Translated by Steven J. Willett
[Please note that ….. indicates text missing from the Latin manuscript.]
Who was it, who first invented the terrifying sword?
How savage and truly iron-tempered he was.
Then butchery for the race of men, then battles were born,
then a shorter road to cursed death was opened.
Or was that wretch quite blameless, but to our own evil we
turn what he gave us for use against wild beasts?
This is the crime of opulent gold, and wars did not exist
when beechwood goblets stood beside the meal.
There were no citadels, no palisades, and safely the flock's
commander sought sleep with his dappled sheep.
I would have lived then, Valgius, and never known cruel
warfare or heard with quaking heart the trumpet.
Now I'm dragged to war, and some enemy may already
carry the blade to burrow in my side.
Yet save me, Lares of my ancestors: you also raised me
when, as a child, I scampered about your feet.
Nor be ashamed that you are carved from an antique stump:
so shaped you dwelt in my grandsire’s house of old.
They kept their faith better then, when the wooden god
stood simply tended in a scanty shrine.
He was pleased if anyone offered grapes as first fruits
or placed a spiky wreath of grain on holy hair.
Yes, and one who’d gained his prayer brought cakes in hand,
his little daughter trailing with pure honeycomb.
Drive off, O Lares, the bronze-tipped spears from me,
. . . . .
and the rustic offering of a hog from a full sty.
I’ll follow it in dress of purest white, bearing a rush basket
bound with myrtle, my head bound with myrtle.
Thus may I please you: let another be valiant in arms,
scattering the enemy captains with Mars’ help,
to tell me, while I drink, the tales of his martial feats
and trace the camp in wine on tabletops.
What madness makes us summon somber Death by war?
It looms behind and comes secretly on silent feet.
No grain fields lie below, no trim vineyards, but fearless
Cerberus and the foul mariner of Stygian waters.
There, with hollow burnt-out eyes and pyre-scorched hair,
an ashen crowd wanders by shadowy waters.
No, let us praise that hero whom, surrounded by children,
sluggish old age surprises in a humble cottage.
He follows closely after his sheep, his son the lambs,
and his wife heats water for exhausted limbs.
So may I live, and let my head grow glitteringly white
and tell, an old man then, deeds of days gone by.
For now let Peace tend the fields. Shining Peace first
led oxen beneath the curving yoke to plow.
Peace nurtured the vines and stored the juice of grapes
so the father’s jar might pour wine for the son.
In Peace the hoe and ploughshare shine, but in the dark
rust conquers the grim arms of cruel soldiers.
. . . . .
The farmer drives back from the grove, far from sober,
taking his wife and offspring home in a cart.
But then the wars of love flame up, and the mistress
laments her ravaged hair and shattered doors.
She weeps for bruises to her tender cheeks, but the victor
weeps too for frenzied hands that were so strong.
Provoking Love stokes the quarrel with angry words,
then sits indifferent between the raging pair.
Oh he is stone, he is heartless iron, who would strike his girl
with violent hands: he drags the gods from heaven.
It is enough to tear the tenuous gown from her limbs,
enough to rumple her ornate coiffure,
enough to make tears flow; thrice happy is he whose
anger can cause a tender girl to weep.
But he who’s savage in hand should carry shield and stake
to war—let him live far from gentle Venus.
Then come to us, bountiful Peace, take the spike of grain,
and pour fruit lavishly before your shining lap.
Thanks for posting this Colonel, it is a shame the complete work did not come down to us.
This is the poem of a gentle man and reluctant soldier. It is tempting to blame war on the arrival of “opulent gold” or any number of other externalities. That it is as innate a part of human nature as love is hard on the ego, but the sentiment is welcome enough in romantic poetry.
I guess we may never know how the author segways from war between armies into the more personal, but no less intense warfare described in the third and final section. Perhaps the farmer has returned from war bitter and angry. And who cannot empathize with the following wonderful lines:
“Provoking Love stokes the quarrel with angry words,
then sits indifferent between the raging pair.”
I should very much like to have read Richard Sale’s thoughts on this work.
Going through the modern US public school system I was fortunate enough to have taken 4 semesters of Latin. Of course I was also unfortunate in that this great instruction in the humanities was supplemented with ~8 semesters of Martin Luther King History and 5 semesters of The Holocaust, etc.
This translation produced an echo from my ancient past. I studied four years of Latin which included a year of Latin poetry. I dug out my copy of “A First Book of Latin Poetry” and found a mimeographed sheet folded into quarters with another translation of this elegy from Tibullus. It strays from the more literal translation offered by Dr. Willett, but it has a clear, concise message for modern English speakers. This translation is by George Gilbert Ramsay, professor of humanity in the University of Glasgow, MDCCCC (1900).
Who was it that first forged the sword, and brought battle and slaughter upon earth?
There were no wars on earth, no towers or ramparts, till men lusted after gold: had those days been mine!
But now I am dragged off to war: keep me safe, ye Lares of my fathers: ye have ever been duly honoured, and ye shall be honoured ever.
Not for me to boast of arms and victories: what madness is it to quicken the stealthy foot of Death!
For below there is no corn, no wine, no calm old age, with family and flocks around, but only Styx, and Cerberus, and pallid grief-worn shades.
Then be it mine to live till age; to see arms lie rusted, and ploughshares busy; and to behold field, and vine, and countryman made glad by the fair face of Peace.
I still remember a few lines from my little book of Latin poetry full of my penciled notes of poetic metre, parsed and diagramed sentences and tortured literal translations. The course was a wonderful window into the Roman mind.