Satyr and Maenad in the ancient Roman city of Aizanoi. Photo by Efendi, 2005.

Roman poets: modern and old

in Art & Culture/History by

Latin is often regarded as dead as any language can be. Stories, poetry, love letters, simple daily correspondence: everything in this tongue seems to belong to a vanished past, thither behind us, a vestige of a civilisation long begone. We postmoderns would rather go and look for Latin inside dusty tomes at far shelves of a town library than on the internet among music videos, where, among sound bites and trendy pop clips, it just seems out of place.

Nevertheless, it is precisely YouTube that hides many intriguing gems for those who are keen about this part of European culture. How this ancient language was spoken, written and sung in the Roman times, or at least how we assume it was, all that was digitised and put online by many Latin enthusiasts. All but fans of history and classicists will be likely surprised that the culture expressed in Roman Latin is very much different from the heritage that comes to us through the expressive forms of the Church and Catholic Christianity. Where Christianity praises “the heavenly” and the ascetic behaviour repressing human body, emotions and desires, Romans extol the strength, courage, virtue, loyalty, honour and many other sorts of comportment through which individuals could demonstrate their worth to their friends, compatriots and gods alike.

Art is a carrier of such a “world view” – a way of regarding the being of humans on the earth – so songs cannot remain untouched by the Roman regard for the commendable and for the base. Classical Latin reveals life as full of contrasts, where happiness, love and success are fickle and fleeting with misfortune, betrayal and death never looming too far. For our postmodern times, this might seem gloomy and pessimistic, while, in fact, this acknowledgement of the flow of time gives much greater worth to the moments of soldier’s bravery, lover’s selflessness, or friend’s support. Although the Romans did not have the eye for the tragic of the Ancient Greeks, the above shows they were acutely aware of the life’s contradictions. Their poems therefore honours such virtues and they cannot be more different from the eerie tunes of Christian hymns and chants. Their melodies vibrate with expressiveness and they either imbue us with awe about everyday passing and moods of life or urge us to action, dancing or artistic creation.

To demonstrate this, I chose two examples that are musical interpretations of poems from Catullus and Horace. They were made by Tyrtarion, a choir of Accademia Vivarium Novum, a school in Rome that offers full immersion courses in Latin and Ancient Greek. Tyrtarion’s rendition is so well made that it seems that it is ‘just’ giving back the poems their lost sound. Perhaps this is not too far from truth as, after all, Latin calls poem and song only by one word – carmen.

Vivamus

Vivamus is the musical interpretation of poem 5 from Catullus. Arguably the most known piece from this ancient author, it carries a timeless message of encouraging lovers to live for each other, at this very moment, since life is too brief to deal but with what is important!

 

Latin text

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis.

soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.

da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum,

dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

 

English translation

Let us live, my Lesbia and let us love,
and as for the mutterings of over-severe old men,
we’ll reckon them all worth merely a penny.

Suns can set and return:
for us, when the brief light once sets,
there is one everlasting night, enforcing sleep.

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand, then a hundred.

Then, when we’ve made many thousands,
we’ll mix them up, so that we lose count,
or no bad person can envy us,
when he learns how many kisses there are.

Translation from Latin by Jane Mason. The Latin text is provided by the Perseus Digital Library.

 

Rectius Vives

In English this poem from Horace (Odes 2.10) and is usually translated as ‘The Golden Mean’. The reader is advised by Horace to avoid the extremes, which is the best way of withstanding the vicissitudes of fortuna and live a good, worthy life. A golden mean indeed.

 

Latin text

Rectius vives, Licini, neque altum
semper urgendo neque, dum procellas
cautus horrescis, nimium premendo
litus iniquum.

Auream quisquis mediocritatem
diligit, tutus caret obsoleti
sordibus tecti, caret invidenda
sobrius aula.

Saepius ventis agitatur ingens
pinus et celsae graviore casu
decidunt turres feriuntque summos
fulgura montis.

Sperat infestis, metuit secundis
alteram sortem bene praeparatum
pectus. Informis hiemes reducit
Iuppiter, idem

summovet. Non, si male nunc, et olim
sic erit: quondam cithara tacentem
suscitat Musam neque semper arcum
tendit Apollo.

Rebus angustis animosus atque
fortis appare; sapienter idem
contrahes vento nimium secundo
turgida vela.

 

English translation

Receive, dear friend, the truths I teach,
So shalt thou live beyond the reach
Of adverse Fortune’s pow’r;
Not always tempt the distant deep,
Nor always timorously creep
Along the treach’rous shore.

He, that holds fast the golden mean,
And lives contentedly between
The little and the great,
Feels not the wants that pinch the poor,
Nor plagues that haunt the rich man’s door,
Imbitt’ring all his state.

The tallest pines feel most the pow’r
Of wintry blasts; the loftiest tow’r
Comes heaviest to the ground;
The bolts, that spare the mountain’s side,
His cloud-capt eminence divide,
And spread the ruin round.

The well-inform’d philosopher
Rejoices with an wholesome fear,
And hopes, in spite of pain;
If winter bellow from the north,
Soon the sweet spring comes dancing forth,
And nature laughs again.

What if thine heav’n be overcast,
The dark appearance will not last;
Expect a brighter sky;
The God that strings the silver bow
Awakes sometimes the muses too,
And lays his arrows by.

If hindrances obstruct thy way,
Thy magnanimity display
And let thy strength be seen;
But oh! if Fortune fill thy sail
With more than a propitious gale,
Take half thy canvass in.

Translation by William Cowper, the Latin original is from the Perseus Digital Library.

In addition to being a writer and founder of The European Strategist, during daytime I am an EU and government affairs expert (also know by a more infamous word “lobbyist”) in the automotive industry in Brussels. I see myself as an adventurer in life or on a racing bike, holding a philosophy book in one hand, and always fighting for something with the other one. What I’m enchanted by? By life as a miracle and endless series of contradictions.

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