Friday, November 20, 2009


Against a Praiser of Time Past

Prudentius, Against Symmachus 2.277-316 (tr. H.J. Thomson):
If we must needs scrupulously observe and keep up all that was customary in the rude years of the nascent world, let us roll all time back on its tracks right up to the beginning, and decide to condemn step by step all that successive experience has found out in later ages.

When the world was new no cultivators brought the land into subjection. What are ploughs good for, or the useless labour of the harrow? Better to sate the belly with acorns from the oak trees.

The first men used to split their timber with wedges; let our axes be reduced in the furnace from a hot moulding into a lump of metal, the iron dripping back again into its own ore.

Slaughtered oxen used to provide clothing, and a chilly cave a little home; so let us go back to the caverns and put on shaggy wraps of unsewn skins.

Let nations that once were barbarous but had their savagery subdued and became civilised go back again to their harsh cries and their inhuman ways, returning to their former state. Let the young man, with a filial piety worthy of Scythia, fling his wrinkled old father as an offering from the bridge, for such was once the custom. Let the rites of Saturn reek with the slaughter of infants and the cruel altars resound with their weeping and wailing. Let the very race of Romulus weave huts of fragile straw (such they say was the dwelling of Remus), spread their royal couches with hay, or wear on their hairy bodies a cloak made of an African bearskin. Such things the Trinacrian or the Tuscan leader used to have.

Rome does not stay as she was long ago; she has changed as time passed, making alterations in her worship, dress, laws, and arms. She practises much that she did not practise when Quirinus was her king. Some things she has ordered for the better, some she has abandoned; she has never ceased to change her usage, and has turned long-established laws to the opposite.

Why, senator of Rome, do you bring up accustomed usages against me, when many a time a decision has not stood fast and a change of mind with regard to it has altered decrees of senate and people? Even now, whenever it is for our benefit to depart from wonted ways and reject manners of the past for a newer style, we are glad that something which was unknown before has been discovered and at last brought to light; ever by slow advances does human life grow and develop, improving by long experience.

si, quidquid rudibus mundi nascentis in annis
mos habuit, sancte colere ac servare necesse est,
omne revolvamus sua per vestigia saeclum
usque ad principium, placeat damnare gradatim
quidquid posterius successor repperit usus.

orbe novo nulli subigebant arva coloni:
quid sibi aratra volunt? quid cura superflua rastri?
ilignis melius saturatur glandibus alvus.

primi homines cuneis scindebant fissile lignum:
decoquat in massam fervens strictura secures
rursus et ad proprium restillet vena metallum.

induvias caesae pecudes et frigida parvas
praebebat spelunca domos: redeamus ad antra,
pellibus insutis hirtos sumamus amictus.

inmanes quondam populi feritate subacta
edomiti iam triste fremant iterumque ferinos
in mores redeant atque ad sua prisca recurrant.
praecipitet Scythica iuvenis pietate vietum
votivo de ponte patrem (sic mos fuit olim),
caedibus infantum fument Saturnia sacra
flebilibusque truces resonent vagitibus arae.
ipsa casas fragili texat gens Romula culmo:
sic tradunt habitasse Remum. regalia faeno
fulcra supersternant aut pelle Libystidis ursae
conpositam chlamydem villoso corpore gestent.
talia Trinacrius ductor vel Tuscus habebant.

Roma antiqua sibi non constat versa per aevum
et mutata sacris, ornatu, legibus, armis.
multa colit quae non coluit sub rege Quirino;
instituit quaedam melius, nonnulla refugit,
et morem variare suum non destitit, et quae
pridem condiderat iura in contraria vertit.

quid mihi tu ritus solitos, Romane senator,
obiectas cum scita patrum populique frequenter
instabilis placiti sententia flexa novarit?
nunc etiam quotiens solitis decedere prodest
praeteritosque habitus cultu damnare recenti,
gaudemus conpertum aliquid tandemque retectum,
quod latuit; tardis semper processibus aucta
crescit vita hominis et longo proficit usu.

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