Sēra nōs illō referat senectus!
nēmō ad id sērō venit, unde numquam,865
cum semel vēnit, potuit revertī;
quid iuvat dūrum properāre fātum?
omnis haec magnīs vaga turba terrīs
ībit ad manēs facietque inertī
vēla Cōcȳtō. tibi crēscit omne,870
et quod occāsus videt et quod ortus
(parce ventūrīs); tibi, Mors, parāmur.
sīs licet sēgnis, properāmus ipsī;
prīma quae vītam dedit hōra, carpit.
All living things must go down permanently to the Underworld, and all too soon. So why has Hercules hurried into the land of the dead before his time?
864 sēra … senectus: the adjective is predicative, best translated as an adverb. illō: “to that place” (the Underworld). referat: living things originate from the earth and are “returned” there after death.
865–86 Prose order: nēmō venit sērō ad id unde, cum semel vēnit, numquam potuit revertī. ad id … unde: “to that from which,” i.e., the Underworld. sērō: “too late.” After wishing for a late death (i.e., a long life), the Chorus admits that no death is too late: death always arrives, and always too quickly. 866 semel: both “once (only)” and “once (and for all)”: the natural order, which Hercules has challenged, is that death is a single and permanent event. Other Latin poets exploited this ambiguous meaning of semel to describe death, such as Catullus in his famous poem to Lesbia (5.5 nōbīs cum semel occidit brevis lux), where human life, unlike the sun, sets (just) once (and for all).
867 quid iuvat dūrum properāre fātum: “what is the good of hurrying harsh fate?” (Fitch 2018), using the common impersonal meaning of iuvat: “it is pleasing, beneficial.”
868 magnīs vaga turba terrīs: the ablative indicates place where (AG 426): translate after the adjective vaga.
869–70 facietque inertī / vēla Cōcȳtō: “and will set sail on the sluggish Cocytus.” The more common Latin equivalent for “set sail” is vēla dare, but authors also used facere and a few other verbs (LS velum II.a.α).
Poets were not consistent about which river the shades of the dead had to cross to reach the Underworld. The Styx and Cocytus are most common, but Seneca also uses Lethe elsewhere in this play (680, 777). The idea of using sails to cross the infernal river is found in the Aeneid (6.302), but the image is made especially eerie here by the Chorus’s focus on the sluggishness and silence of the Underworld.
870 tibi crēscit omne: the “you” in question is Mors, named in line 872. The repetition of the second person tibi in both of these lines gives the apostrophe to Death the feel of a religious hymn (where such repetition is common).
871 et quod occāsus videt et quod ortus: “both what the sunset and the sunrise see,” i.e., everything on earth (the antecedent of each quod is omne in the previous line).
872 parce ventūrīs: the verb takes a dative object, which is the future active participle of veniō. The compressed idea is easier to paraphrase in English: “be lenient, since we must come” (Fitch 1987). As before (864–66), the Chorus hopes to be granted a late death, since death must come to everyone all too soon.
873 sīs licet sēgnis: “even if you are slow” (LS licet II.A)
874 Prose order: prīma hōra quae vītam dedit, (vītam) carpit. carpit: the metaphorical senses of the verb (LS carpo II) are all derived from its literal sense, which can describe plucking flowers, gathering fruit, grazing on grass, etc. The Chorus’s gloomy conclusion is that from the moment of our birth, each passing hour slowly picks away at our life until we are dead.
This gradual process is better expressed by the present tense carpit found in one branch of the manuscript tradition (e.g., Par. Lat. 11855, 4th column, 19th line from the bottom) than by the perfect carpsit found in the other branch (e.g., Par. Lat. 8260, right-hand page, 19th line from the top).
sērus –a –um: late, too late
senectūs senectūtis f.: old age
sērō: late; too late
revertor revertī reversus sum: to turn back, return
mānēs –ium m. pl.: souls or ghosts of the dead
iners: unskilled; idle; sluggish
vēlum vēlī n.: sail
Cōcȳtus –ī m.: Cocytus, river in the Underworld
occāsus –ūs m.: a setting; sunset, the West
ortus ortūs m.: rising, beginning; sunrise, the East
sēgnis sēgne: slow, sluggish, lazy
carpō carpere carpsī carptum: to pluck, crop, graze, tear off; sieze; enjoy; criticize