Horace: The Epistles

Book I: Epistle XVI

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

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.


BkIEpXVI:1-24 Are you really wise, Quinctius?

To save you asking about my farm, dear Quinctius,

And whether its owner’s supported by the plough,

Or rich from olives, apples, meadows or vine-decked elms,

I’ll describe its nature at length, and the lie of the land.

Unbroken hills, except where they’re cut by a shady

Valley, but with morning sun lighting it on the right,

Its departing chariot, in flight, warming the left side.

You’d praise its mildness. And what if the bushes bore

Rich crops of reddish cornels and plums? If ilex

And oak pleased the herds with piles of acorns, their master

With ample shade? You’d say leafy Tarentum had been

Brought nearer home. A spring fit to name a river too,

And Hebrus no purer or cooler winding through Thrace,

Flows, bringing its aid to infirm heads and stomachs.

This sweet retreat, yes, believe me, it’s lovely,

Keeps me healthy for you in September’s heat.

You live rightly, if you take care to be what I hear.

All we in Rome have long considered you happy:

But I fear lest you believe others more than yourself,

Or lest you think other than wise and good men happy,

Or lest people keep saying you’re quite sound and healthy

While you disguise a hidden fever till dinner time,

When a shivering takes your hands at the groaning table.

Fools through a false sense of shame hide their open sores.

BkIEpXVI:25-45 Are you really as good as is said?

If someone spoke of wars you’d fought on land and sea,

And flattered your listening ear with words like these:

‘May Jupiter, who cares for you and cares for the City,

Leave us in doubt if the people most wish you well,

Or you the people.’ you’d know they praised Augustus.

So when you let yourself be called ‘ wise and faultless’,

Tell me, please, do you recognise your name there?

‘Well, I, like you, am charmed to be called good and wise.’

Who gives today can take away tomorrow if he

Pleases, as they take the rods and axe from a failure.

‘Put that down, it’s mine’ he says: I do so, offended,

And retreat. If the same man shouted thief, called me

Shameless, alleged I’d strangled my father with a rope,

Should I be stung by false charges, my face reddened?

Whom do false tributes delight, and scandalous lies

Dismay, but one who’s flawed, infirm? Who’s the good man?

‘Whoever observes the Senate’s decrees, laws, statutes,

Whose judgment resolves many important cases,

Who stands surety, and gives binding testimony.’

Yet all his neighbours and household see this man

As ugly within, though dressed in a handsome skin.

BkIEpXVI:46-79 The meaning of true goodness

If a slave says to me: ‘I’ve never stolen, or run,’

I reply: ‘Then you’ve your reward, you’ve never been flogged.’

‘I’ve never killed anyone’: ‘You’ll not hang on a cross

And feed crows.’ ‘I’m good and honest’: A Sabine would shake

His head in dissent. A wary wolf fears the trap,

A hawk the hidden net, a pike the baited hook,

And the good hate vice, through love of virtue.

But you commit no crimes for fear of punishment:

If there’s hope of concealment, you’ll blur sacred

And profane. If you steal one of my thousand bushels

Of beans, my loss is less, for that reason, not your sin.

This ‘good’ man, admired in forum or tribunal,

When he offers a pig or ox to placate the gods,

Cries loud and clear: ‘Father Janus!’ and ‘Apollo!’

Then just moving his lips, afraid to be heard: ‘Lovely

Laverna, let me escape, let me seem just and pious,

Veil my sins in darkness, my falsehoods in clouds.’

How a miser who stoops at the crossroads to pick up

A planted coin can be better or freer than a slave, 

I don’t see: those who are covetous, fear as well:

And, to me, he who lives in fear will never be free.

The man who always rushes around lost in making

Money has deserted Virtue’s ranks, and grounded arms.

Once captured don’t kill him, if you can sell him:

He’ll do as a slave: with flocks or plough if he’s tough,

Or let him sail as a trader, wintering in the deep,

Or help in the market, carrying food and stores.

The good and wise man will dare to say: ‘Pentheus,

Lord of Thebes, what shame can you force me to suffer

And endure?’ ‘I’ll take your goods.’ My cattle you mean,

Possessions, couches, silver: do so.’ ‘I’ll chain you, hand

And foot, and imprison you under a cruel jailor.’

‘Yet, whenever I wish, the gods will set me free.’

I take it he means, ‘I’ll die’. Death is the final goal.

End of Book I Epistle XVI