Work of the Week I - Carmen Saeculare
I was going to open this new category of the blog with Ovid’s Fasti, his very charming and completely underrated waltz through the Roman religious calendar, with sprinklings of that trademark cheekiness. If you regularly tune in, you will know I love Ovid. And fear not, the Fasti will have its turn. But I also love the author of the work I have chosen to open this new section of the blog.
That author is Horace. I have often cited his beautiful ode, 3.29, where he calls his great friend Maecenas, Augustus’ right hand man, to come away from his grand and lofty cares and partake of some simple pleasures, good wine and good food, ending with his sweet portrayal of his own achievement of inner calm, as Castor and Pollux preserve him in his little craft. He is content with his small craft. He does not need the grand ship of state that rests on the shoulders of Maecenas. Horace was not exactly poor. But he enjoyed oitum, a leisure that permits him to focus on his poetry and philosophizing. Maecenas, to put it rather crassly, was in the thick of it, and not always confident of his own possession as Augustus’ grip on power became ever more jealous.
Nevertheless, Horace could rise to the demands of state occasions and magnificently. So, today we have the exquisite Carmen Saeculare. The poem was composed for the ludi saeculare of 17 BC. It is no coincidence that the games and the poem followed less than three years after the so-called ‘Parthian Victory’ (in reality, successful negotiations conducted by Tiberius) which retrieved the lost standards and wiped the stain from Rome’s name. Not that the games were all about Parthia. More, this and Augustus’ not desperately well-received new marriage laws had created the perfect occasion to herald a new prosperous dawn for Rome.
The tradition of the games was not new. Literally meaning, ‘games of the age’, the idea was that every generation should experience it once. Following over a hundred years of civil unrest culminating in the bloody civil wars and power struggles, Rome, thanks to Augustus, could rejoice in finding her footing again, salvaging her reputation, and breathing a sigh of relief with the return of peace. It was a great collective occasion.
I suppose what suggested this lovely piece was the uncertainty of the past two years. We all want to look forward to better times and perhaps we can even help bring those about. So here is Horace’s beautiful thanks for better times and prayer that they continue. It is also my 140th post on BloggusClassicus, so the year has cycled round and I feel this worth celebrating.
So, I hand over to Horace:
Horace prays to the Fates for happy destinies to continue and for events to confirm this. To the city that has sweated civil war for so long, such a prayer took on great power. Two years of COVID...let us think what we have to be thankful for as well as moan about and hope for its continuity.
The next two stanzas pray for the younger generations to be heard and tended. This is equally powerful for the COVID generations. Those who have had unusual starts to their university careers, school students who have had their year group interactions curbed, Babies born in lockdown, now toddlers, who may have not yet met certain close relatives in person (true of my own little man). But let us hope for better and heed Horace.
Much to worry about, but much to be thankful for, too. So, I end with another Horace line:
NUNC EST BIBENDUM!
Cheers and Happy New Year!