People in many cultures have found it proper to meditate on the inevitability of death. For Medieval Christians reminders of death were spurs to repentence, so that the believer should escape Hell and spend eternity in Heaven. Buddhists stress that focussing on the temporary nature of life helps one to become detatched from it in a way that promotes an enlightened entry into Nirvana. But the ancient Romans, especially the stoics among them, seemed to meditate on death almost for its own sake, as a sobering and steadying influence. It is not surprising that Christian writers found such poems highly edifying. This classic translation of a poem by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BCE 8 BCE) was published by the great English poet Samuel Johnson in 1760.
What sorts of dangers does Horace say it is useless to avoid? How does he say the dead person’s heir will behave?
Alas, dear friend, the fleeting years
In everlasting circles run,
In vain you spend your vows and prayers,
They roll, and ever will roll on.
Should hecatombs (1) each rising morn
On cruel Pluto’s (2) altar dye,
Should costly loads of incense burn,
Their fumes ascending to the sky:
You could not gain a moment’s breath
Or move the haughty king below
Nor would inexorable death
Defer an hour the fatal blow.
In vain we shun the din of war,
And terrors of the stormy main, (3)
In vain with anxious breasts we fear
Unwholesome Sirius’ (4) sultry reign;
We all must view the Stygian flood (5)
That silent cuts the dreary plains,
And Cruel Danaus’ bloody brood (6)
Condemned to everduring pains.
Your shady groves, your pleasing wife,
And fruitful fields, my dearest friend,
You’ll leave together with your life:
Alone the cypress (7)
After your death, the lavish heir
Will quickly drive away his woe;
The wine you kept with so much care
Along the marble floor shall flow.
Translated by Samuel Johnson (1760)
(1) Extravagant sacrifices, consisting of a hundred oxen.
(2) The Lord of the Dead.
(4) When the Dog Star Sirius was in the ascendency in August it was thought to exert a harmful influence on human health.
(5) The Styx, the river which the dead crossed into on their way to Hades.
(6) Danaus persuaded his fifty daughters to kill their husgbands because he was feuding with their new father-in-law. The women were punished in Hades by having continually carry water in leaking vessels so that their task would never be finished.
(7) The cypress, common in Italy, is traditionally associated with mourning.
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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.
The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:
Department of English
Washington State University
This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. If, after examining the table of contents of the complete volume, you are interested in considering it for use at your own campus, please contact Paul Brians.