Horace: The Epistles

Book I: Epistle XVIII

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

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BkIEpXVIII:1-36 Virtue is the mean between extremes

Lollius, frankest of men, if I know you truly,

Professing yourself a friend, you’d hate to appear

A hanger-on. As a wife and whore are unequal,

Unlike, so a friend differs from a fickle sponger.

There’s an opposite, maybe a greater vice than this,

Boorish aggression, offensive and awkward, replete

With shaven head, and blackened teeth, that seeks

To pass itself off as plain speech and honest virtue.

Virtue’s the mean between vices, far from extremes.

The first type, a joker, prone to be over-servile,

Next to the host on the lowest couch, anxious

For the rich man’s nod, echoing his words, hanging

On every one, you’d think him a schoolboy repeating

Lines for his stern teacher, a mime playing second part.

The other disputes about whether goat’s hair’s wool,

Arms himself over trifles: ‘Conceive of not being

Thought right at once, barking out fiercely what I truly

Think! A second life, even, wouldn’t be worth that price!’

The issue? Is Castor or Dolichos more skilful?

For Brundisium, take the Appian or Minucian?

The man stripped bare by ruinous passion or reckless

Gambling, whom Vanity clothes and scents beyond his means,

Gripped by endless hunger and thirst for money, by shame

And fear of poverty, will be dreaded and loathed by his

Rich friend, whose often ten times more deeply versed in sin.

Or if not hating him, guides him, like a dutiful mother,

Who’d have him more virtuous, wiser than himself,

And almost speaks truth: ‘My wealth (don’t try to compete!)

Allows for foolishness: while your means are only slight.

A narrow toga suits a sensible follower:

Don’t vie with me.’ If he wished to harm someone,

Eutrapelus gave him rich clothes: ‘Now, the happy man

Will assume new plans and hopes with his fine tunics,

Sleep till sun-up, and postpone his honest affairs

For the sake of a whore, swell his debts, and end as

gladiator, or driving a grocer’s nag for hire.’

BkIEpXVIII:37-66 How to behave with your patron

You should never pry into your patron’s secrets,

But, trusted, defend them though racked by wine or anger.

Don’t praise your own tastes or criticise those of others,

And don’t pen poetry if he wants to go hunting.

That’s how Amphion and Zethus’ brotherly feelings

Dissolved, till the lyre the sterner one so distrusted

Fell silent. Amphion, it’s said, gave way to his brother’s

Humour: yield yourself to the gentle commands of

A powerful friend. When he heads for the country,

With his hounds, his mules weighed down with Aetolian

Hunting nets, away with your peevish unsociable

Muse: up, earn with effort the relish for your dinner:

It’s the Roman hero’s common sport, good for glory,

Life and limb: especially since you’re fit, and can run

Faster than hounds, or the powerful boar: what’s more

There’s no one who handles the weapons men use

More gracefully: you know how the onlookers cheer

When you compete on the Campus: lastly, you fought

As a boy in a tough campaign, and the Spanish wars,

Under a leader who’s now reclaiming our standards

From Parthian temples, and adding to Italy’s might.

And lest you hang back, absent yourself for no reason,

Well, you do have fun sometimes at your father’s place,

However carefully you shun excess or tastelessness:

The boats are split into fleets, the battle of Actium,

You as admiral, is fought with your lads as the foes:

Your brother opposes, the Adriatic’s the lake,

Till winged Victory crowns one or the other with bay.

If your patron believes you endorse his pursuits,

He’ll give you the thumbs up and praise your display.

BkIEpXVIII:67- 85 Plenty more advice

On with the advice (if you need any advice):

Always think what you say to whom, and of whom.

Avoid the inquisitive: they’re also garrulous,

Flapping ears can’t be trusted to keep a secret,

And once the word’s let slip, it flies beyond recall.

Don’t let a girl or boy arouse your passion, once you

Have crossed your revered friend’s marble doorstep,

Lest the lovely boy’s or pretty girl’s master blesses

You with so slight a gift, or annoyed by it refuses.

Reflect again and again on whom you sponsor,

Lest later the other’s failings fill you with shame.

Sometimes we fail and propose the unworthy: so

If deceived, avoid defending the one who’s at fault,

Then when a man you know deeply is charged with crime

You can help and protect him who relies on your aid:

When someone’s bitten by Theon’s slanderous teeth,

How long will it be before you share the danger?

If your neighbour’s roof’s in flames, it’s your business too,

And neglected fires have a habit of gaining strength.

BkIEpXVIII:86-112 A warning and a prayer

To the inexperienced, courting a powerful friend

Seems pleasant: the experienced dread it. While your ship’s

On the deep, take care, lest a shift of wind sets you back.

The sad hate the merry, the cheerful hate the sad,

The lively the sedate, the slack the keen and busy:

Drinkers hate the man who refuses a glass, despite

Your swearing you’re afraid of night-time fevers.

Dispel the cloud from your brow: diffidence often

Seems like secretiveness, taciturnity moroseness.

Amongst all this, read and question the learned,

As to how to find the way to spend the tranquil day:

Whether greed, bound to craving, shall vex and plague you,

Or fear, and the hope of things of dubious benefit:

Whether wisdom breeds virtue, or Nature grants it:

What lessens care, what reconciles you to yourself,

What simply calms you, honours and cherished profit,

Or the sequestered journey, the path of noiseless life.

Whenever Digentia’s icy stream restores me,

Where that village wrinkled with cold, Mandela, drinks,

What do you think I feel? What are my prayers, my friend?

That I might have what I have, or less: live for myself

What’s left of life, if the gods choose to leave it me:

With a good supply of books, and each year’s provisions,

Not wavering in doubt with the hopes of fickle hours.

Well, it’s enough to ask Jove, who gives and takes away,

To grant life and wealth: I’ll provide a calm mind myself.

End of Book I Epistle XVIII