Fritz Ebel

Est nemus aërium, trabibus quo frigida quernis
submovet umbra diem; non illic aura, nec aestus,
non gregis aut hominum vernos premit ungula flores;
fontibus aversis circum duo flumina surgunt,
hoc secat Etruscos, petit illud gurgite Romam:
hic, quasi venturi praesagus, tristia mecum
plurima volvebam, flebam quoque; vidit ab alto
Daedalus annosas inter considere fagos;
accessit, citharamque ferens ‘puer, accipe,’ dixit
‘hac casus solare tuos, hac falle laborem.’
(Petrarca, Buc. 4.13-22)

There is a lofty wood where the cool shades drive off daylight from the oak trunks. No breeze nor heat are there, and neither the herd’s hooves nor human feet trample the flowers. Round about two streams emerge from their sources; one flows through Etruscan land, the other rolls its waters towards Rome. Here, as if foreboding what was to come, I would often think unhappy thoughts and weep. But from on high Daedalus saw me sit there amongst the old beech trees; he approached me, lyre in hand, and said: ‘Here, boy, take this. With this instrument soothe your gloom and cheat your woes.’ (tr. David Bauwens)


Thomas R.A. Banks, A dying hero
Thomas R.A. Banks, A dying hero

Hic postquam medio iuvenis stetit aequore Poenus,
vulneris increscens dolor et vicinia durae
mortis, agens stimulis ardentibus, urget anhelum.
ille videns propius supremi temporis horam,
incipit: “heu qualis fortunae terminus altae est!
quam laetis mens caeca bonis! furor ecce potentum
praecipiti gaudere loco. status ille procellis
subiacet innumeris, et finis ad alta levatis
est ruere. heu tremulum magnorum culmen honorum,
spesque hominum fallax et inanis gloria fictis
illita blanditiis! heu vita incerta labori
dedita perpetuo, semperque, heu, certa nec unquam
sat mortis praevisa dies! heu sortis iniquae
natus homo in terris! animalia cuncta quiescunt;
irrequietus homo, perque omnes anxius annos
ad mortem festinat iter. Mors, optima rerum,
tu retegis sola errores, et somnia vitae
discutis exactae. video nunc quanta paravi
ha! miser in cassum, subii quot sponte labores,
quos licuit transire mihi. moriturus ad astra
scandere quaerit homo, sed Mors docet omnia quo sint
nostra loco. Latio quid profuit arma potenti,
quid tectis inferre faces! quid foedera mundi
turbare atque urbes tristi miscere tumultu?
aurea marmoreis quidve alta palatia muris
erexisse iuvat, postquam sic sidere laevo
in pelago periturus eram? carissime frater,
quanta paras animis, heu, fati ignarus acerbi,
ignarusque mei?” dixit: tum liber in auras
spiritus egreditur, spatiis unde altior aequis
despiceret Romam, simul et Carthaginis urbem,
ante diem felix abiens, ne summa videret
excidia et claris quod restat dedecus armis
fraternosque suosque simul patriaeque dolores.
(Petrarca, Africa 6.885-918)

And as the Punic youth thus fared upon
mid-ocean, there the ever-waxing pain
of his deep wound and the clear prescience
of bitter death, as if with fiery goads,
assailed his fever-stricken breast. Aware
that his last hour drew nigh, he voiced his grief:
“Ah, sorry ending to my life of glory!
How blind the soul to its true good and weal!
What mad, tempestuous force of folly moves
a man of mark to struggle to ascend
vertiginous heights! The summit is exposed
to countless tempests, and ascent must end
in ruinous collapse. The lofty peak,
deluding hope of man, is hollow fame
daubed with the glittering tint of false delight.
Our lives are wasted in incessant toil
of no sure issue; only our last day,
to which we give no heed, is fixed and sure.
Alas for the injustice of man’s lot:
the brutes in peace live out their tranquil lives;
mankind alone is harried and harrassed
and driven through laborious year on year
along the road to death. Nay, Death, thou art
the fairest thing we know; thou dost erase
our faults and dissipate our idle dreams,
quenching our lives. At last I can perceive
how long and fruitless have my labors been.
What countless toils I’ve faced that I might well
have put aside! Doomed though he be to die,
man still aspires to Heaven, but death reveals
the worth of his endeavor. What served it me
to ravage Latium with fire and sword,
to breach the universal peace that ruled
throughout the world and spread a panic fear
in countless cities? What did it avail
to raise up golden palaces and gird
their walls with marble if I am at last
to die, ill-starred, upon the lonely sea?
Dear brother, what are you devising now,
all unaware of Fortune’s plan and of
my wretched lot?” And, as he spoke, his soul
broke from the flesh and straightway mounted high
to Heaven, whence it surveyed the earthly plain
and Rome and Carthage with its citadel;
and in its passage Mago found a sad
contentment, that in life he might not see
the final ruin, the shame of mighty arms
once glorious, and the sorrow yet to fall
upon his land, his brother, and his race.
(tr. Thomas G. Bergin & Alice S. Wilson)


Andrea del Castagno, fresco of Niccolò Acciaiuoli

Vidimus te adversae fortunae magnificentissime reluctantem; iam cernimus te victorem; sed en totiens victa revertitur aspectu mitior et auratae cassidis, ut ita dixerim, fulgore suavior. vicisti adversam; prospera redit in proelium: quid putas? mutata sunt arma, non hostis, et tibi quoque novo armorum genere est opus; nolo enim extimes minus esse negotii quoniam hostis est blandior; nullum insidiosius bellum est quam ubi blanditiis credulitas oppugnatur. in arcto quidem egregie rem gessisti; qualem te in aperto exhibeas expectamus. multos in angustiis indefessos campestris pugna lassavit, multos in adversitatibus fortes viros fortuna prosperior stravit; Hanibal Cannis victor, victus est Capuae et ardorem, quem Trebia glacialis accenderat, tepor Baianus extinxit; saepe pax periculosior bello fuit, multis nocuit adversario caruisse. quorundam virtus otio latuit; quorundam vero prorsus emarcuit, locum submoti hostis occupante luxuria. nulla homini pertinacior lis quam cum animo moribusque suis; nusquam minus indutiarum; intra murum pugna est; hoc genus hostium bello languidum pace fervidum experimur et sub toga plus ausurum quam sub galea.
(Petrarca, Epist. Fam. 12.2.4-6)

We have watched you wrestling most magnificently with opposing fortune, and already behold you as victor, but see! though so often defeated, Fortune is returning milder in appearance and sweeter, so to speak, in the gleam of her gilded helmet. You conquered her in adversity, but in success she is returning to battle. What do you think? Her weapons have changed, but not the enemy, and you too need a new kind of weaponry, since I do not want you to think there is less trouble because the enemy is more beguiling: no war is more treacherous than when the credulity is attacked by compliments. In difficult straits you handled the task brilliantly, and we are now waiting to see how you handle yourself in open combat. A pitched battle has exhausted many warriors unwearied in times of hardship and a favoring fortune has laid low many men gallant in adverse circumstances: Hannibal, victor of Cannae, was overcome by Capua, and the ardor of battle which icy Trebia has kindled was extinguished by the warmth of Baiae; often peace was more dangerous than war, and it harmed many fighters to be without an adversary. Some heroes’ valor went unnoticed in idle peace, and other men’s utterly withered way, as indulgence took the place of the ousted enemy. There is no more obstinate conflict for any man than with his own character and behavior, nowhere is there less chance of armistice, for the battle is inside the fortifications; we are experiencing this kind of enemy, idle in war but passionate in peace: one who will dare more in the toga than in his helmet. (tr. Elaine Fantham)


Somnium Scipionis
Somnium Scipionis

Omnia nata quidem pereunt et adulta fatiscunt;
nec manet in rebus quicquam mortalibus; unde
vir etenim sperare potest populusve quod alma
Roma nequit? facili labuntur saecula passu:
tempora diffugiunt; ad mortem curritis; umbra,
umbra estis pulvisque levis vel in aethere fumus
exiguus, quem ventus agat. quo sanguine parta
gloria? quo tanti mundo fugiente labores?
stare quidem vultis, sed enim rapidissima caeli
vos fuga praecipitat. cernis quam parva pudendi
imperii pateant circum confinia nostri?
haec tamen heu quanto nobis extenta labore!
nunc quoque quam multo vobis servanda periclo!
finge quod esse potest, et erit, nisi Fata benigni
paenitet incepti: totius sola sit orbis
Roma caput, terris dominetur sola subactis.
quid tamen hic magnum? tanto quid nomine dignum
invenis? angustis arctatus finibus orbis
insula parva situ est, curvis quam flexibus ambit
Oceanus, viden ut parvus cognomine magno?
nec tamen hanc totam incolitis. nam multa paludes,
multa tenent silvae; pars rupibus hispida torpet,
parsque riget glacie; pars squalet inusta calore,
serpentumque domos calidis tegit aestus harenis.
utque simul totum videas, huc lumina volve.
verticibus caeli adversos atque alta tenentes
cernis stare polos, subiectaque cuncta duobus
perpetuo durata gelu? Prohibetur ab illa
stirps hominum regione procul; nil nascitur illic
quod victum praestare queat. qua semita solis
latior, obliquusque vagis it circulus astris,
ignibus arva rubent, mediusque exaestuat ingens
pontus et ardorem male caeli temperat humor
(Petrarch, Africa 2.344-377)

Everything that has been born dies and grows weak when aged. Nothing in mortal affairs is lasting. How can a man and his people hope for what mother Rome cannot? The centuries will slip by with little suffering. Ages will pass. You will hasten to your death. You are a shade, light ash or a bit of smoke, which even the wind may move. For what purpose is glory gained by blood? To what purpose are great labors in a fleeting world? Though you wish to stay, heaven’s swiftest flights cast you down. Do you see how close our shameful empire’s boundaries extend? With what great labor we stretched them! Now with how much danger must you likewise guard these things! Do what can be done, and it will be accomplished, unless these fruitful undertakings displease the Fates. Let Rome alone be the head of the entire world. Let her alone be mistress of conquered lands. Is it still a great thing? Do you find it worthy of such a name? The world is an island wedged in a small space by narrow boundaries, which winding Ocean embraces in his ambit. Do you not see how small it is, though great of name? Nor do you inhabit it all. For the marshes hold many, as do the forests. The rougher part is weighed down by crags, and another is stiffened by ice. The scorched part is burned by heat. Fire covers the homes of serpents with searing sands. Turn your eyes this way so that you may see the whole thing at once. Do you see that each pole that stands at heaven’s peaks supporting the heights has been made subject to and hardened by everlasting ice? The race of men has been forbidden from that far-off land. Nothing grows there that can sustain life. There the path of the sun is wider, its slanting circle goes among the wandering stars, the fields redden with fire, the great middle sea boils, and its subterranean liquid cools heaven’s fire poorly. (tr. Erik Z.D. Ellis)


Paul Gauguin, D'où venons-nous, que sommes-nous, où allons-nous, 1897
Paul Gauguin, D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ? (1897-98)

Nimis caducum simul ac superbum animal est homo, nimis alte fragilibus superedificat fundamentis. e tanta sodalium turba ad quem redacti numerum sumus, vides; et ecce, dum loquimur, ipsi etiam fugimus atque umbre in morem evanescimus, momentoque temporis abiisse alter alterum accipiet, et ipse mox previum secuturus. quid ergo sumus, frater optime? quid sumus? nec desinimus superbire. suis angoribus consternatus Cicero, in epystola quadam ad Athicum, “Ipsi” inquit “quid sumus aut quandiu hec curaturi sumus?” brevis quidem sed bona, ni fallor, questio, et salutaris et gravida atque utilibus plena sententiis, sub qua multum vere humilitatis ac modestie multumque contemptus rerum fugitivarum vigil fossor inveniet. “quid sumus?” inquam; quam gravi, quam tardo, quam fragili corpore, quam ceco, quam turbido, quam inquieto animo, quam varia quamque incerta volubilique fortuna! “qut quandiu hec curaturi sumus?” profecto perbreviter. nempe non aliud sonat, quam si diceret: “ipsi quid sumus, et hoc ipsum quandiu futuri sumus?” utique hercle non diu, cum hoc idem nostrum esse, ut diuturnum esse non potest, sic nunc possit inter verba desinere, neque si accidat, miri aliquid acciderit. utrunque igitur bene et graviter queris, Marce Tulli; sed, queso te, ubinam tertium reliquisti, et eventu periculosius et quesitu dignius? postquam hic esse desierimus, quid futuri sumus? o rem magnam et ambiguam, sed neglectam! vale.
(Petrarca, Epist. Fam. 8.7.23-26)

Man is both too mortal and too proud a creature, and builds too high on brittle foundations. YOu see the small number to which we have been reduced from so great a group of friends, and even as we talk we ourselves are fleeting and disappearing like a shadow, and in a moment of time one of us will learn that the other has departed, destined himself soon to follow his predecessor. O best of brothers, what are we? What? And yet we do not abandon our pride. Cicero once, overwhelmed by anxieties, wrote in a letter to Atticus: “Who are we, really, or for how long will we concern ourselves over these woes?” A short question, but a good one, if I am not mistaken, one beneficial and loaded with useful thoughts, that will force the wakeful investigator to find much true humility and modesty and much contempt for fleeting affairs. I say again, what are we? How heavy, slow and fragile is our body, how blind, how troubled, how disturbed our mind, how shifting and unsure and mobile is Fortune. Or how long shall we care for these troubles? Surely only for a very brief time. To me this does not sound any different than if Cicero were saying: “Who are we, really? And how long shall we be the same person?” In any case, not for long, since our identities cannot last for long and can come to an end now as we speak, and if it happened this would be nothing strange. So you do well and wisely to ask both questions, Marcus Tullius; but I ask you, where did you leave that third possibility, more dangerous in outcome and more worthy of investigation? After we have ceased to exist here, what shall we become? What a great and problematic issue, but one overlooked! Farewell. (tr. Elaine Fantham)



Fuerit tibi forsan de me aliquid auditum—quamquam et hoc dubium sit: an exiguum et obscurum longe nomen seu locorum seu temporum perventurum sit—et illud forsitan optabis, nosse, quid hominis fuerim aut quis operum exitus meorum, eorum maxime, quorum ad te fama pervenerit vel quorum tenue nomen audieris. et de primo quidem variae erunt hominum voces: ita enim ferme quisque loquitur, ut impellit non veritas, sed voluptas; nec laudis nec infamiae modus est. fui autem vestro de grege unus, mortalis homuncio, nec magne admodum nec vilis originis, familia—ut de se ait Augustus Caesar—antiqua. honestis parentibus, florentinis origine, fortuna mediocri, et—ut verum fatear—ad inopiam vergente, sed patria pulsis Arretii in exilio natus sum, anno huius aetatis ultimae quae a Cristo incipit MCCCIV, die lunae ad auroram XIII kalendas Augusti. natura quidem non iniquo neque inverecundo animo, nisi ei consuetudo contagiosa nocuisset. adolescentia me fefellit, iuventa corripuit, senecta autem correxit experimentoque perdocuit verum illud quod diu ante perlegeram: quoniam adolescentia et voluptas vana sunt; immo etatum temporumque omnium Conditor, qui miseros mortales de nihilo tumidos aberrare sinit interdum, ut peccatorum suorum vel sero memores se se cognoscant. corpus iuveni non magnarum virium sed multe dexteritatis obtigerat. forma non glorior excellenti, sed quae placere viridioribus annis posset: colore vivido inter candidum et subnigrum, vivacibus oculis et visu per longum tempus acerrimo, qui praeter spem supra sexagesimum aetatis annum me destituit, ut indignanti mihi ad ocularium confugiendum esset auxilium. tota aetate sanissimum corpus senectus invasit, et solita morborum acie circumvenit.
(Francesco Petrarca, Rerum Senilium Libri 18.1 (= Epistola Posteritati) 1-4)

It is possible that some word of me may have come to you, though even this is doubtful, since an insignificant and obscure name will scarcely penetrate far in either time or space. If, however, you should have heard of me, you may desire to know what manner of man I was, or what was the outcome of my labors, especially those of which some description or, at any rate, the bare titles may have reached you. To begin, then, with myself. The utterances of men concerning me will differ widely, since in passing judgment almost every one is influenced not so much by truth as by preference, and good and evil report alike know no bounds. I was, in truth, a poor mortal like yourself, neither very exalted in my origin, nor, on the other hand, of the most humble birth, but belonging, as Augustus Cæsar says of himself, to an ancient family. My parents were honorable folk, Florentine in their origin, of medium fortune, or, I may as well admit it, in a condition verging upon poverty. They had been expelled from their native city, and consequently I was born in exile, at Arezzo, in the year 1304 of this latter age, which begins with Christ’s birth, July the 20th, on a Monday, at dawn. As to my disposition, I was not naturally perverse or wanting in modesty, however the contagion of evil associations may have corrupted me. My youth was gone before I realized it; I was carried away by the strength of manhood. But a riper age brought me to my senses and taught me by experience the truth I had long before read in books, that youth and pleasure are vanity—nay, that the Author of all ages and times permits us miserable mortals, puffed up with emptiness, thus to wander about, until finally, coming to a tardy consciousness of our sins, we shall learn to know ourselves. In my prime I was blessed with a quick and active body, although not exceptionally strong; and while I do not lay claim to remarkable personal beauty, I was comely enough in my best days. I was possessed of a clear complexion, between light and dark, lively eyes, and for long years a keen vision, which, however, deserted me, contrary to my hopes, after I reached my sixtieth birthday, and forced me, to my great annoyance, to resort to glasses. Although I had previously enjoyed perfect health, old age brought with it the usual array of discomforts. (tr. James Harvey Robinson)