Horace: The Epistles

Book I: Epistle I

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved

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BkIEpI:1-19 An end to verse

You, Maecenas, of whom my first Muse told, of whom my

Last shall tell, seek to trap me in the old game again,

Though I’m proven enough, and I’ve won my discharge.

My age, spirit are not what they were. Veianius

Hangs his weapons on Hercules’ door, stops pleading to

The crowd for his life, from the sand, by hiding himself

In the country. A voice always rings clear in my ear:

‘While you’ve time, be wise, turn loose the ageing horse,

Lest he stumbles, broken winded, jeered, at the end.’

So now I’m setting aside my verse, and other tricks:

My quest and care is what’s right and true, I’m absorbed

In it wholly: I gather, then store for later use.

In case you ask who’s my master, what roof protects me,

I’m not bound to swear by anyone’s precepts,

I’m carried, a guest, wherever the storm-wind blows me.

Now I seek action, and plunge in the civic tide,

The guardian, and stern attendant of true virtue:

Now I slip back privately to Aristippus’ precepts,

Trying to bend world to self, and not self to world.

BkIEpI:20-40 Everyone can profit from philosophy

As the night is long to a man whose mistress plays false,

And the day is long to those bound to work, as the year

Drags for orphans oppressed by matron’s strict custody:

So those hours flow slowly and thanklessly for me 

That hinder my hopes and plans of pursuing closely

That which benefits rich and poor alike, that which

Neglected causes harm equally to young and old.

It’s for me to guide and console myself by rule.

You mightn’t be able to match Lynceus’ eyesight,

But you wouldn’t not bathe your eyes if they were sore:

And just because you can’t hope to have Glycon’s peerless

Physique, you’d still want your body free of knotty gout.

We should go as far as we can if we can’t go further.

Is your mind fevered with greed and wretched desire:

There are words and cries with which to ease the pain,

And you can rid yourself of the worst of your sickness.

Are you swollen with love of glory: then certain rites

Renew you, purely if you read the page three times.

Envious, irascible, idle, drunken, lustful,

No man’s so savage he can’t be civilised,

If he’ll attend patiently to self-cultivation.

BkIEpI:41-69 Money or virtue?

Virtue is to flee vice, and wisdoms’ beginning is

Freedom from foolishness. See all your anxious thoughts

And risks to avoid what you deem the worst of evils,

Too meagre a fortune, some shameful lost election:

Eager for trade you dash off to farthest India,

Avoiding poverty with seas, shoals and flames:

Why not listen to, learn to trust, one wiser than yourself,

Cease to care for what you foolishly gaze at and crave?

What wrestler at village crossroads and country fairs

Would refuse the crown at mighty Olympia,

Given the hope, the prize of a dust-free victor’s palm?

Silver’s worth less than gold, gold’s worth less than virtue.

‘Citizens, O Citizens, first you must search for wealth,

Cash before virtue!’ So Janus’ arcade proclaims

From end to end, this saying old and young recite

Slate and satchel slung over their left shoulders.

You’ve a mind, character, eloquence, honour, but wait:

You’re a few thousand short of the needed four hundred:

You’ll be a pleb. Yet boys, playing, sing: ‘You’ll be king

If you act rightly.’ Let that be your wall of bronze,

To be free of guilt, with no wrongs to cause you pallor.

Tell me, please, what’s better, a Roscian privilege,

Or the children’s rhyme of a kingdom for doing right,

Sung once by real men like Curius and Camillus?

Is he better for you who tells you: ‘Make cash,

Honest cash if you can, if not, cash by any means,’

Just for a closer view of Pupius’ sad plays,

Or he who in person exhorts and equips you

To stand free and erect, defying fierce Fortune?

BkIEpI:70-109 Be steadfast not changeable

And if the people of Rome chanced to ask me why

I delight in the same colonnades as them, yet not

The same opinions, nor follow or flee what they love

Or hate, I’d reply as the wary fox once responded to

The sick lion: ‘Because those tracks I can see scare me,

They all lead towards your den, and none lead away.’

You’re a many-headed monster. What should I follow

Or whom? Some are eager for civil contracts: some

Hunt wealthy widows with fruits and titbits, or catch

Old men in nets to stock their reserves. With many

Interest quietly adds to their wealth. Accepting that

Different men have differing aims and inclinations,

Yet can the same man bear the same liking for an hour?

‘No bay in the world outshines delightful Baiae,’

If that’s what the rich man cries, lake and sea suffer

The master’s swift attention: but if some decadent

Whim gives him the signal, it’s: ‘Tomorrow, you workmen

Haul your gear to Teanum!’ Does the Genius guard

His marriage bed in the hall: he says nothing’s finer,

Nothing outdoes the single life: if not he swears only

Marriage can suit. What knot holds this shifting Proteus?

And the pauper? You laugh! He changes his garret,

His bed, his barber, his bath, hires a boat and is just

As sick as the millionaire sailing his private yacht.

If some ham-fisted barber has cropped my hair and I

Meet you, you laugh: if I happen to wear a tired shirt

Under my tunic, or my toga sits poorly, all

Awry, you laugh: yet if my judgement contends

With itself, spurns what it craved, seeks what it just put down,

Wavers, inconsistently, in all of life’s affairs,

Razing, re-building, and altering round to square:

You consider my madness normal, don’t laugh at all,

Don’t think I need the doctor, or a legal guardian

The praetor appoints, given you, in charge of all

My affairs, are annoyed by a badly-trimmed nail

Of this friend who looks to you, hangs on your every word.

In sum: the wise man is second only to Jove,

Rich, free, handsome, honoured, truly a king of kings,

Sane, above all, sound, unless he’s a cold in the head!

End of Book I Epistle I