The Carmen saeculare ("Song of the ages") is a Latin hymn written by Horace and commissioned by Augustus. It was sung by a choir of girls and boys at the secular games in 17 BC. It is written in Sapphic meter and follows the themes of the poets of the day, in particular Vergil.

The poem is a prayer dedicated to Diana and Apollo, and secondarily to Jupiter and Juno. It asks for their protection of Rome and its laws, as well as their favor in granting descendants to the Roman people. For Horace, prosperity and wealth returned to the city after Augustus took power and established peace. Making references to Aeneas and Romulus, he celebrates the reign of Augustus, which brought in a new era and ensured the future of Rome.

This poem marked Horace's return to lyrical poetry and raised him to the level of national poet.


The secular games of 17 BC

After his return from the east in 19 BC, Augustus established laws regarding the family and adultery.[1] He then held celebration of the secular games in 17 BC. These celebrations were to be held every saeculum, or the maximum human lifespan, which Romans considered to be one hundred or one hundred and ten years. But the term was interpreted more generally to denote an era and were not held at a regular period. It is difficult to find evidence for a continuing tradition. The games were celebrated with a song in 294 BC during the First Punic war and later in the 140s.[2] Soon before the Augustan secular games, a tradition was discovered supposedly discovered in ancient texts, dating back to 456 BC, with a period of 110 years (which would make the correct date 16 BC). However, it is not certain that these texts were authentic or partly composed to provide a reason for holding a celebration in that year.[3]

Palatine Hill seen from the Roman Forum.

We know about the games of 17 BC from descriptions by Phlegon and Zosimus, the latter passing on the sibylline oracle which supposedly instituted the ritual.[4][5] This information is supplemented by an epigraphic document, the commentarium ludorum saecularium, a record of the ceremonies.[6] Originally, the celebrations, dedicated to Dis Pater and Proserpine, were held over three nights; in Augustus' time, the quindecemviri added daytime ceremonies. Sacrifices were shared between Augustus and Agrippa. On the first night, from May 31 to June 1, 17 B.C., sacrifices were made to the Fates on the banks of the Tiber. The following day saw a sacrifice to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, likely at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. On the second night, gifts were offered to Ilithyia, and during the day, a sacrifice was made to Juno on the Capitol. Finally, on the third night, a sow is sacrificed to Mother Earth; during the day, offerings are made to Apollo and Diana on the Palatine. After the last offering, Horace's poem was performed.[7]

The poem was commissioned by Augustus for the secular games.[8] Horace's initial relationship with Augustus was facilitated by Gaius Maecenas, to whom he was introduced by Vergil and Varius. Maecenas at first figured highly in Horace's poetry, but his significance diminished in Horace's later writings. This is likely due to Horace becoming closer to Augustus, with whom he was quite close.[9] While Augustus commissioned the poem and influenced its subject matter, Horace maintained a degree of artistic independence.[10]

Performance and publication

The Carmen seculare is unique in the knowledge the circumstances surrounding its performance. According to Alessandro Barchiesi, it is "the only surviving poem in Latin of which we know time and place of a choral performance, and independent evidence confirms that this definitely happened".[11] The proceedings were recorded with the following inscription:

Reconstruction of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, where the hymn may have been performed.

The poem was recited by a mixed choir, i.e. composed of both boys and girls, which was very rare in the Greek choral tradition,[13] and the Sibylline oracle suggested that for certain parts of the poem, the singing would be done by only the boys or girls. The suggested allotments vary, but one proposed by Peter L. Schmidt is the following:[14]

The poem was performed at the Temple of Apollo Palatinus. It may also have been performed at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, either in procession or a second time.[15] The poem's performance was separate from the religious celebrations and ceremonies of the secular games, and was sung once they had been completed.[16] It was also published as a separate work from Horace's Odes, instead of in their fourth book, which followed the performance by several years.[17]


The poem is made up of 19 stanzas in sapphic meter, or 76 verses. This meter is the simplest used by Horace in his lyric poems, making it easier for the chorus and audience to understand and remember.[18]

Jacques Perret proposed the following structure for the poem's stanzas:[19]

Eduard Fraenkel, following Johannes Vahlen and Theodor Mommsen divides the poem into two halves, separated by line 37. The first half concerns the "physical conditions of Rome's welfare", and its moral and political aspects are addressed in the second half.[20]

Finally, Michael Putnam describes the first and ninth stanzas as "fram[ing] the ode's initial half", with their mentions of Apollo and Diana beginning and ending it.[21]


The Carmen saeculare follows the tradition of the Greek paean, an essentially religious genre of poetry, of which the Carmen is the first known imitation in Latin.[22] The paean mainly invokes Apollo and, to a lesser extent, Artemis, with a number of other deities also present. There are several recurrent themes: prophecy, divine justice, rituals and sacrifices. With a complex meter, it was sung at religious festivals, mainly by young men. The genre reached its highest level with poets such as Pindar in the 5th century B.C., whose sixth Paean has much in common with the Carmen saeculare.[23][24]

Horace also took inspiration from Latin poetry. The Carmen saeculare shares themes with and has a style similar to the poems of Catullus, Vergil and Tibullus. Catullus and Tibullus both wrote poems dedicated to or invoking Apollo, and Vergil's Aeneid is directly alluded to.[25]


As a religious hymn

The Latin word carmen, related to the word cano (literally "I sing"), denoted a poem, song or incantation: all these aspects of the word are found in the Carmen.[26]

Deities of light

Apollo and Diana occupy a prime place in the poem: named at the beginning and the end, but also throughout the poem, they frame it and form its structure. The aspect of light in these two deities is present in the names which Horace chose for them (Apollo is called Phoebus, i.e. "bright", Diana's name is related to the heavens); and is reinforced by the use of various expressions throughout the poem. Horace also replaces the traditional Hades and Proserpina, who represent darkness, and mentions night only once.[27]

As a political poem

The Carmen places emphasis on Augustus' power and his connection to the gods. It also celebrates many of the new laws which Augustus put into place.[28] However, Augustus himself is not directly mentioned in the poem, only indirectly once as the descendant of Anchises and Venus.


Horacy, after the mixed success encountered by the first three books of his Odes, published in 23 B.C., decided not to write lyric poetry again. Thus it is likely, without being commissioned to write the Carmen saeculare, Horace would not have composed the fourth book of his Odes, several years later, and would have followed through with his decision to cease to write lyric poetry altogether.[29]

Later mentions

Like other poems of Horace, manuscripts from different eras show that the Carmen saeculare continued to be read well after it was written. It is known through medieval manuscripts and was ocassionally cited by grammarians of late antiquity.[30] It was also imitated by Conrad Celtes who composed a poem of the same name.[31]

The poem has twice been set to music:

Voltaire wrote that "Horace's secular poem is one of the most beautiful pieces of antiquity".[33]

See also


  1. ^ Perret 1964, p. 125
  2. ^ Beard et al. 1998, p. 205
  3. ^ Beard et al. 1998, p. 205
  4. ^ Fraenkel 1966, pp. 364-365
  5. ^ Zosimus 1814, p. 38
  6. ^ Pirenne-Delforge and Scheid 2023
  7. ^ Lewis 2023, pp. 304-333
  8. ^ Putnam 2001, pp. 92-93
  9. ^ Tarrant 2020, pp. 1-5
  10. ^ Lowrie 2007
  11. ^ Barchiesi 2002, p. 108
  12. ^ Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, VI, 32323
  13. ^ Barchiesi 2002, p. 108
  14. ^ Schmidt 2009, p. 137
  15. ^ Lowrie 2009, pp. 123-141
  16. ^ Fraenkel 1966, pp. 378-379
  17. ^ Schmidt 2009, p. 127
  18. ^ Putnam 2001, pp. 104-112
  19. ^ Perret 1964, p. 130
  20. ^ Fraenkel 1966, p. 375
  21. ^ Putnam 2001, pp. 51-95
  22. ^ Barchiesi 2002, p. 108
  23. ^ Barchiesi 2002, pp. 113-116
  24. ^ Putnam 2001, p. 104
  25. ^ Putnam 2001, pp. 113-123
  26. ^ Putnam 2001, p. 132
  27. ^ Putnam 2001, pp. 52-53
  28. ^ Putnam 2001, p. 103
  29. ^ Fraenkel 1966, p. 365
  30. ^ Barchiesi 2002, p. 107
  31. ^ McDonald 2022, p. 335
  32. ^ Friis-Jensen 2007, pp. 291-304
  33. ^ Voltaire 1764