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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces the poems
as published in the Loeb Classical Library,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Precatio Terrae
Precatio Omnium Herbarumα


Both these prayers afford interesting glimpses into features of ancient religion much older than the poems themselves. It is characteristic of the worship of the Earth-Goddess that they should exhibit a recognition of her as the source of life and energy and nourishment, an anticipation of a final refuge in her at death,1 and a confidence in her power to give help and healing. The divinity of the Earth-Mother was believed to be communicated to the dead, who were by inhumation absorbed into her. The words of the first Precatio find a full parallel in the epitaph —

mortua heic ego sum et sum cinis, is cinis terrast:

sein est terra dea, ego sum dea, mortua non sum.2

The return of the body to Mother Earth was a natural notion for a primitive agricultural folk, since much of the religious ritual of such peoples must be connected with the land. Earth had to be propitiated that she might grant increase to crops and cattle;  p340 and at funerals the pig was sacrificed to the Cornº-Goddess to secure her favour in receiving the dead. It is, then, intelligible that the Di Manes and Tellus Mater should sometimes be coupled; e.g. Decius in his devotio (Livy VIII.IX.8) named them together. So Romans came to look on the tomb as an eternal home3 where the spirit of the dead should abide, still a member of the old clan, still in some kind of communion with the living through the offering of sacrifice and food.

An excellent plastic illustration of the Precatio Terrae may be found in the allegorical relief of Tellus Mater, from the walls of the Ara Pacis Augustae decreed by the Senate to the emperor Augustus in 13 B.C. It is symbolic of peace and plenty, and characteristically representative of the fusion of Eastern with Western elements in Graeco-Roman art. Baehrens, indeed, would ascribe both the Precationes to the same period as the Ara Pacis (Miscell. Crit., Groningen, 1878, pp107‑113). Under the name of Antonius Musa we have a treatise "de herba betonica" in a Leyden MS. (Leidensis), a Breslau MS. (Vratislaviensis), and two Florentine MSS. (Laurentiani). These four also contain the two Precationes in senarii. The Precatio Omnium Herbarum is in one MS. (Laur. 11th cent.) ascribed to Musa: on this ground Baehrens concludes that both poems are by him. If this were convincing, it would settle their date as Augustan; but the argument is weak, and there are features in the poems suggestive of a later period. Maiestas tua, for instance, in lines 25 and 32 of the  p341 first piece, has a post-Augustan ring; and it is noteworthy that the word maiestas comes three times in the Precatio Omnium Herbarum.

(following Baehrens, P.L.M. I p137‑138)

A = codex Leidensis (M.L.V.Q. 9), saec. VI.

B = codex Vratislaviensis (cod. bibl. univers. III F. 19), saec. XI.

C = codex Laurentianus (plut. lxxiii.41), saec. XI ineunte.

D = codex Laurentianus (plut. lxxiii.16), saec. XIII.

p342  p343  Precatio Terrae

Dea sancta Tellus, rerum naturae parens,

quae cuncta generas et regeneras indidem,a

quod sola praestas gentibus vitalia,b

caeli ac maris diva arbitra rerumque omnium,

5 per quam silet natura et somnos concipit,

itemque lucem reparas et noctem fugas:

tu Ditis umbras tegis et immensum chaos

ventosque et imbres tempestatesque attines

et, cum libet, dimittis et misces freta

10 fugasque solesc et procellas concitas,

itemque, cum vis, hilarem promittis diem.

tu alimenta vitae tribuis perpetua fide,

et, cum recesserit anima, in tete refugimus:

ita, quicquid tribuis, in te cuncta recidunt.

15 merito vocaris Magna tu Mater deum,

pietate quia vicisti divom numina;

tuque illa vera esd gentium et divom parens,

sine qua nil maturatur nec nasci potest:

tu es Magna tuque divom regina es, dea.

20 te, diva, adoro tuumque ego numen invoco,

facilisque praestes hoc mihi quod te rogo;

referamque grates, diva, tibi merita fide.

exaudi me, quaeso, et fave coeptis meis;

p344 hoc quod peto a te, diva, mihi praesta volens.

25 herbas, quascumque generat maiestas tua,

salutis causa tribuis cunctis gentibus:

hanc nunc mihi permittas medicinam tuam.

veniat medicina cume tuis virtutibus:

quidque ex his fecero, habeat eventum bonum,

30 cuique easdem dedero quique easdem a me acceperint,

sanos eos praestes. denique nunc, diva, hoc mihi

maiestas praestet tua, quod te supplex rogo.

A Litanyβ to Earth

Goddess revered, O Earth, of all nature Mother, engendering all things and re-engendering them from the same womb, because thou only dost supply each species with living force, thou divine controller of sky and sea and of all things, through thee is nature hushed and lays hold on sleep, and thou likewise renewest the day and dost banish night. Thou coverest Pluto's shades and chaos immeasurable: winds, rains and tempests thou dost detain, and, at thy will, let loose, and so convulse the sea, banishing sunshine, stirring gales to fury, and likewise, when thou wilt, thou speedest forth the joyous day. Thou dost bestow life's nourishment with never-failing faithfulness, and, when our breath has gone, in thee we find our refuge: so, whatsoe'er thou bestowest, all falls back to thee. Deservedly art thou called Mighty Mother of Gods, since in duteous service thou hast surpassed the divinities of heaven, and thou art that true parent of living species and of gods, without which nothing is ripened or can be born. Thou art the Mighty Being and thou art queen of divinities, O Goddess. Thee, divine one, I adore and thy godhead I invoke: graciously vouchsafe me this which I ask of thee: and with due fealty, Goddess, I will repay thee thanks. Give ear to me, I pray, and favour my undertakings: this which I seek of  p345 thee, Goddess, vouchsafe to me willingly. All herbs soever which thy majesty4 engendereth, for health's sake thou bestowest upon every race: entrust to me now this healing virtue of thine: let healing come with thy powers: whate'er I do in consonance therewith, let it have favourable issue: to whomso I give those same powers or whoso shall receive the same from me, all such do thou make whole. Finally now, O Goddess, let thy majesty vouchsafe to me what I ask of thee in prayer.

Precatio Omnium Herbarum

Nunc vos potentes omnes herbas deprecor.

exoro maiestatem vestram, quas parens

tellus generavit et cunctis dono dedit:

medicinam sanitatis in vos contulit

5 maiestatemque, ut omni generi identidem

humano sitis auxilium utilissimum.

hoc supplex exposco et precor: velocius

huc huc adeste cum vestris virtutibus,

quia, quae creavit, ipsa permisit mihi,

10 ut colligam vos; favit hicf etiam, cui

medicina tradita est. quantumque vestra nunc

virtus potest, praestate medicinam bonam

causa salutis. gratiam, precor, mihi

praestetis per virtutem vestram, ut omnibus

15 in rebus,g quicquid ex vobis ego fecero,

p346 cuive homini dedero, habeatis eventus bonos

et effectum celerrimum. ut semper mihi

liceat favente maiestate vestra vos

colligere, . . . . . . . . . . . .

20 ponamque vobis fruges et grates agam

per nomen Matris,h quae vos iussit nascier.i

A Prayer to All Herbs

With all you potent herbs do I now intercede; and to your majesty make my appeal: ye were engendered by Mother Earth, and given for a gift to all. On you she has conferred the healing which makes whole, on you high excellence, so that to all mankind you may be time and again an aid most serviceable. This in suppliant wise I implore and entreat: hither, hither swiftly come with all your potency, forasmuch as the very one who gave you birth has granted me leave to gather you: he also to whom the healing art is entrusted has shown his favour.5 As far as your potency now extends, vouchsafe sound healing for health's sake. Bestow on me, I pray, favour by your potency, that in all things, whatsoever I do according to your will, or for whatsoever  p347 man I prescribe, ye may have favorite issues and most speedy result. That I may ever be allowed, with the favour of your majesty, to gather you. . . and I shall set forth the produce of the fields for you and return thanks through the name of the Mother who ordained your birth.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

Critical Notes:

a sidus codd.: indidem Baehrens: in dies Buecheler.

b tutela codd.: vitalia Baehrens.

c solem codd.: soles Baehrens.

d ver et BC: vere A: vero D: vera es Baehrens.

e veni ad me cum A: veniat me cum BCD: veniat medicina cum Baehrens: veni veni ad me Buecheler.

f favente (-tem A) hoc codd.: favit hic Baehrens.

g viribus ACD: virtutibus B: in rebus Baehrens.

h maiestatis codd.: Matris Baehrens.

i nasci codd.: nascier Riese.

Explanatory Notes:

1 With ll. 12‑14 of the first Precatio, cf. mater genuit materque receipt in Buecheler, Carmina lat. epigraphica, No. 809: cf. also the traditional sepulchral inscription sit tibi terra levis, and the spirit of the prayer to Tellus which ends the first elegy on Maecenas (141 sqq., p134 supra).

2 Buecheler, op. cit., No. 1532: cf. 974.

3 Buecheler, op. cit., No. 59 suae gnatae, sibeique, uxori hanc constituit domum aeternam ubei omnes pariter aevom degerent: cf. 1488.

4 maiestas tua (in lines 25 and 32) sounds post-Augustan: maiestas had already become a title of respect for an emperor in Phaedrus II.5.23. Cf. in the following poem, maiestatem vestram addressed to the herbae in line 2: cf. lines 5 and 18 and Juvenal's templorum quoque maiestas praesentior, XI.111, for a "mystic presence" in temples.

5 i.e. Paean, Apollo as deity of healing.

Thayer's Notes:

α The precise source of my transcription is Vol. I of Minor Latin Poets in the Loeb Classical Library, translated by J. Wight Duff and Arnold M. Duff (1934 and revised 1935). It is now in the public domain pursuant to the 1978 revision of the U. S. Copyright Code, since the copyright expired in 1963 and was not renewed at the appropriate time, which would have been that year or the year before. (Details here on the copyright law involved.)

Contrary to my usual practice I've put the Latin originals and the English translations on the same page, partly because the texts are short, but mostly to tempt those learning Latin to read them in the original: the Latin is easy, and much prettier than the translations; they are good candidates for memorization, if you want to get some Latin under your skin.

There are, by the way, a lot of things online purporting to be ancient Roman prayers; some of those I've seen are nothing of the sort, inventions no more ancient than I am, and in the crudest kind of pidgin-Latin. The two on this page, however, are the genuine article, although in parade dress so to speak: as in our own time, most prayers seem to have been in prose and much less elegantly phrased, like for example those found in Cato, Re Rustica, 134, 139, and 141.

β Not a litany at all, which has a clear technical meaning not applicable here, but as in the exactly parallel title of the second poem, a Prayer; euphony alone seems to account for this translation of Precatio.

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Page updated: 8 Oct 12