And pretty Samos, and the palace of Croesus at Sardis,
What of Smyrna and Colophon – better or worse than their fame?
Or are they all as dirt beside the Campus and the Tiber’s stream?
Or does one of the cities of Attalus surface in your prayers,
Or do you commend Lebedus, now sick of sea and travel?
You know what Lebedus is, a mere village, emptier
Than Gabii or Fidenae – yet there I’d like to live,
And forgetting my friends, to be forgotten by them,
Watch Neptune raging at safe distance from the shore.
But he who makes for Rome from Capua, spattered
With rain and mud, would not want actually to live in an inn,
And even he who has caught a cold does not praise stoves and hot baths
As the only purveyors of the truly happy life.
Nor would you, if a strong south wind should toss you on the deep,
Sell off your ship across the Aegean as a consequence.
For one in good health, Rhodes and fair Mytilene
Do the same as a cloak in midsummer, a light tunic in snowy blasts,
A Tiber dip in midwinter, a furnace in the month of August.
While you can and Fortune keeps her features kind,
Let Samos and Chios and Rhodes be praised at Rome for their distance.
Grasp every hour god has kindly bestowed on you
With grateful hand, and don’t postpone pleasure for another season:
This way you can say that wherever you were
You lived most gladly: for if reason and good sense,
Not a place that commands a wide spread of ocean, banish cares,
Those who speed across the sea change their climate, not their temper.
Our energetic sloth gives us a workout: by ship and chariot
We seek for the good life. But what you seek is here,
Here at Ulubrae, if you have sufficient steady mind.
Horace, Epistles 1.11
As lockdowns ease and the hope of travel looms on the horizon, many of us are looking forward to a change of scene to revive our spirits. For the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC), however, quiet contemplation at home – even out in the sticks at Ulubrae, some 25 miles south of Rome – is all that is needed for contentment.
This poem is written to his friend Bullatius, who has travelled around famous Greek cities and islands of Ionia, on the other side of the Mediterranean. Horace is apparently not interested in these scenic destinations with literary associations and advises that, refreshing though Greek island-hopping may be, travelling doesn’t take us away from all our problems – for that we need ‘reason and good sense’. And no matter where you are, you should strive to live in the moment, a sentiment expressed elsewhere in Horace’s verses, most famously in the carpe diem at the end of Odes 1.11: ‘Harvest the present day, trust minimally in the next.’
This poem comes from How to be Content: an ancient poet’s guide for an age of excess – Horace, selected, translated, and introduced by Stephen Harrison. The book is published by Princeton University Press as part of their Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series (ISBN 978-0691208497).