Mosella is a paean to the river Mosel written around 1,650 years ago by the poet and scholar Ausonius. Born in Bordeaux, Ausonius worked as a lawyer, grammarian and rhetorician before being called to the imperial court in Trier, then a major Roman imperial city, by Emperor Valentinian to educate his son, prince Gratian. Ausonius eventually returned to Bordeaux where, in his old age, he wrote several literary works of which Mosella, here excerpted and beautifully translated from the original Latin, is one of the most celebrated. His descriptions of the boisterous industry on the vine-covered banks off the river make clear just how important winemaking was in the region so many centuries ago. And so well written…
I had crossed over swift-flowing Nahe’s cloudy stream and gazed with awe upon the ramparts lately thrown round ancient Bingum, where Gaul once matched the Roman rout at Cannae and where her slaughtered hordes lay scattered over the countryside untended and unwept.
Thence onward I began a lonely journey through pathless forest, nor did my eyes rest on any trace of human inhabitants. I passed Kirchberg, sweltering amid its parched fields, and Tabernae, watered by its unfailing spring, and the lands lately parcelled out to Sarmatian settlers.
And at length on the very verge of Belgic territory I descry Neumagen, the famed camp of sainted Constantine. Clearer the air which here invests the plains, and Phoebus, cloudless now, discloses glowing heaven with his untroubled light. No longer is the sky to seek, shut out by the green gloom of branches intertwined: but the free breath of transparent day withholds not sight of the sun’s pure rays and of the ether, dazzling to the eyes.
Nay more, the whole gracious prospect made me behold a picture of my own native land, the smiling and well-tended country of Bordeaux—the roofs of country-houses, perched high upon the overhanging river-banks, the hill-sides green with vines, and the pleasant stream of Moselle gliding below with subdued murmuring.
Hail, river, blessed by the fields, blessed by the husbandmen, to whom the Belgae owe the imperial honour which graces their city, Trier: river, whose hills are o’ergrown with Bacchus’s fragrant vines, o’ergrown, river most verdant, thy banks with turf: ship-bearing as the sea, with sloping waters gliding as a river, and with thy crystal depths the peer of lakes, brooks thou canst match for hurrying flow, cool springs surpass for limpid draughts; one, thou hast all that belongs to springs, brooks, rivers, lakes, and tidal Ocean with his ebb and flow.
Thou, with calm waters onward gliding, feel’st not any murmurs of the wind nor check from hidden rocks; nor by foaming shallows art thou forced to hurry on in swirling rapids, no eyots hast thou jutting in midstream to thwart thy course—lest the glory of thy due title be impaired, if any isle sunder and stem thy flow.
For thee two modes of voyaging are appointed: this, when boats move down thy stream with current favouring and their oars thrash the churned waters at full speed; that, when along the banks, with tow-rope never slackening, the boatmen strain on their shoulders hawsers bound to the masts.
Thyself how often dost thou marvel at the windings of thine own stream, and think its natural speed moves almost too slowly! Thou with no mud-grown sedge fringest thy banks, nor with foul ooze o’erspread’st thy marge; dry is the treading down to thy water’s edge.
For from the topmost ridge to the foot of the slope the river-side is thickly planted with green vines. The people, happy in their toil, and the restless husbandmen are busy, now on the hill-top, now on the slope, exchanging shouts in boisterous rivalry. Here the wayfarer tramping along the low-lying bank, and there the bargeman floating by, troll their rude jests at the loitering vine-dressers; and all the hills, and shivering woods, and channelled river, ring with their cries.
Nor does the scenery of this region please men alone; I can believe that here the rustic Satyrs and the grey-eyed Nymphs meet together on the border of the stream, when the goat-footed Pans are seized with merry ribaldry, and splashing in the shallows, frighten the trembling sister-Nymphs beneath the stream, while they thresh the water with unskilful strokes.
Oft also, when she has stolen clusters from the inland hills, Panope, the river lady, with a troop of Oread friends, flees the wanton Fauns, gods of the country-side and it is said that when the sun’s fiery orb stops in the midst of his course, the Satyrs and the sister-Nymphs of the crystal depths meet here beside the stream and ply the dance in partnership, what time the fiercer heat affords them hours set free from mortal company.
Then, wantonly frolicking amid their native waters, the Nymphs duck the Satyrs in the waves, and slip away right through the hands of those unskilful swimmers, as, baffled, they seek to grasp their slippery limbs and, instead of bodies, embrace yielding waves.
But of these things which no man has looked upon and no eye beheld, be it no sin for me to speak in part: let things secret be kept hid, and let Reverence dwell unspied upon, in the safekeeping of her native streams. Yon is a sight that may be freely enjoyed: when the azure river mirrors the shady hill, the waters of the stream seem to bear leaves and the flood to be all o’ergrown with shoots of vines.
What a hue is on the waters when Hesperus has driven forward the lagging shadows and overspreads Moselle with the green of the reflected height! Whole hills float on the shivering ripples: here quivers the far-off tendril of the vine, here in the glassy flood swells the full cluster.
The deluded boatman tells o’er the green vines – the boatman whose skiff of bark floats on the watery floor out in mid-stream, where the pictured hill blends with the river and where the river joins with the edges of the shadows. and when oared skiffs join in mimic battle in mid-stream, how pleasing is the pageant which this sight affords!
They circle in and out, and graze the sprouting blades of the cropped turf along the green banks. The husbandman, standing upon the rise of the green bank, watches the light-hearted owners as they leap about on stem or prow, the boyish crew straggling over the river’s wide expanse, and never feels the day is slipping by, but puts their play before his business, while present pleasure shuts out past cares.