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Maecenas was Horace’s benefactor, protector, the rich, well-connected guy who made it possible for Horace to rise to the top. In this poem, Horace, tells Maecenas that he’s having a bit of a problem getting some writing done. Why?
Well, to put it as a guy-friend once told me about why a married friend of mine wasn’t doing his work: “He’s having women problems….if I saw him, I’d know it in a heartbeat.”
I never found out whether my friend was having ‘women problems’ or not, but I do remember the conversation. I was way younger then and naive. Don’t know if I’ve learned much in the intervening years. Probably not, since I had to do a considerable amount of thinking to understand this poem.
For one thing, Horace calls out: deus, deus. He doesn’t mention the god’s name, but every scholar assumes that this is the god of love. When you think about it, who else could it be? And here is Eros or Cupid as painted by Caravaggio:
In this epode, Horace isn’t talking about love in general terms. He is talking about a specific kind of love, the kind of love he wants from a freedwoman named Phryne, who is never satisfied with just one lover. And Horace is talking about the kind of love that comes from cheating on one’s wife—to put it in American terms—when he hints that Maecenas is having an affair…at least, I suppose Maecenas is having an affair. It couldn’t be that he is burning with passion for his wife. No, marital love was yet another kind of love.
Now, Horace, in exemplifying passionate love, mentions the Greek lyric poet Anacreon (582-485 BC) and his love for the boy Bathyllus. To Horace, I suppose, homosexual love and heterosexual love are, well, just love, blinding love. Some of my contemporaries are having trouble with this equation. The ancients, it seems, did not.
But what if Horace wasn’t suffering from love? What if this poem is a humorous poke at those who do—a jab at the very notion of what constitutes a bona fide excuse? We do not accept ‘the dog ate my homework’ but we do accept ‘my computer crashed’ or ‘we’re having trouble with the internet.’ And we men certainly understand the stuff Horace is talking about. This epode, I figured after much thought, is no more than just ‘guy talk.’
Soft inertia—why would it
pour so much forgetfulness
onto my deepest feelings
as if I—throat parched—had downed
sleep-bringing cups from death’s stream.
True-friend Maecenas, you are
killing me always asking.
God Eros, Eros, he is
stopping me from winding up
the song-poem promised some time
ago, the iambs begun.
No different from the talk
about Bathyllus Samus
having burned Anacreon
of Teius, who with his lyre
kept crying over his love
in unregulated verse.
You poor thing are burning up—
but if a fire no nicer
burned down beseiged Illium,
be happy with your fortune.
Me the freedwoman Phryne,
not happy with just one man,
is turning into mush.
translation © 2014 by James Rumford
Original Epode with Aids to Understanding ::
Reordered in prose
Mollis inertia cūr tantam diffūderit imīs
Inertia mollis cūr tantam oblīviōnem
sensibus imīs diffūderit
DOptime Mæcenas, interficis me,
quærendo sæpius quare otiosa
diffuderit: ex diffundo
cf. Perché una noia snervante m’abbia
diffuso dentro, in fondo al cuore,
pocula Lēthaeōs ut sī dūcentia somnōs
arente fauce traxerim,
ut sī pocula somnōs Lēthaeōs dūcentia,
fauce arente, traxerim,
Dintimis præcordiis induxerit talem
oblivionem, velut si gutture sitibundo
Lethaeos: Lethe flumen erat, dare alicui
candide Maecēnas, occidis saepe rogandō;
deus, deus, nam mē vetat
candide Maecēnas, occidis saepe rogandō;
nam deus, deus mē vetat
Dhauserim aquas Letæas soporem
conciliantes. Enimverò Deus, Deus,
inquam, me prohibet
Maecenas: patronus artium, Horatii amicus
deus: amoris deus, id est vel Cupido vel Eros
inceptōs, ōlim prōmissum carmen, iambōs
ad umblīcum addūcere.
iambōs inceptōs, carmen ōlim prōmissum,
ad umbilīcum addūcere.
Dinchoatum carmen Iambicum jam
pridem tibi promissum ad finem
umbilicum: finem libri. Umbilicus erat nodus
extremus bacilli circum quod liber volvebatur.
nōn aliter Samiō dīcunt arsisse Bathyllō
nōn aliter dīcunt Anacreonta Tēium
Samiō Bathyllō arsisse,
DSimili modo narrant Bathylli Samii
amore incensum fuisse Anacreontem
Samio Bathyllo: Samus est insula in Aegaeo orientali sita.
Bathyllo: Bathyllus est puer Samius
Anacreonta Teium: Anacreōn poeta Tēius, id est, ex
oppidō Īōniō Teiō
quī persaepe cavā testūdine flēvit amorem
nōn ēlabōrātum ad pedem.
quī amorem persaepe testūdine cavā amorem
nōn ad pedem ēlabōrātum flēvit.
Dqui sæpe lyrâ amores cecinit ad
ūreris ipse miser: quodsī nōn pulcrior ignis
accendit obsessam Īlion,
Miser ipse ūreris: quodsī ignis nōn pulcrior
Īlion obsessam accendit,
Ipse verò tu amore cruciaris. Quòd si
non formosior ignis cremavit Trojam
gaude sorte tuā; mē lībertīna, nec unō
contenta, Phrȳnē mācerat.
sorte tuā gaude; Phrȳnē lībertīna,
nec unō contenta, mē mācerat.
Dlætare de tuâ conditione. Nam
urit me Phryne libertina, uno
amatore minimè contenta.
:: 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.