Laments for Lost Friends in Ancient Rome

The below are two of the most moving poems to have survived from Ancient Rome. The poets Catullus and Horace comfort close friends on the death of someone dear to them. Both odes are deeply poignant in their grief, but also use poetry to wilfully defy mortality itself by showing that those we loved are never truly lost to us.

In poem 96, Catullus comforts his friend Calvus on the death of his wife, telling him that her spirit is gladdened by the love her husband shows in his great grief:

96

If anything from our grief, can reach beyond
the silent tomb, Calvus, and be pleasing and welcome,
grief with which, in longing, we revive our lost loves,
and weep for vanished friendships once known,
surely Quintilia is not so much grieved at her early death,
as joyful for your love.

In Ode 1.24, Horace comforts the famous poet of the Aeneid, Virgil, at the death of their mutual friend and teacher Quintilius. I have only included the last 3 stanzas as they are the ones I want to discuss here. Horace tells his friend that no amount of grieving can help them to bring their friend back, comparing Virgil to Orpheus, the mythical poet who performed for the King of the underworld to try in vain to bring back his wife from the dead. The god Mercury was the guardian of the boundaries between the upper and lower worlds, and Horace reminds us that those who pass by him are never suffered to return.

1.24

Many are the good men who weep for his dying,
none of them, Virgil, weep more profusely than you.
Piously, you ask the gods for him, alas, in vain:
not so was he given to us.

Even if you played on the Thracian lyre, listened
to by the trees, more sweetly than Orpheus could,
would life then return, to that empty phantom,
once Mercury, with fearsome wand,

who won’t simply re-open the gates of Fate
at our bidding, has gathered him to the dark throng?
It is hard: but patience makes more tolerable
whatever wrong’s to be righted.

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Old age and the Greek lyric poets

Lamenting old age was a popular trope among the Greek lyricists. This made for some beautiful poetry that is most touching in its bittersweet admiration of youth. Dating from the 7th to the 6th century BC, these four poems are some of the first we have in a poetic tradition that stretches across Western literature.
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Aeneid Book 6.305-314: The Souls of the Dead

In Book 6 of the Aeneid, Aeneas travels down to the Underworld with the mythical prophetess called the Sibyl. In the Underworld he sees dead souls trapped on the wrong side of the river Styx, desperately reaching out and trying to make the crossing into the land of the dead. It is one of the poet’s most moving moments. He compares the dead to the leaves that fall in autumn and migratory birds fleeing the cold. The imagery is beautiful and haunting.

Here all the crowd streams, hurrying to the shores,
women and men, the lifeless bodies of noble heroes,
boys and unmarried girls, sons laid on the pyre
in front of their father’s eyes: as many as the leaves that fall
in the woods at the first frost of autumn, as many as the birds
that flock to land from ocean deeps, when the cold of the year
drives them abroad and despatches them to sunnier countries.
They stood there, pleading to be first to make the crossing,
stretching out their hands in longing for the far shore.

Crossing the Styx by G. Doré 1861.

Crossing the Styx by G. Doré 1861.

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Catullus 101: A Brother’s Farewell

For my next poem I have jumped ahead several centuries to Republican Rome and the poetry of Catullus. Writing in the first century BC Catullus is perhaps the most popular Roman poet today. Passionate, funny, rude, and pretty graphic at times, he is a prevailing favourite of the classical world.

I have chosen to start with one of his most moving poems, addressed to the grave at his brother’s funeral.

Through many countries and over many seas
I have come, Brother, to these melancholy rites,
to show this final honour to the dead,
and speak (to what purpose?) to your silent ashes,
since now fate takes you, even you, from me.
Oh, Brother, ripped away from me so cruelly,
now at least take these last offerings, blessed
by the tradition of our parents, gifts to the dead.
Accept, by custom, what a brother’s tears drown,
and, for eternity, Brother, ‘Hail and Farewell’.

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