man of outstanding beauty.
in prose ::
Nox erat et luna caelo sereno inter sidera
cum tu numen deorum magnorum laesura
in verba mea irabas,
atque ilex procera brachiis adhaerens lentis
hedera artius adstringitur,
dum lupus pecori et Orion infestus nautis
mare hibernum turbaret,
auraque capillos intonsos Apollinis agitaret,
hunc amorem mutuum fore.
o Neaera virtute mea multum dolitura!
nam si quid viri in Flacco viri est,
non feret te noctes adsiduas potiori dare,
et iratus parem quaeret,
nec constantia, semel offensae, formae cedet,
si dolor certus intrarit.
et tu, quicumque es felicior atque nunc superbus
malo meo incedis,
licebit dives pecore atque multa tellure sis,
Pactolusque tibi fluat,
nec arcana Pythagorae renati te fallant,
Nireaque forma vincas
heu, heu amores translatos alio maerebis:
ast ego vicissim risero.
Nox erat et caelo fulgebat luna sereno 1
inter minora sidera,
cum tu magnorum numen laesura deorum
in verba iurabas mea,
artius atque hederā procera adstringitur ilex, 5
lentis adhaerens brachiis,
dum pecori lupus et nautis infestus Orion
turbaret hibernum mare,
intonsosque agitaret Apollinis aura capillos,
fore hunc amorem mutuum. 10
o dolitura meā multum virtute Neaera!
nam si quid in Flacco viri est,
non feret adsiduās potiori te dare noctes,
et quaeret irātus parem,
nec semel offensae cedet constantia formae, 15
si certus intrarit dolor.
et tu, quicumque es felicior atque meo nunc
superbus incedis malo,
sis pecore et multā dives tellure licebit,
tibique Pactolus fluat, 20
nec te Pythagorae fallant arcana renati,
formāque vincās Nirea,
heu, heu translātos alio maerebis amores:
ast ego vicissim risero.
:: 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.