Castaway: Souls, Survival and Sand-grains in Horace Odes 1.28

Anne Hardy

Te maris et terrae numeroque carentis harenae
   mensorem cohibent, Archyta,

pulveris exigui prope litus parva Matinum
   munera, nec quicquam tibi prodest

aerias temptasse domos animoque rotundum                        5
   percurrisse polum morituro.

occidit et Pelopis genitor, conviva deorum,
   Tithonusque remotus in auras

et lovis arcanis Minos admissus, habentque
   Tartara Panthoiden iterum Orco                                            10

demissum, quamvis clipeo Troiana refixo
   tempora testatus, nihil ultra

nervos atque cutem Morti concesserat atrae,
   iudice te non sordidus auctor

naturaeque verique. sed omnes una manet nox                     15
   et calcanda semel via leti.

dant alios Furiae torvo spectacula Marti,
   exitio est avidum mare nautis;

mixta senum ac iuvenum densentur funera, nullum
   saeva caput Proserpina fugit.                                                  20

me quoque devexi rapidus comes Orionis                                   
   Illyricis Notus obruit undis.

at tu, nauta, vagae ne parce malignus harenae
   ossibus et capiti inhumato

particulam dare: sic, quodcumque minabitur Eurus             25
   fluctibus Hesperiis, Venusinae

plectantur silvae te sospite, multaque merces,                             
   unde potest, tibi defluat aequo

ab Iove Neptunoque sacri custode Tarenti.
   neglegis immeritis nocituram                                                30

postmodo te natis fraudem committere? fors et
   debita iura vicesque superbae

te maneant ipsum. precibus non linquar inultis,
   teque piacula nulla resolvent;

quamquam festinas, non est mora longa; licebit                   35
  iniecto ter pulvere curras.


You, Archytas, [were] the computer of sea, earth, and googles of sand-grains; now the [lack of] small tokens of fine dust grounds you near the Matine shore, and you, with your soul destined for deletion, have gained nothing by testing the cloud storage and taking a turn around Heaven’s curve. Even Pelops’ father [i.e. Tantalus] succumbed, the gods’ fellow-feaster, [and] Tithonus, wafted away on the breeze; Minos, who shared Zeus’ sacred output, too; Hell has cached the son of Panthous [i.e. Pythagoras], re-booted into Orcus, even though he had borne witness, by unfastening the shield, that in Trojan-horse time-out he had distributed to dark Death nothing besides sinew and skin, in your judgement, no paltry pedlar of creation-myths and truisms.

But for all of us one night awaits, and the Road of Death is to be trodden in a single iteration.

Some the Furies serve up to pitiless Mars, the gamer; the insatiable swell swallows up sea-farers; the funeral files are packed full, with young and old alike; from no character does base Proserpina shrink. The driving South Wind, travelling companion of Orion as he sets, overwhelmed even me with Illyrian wave-forms. But you, sailor, do not be mean and begrudge a tiny bit of drifting silicon to my bones and unburied bonce. If you do this, whatever the East Wind threatens against the western marine power-surge, may the Venusian woods be buffeted, while you stay bug-snug, and may great bounty from whatever quarter stream onto you, from fair-dealing Jupiter and from Neptune, protector of sacred Tarentum. Are you unconcerned about making a default that will one day damage your error-free descendants? Perhaps rights reneged on and payback for pride await you too. I shall not be left with my calls for help unanswered, and no act of atonement will absolve you. Although you are keen to zip on by, the process will not be long; just toss in three handfuls of dust, then you can zoom away, continuing with your session.

Cenotaph of Palinurus, engraving by Wilhelm Gmelin, 1815.

Horace’s Ode 1.28 appears simple, but has been the subject of much scholarly debate. The poem first sees an address to the Tarentine philosopher, politician, mathematician and Pythagorean, Archytas (c. 428–347 BC). Then, after a short bridge passage (lines 15–16), there is an appeal to a passing sailor for burial. This is made, as only becomes apparent at line 22, by a drowned man. The most contentious interpretative issues are the identity and number of addressor(s) and addressees;[1]  their respective locations and the significance of the various Pythagorean references in the text. This article addresses these questions and argues that many of the issues with this enigmatic verse are resolved if the reader assumes that it is a shipwrecked Archytas who is speaking throughout, first in self-recrimination and then, pleadingly, to a passing sailor.

The poem falls into two main sections, starting at lines 1 and 21, which begin with the words te and me respectively. This implies dialogue; nonetheless, the current scholarly consensus is that a single voice is speaking throughout – a drowned man,who first addresses Archytas, then pleads with a passing sailor for burial. The ancient scholiasts, Porphyrio and Pseuo-Acro, however, viewed things differently. They saw the poem as a monologue; an address in the voice of Archytas, whose body has apparently been cast up onto the shore after a shipwreck, where, bemoaning his situation, he seeks burial from passers-by. This article sides with the scholiasts.

Archytas, as engraved speculatively and anonymously in Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy, 1655–61).

It has long been recognised that Ode 1.28 takes the form of a funerary epigram – a genre that evolved from inscriptions on sanctuaries and tombs to become a literary form in its own right. Funerary epigrams are typically short poems, written in elegiac couplets, in which inanimate objects seem to ‘speak’ to readers, who are thus cast either as participants in a conversation, or eavesdroppers. Authors of epigrams soon realised the potential for paradox afforded by the genre, so many literary examples are teasing; they leave the reader to guess what is going on, by reference to a trail of well-placed ‘clues’.

Funerary epigram, as a genre, uses many standard motifs, including the invocation of a famous man; a catalogue of the deceased’s noble deeds; solemn repetition of the idea that death is inevitable; and the appeal to a passer-by. All of these topoi reappear in Ode 1.28. However, on closer examination, it is clear that they have been subtly subverted. Thus, in the first six lines, Archytas’ achievements are catalogued: he was apparently “the computer of sea, earth, and googles of sand-grains” (maris et terrae numeroque carentis harenae mensorem); he was also able to ‘test’ (temptasse) the “cloud storage” and to “take a turn” (percurrisse) around Heaven’s curve (rotundum polum).

However, there are some jarring notes in this catalogue of praise. For example, it was actually Archimedes, not Archytas, who attempted to count grains of sand and then only in the context of sizing a finite universe. Archytas actually showed that the universe was infinite. Counting sand-grains is, in any case, a futile endeavour. The implication is that Archytas, a man with an outwardly impressive curriculum vitae, actually achieved little. It is not immediately clear why Horace would choose to belittle a famous man in this way. However, his presentation makes sense if it is Archytas himself who casts his career in a negative light. This point will be developed further below, along with examples of other ‘subverted’ topoi.

The famous “Archimedes Palimpsest“, in which the 10th-century text of Archimedes’ works was washed away and overwritten by a Christian liturgical text in the 13th century. In 1998, the manuscript emerged from a private collection, and two hitherto lost works of Archimedes were rediscovered.

One of the key reasons that modern commentators have rejected the scholiasts’ view is that the words pulveris exigui… cohibent in lines 2-3 would seem to suggest that the speaker in the first half of the poem has been buried. Therefore, they maintain, his cannot be the voice which laments its lack of burial at lines 23–4. However, cohibere can convey a general sense of “holding back”, and not just physical restraint. If this sense is understood, then Archytas’ body does not have to be “confined” by sand. Instead, his detention may be caused, not by the “tokens” of dust themselves, but rather by a lack of them, in a poetic instance of res pro defectu rei – “a thing for the lack of a thing”. (A similar sentiment is conveyed by the lament that “it is only the cost of the bus fare which keeps me from going out tonight”.) If this reading is adopted, then Archytas remains unburied and there is no conflict with lines 23–4.

The use of the Greek vocative form, Archyta, in line 2 is also cited as evidence that it cannot be Archytas himself who is speaking. It is true that first-person addresses are almost unknown in funerary epigram,[2] but Ode 1.28 is by no means a straightforward example of the genre. In any case, self-apostrophising is common in Latin poetry, particularly in the context of self-blame. For example Catullus, in Poem 8, reproaches himself bitterly for his foolishness and resolves to break free from a passion that is destroying him.

Another vexed question, which also feeds into the issue of to whom the narratorial voice belongs, is the narrator’s location as he speaks. This does not have to be the same place as that of his addressees (Archytas and the passing sailor) although it is generally assumed that it is. A further common assumption made by those who accept the ‘drowned-man-as-narrator’ thesis, is that the deceased’s body has been washed up in a location near to Tarentum, Archytas’ home-town, perhaps close to the great man’s tomb. However, it is clear that the shipwreck which killed the narrator occurred in the Adriatic, when the South Wind caused his vessel to be overwhelmed by “Illyrian” (Illyricis) waves (lines 21–2). Illyria is modern Croatia, so the most likely landing-spot for his dead body would be the Adriatic coast of Apulia. It is hard to imagine the corpse being carried all the way round the ‘heel’ of Italy into the gulf of Tarentum instead.

Stormy sea with shipwreck, Pieter Mulier the Younger (a.k.a. Il Tempesta), 1670s (Musei Civici di Palazzo Farnese, Piacenza, Italy).

There is no direct evidence to support the case that Archytas died in a shipwreck; indeed, we lack details of his death more generally. The date is uncertain and the location of his grave, if it ever existed, in Tarentum or otherwise, is unknown. Even if Archytas were endowed with an impressive funerary monument, there is no evidence that it was still visible in Horace’s day. It is therefore impossible to identify the extent to which the poet is using poetic licence in his verse.

The location of the addressor may be uncertain, but a clue to the addressee’s situation is given in line 3. This states that Archytas is located prope Matinum… Litum (“near the Matine Shore”). The authors of the most comprehensive commentary on Horace’s first books of Odes, Robin Nisbet and Margaret Hubbard, state that this location could be: “a mountain, a promontory, or perhaps a plain in Apulia.” The evidence is puzzling. At Odes 4.2.27, Horace uses “Matine” as an adjective to describe a bee, suggesting that there are Matine meadows; meanwhile, at Epodes 16.27–8, the term seems to refer to hill-tops (quando Padus Matina laverit cacumina – “where the Po washes the Matine summits”). The fact that “Matine” can be used in respect of such a wide range of topographies suggests either that it covered an extensive area or that it represented a literal and littoral no-man’s land. It may even have been a deliberately tautological location, like George Orwell’s “Wigan Pier”, which sounds like a seaside attraction, but is actually inland, in a town with a long industrial heritage. The latter interpretation is preferred here, as it makes the actual location of the dead body impossible to pinpoint.

Present-day Wigan Pier: Gibson’s Warehouse, built in 1777 and relaunched in 1984 as a museum and educational complex, is currently being renovated as a food hall, gin distillery and microbrewery.

The major stumbling-block in proving the thesis that it is Archytas who is speaking is presented by the words me quoque (conventionally translated as “me too”) in line 21. This would seem to imply that the narrator died “as well as” Archytas. Nisbet and Hubbard see this as a reference back to the long list of those who have died in lines 17–20, the point being that death eventually came for the narrator, as it did for all the others. However, quoque could refer particularly to those sea-farers whom the sea swallowed up, confirming the idea that Archytas too was consumed by waves. However, quoque has an alternative meaning – “even”. Even Archytas “fell” (occidit) like the others. This fact appears to have surprised him, as it very likely would have done, given that he was a Pythagorean.

Pythagoreans viewed the soul as immortal, believing that, on death, it would pass into another, not necessarily human, body, through a process known as metempsychosis, or transmigration. Archytas’ adherence to the philosophy is well-attested; however, there is a hint that the narrator is less sympathetic to the doctrine. As early as lines 5–6, Archytas is described as being animo… morituro (a “soul destined for deletion”). This is a clear statement on the finality of death – the very opposite of what a Pythagorean like Archytas would have believed.

After this stark pronouncement, there follows a series of statements (lines 7–15), which appear to rehearse the topos that even great men are overtaken by death. However, once again, the treatment of this apparent commonplace is far from straightforward. Horace’s choice of examples is particularly puzzling. He chooses three outstanding men who did not die as such. Tithonus’ problem was that he carried on ageing, forever so that, remotus in auras (“wafted away on the breeze”), he just faded away. Tantalus may have dined with Olympians, but he offended them and was punished for eternity in Tartarus, unable to enjoy the food and drink that surrounded him. Minos was privy to Zeus’ confidences, but was, nonetheless, made to reside in the House of Hades, endlessly judging souls. What the three actually seem to have in common is that they were favoured by the gods but, when their material existence on earth was over, they did not get to reside on the Isles of the Blessed, enjoying an eternity of bliss.

Pythagoras advocating vegetarianism, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618–20 (Hampton Court Palace (Royal Collection), London, UK).

In line 10 of the Ode, Pythagoras himself puts in an appearance. Horace describes him as Panthoide, as the philosopher claimed to be a reincarnation of the Trojan Euphorbus, son of Panthous. Lines 11–12 refer to Pythagoras’ alleged ‘proof’ of his return to life, which involved an unprompted recognition of Euphorbus’ shield in the temple of Hera at Argos. Despite this supposed episode of reincarnation, the narrator states that Pythagoras was iterum Orco demissu[s] (re-booted into Orcus), apparently once and for all. There is a sceptical, almost condemnatory, tone to the words which the narrator addresses to Archytas – iudice te (“in your opinion”). This qualifies the ambiguous phrase non sordidus auctor naturaeque verique. The word auctor can mean “author” as well as “authority”, so this apparent statement of praise can also be taken as a sign that the speaker doubts the veracity of Pythagoras’ claims – the philosopher apparently “made up truths”. If it is Archytas speaking, then he has clearly become disillusioned with his former beliefs.

Lines 15–16 continue the seemingly anti-Pythagorean theme. While the idea that a common night awaits all after death is another commonplace from funerary epigram, it is clearly at odds with Pythagoreanism, which assumed a plethora of post-mortem days. The tone, again, is important. The gerundive in the phrase calcanda [est] semel via leti (“the road of death must be trodden once”) has a finality which brooks no argument. The idea that the road to death is one-way does, however, seem to conflict with the notion that Pythagoras himself went to Orcus iterum (line 10). The inevitable conclusion is that Archytas’ former hero was, at best, misguided; at worst, a liar.

Ulysses (Odysseus) burning Elpenor, Theodoor van Thulden, c.1630.

The narrator of Ode 1.28 is pleading for burial. There are particularly horrible implications to the uninterred state, as numerous examples from Greek literature show. The sentiment can be traced back at least to Homer and the fate of Elpenor in Odyssey 11, who died, but remained unburied, and was therefore unable to pass into the Underworld. As a result, he was forced to plead with the living for release, by burial, from the strange limbo in which he was stranded. If Archytas were to drown and his body were to remain similarly unburied, and if Pythagoras were not a visionary, but a liar and a charlatan, as the first half of the poem seems to suggest, then the shipwrecked Archytas’ soul would not pass into another body at the point of death. Instead, it would remain, trapped, along with the decaying body which it inhabited.

Archytas’ pleas to the passing seaman for burial (lines 23–6) follow an interesting rhetorical arc. The speaker starts by politely requesting a “bit of silicon” – a sand-grain (particulam harenae); he then moves into bargaining mode, holding out possible inducements to the nauta to encourage him to comply with his request. He then issues threats, both to the nauta and to his descendants, before finally begging for three handfuls of dust. To throw these, he says, rather pathetically, at line 35, will only take up a little of the sailor’s time. Many funerary inscriptions take the form of an address to a passer-by, but none follows the path of wheedling, threats and, finally, despair which is displayed in Ode 1.28. The desperation displayed is puzzling.

Mosaic of a Roman galley, 2nd cent. AD (Bardo Museum, Tunisia).

A further puzzle is posed by the fact that the narrator addresses a nauta, as opposed to the more general viator (“traveller”, “wayfarer”). This implies that the passer-by is travelling by sea, rather than by land – an idea that is reinforced by the use of the verb curras (line 36), which frequently applies to the motion of ships. This casts further doubt on the supposed scenario which assumes that the drowned man’s body has been washed up near Tarentum, a busy port. It this were the case, then presumably it would be found quickly, by someone strolling along the beach. If the passing nauta does not oblige, then another, more compliant, passer-by shall surely be along in a minute? Instead, the speaker’s tone of desperation reinforces the idea that the his body is situated somewhere remote and elusive – like the Matine shore.

Horace reads his poems in front of Maecenas, Fyodor Bronnikov, 1863 (Odesa Art Museum, Ukraine).

It is possible to construct a reading of Ode 1.28 which accords with the scholiasts’ view, dispenses with the ‘nameless drowned man’ altogether, and accords with the various observations made above. In this alternative scenario, Archytas has drowned in a shipwreck and his body has been washed up on a deserted (“Matine”) shoreline, somewhere in Apulia, where it remains “detained”, owing to lack of burial. In the absence of passers-by, Archytas’ only hope of peace lies with nautae on those rare ships which sail nearby. The tonal changes of lines 23–36 represent the emotional journey from hope, to anger, to despair, which is made by Archytas’ plaintive soul, as a longed-for ship appears on the horizon, passes in front of his sun-bleached bones, then fades again from view. Sadly, the ship does not stop, and the sailors on it do not comply with his pleas for burial. Indeed, no ship will ever stop and no sailors will ever comply, for the simple reason that no-one is aware that Archytas is even there. He is doomed to remain forever in limbo, imprisoned, like Palinurus, beached within a poem, in a cruel imitation of the immortality he expected.

Anne Hardy is currently doing her Masters in Classics at University College London. Her two previous articles for Antigone looked at Catullus’ Attis poem and Horace’s thoughts on love and booze.

Further Reading

William Fitzgerald’s How to Read a Latin Poem (Oxford UP, 2013) provides a good introduction to Latin poetry for those with little or no Latin; Chapter 3 is devoted to Horace. The translation of Horace’s Odes by W.G. Shepherd (Penguin, 1983) is also very readable. David West’s series of books on Odes 1-3 (Oxford UP, 1995–2002) includes, for each poem, the Latin text, an excellent translation, and a lively commentary; the first volume is Horace Odes 1: Carpe Diem (Oxford UP, 1995). Robin Nisbet and Margaret Hubbard’s Commentary on Horace: Odes, Book 1 (Oxford UP, 1970) provides detailed analysis for the more committed Horatian.

On the Archytas ode specifically, lively discussion is given by Armand D’Angour’s “Drowning by numbers: Pythagoreanism and poetry in Horace Odes 1.28,” Greece and Rome 50 (2005) 206–19.   


1 A. Setaioli, “Horace et le Pythagorisme,” Prometheus 43 (2017, 120 n.36), gives a useful summary of the various scholarly positions.
2 Pal Anth. 7.673 may provide an example.