Horace in wartime

by Chris Bertram on December 13, 2003

William Dalrymple has “a review of a collection of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s writing”:http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/travel/0,6121,1105876,00.html — “Words of Mercury”:http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0719561051/junius-21 — in the Guardian. This contains, for the first time, Leigh Fermor’s own account of the SOE’s abduction of the German commander on Crete, General Kriepe, and, within it, one of the best wartime anecdotes:

bq. … the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at night by a British SOE party dressed in stolen German uniforms, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle the general into the Cretan highlands and thence to a waiting British submarine; but instead as “a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida” : “We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said: ‘Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Socrate’. It was the opening lines of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off … The General’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though for a moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

If there were a list of Crooked Timber suggested Christmas presents, Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts”:http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0140049479/junius-21 , his account of his wanderings on foot across pre-war Europe (or at least the first volume of that unfinished trilogy) would be one of my recommendations.



John Isbell 12.13.03 at 6:19 pm

“Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte,
nec iam sustineant onus silvae laborantes,
geluque flumina constiterint acuto.
dissolve frigor lignum super foco
large reponens atque benignius…”
More or less. I won’t muddle the middle, but it ends: “aut digito male pertinaci.” Ah, schooldays. Horace is lovely. And the relevant bit here: “quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere.”
Odes IX.


Alan 12.13.03 at 10:51 pm

To me, this goes back to a recent discussion around the theme that the average Hungarian waiter speaks more languages than the intelligence staff trying to sort out Iraq. I wonder if there is even one officer in any branch of the US military who could recite a line of Horace. I wonder if even 1% of them have heard of Horace.


Vinteuil 12.14.03 at 1:13 am

I was going to ask for an English translation, but then I noticed that this was a Chris Bertram post. So I got to worrying that he would [a] get indignant, [b] tell me to do my own research, and [c] close down the thread.

So instead I did my own research. Here’s a nice side by side Latin & English translation of Ode IX, with lots of helpful notes.


Vinteuil 12.14.03 at 1:23 am

alan: at one level, you are quite right. I would be astonished if there was more than one in a hundred amongst American officers “who could recite a line of Horace.”

But would you really like to think seriously for a moment about why that’s the case?

Or are you just trolling?

Well, if the latter, troll away. Because you are the kind of troll that Crooked Timber apparently welcomes.


alan 12.14.03 at 2:16 am


If by asking “why” you hope to have me give a sociological analysis of the education system in the USA, sorry, I am not equipped to do so. What do *you* think is the reason?

I can only guess: the vast majority of citizens of the USA I have met (and they have mostly been tertiary educated, not at all a representative sample) have been largely ignorant of any time but their own life and of any place but their own country.

In the late ’70s I had the jaw-dropping experience of conversing with a professor of modern history from a mid-western University who did not know that Australians had fought in the American War in Vietnam. Polls illustrating the astonishing (to me, anyway) ignorance of history and geography to be found among college students in the USA are published regularly.

I wonder if the any of the army officers in Iraq who hail from Cincinnati know anything of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. George Washington emulated him. Would George W. Bush? Are you as disillusioned as your name-sake?


Vinteuil 12.14.03 at 4:28 am

Alan: let’s just say that if the war party, so to speak (and especially the dreaded “neo-cons”) had their way, America’s soldiers would learn a lot more history than they do. Who knows? Maybe they’d even memorize a few snatches of the old Roman liar. But, for better or worse, it’s the anti-war party that runs the “educational” show here. In that context, Horace is a pretty hard sell.


Doug Turnbull 12.14.03 at 2:02 pm

I haven’t done the poll, but I’m pretty sure that military officers are more aware of Cincinnatus than the average American college graduate.

And the plural of anecdote is not data, but I attended a presentation given by an ex-SOF captain, still in the Army the other day. IIRC, he was personally fluent in English, Russian, several dialects spoken in Kosovo, Romanian, German, and a couple of other languages I’m forgetting.

Anyway, the main point I want to make is that you’re simply ignorant if you think the average officer in the US military isn’t as well educated or better than the average US college graduate. And making wild statements like “I bet not one of them could recite a single line of Horace” just makes you look foolish, IMO.

If you weant to bash US education in the classics, fine, but using the military as a whipping boy here is both irrelevant and inaccurate.


Vinteuil 12.14.03 at 10:35 pm

Doug Turnbull: you put me to shame.

“the plural of anecdote is not data…”

Beautiful. Who said it first?


Greg 12.15.03 at 10:31 am

For what it’s worth, and avoiding the above squabble, the second part of Leigh Fermor’s trilogy is marvellous too… I only hope that the conclusion manages to appear at some point.

As for the Kreipe kidnap, without having read what PLF has to say, I can wholly recommend WS Moss’s account of the mission, “Ill Met by Moonlight”, amusingly filmed with Dirk Bogarde as PLF, and Dilys Powell’s book “The Villa Ariadne” which is packed with amusing anecdotes, notably of how she went to interview General Kreipe years after the war.

He spent quite a while as a POW in Canada, as I recall.

On Crete in the war in general, Antony Beevor’s “Crete: The Battle and the Resistance” is unmissable, and I’d also suggest taking a look at George Pyschoundakis’s memoir “The Cretan Runner”, he has a bit to say about Kreipe’s capture himself, and the English edition of the book is translated by PLF.


Donmeaker 12.15.03 at 10:41 pm

Regarding Horace, I recall that a Latin scholar went to a suchi bar, to say:

“O Tempura, oh Morays!”

Time to fugit.


Donmeaker 12.15.03 at 10:41 pm

Regarding Horace, I recall that a Latin scholar went to a sushi bar, to say:

“O Tempura, oh Morays!”

Time to fugit.


Donmeaker 12.15.03 at 10:42 pm

Regarding Horace, I recall that a Latin scholar went to a sushi bar, to say:

“O Tempura, oh Morays!”

Time to fugit.

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