Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Odes, II.8

“The first thing we learn about Barine is that she is in
the habit of making and breaking promises (of love and
fidelity, presumably) and that she is never punished for
her inveterate perjuries. She is evidently to be imagined
as having sworn some such oath to the poet himself
just before the poem begins; his response—the poem
—is a polite but firm ‘No, thanks.’”

—Carol Clemeau Esler

Had there been any penalty, Barine,
For perjured vows; had you grown fouler by
The blackening of a single tooth or nail I
________________Might have believed you.

But no—the moment you swear faithless oaths
You shine forth all the lovelier for that,
And stand out for our youthful manhood as a
________________Public endowment.

It serves you to be thus forsworn upon
Your mother’s tomb, the silent starry night,
All heaven and the holy gods themselves,
________________Free from the grave’s chill.

Venus—so it would seem—smiles at all this;
So do the tolerant Nymphs, and savage Cupid
Grinding his arrows’ tips, as always, on a
________________Gore-spattered whetstone.

To top it all, young boys are growing up
And a new set of suitors—older ones
Will not leave their wicked lady’s household,
________________Threats notwithstanding.

In dread of you, mothers tremble for their sons,
Old pennypinching fathers too, and wretched
Brides who fear you’ll just come breezing by to
________________Capture their husbands.

first published in TRINACRIA


Horace, II.8 (Original Latin)

Ulla si iuris tibi peierati
poena, Barine, nocuisset umquam,
dente si nigro fieres vel uno
turpior ungui,

crederem: sed tu simul obligasti
perfidum votis caput, enitescis
pulchrior multo iuvenumque prodis
publica cura.

Expedit matris cineres opertos
fallere et toto taciturna noctis
signa cum caelo gelidaque divos
morte carentis;

ridet hoc, inquam, Venus ipsa, rident
simplices Nymphae ferus et Cupido
semper ardentis acuens sagittas
cote cruenta;

adde quod pubes tibi crescit omnis,
servitus crescit nova nec priores
inpiae tectum dominae relinquunt
saepe minati;

te suis matres metuunt iuvencis,
te senes parci miseraeque nuper
virgines nuptae, tua ne retardet
aura maritos.



Poet’s Note on Metrics:

This poem is in the form known as the Latin Sapphic Stanza, borrowed and slightly adapted by Roman poets from earlier Greek exemplars. The first three lines of each stanza have eleven syllables in the following pattern:

— ᴗ — — — ᴗ ᴗ — ᴗ — x

The fourth short line has five syllables, in this pattern:
— ᴗ ᴗ — x

These syllables are not arranged in a stress-based pattern, but in a quantitative one based on whether a syllable’s vowel is long or short. It is easy to accommodate the short line to English verse, where all a translator need do is render the Latin into five English syllables stressed as follows:

/ ᴗ ᴗ / x

The longer line of eleven syllables is trickier, and what I have done is to translate these longer lines of the Ode into iambic pentameters of either ten or eleven syllables, with two internal elisions (“blackening” and “tolerant” are to be read as black’ning and tol’rant). I have tried to make my English lines rhythmically consonant with the Latin original, without straitjacketing them into a quantitative pattern.

The woman’s name “Barine” in the first strophe is to be pronounced Bah-REEN-ay.



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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20 Responses

  1. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    The wonder of being on this site is the array of literary delights to choose from, and this vibrant, engaging translation is a privilege to read. I especially like stanza four. Joe, I cannot afford this admirable achievement an erudite eye as I have limited knowledge of Latin, apart from the fact that it’s accessible and beautiful and a joy to read. Thank you!

    I have just learned that: “Princeton University will no longer require students to take Latin or ancient Greek to earn a classics degree, a change that comes as part of a larger effort by the school “to address systemic racism” on campus.” How sad! This makes translations like this all the more significant.

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you, Susan. I’m glad the translation was pleasing.

    I had heard Princeton’s fatuous announcement some time ago, about getting a Classics degree without knowing Latin or Greek. In the 1950s, I would have assumed that it was a spoof published by MAD magazine. Today the announcement simply confirms that Princeton is run by wokester morons, like most of higher education in America.

  3. Mike Bryant

    Joe, like Susan, I’m not qualified to comment on the translation, but the words you chose open a window to another time. I’ve read some of the discussions here at SCP about Sapphics and I appreciate your decision to go with iambic pentameter for the body of the verse. I think it’s the right choice for English.
    For fun I used google translate on the last verse. The translation it arrived at was gibberish, but the sound of the spoken Latin was quite good. Since I have only a bit of high school Latin, I wonder if the pronunciations in the audio sounds correct to your ear.
    Also, regarding Princeton… is it surprising at all that they have kept their Chinese languages department?


    • Joseph S. Salemi

      We’re not absolutely sure how classical Latin was pronounced, since we have no hard physical evidence. But since we know the value of all the long and short vowels, all the diphthongs, all the consonants, and where the stresses fall, we can philologically reconstruct the spoken language with almost perfect assurance.

      The problem is that, over the centuries, the pronunciations of Latin as taught in the various schools have taken on a life of their own, and become traditional. So there is Church pronunciation, the Erasmian pronunciation, and a few others. In modern Classics departments today the normal pronunciation taught is the one established by strict German philologists in the 19th century. It is almost certainly the closest to what a Roman would have heard and understood. The Roman letter V is pronounced as a W, and the Roman letter C is pronounced as a K. The letter I can be the long or the short vowel, or it can be a Y-like consonant that begins a word. The word “iuvencis” in the last strophe of the poem would be pronounced “yoo-WEN-kiss.”

      I wonder if Princeton will allow a student to get a degree in chemistry without knowing the periodic table.

  4. Brian Yapko

    “A faithless oath” for which one shines forth lovelier than ever… Apparently getting rewarded for a lack of integrity is a very old story. This is a great poem/translation, Joseph, and I’m fascinated by the challenging meter, both in the original and your translation. I’m with Susan. We need such translations now more than ever before Greek and Latin are lost. What the falls of Rome and Constantinople failed to accomplish is now being achieved in short order by misguided woke agendas.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you for your kind words, Brian. I especially like II.8 because it is a dramatic monologue with a silent interlocutor (the girl Barine) who does not suffer the physical punishments for her broken vows that the ancients thought would inevitably come from the gods.

  5. Roy E. Peterson

    I am not qualified to comment on the translation itself, but on the exquisite way it was composed in English. My mother was a Latin and English major and teacher leaving me only with a rudimentary Latin understanding. “Cupid grinding his arrows…” was particularly well conceived.

    I am with all of you on the destruction of culture due to Woke and other nonsensical sensitivities.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, LTC Peterson. My personal view of any translation is that it should be as on-target accurate as is humanly possible, but at the same time a perfectly crafted piece of fine English. The two biggest mistakes in translation are 1) to change the author’s original meaning to make it more palatable to yourself or your audience; and 2) to produce a slovenly text of badly structured English.

      • Sally Cook

        I have to say that my study of Latin has colored what I write for years. Every aspect of any language hangs on Latin. Thanks, Joe, for honoring Latin, to which we owe so much.

        Unfortunately, the barbarianus are crashing the gates as we speak.

  6. Julian D. Woodruff

    Thanks, Joseph. It’s a blessing that there’s a dedicated linguist regularly on this site. I got the standard take on vowel and consonant sounds in elementary Latin classes, but no clear explanation of long and short vowels, other than that accent was a matter of duration rather than volume. But can it be consistently a matter of, say, a 2:1 ratio? A sensitive reading in Latin (or, similarly, Greek, I guess) must surely handle the issue flexibly, no? Can you make any general comment on this question?

  7. Joseph S. Salemi

    Well, although we don’t have any direct evidence as to how Latin was pronounced in the ancient world, I’ll stick my neck out here and say that neither Horace nor any Roman poet would have read the poem in the absurd sing-song manner employed by the woman in that YouTube segment. A Roman poet would have read his poem aloud carefully, paying attention to vowel length, word-stress position, and the meter in which the poem was written. This particular recitation sounded like some schoolyard chant meant to go along with a hopscotch game. Moreover, any sense of the Sapphic meter was completely lost in this recital. And Horace was a stickler about his meter!

    Vowel length in Latin is partially dependent on duration, but also partially dependent on quality. Thus, the Latin word for father is “pater,” with a short /a/, and is pronounced “PAH – ter,” with the /a/ sounding like the vowel in the American pronunciation of “hot.” But the Latin word for mother is “mater,” with a long /a/, and it would be pronounced “MAAAH – ter,” with the /a/ sounding like the first vowel in the Italian “cara.”

    Long and short vowels in Latin sometimes made for a complete difference in meaning. “Anus” with a short /a/ means “old woman.” “Anus” with a long /a/ means exactly what it means in English today. “Vita” with a short /a/ means “life.” “Vita” with a long /a/ means “from, with, in, or by life.”

    The issue is complicated in Latin poetry, where a vowel that is short by nature can be read as long “by position” — that is, if the vowel is followed in the line of verse by two consonants. So in the second strophe of this Ode, the third /e/ in “crederem” is short by nature. But because it is followed by two consonants (crederem: sed) the third /e/ must be read as long in the line’s scansion.

    A Roman poet giving a reading would have had to juggle three things: the length of the vowels, the natural stresses of each word, and the specific meter of the poem. He would have made sure that what he read was perfectly clear and intelligible to his audience, and so Julian is correct in thinking that he would have had a certain flexibility and latitude in how he spoke. But that is exactly the same today when one is reading aloud formal metrical poetry in English. You pronounce carefully and intelligibly, you accent your words properly, and you make sure that the audience is aware of the “metrical contract.”

  8. Julian D. Woodruff

    Thanks, Joseph. It’s all a bit over my head. Still, your dispatching of the YouTube recitation as you do is funny and apposite. (Definitely better hopscotch than jump-rope!)
    Your emphasizing context for accentuation in both Latin & English recitation reminds me of Olivier’s accenting the first syllable of “chameleon” in the opening speech from his movie version of Richard III. (There are probably many similar examples that you can bring to mind.)

  9. Margaret Coats

    The contrast of the third and fourth stanzas is remarkable. All the high and sacred things by which Barine has sworn falsely, then the apparent approval of the careless deities in charge of love and beauty. Isn’t disdain for one’s mother’s ashes just about the worst of blasphemies? This ode is all the greater satire for imaginative focus on a single stunning woman who gets away with everything. In Horace’s time as in ours, there must have been great and powerful persons who were comparable offenders, but as always, one nearest us seems the worst. I’m also impressed by the speaker’s capacity to stand back from the scene. He is in it only by that single imperfect subjunctive verb, “crederem,” saying “I might have believed.” The rest of the poem is an almost nonchalant panorama of the faithless Barine and the universe she is twisting by her lovely heartlessness.

    And thanks for the notes on how to understand and deal with Sapphic verses, should we attempt them.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      In the poems of Catullus, his girlfriend “Lesbia” (Clodia Metelli) is the same kind of “stunning woman who gets away with everything.” Both Lesbia and Barine are based on real-life models, but after a while poets began to use the “mala femmina” archetype as a common image, unconnected to any actual woman.

      Horace does indeed have a tendency to be detached and nonchalant, at least in the Odes. It’s different in his formal Satires.

  10. Cheryl Corey

    I’m always interested in hearing other viewpoints regarding the art of translation. I’m currently reading an anthology called “World Poetry”. In the introduction, one of the editors refers to John Dryden’s 17th century “Preface to Ovid’s Epistles”, in which he reduced translation to three principles: 1) “metaphrase” – translating word for word and line by line; 2) “paraphrase” or “translation with latitude” – altering words but not the sense; and 3) possibilities of “imitation”, in which the translator departs from words and sense as they see fit.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dryden was a brilliant translator, and he certainly employed those three principles to good effect, and more importantly, he did not abuse the third one.

      In my case, I always use metaphrase to start. I translate every word and particle and idiomatic usage exactly, in the precise order that they appear in the text. This takes away the temptation of thinking that you don’t quite know what the original poem is saying in every aspect and facet. After that I start, asking “What is the most flawless and exquisite English I can find to express precisely what is being said here?”

      If you reach a crux that can’t be elided or synonymized, then you can fiddle a bit and tinker, as long as you stay committed to producing a solidly faithful rendering of the poem into excellent English. But this should NEVER be one’s main approach to translating. I always keep in mind the perceptive Italian equation: Traduttore = Traditore (a translator is frequently a traitor).

      I’m still annoyed that I was not able to include an English word for the Latin “nuper” (recently) in my translation of the last strophe of this Ode. But I figured that the word “bride” in English includes the idea of being recently married.

  11. C.B. Anderson

    You, Joseph, live on an island of your own making, and I’m glad that I am occasionally invited to visit.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Kip, the island is always open for you. No passport or customs-check required.

      • C.B. Anderson

        But, hell! I haven’t been vaccinated, much less boosted. Please pass the olives.

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