BMCR 2022.06.29

Horace’s “Odes” and “Carmen Saeculare”

, Horace's "Odes" and "Carmen Saeculare". Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021. Pp. 647. ISBN 9781527568266 £80.99.

This book is clearly a labour of love. Its author is a professional singer who also happens to have the patience and the scholarship to write a single-volume edition (with text, short apparatus and facing verse translation) of the Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace in one handsome volume. As if that were not enough, there are a further 280 pages of excellent commentary notes, making this something of a one-stop-shop for the reader keen to deepen their knowledge and appreciation of the Roman lyric poet par excellence.

The introduction covers what we know of the poet’s life (complete with some entertaining ancient speculation about the poet’s sex life) while maintaining a safe distance from extreme biographical fallacies. Preece then goes on to give the reader advice on reading the poems (‘Aspects of the Odes’), helping readers new to the game to appreciate and understand the poetic, aesthetic and philosophical issues behind this literary genre as well as the simple practicalities of ancient publishing. Translating this poetry is a colossal challenge and Preece spends eight pages in setting out his own principles, as well as giving the Latinless some idea of how the sounds and inflections of Latin differ from modern English. The text of Horace is the result of many centuries of scholarship and Preece again manages to condense the methods and the perils of constructing a readable text into a few short pages. There is no general bibliography (or index) at the end of this volume, but Preece refers in passing to a huge range of books and articles and he concludes his introduction with a short guide to further reading.

The translation is kept close to the Latin in meaning and (mirabile dictu) even in rhythm, making heavy syllables in the Latin correspond to stresses in the English, as for instance in 3.2.1–4:

angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
    condiscat et Parthos ferocis
        uexet eques metuendus hasta

Being steeled by strict armed service a lad should learn
To stomach pinching poverty with goodwill
    And, as a lancer dreaded for his
        Spear-thrust, should harry the aggressive Parthians.

The translation here makes good use of sibilant and plosive alliteration to convey something of the sound of the original and the rhythm of the English comes across well as recreating the flavour of the original Alcaics. The jussive subjunctives of the Latin (condiscat uexet) become ‘should’ in the translation (a good move, since jussive subjunctives in English more often than not end up being rendered ‘let him…’ which is ambiguous). ‘Lancer’ is not quite the same as eques, but ‘steeled’ for robustus is inspired.

Look next at the fourth Asclepiad of 3.9.1–4:

            donec gratus eram tibi
nec quisquam potior bracchia candidae
        ceruici iuuenis dabat
Persarum uigui rege beatior.

            While I used to be dear to you
And no other young man, better beloved, would put
        Round your radiant neck his arms,
I was flourishing, more blessed than the Persians’ king.

‘Better beloved’ spells out the amatory significance of potior (on which see now Woodman[1] ad loc.), while ‘radiant’ for candidae is strikingly original, although the imperfect tense of ‘I was flourishing’ is a surprise for uigui. The translator also manages here verbally to recreate the arms encircling the neck, and this attention to word order is shown throughout the book: the final word of each poem is (if possible) rendered with the final word in English, so that, for instance, the final word of the entire collection (canemus) is duly rendered with a concluding ‘we’ll sing’ (4.15.32). Translations which follow the original so closely can often end up being less clear than the original itself; this version manages to be capable both of being used as a guide to the Latin and also of being read as a poetic text in its own right.

Some poems are so well-known and so sublime that translation seems almost sacrilege. Odes 4.7, for example, which many regard as the acme of Horatian lyric (and which Housman is said to have called ‘the most perfect poem in ancient literature’) is a challenge which Preece meets with amazing dexterity and imagination. He recreates the dactylic Archilochian rhythm and maintains the order of the seasons as in the original in lines 9–12, keeping the oxymoronic ‘rushing, inert’ for Horace’s recurrit iners. On the other hand, ‘not every ode is a masterpiece’ says Preece (p. lxxv), and some of them are to modern ears less congenial than others in our post-colonial world of #me too. Take the encomium of 4.5 for instance, which Fraenkel called ‘one of his most perfect poems’ but which Don Fowler[2] called ‘the most fascist of his Odes’ and which modern readers may dismiss as routine panegyric made worse by the jarring and bathetic request to the dux bone for long holidays (4.5.37–38). Preece’s tongue-twisting version of the opening line (‘Sprung from Gods who are good, Romulus’ race’s best/ Guardian’) perhaps lacks the euphony of the original (diuis orte bonis, optime Romulae/ custos gentis), but his choice of words throughout shows more of Don Fowler’s fascism than Fraenkel’s poetic perfection (‘Bring, good leader, the light back to your fatherland … Law and custom have brought cankerous vice to heel’, etc), thus showing that translations are never neutral renderings of words but always involve a serious amount of interpretation of tone as well as lexical accuracy. Preece gives the reader a gentle trigger-warning in the introduction: Horace was a ‘man of his times’ especially when he voices sentiments which we find unpalatable, as shown in areas such as the misogyny of 1.25 or indeed the naked imperialism latent and blatant in many of these poems.

The commentary notes are exemplary for their clarity and their helpfulness, setting each poem in its literary context and giving us a glimpse of the ways in which each text has been read and what the critical issues are for its evaluation. Preece on every page cuts to the chase and engages our interest, without getting too tied up in arcane philology: see for example the wonderful introduction to Odes 1.9 (296–97) which takes in Patrick Leigh Fermor, Wilamowitz and Fraenkel and shows how this poem is constructed around the ‘circular progress of the seasons’, harking back to Alcaeus but showing Horace ‘moving in another direction’. The amount of information and discussion fitted into one book is something of a miracle. The introduction to Odes 1.37, for example, begins: ‘In long, snaking sentences, Horace combines an account of the Battle of Actium (31 BCE) (in which Octavian overcame the forces of Mark Antony and a third of the senate) with one of the suicide of Cleopatra VII Philopator (“Father-loving”) almost a year later’. The notes then quote (in translation) the Greek poetry behind this ode and also tell us what we need to know about the Capitol’s temple; they offer some thoughts on the sexual potency of eunuchs, on wine from Lake Mareotis, on doves, on the characterisation of Cleopatra through ‘Horace’s sinuous Latin’ and of course on Egyptian cobras—and on much else besides. This book is clearly suitable for readers who may not have read (much) Horace before, and it admirably performs the vital task of reassuring them that this poetry is not as impenetrable as they feared and (above all) that they will derive great pleasure from reading it with such a wise and perceptive translator and critic as Preece to guide them.


[1] Woodman A.J. Horace Odes Book III (Cambridge University Press, 2022)

[2] ‘Horace and the Aesthetics of Politics’ in Harrison S.J. Homage to Horace (Oxford University Press, 1995) 258