Originally sung by a double choir of twenty-seven boys and twenty-seven girls on June 3, 17 b.c.e., The Secular Hymn is an important statement about the Romans’ view of their empire in the time of Augustus. Stemming from an Etruscan belief that a new age of humanity was inaugurated each eleven (or, in some cases, ten) decades, the Centennial Festival reflected Augustus’s view that, with his reign, a new period had begun. For this reason, the poem is filled with images of the rising and setting sun, the passing of the seasons, and, most of all, symbols of birth.

The goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia (or Ilithyia), is mentioned both because a new age is being born and because of Augustus’s belief that Rome needed to return to its traditional values. The emperor rewarded Romans who produced large families and imposed a higher level of taxation upon those who remained single. In this way, Horace is able to use the figure of Eileithyia to shift from the birth imagery at the beginning of the poem to advocacy of Augustus’s social policies in the second group of verses.

Moreover, Eileithyia is only one of the deities invoked in this hymn. Horace also addresses Apollo and Diana, the Sun, the Fates, Ceres, and a host of other gods and goddesses. The resulting image is that Rome’s destiny is guided by all the deities in the Roman pantheon. It was the will of the gods that Rome should become great, and it...

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