Satire I by Horace


by Horace


[portrait of Horace, displayed in his Venosa home] Ritratto di Orazio Flacco (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), casa di Orazio Flacco, Venosa (PZ), April 22, 2008, photo by Wikimedia Commons user “D.N.R.” who has declared this image in the public domain.

Portrait of Horace, displayed in his Venosa home. Ritratto di Orazio Flacco (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), casa di Orazio Flacco, Venosa (PZ), April 22, 2008, photo by Wikimedia Commons user “D.N.R.” who made this image public domain.

How comes it, say, Maecenas, if you can,
That none will live like a contented man
Where choice or chance directs, but each must praise
The folk who pass through life by other ways?
“Those lucky merchants!” cries the soldier stout,
When years of toil have well-nigh worn him out:
What says the merchant, tossing o’er the brine?
“Yon soldier’s lot is happier, sure, than mine:
One short, sharp shock, and presto! all is done:
Death in an instant comes, or victory’s won.”
The lawyer lauds the farmer, when a knock
Disturbs his sleep at crowing of the cock:
The farmer, dragged to town on business, swears
That only citizens are free from cares.
I need not run through all: so long the list,
Fabius himself would weary and desist:
So take in brief my meaning: just suppose
Some God should come, and with their wishes close:
“See, here am I, come down of my mere grace
To right you: soldier, take the merchant’s place!
You, counsellor, the farmer’s! go your way,
One here, one there! None stirring? all say nay?
How now? you won’t be happy when you may.”
Now, after this, would Jove be aught to blame
If with both cheeks he burst into a flame,
And vowed, when next they pray, they shall not find
His temper easy, or his ear inclined?

Well, not to treat things lightly (though, for me,
Why truth may not be gay, I cannot see:
Just as, we know, judicious teachers coax
With sugar-plum or cake their little folks
To learn their alphabet):—still, we will try
A graver tone, and lay our joking by.
The man that with his plough subdues the land,
The soldier stout, the vintner sly and bland,
The venturous sons of ocean, all declare
That with one view the toils of life they bear,
When age has come, and labour has amassed
Enough to live on, to retire at last:
E’en so the ant (for no bad pattern she),
That tiny type of giant industry,
Drags grain by grain, and adds it to the sum
Of her full heap, foreseeing cold to come:
Yet she, when winter turns the year to chill,
Stirs not an inch beyond her mounded hill,
But lives upon her savings: you, more bold,
Ne’er quit your gain for fiercest heat or cold:
Fire, ocean, sword, defying all, you strive
To make yourself the richest man alive.
Yet where’s the profit, if you hide by stealth
In pit or cavern your enormous wealth?
“Why, once break in upon it, friend, you know,
And, dwindling piece by piece, the whole will go.”
But, if ’tis still unbroken, what delight
Can all that treasure give to mortal wight?
Say, you’ve a million quarters on your floor:
Your stomach is like mine: it holds no more:
Just as the slave who ‘neath the bread-bag sweats
No larger ration than his fellows gets.
What matters it to reasonable men
Whether they plough a hundred fields or ten?
“But there’s a pleasure, spite of all you say,
In a large heap from which to take away.”
If both contain the modicum we lack,
Why should your barn be better than my sack?
You want a draught of water: a mere urn,
Perchance a goblet, well would serve your turn:
You say, “The stream looks scanty at its head;
I’ll take my quantum where ’tis broad instead.”
But what befalls the wight who yearns for more
Than Nature bids him? down the waters pour,
And whelm him, bank and all; while he whose greed
Is kept in check, proportioned to his need,
He neither draws his water mixed with mud,
Nor leaves his life behind him in the flood.

But there’s a class of persons, led astray
By false desires, and this is what they say:
“You cannot have enough: what you possess,
That makes your value, be it more or less.”
What answer would you make to such as these?
Why, let them hug their misery if they please,
Like the Athenian miser, who was wont
To meet men’s curses with a hero’s front:
“Folks hiss me,” said he, “but myself I clap
When I tell o’er my treasures on my lap.”
So Tantalus catches at the waves that fly
His thirsty palate—Laughing, are you? why?
Change but the name, of you the tale is told:
You sleep, mouth open, on your hoarded gold;
Gold that you treat as sacred, dare not use,
In fact, that charms you as a picture does.
Come, will you hear what wealth can fairly do?
‘Twill buy you bread, and vegetables too,
And wine, a good pint measure: add to this
Such needful things as flesh and blood would miss.
But to go mad with watching, nights and days
To stand in dread of thieves, fires, runaways
Who filch and fly,—in these if wealth consist,
Let me rank lowest on the paupers’ list.

“But if you suffer from a chill attack,
Or other chance should lay you on your back,
You then have one who’ll sit by your bed-side,
Will see the needful remedies applied,
And call in a physician, to restore
Your health, and give you to your friends once more.”
Nor wife nor son desires your welfare: all
Detest you, neighbours, gossips, great and small.
What marvel if, when wealth’s your one concern,
None offers you the love you never earn?
Nay, would you win the kinsmen Nature sends
Made ready to your hand, and keep them friends,
‘Twere but lost labour, as if one should train
A donkey for the course by bit and rein.

Make then an end of getting: know, the more
Your wealth, the less the risk of being poor;
And, having gained the object of your quest,
Begin to slack your efforts and take rest;
Nor act like one Ummidius (never fear,
The tale is short, and ’tis the last you’ll hear),
So rich, his gold he by the peck would tell,
So mean, the slave that served him dressed as well;
E’en to his dying day he went in dread
Of perishing for simple want of bread,
Till a brave damsel, of Tyndarid line
The true descendant, clove him down the chine.

“What? would you have me live like some we know,
Maenius or Nomentanus?” There you go!
Still in extremes! in bidding you forsake
A miser’s ways, I say not, Be a rake.
‘Twixt Tanais and Visellius’ sire-in-law
A step there is, and broader than a straw.
Yes, there’s a mean in morals: life has lines,
To north or south of which all virtue pines.

Now to resume our subject: why, I say,
Should each man act the miser in his way,
Still discontented with his natural lot,
Still praising those who have what he has not?
Why should he waste with very spite, to see
His neighbour has a milkier cow than he,
Ne’er think how much he’s richer than the mass,
But always strive this man or that to pass?
In such a contest, speed we as we may,
There’s some one wealthier ever in the way.
So from their base when vying chariots pour,
Each driver presses on the car before,
Wastes not a thought on rivals overpast,
But leaves them to lag on among the last.
Hence comes it that the man is rarely seen
Who owns that his a happy life has been,
And, thankful for past blessings, with good will
Retires, like one who has enjoyed his fill.
Enough: you’ll think I’ve rifled the scrutore
Of blind Crispinus, if I prose on more.

The Satires is a collection of satirical poems written by the Roman poet Horace around 33-35 BC. Composed in dactylic hexameter, the Satires explore questions of human happiness and literary perfection.

Roman Poetry