Horace 2.6: The Weary Soldier

Horace Ode 2.6 is one of my favourite poems. Addressed to his friend Septimius, Horace turns down an invitation to the restless corners of the Empire, pleading the war-weariness of a footsore soldier. He would rather stay in Italy, by the river Tibur, or maybe go down south to the river Galaesus, a place famous for its rich pastures. The description of these places is beautiful, a paradise of nature blessed by the gods, a haven of peace. The poem ends with gentle and charming humour that is characteristic of Horace. This is where the poet wants to die. He grandly commands Septimius to his funeral with a mock-solemnity to give him the tear that he owes him as his friend.

Septimus, you, who are prepared to visit
Cadiz with me, and its tribes (they’re not used
to bearing our yoke) and barbarous Syrtes,
by the Moors’ fierce Sea,

I’d rather Tibur, founded by men of Greece,
were my home when I’m old, let it be my goal,
when I’m tired of the seas, and the roads, and all
this endless fighting.

But if the cruel Fates deny me that place,
I’ll head for the river Galaesus, sweet
with its precious sheep, on Spartan fields, once ruled
by King Phalanthus.

That corner of earth is the brightest to me,
where the honey gives nothing away to that
of Hymettus, and its olives compete with
green Venafrum:

where Jupiter grants a lengthy spring, and mild
winters, and Aulon’s hill-slopes, dear to fertile
Bacchus, are filled with least envy for those rich
grapes of Falernum.

That place, and its lovely heights, call out to me,
to you: and there’ll you’ll scatter your debt of a sad
tear, over the still-glowing ashes of this,
the poet, your friend.

(Translated by A. S. Kline © 2003)

Nature is the defining theme of this Ode. Horace begins with a description of unsettled and dangerous lands. However he then returns to his beautiful Italy, blessed by the gods in its fruitfulness. Here nature is no longer alien and dangerous, rather the land is sweet and bright, a place free from war and violence where he can truly be at peace. It is his ‘corner’ of the earth. A small and private place, nothing grand or exotic, just a humble nook he can call home.

It might seem odd to end such a peaceful poem with a prophecy of his own death. But this poem is not a piece of escapism. Horace’s paradise is a human one, and he is very aware of the realities of mortality. Nevertheless the scene of his funeral does not intrude, and the ending is a very peaceful one. Horace is not effusive or self-pitying. All he asks for is a single tear, one that is he feels is owed to him as a poet and a friend. The mock-dignity of his imperial invitation to Septimius is gently humorous and adds a quiet charm to this quiet ending.

Before the Emperor Augustus’ victory at Actium in 31 BC the Roman state had been rocked by decades of uncertainty and civil war. Horace fought against Augustus and lost everything, he had to rebuild his life from scratch. However, the years of Augustus’ reign were predominantly ones of peace and prosperity, a golden age for Rome. Horace’s poetry made him a favourite of the Emperor and he enjoyed a prosperous old age. Many of Horace’s poems describe a farm in Sabine that was given to him by his great friend Maecenas. It must have been a beautiful place, a haven from the busy city and warring provinces. The intense relief in finding such peace after a youth dominated by the anxiety and horror of war is something found in many of the great poets of Rome’s Golden Age, and I think Ode 2.6 must be read with this history in mind. Horace is not an idealist. He is fully aware of the realities of war and death. But now he has found his little corner of the world. He can spend his days in his beloved Italian countryside where he, a weary soldier, lives out his days in the company of his dear friends.

Landscape with Cowherd (evening) by Claude Lorrain (1650)

Landscape with Cowherd (evening) by Claude Lorrain (1650)

Further reading: Charles Segal, (1969) “Horace Odes 2.6: Poetic Landscape and Poetic Imagination” in Philologus Vol. 113.

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