The Secular Poem
Phœbus, and thou Diana, sovereign of the woods, ye illustrious ornaments of the heavens, oh ever worthy of adoration, and ever adored, bestow what we pray for at this sacred season: at which the Sibylline verses have given directions, that select virgins and chaste youths should sing a hymn to the deities, to whom the seven hills [of Rome] are acceptable. O genial sun, who in your splendid car draw forth and obscure the day, and who arise another and the same, may it never be in your power to behold anything more glorious than the city of Rome! O Ilithyia, of lenient power to produce the timely birth, protect the matrons [in labor]; whether you choose the title of Lucina, or Genitalis. O goddess multiply our offspring; and prosper the decrees of the senate in relation to the joining of women in wedlock, and the matrimonial law about to teem with a new race; that the stated revolution of a hundred and ten years may bring back the hymns and the games, three times by bright daylight restored to in crowds, and as often in the welcome night. And you, ye fatal sisters, infallible in having predicted what is established, and what the settled order of things preserves, add propitious fates to those already past. Let the earth, fertile in fruits and flocks, present Ceres with a sheafy crown: may both salubrious rains and Jove’s air cherish the young blood! Apollo, mild and gentle with your sheathed arrows, hear the suppliant youths: O moon, thou horned queen of stars, hear the virgins. If Rome be your
work, and the Trojan troops arrived on the Tuscan shore (the part, commanded [by your oracles] to change their homes and city) by a successful navigation: for whom pious Æneas, surviving his country, secured a free passage through Troy, burning not by his treachery, about to give them more ample possessions than those that were left behind. O ye deities, grant to the tractable youth probity of manners; to old age, ye deities, grant a pleasing retirement; to the Roman people, wealth, and progeny, and every kind of glory. And may the illustrious issue of Anchises and Venus, who worships you with [offerings of] white bulls, reign superior to the warring enemy, merciful to the prostrate. Now the Parthian, by sea and land, dreads our powerful forces and the Roman axes: now the Scythians beg [to know] our commands, and the Indians but lately so arrogant. Now truth, and peace, and honor, and ancient modesty, and neglected virtue dare to return, and happy plenty appears, with her horn full to the brim. Phœbus, the god of augury, and conspicuous for his shining bow, and dear to the nine muses, who by his salutary art soothes the wearied limbs of the body; if he, propitious, surveys the Palatine altars—may he prolong the Roman affairs, and the happy state of Italy to another lustrum, and to an improving age. And may Diana, who possesses Mount Aventine and Algidus, regard the prayers of the Quindecemvirs, and lend a gracious ear to the supplications of the youths. We, the choir taught to sing the praises of Phœbus and Diana, bear home with us a good and certain hope, that Jupiter, and all the other gods, are sensible of these our supplications.
- Alme Sol. It was a superstitious custom of the heathen in their hymns, to give the gods all their different names, for fear of omitting any that might be more agreeable. In this piece, the boys call the son of Latone, Phœbe, alme Sol, Apollo, Augur, decoras arcu, acceptus novem Camœnis; and the girls call the sister of this god, Ilithya, Lucina, Genitalis, siderum regina, Diana, and Luna. Fran.
- Lege maritâ. In the year 736, Augustus made a law de maritandis ordinibus, in which he proposed rewards to those who would marry, and punishments or fines for those who continued in celibacy. In 762, he made another law, by the consuls Marcus Papius Mutilus, and Quintus Poppeus Secundus. The first called the Julian, the second, the Papian law. They were intended to restore to Rome the number of her citizens which had been greatly lessened during the civil wars; yet Augustus only revived those ancient ordinances which expressly commanded the censors not to permit the citizens to live unmarried. Cœlibes esse prohibento. These laws as equally regarded men as women; but the choir of virgins naturally mention that sex alone of which they temselves are a part. Fran.
- Undenos decies per annos. There were among the Latins two opinions concerning the duration of an age. Before the time of Augustus it reckoned exactly a hundred years, and the Sibylline Oracle, which then subsisted, marked precisely the same number. The fifth secular games gave occasion to a new opinion. Augustus, persuaded that it was of great consequence to the state not to omit the celebration of this festival, gave order to the Sibylline priests to consult at what time of the current age it ought to be celebrated. They perceiving that it had been neglected in 705, under Julius Cæsar, were anxious to find some way of covering their fault, that they might not be thought answerable for all the calamities of the civil war. Three things made their imposture easy. They were the sole depositaries of the Sibylline books; the world was not in general agreed upon the year by which the games should be regulated; and it was divided even upon the date of those in which they had formerly been celebrated. The priests did not fail to take advantage of this diversity of sentiments to flatter Augustus, by persuading him that this secular year regularly fell upon 737. To this purpose they published commentaries upon the Sibylline books, in which they proved by the very words of the Sibyl (though with some alteration from their ancient reading), that an age ought to contain a hundred and ten years, and not a hundred only.
The authority of these priests being infinitely respected by a superstitious people, instantly put this falsehood into the place of truth, without any person daring to contradict it, since it was forbidden, upon pain of death, to communicate the books of the Sibyls. The Prince, charmed to see that the gods had reserved to his time the celebration of so great a festival, immediately supported the imposture by his edicts to authorize the discovery of the priests. Whether in flattery or credulity, the poet gave himself to the public opinion; and indeed he must, with a very bad grace, have followed the ancient system in a poem composed by order of Augustus, and sung in the presence of that prince, and of the priests in the name of the whole empire. Fran.
- Augur et fulgente, etc. Torrentius observes that Horace has collected, in these four verses, the four principal attributes of Apollo; divination, archery, music, and physic.
- Quindecim virorum. The oracles, which concerned the Roman empire, were anciently put into a coffer of stone, and deposited in a subterraneous place in the Capitol. They were intrusted to the care of two priests called duumviri sacrorum, whose principal business was to consult those books on all occasions of the state, but never without a decree of the senate. Tarquin added two officers, maintained at the public expense, to assist and watch over them in their ministry. In 388, were added eight persons to the two first, and the number was afterward augmented to fifteen, from whence they were called Decemviri and Quindecemviri, which last name remained when they were multiplied to forty, and even to sixty. Cæsar added a sixteenth, and the senate permitted Augustus to enlarge the number as he pleased.
The Capitol having been burned in 671, the Sibylline books perished in the fire. Sylla rebuilt the Capitol, and the senate sent three deputies into Ionia to collect whatever verses of the Sibyl Eritria tradition had preserved, which were almost a thousand. Augustus gathered in Asia Minor, in the islands of the Ægean Sea, in Africa, and the colonies of Italy, more than two thousand volumes of Greek and Latin verses, which passed under the name of the Sibyls; and having burned all that the priests judged apocryphal, he placed them, with those which he took out of the Capitol, under the base of Apollo's statue, in the temple which he had erected to that god. They continued in this state to the times of Honorius, who ordered Stilicon to burn all that remained of these pretended Sibylline verses. Fran.