Horace Ode II.1 on Pollio’s History of Civil War

Horace Ode II.1 Translated by Steven J. Willett

A Roman bust of C. Asinius Pollio 76BC~4AD

Note: Pollio fought with Caesar during the Civil War 49 to 45BC serving as his legate in Africa and Spain. After Caesar’s assassination in 44BC he shifted his allegiance to Anthony, became consul in 44BC and won a triumph in 39BC for his victory over the Parthini. He then retired from military life and devoted himself to poetry, drama and history. He used the spoils from his triumph to build and supply the first national public library in Rome. It had Latin and Greek book wings for open consultation of texts. After Anthony became entangled with Cleopatra, he backed away and refused to sail with Octavian to the battle at Actium. His response to the request is wonderfully discrete in its irony: “mea in Antonium maiora merita sunt, illius in me beneficia notiora; itaque discrimini vestro me subtraham et ero praeda victoris” (“My services to Antony have been exemplary, and his benefits to me are very well known; I shall therefore withdraw from your disagreements and will be the spoils of the victor”). I’d like to see any American multi-star general who could even approach Pollio’s mastery in battle, negotiation, social affaires consultation and literary skills.

Horace presents this ode as praise of Pollio for his Civil War history, but it’s less praiseworthy than fiercely realistic of all human and destructive ruin that war has brought to the world and especially to Italy. In a true encomium he would not have put the endless bloody chaos of battle into a description of what Pollio wrote. Unfortunately Pollio’s history has been lost, so we have no way to compare Horace with its emotional ambiance. The meter of this ode is in the asclepiad strophe.

The civil strife that rose from Metellus consul,

the cause of war, the blunders and ways of it,

   and Fortune's game, the harshly grievous

      friendships with powerful men and arms still

unexpiated, smeared in their carnage blood,

a task that's fraught with hazardous throw of dice,

   all these you wield, and step across fires

      hidden just under the dolorous ash. 

But briefly let your solemn and tragic Muse

abandon stage, for shortly when state affaires

   you've organized, to your sublime role

      then you renew in our Cecrops' buskins,

a famed defence for clients in abject fear

and for the Senate, Pollio, consulting voice,

   to whom the garland deathless honors

      brought with renown in Dalmation triumph.

But now with murmur menacing us from horns

you deaden ears, now bugles are blaring out,

   now brilliant armor puts the fleeing

      horses in terror and horsemen's faces.

I seem to hear now mighty commanders who

are grimed with dust that's never indecorous,

   and set the world to subjugation

      other than furious soul of Cato.

Among the gods, and Juno, who friendly were

to Africa, abandoned without revenge

   on land, made offspring of the victors

      funeral offerings for Jugurtha.

What field is never rich with Italian blood,

with sepulchres that impious battlefield

   have testified and Medes can hear the

      thunderous roar of Hesperia's fall?

What seas, what rivers ever were ignorant

of plaintive war? What ocean has never been

   discolored from the Daunian slaughter?

      Where is a coastline without our blood?

Now come, my shameless Muse, don't forsake your jests

to try again the duties of Cean dirge,

   but stay with me in Dion's grotto

      searching for measures with lighter plectum.

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6 Responses to Horace Ode II.1 on Pollio’s History of Civil War

  1. Alex says:

    Look at that face! A noble intelligent leader, scholar as this will never be found again among Western men. Per usual his nose has been hacked off most likely by early Christian zealots who hated all things Roman/pagan. The way left for the West is Ragnarok with a vengeance.

  2. Tidewater says:

    “mea in Antonium maiora merita sunt, illius in me beneficia notioro…”

    My Latin is a little rusty. Prof, how does this work?

    “I wuz tight with Antonio, we did some great deals together, it was out there on the street that I wuz his main man, for real.

    I’m chillin’ on dis ting between you two. I be OK with it when it gets straightened out, know what I mean? Winner take all. Do that mean me? Up to you. Whatever. “

    • Steven J. Willett says:

      Oh yeah, you got something…無意味 at its best. 汚らわしい

      • Tidewater says:

        “A little nothing without meaning or flavor.”

        Precise, elegant, snooty. I dig. Still, transgressive was never meant to soar, particularly in the tour d’Ivoire. “Toujours gai, Archie, toujours gai, ” as Mehitabel was wont to say…

        Just a couple of things, though, boss. What would Strunk, White, Orwell say about your NOT translating for us Pollio’s ‘ironic’ begging off pleas?

        And how would you translate them?

        • Steven+J.+Willett says:

          I posted the translation early in the morning around 3am and wanted sleep. I’ve added a translation to the note.

          Your comments have no bearing on the ode or my translation. They are, like those of another poster, just 無意味.

  3. Deap says:

    Expiation — one of my favorite words, concepts. A primal cry we are hearing today on so many issues.

    If we can only do something, say something, pay something, fix something we can expiate the alleged sins of our pasts. And somehow this is tied into a Saudi Arabian heir apparent Prince paying $450 million dollars for da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi? How does of make sense in this unsettling time.


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