Addressed to his friend Septimius, in Ode 2.6 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, where he can end his days in peace and quiet.
Septimius, 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
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.
It might seem odd to end such a peaceful poem with a prophecy of his own death, but this is not fanciful escapism. Horace is ever aware of his own mortality. Nevertheless, the scene of his funeral does not intrude. Horace is not effusive or self-pitying – all he asks for is a single tear, one that he feels is his due as a poet and friend. There is mock-dignity in his imperial reference to a debt owed that adds a gentle charm to this quiet scene.
Before 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. However, the years of Augustus’ reign were predominantly ones of peace and prosperity, and Horace was able to enjoy a comfortable old age after his poetry made him a favourite at court. Many of Horace’s poems describe a farm in Sabine that was given to him by his friend Maecenas, a haven from the busy city and warring provinces. The intense relief in finding such stability after a youth dominated by the anxiety and horror of war is a recurring theme of the poetry of Rome’s Golden Age, and Ode 2.6 should be read with this context in mind. Horace is grateful to now spend his time in his beloved Italian countryside where he, a weary soldier, can live out his days in the company of dear friends.
Further reading: Charles Segal, (1969) “Horace Odes 2.6: Poetic Landscape and Poetic Imagination” in Philologus Vol. 113.
Translation by A. S. Kline © 2003