Horace: Ode 1.38 (from Latin)

Warning: I may have let the footnotes get out of hand in this one

Ode 1.38
By Horace
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Latin

My boy: I hate the filigree of Persia.1
Linden-sewn garlands chafe me with their glamor.2
Cease and desist your search for the decaying
Last rose of summer.3
I wouldn't want you tangling or defiling
Uncontrived myrtle. 4Myrtle's shade is proper
For you who pour, and for me as I drink in
Shade of the arbor.

1- For Horace, to call something Persian was to call it unmanly and over-lavish. All through Horace's lifetime the Romans had been fighting a protracted war with the Persian Parthian Empire. In the finest tradition of enemy-stereotyping, Roman society concocted for itself the notion that Persians were excessively fond of finery and were therefore weak, effete and unmanly. (I guess lavishness and luxury make your dick shrink. No wonder male porn stars are paid so much less than their female counterparts.)

2-The soft layer between the outer bark and inner wood of the linden tree was used to make matting and string for garlands. Garlands made in this manner were called "coronae sutiles" (sewn garlands.)

3- In the Mediterranean, roses bloom in late spring and early summer. At any other time of the year, they would be considered a luxury. The precise flower referred to here is likely the Damask Rose, famed for its beauty and fragrance. This flower, which has never been found growing wild, was probably introduced to Europe from the Middle East. DNA analysis by Japanese scientists in 2000 revealed that the Damask Rose is a cultivated hybrid of Rosa gallica, Rosa moschata and Rosa fedtschenkoana. The only area where all three of these parent species grow naturally is northern Persia, bringing the whole thing full circle. The use of flowers and floral symbolism figured prominently in ancient Iranian religions. In Zoroastrianism, a different flower or herb was associated with each of the deities to be honored. Pungent herbs such as myrtle and basil were associated with male deities, whereas the rose was associated with Daena, a female deity. Naturally, most of this wouldn't have been in Horace's head. But does suggest, from a Roman standpoint, an exoticism we aren't used to associating with roses.

O, and one more thing (because it's my favorite etymology in a European language, not because it is key to appreciating the poem.) The Latin word Rosa is a borrowing, mediated through Oscan, from Attic Greek ῥόδον rhódon, from proto-greek *ϝρόδιον wǔródion, borrowed from none other than Old Persian wurdi and there the etymological trail gets murky. A Proto-Indo-European *ṷr̥dho "thorn, bramble" can be reconstructed, but a good case can be made for a Semitic source too, a not uncommon situation since words of this type are easily borrowed (just imagine a historical linguist 3000 years from now trying to use fragmentary textual data to figure out which language was the source of the word "Coca cola.") In any event, whatever its ultimate origin, the word's cognates in various languages and language families suggest that it is clearly a long-time resident of the near east. c.f. Arabic وردة warda, Hebrew ורד wered (proto-Hebrew *ward), Armenian Վարդ vard, etc. My own view is that the Semitic words, like the Greek one, are also borrowings from Old Persian. 

4-Myrtle, an evergreen shrub with a pungent scent, was sacred to Aphrodite, and had a very conjugal flavor. For example: on their wedding day, brides wore myrtle garlands and bathed in water scented with fermented myrtle-berries (presumably because a girl isn't a woman until she has suffered through her first yeast infection.) Anyway, to me, this suggests that drink-pouring isn't the only service Horace would like from the lovely boy.

The story of why it's sacred to Aphrodite is worth telling, if only because it reads like a sexually frustrated fever dream. Myrrha, a Cyprian princess, fell in love with her father and, conspired to seduce him in disguise. When he realized he had been tricked into screwing his own daughter, he got a good wrath going and, as if to prove just how dysfunctional mythical families can truly get, his first response was to grab his sword and try to chop her to bits- thus making every Freudian's day. She, realizing that this wasn't the way she meant for him to split her, made a run for it. Before he could finally hack her up, Aphrodite decided that she was done laughing, and turned Myrrha into a myrtle tree, whence the name. But, since Myrrha was already pregnant when she went all treelike, and because Greek myths simply cannot end without breaking my bizarro-meter, Myrrha-turned-tree split open at the trunk nine months later and gave birth to a baby named Adonis. Yes, really. I wonder if this counts as the first C-section.

The Original:

Persicōs ōdī, puer, apparātus;
displicent nexae philyrā corōnae;
mitte sectārī rosa quō locōrum
sēra morētur.
Simplicī myrtō nihil allabōrēs
sēdulus cūrō: neque tē ministrum
dēdecet myrtus neque mē sub artā
vīte bibentem.


  1. Aye! I am a poet and upon my tomb
    Shall maidens scatter rose leaves
    And men muffles, ere the night
    Slays days with her dark sword.

  2. An exuberance of footnotes, an exhilaration, as a matter of fact.