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Horace, Our Contemporary

Horace in English

edited by D.S. Carne-Ross, by Kenneth Haynes, with an introduction by D.S. Carne-Ross
Penguin, 560 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Odes of Horace

bilingual edition, translation by Ferry David
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 344 pp., $35.00

It is now a little over two thousand years since the death in 8 BC of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, the poet familiarly known to English-speaking readers as Horace. Those two millennia saw the fulfillment of the bold prediction that Horace made in the final poem of the third book of his Odes: “I shall not wholly die; a great part of me will escape the death goddess.”1 In fact, all of him has survived, unlike the work of Gallus and Varius, members, as he was, of the literary circle of Maecenas, of which we have only pitiful fragments. The entire corpus of Horace’s quite voluminous output continued to be copied throughout the dark age that saw the disappearance of large sections of the work of Livy, Tacitus, and Petronius. Horace became a school text for Western Europe as he had been for imperial Rome; whether in the original, in translations, or in adaptations, his work had a large effect on the development of Western culture. The influence of Horace on the English-speaking world is explored in all its many-sided splendor in the first of the books under review; the second offers a new, and most welcome, translation of Horace’s most loved poems, the four books of the Odes.

We have a great deal of information about Horace and his life, much of it from his own poems, some from fragments of a biography written by Suetonius a century later. It was no ordinary life.2 Toward the end of it, for example, he was offered a position of such power and influence that few men would have been able to refuse it—nothing less than the role of private secretary for the most powerful man in the world, Augustus, the dictator in fact (though not in name) of the Roman Empire. We know about the offer from a letter written by Augustus to his close friend and advisor Maecenas, the wealthy patron of a circle of poets that included not only Horace but also Virgil and Propertius. “Before this,” it runs, “I was capable of writing letters to my friends with my own hand, but now, overburdened with work and in poor health, I want to take our friend Horace away from you. He will come…to help me write my letters.” But Horace declined the offer, and managed to do so without offending Augustus, who, according to Suetonius, our authority for the story, “showed no resentment whatsoever and continued to treat Horace as a close friend.”

Such an intimate relationship with the master of the Roman world and with the wealthy aristocratic patron who had given him a country estate near Tivoli—his “Sabine farm”—complete with slaves to run it, would have been an unimaginable future for the young Horace, a provincial from the small southern Italian town of Venusia, whose father had once been a slave. He had probably been one of the prisoners sold into slavery in 88 BC when a Roman army captured the town during Rome’s suppression of the rebellion of the Italian “allies” who demanded (and were eventually granted) Roman citizenship.3 He was later given his freedom and made enough money as a businessman to acquire a small estate and give his son an expensive education with the best teacher in Rome. Not content with that, he sent him off to Athens to join the sons of Roman aristocrats who went there to polish up their Greek and study philosophy.

It was in Athens that the young Horace, twenty-two years old, made a mistake that seemed likely to ruin what had begun as a promising career; he accepted a commission as a tribunus militum, one of the six staff officers attached to the commander of a legion in the army of Brutus, who, with his fellow tyrannicide Cassius, was raising troops to face the armies of Antony, the murdered Julius Caesar’s lieutenant, and Octavian, his adopted son. At the battle of Philippi, fought in northern Greece in 42 BC, Horace escaped from the slaughter that ensued when Brutus’ line broke, leaving his shield ingloriously behind (as he put it himself). He later took advantage of an amnesty to return to Italy, where, however, he found himself with “his wings clipped, humble, and without the resources of his father’s house and farm”4 ; they were probably among the many estates confiscated by the victors of Philippi to pay off the veterans of their armies.

Horace managed, however, to secure a post in the treasury (Suetonius says he “bought” it) and in the next few years won a reputation as a poet, a composer of what are usually called satires, poems written in a conversational tone (Horace in fact called them sermones, “conversations”) which explore, with vivid examples from everyday life and interesting characters, such themes as avarice, envy, ambition, the simple life, human folly, and the contrast between town and country. Virgil, already a member of Maecenas’ circle, introduced Horace, and when the first book of the Satires was published, probably around 35 BC, the opening poem was a dedication to Maecenas, who was frequently addressed also in what followed.

The meter of the Satires is the hexameter, the Homeric line which Ennius in the second century BC had adapted for Latin verse to chronicle the wars that had made Rome the ruler of the Mediterranean and that Lucilius, a generation later, had used for what he called satire. We have only fragments of Lucilius’ work, but they are more than enough to show that this is where Horace found the model for the metrical licenses that undermine the dignity of the line as handled by Ennius and for the colloquial language and conversational tone that prompt Horace’s admission that his “pedestrian Muse” sings in lines “more like prose.”5

He was a master of this informal medium. Among the highlights of the two books of satires he produced are the account of his stroll in Rome—“I happened to be walking down the Sacred Way…”—which was interrupted by a persistent bore whom he could not shake off; a fifteen-day journey by road and water to Brindisi, in the company of Maecenas and Virgil; a touching tribute to his father and description of his schooldays; and a celebration of the pleasures of country life on his Sabine farm contrasted with the noise and pressures of residence in Rome, which ends with the fable of the town mouse and the country mouse.

Meanwhile, Horace had been writing poems of a different type, what he himself called iambi, though they became known as epodes; the meters are those of the Greek archaic poets Archilochus and Hipponax. “I was the first,” he wrote much later in the Epistles, “to offer a Latin audience the rhythms and passion of Archilochus,”6 though he claims that, unlike his model, he does not aim his shafts at living targets. A few of them do follow the Greek iambic tradition, most stridently exemplified in Hipponax, of scabrously obscene personal invective. In fact a scholarly edition first published in 1893 still omitted three of the seventeen in a 1962 reprint,7 and the Loeb Classical Library editions from 1914 to 1925 print two of them, untranslated and out of order, on the last pages of the book.8 Evidently the translator had not read Byron’s gleeful mockery of editors who “place,/Judiciously, from out the schoolboy’s vision,/The grosser parts; but…only add them all in an appendix,/Which saves, in fact, the trouble of an index….”9

The unobjectionable epodes vary in theme: an offer to accompany Maecenas, who is on his way to fight with Octavian at what was to be the climactic battle of the century’s civil wars—the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium which established Octavian as the unchallenged master of the empire10 ; a famous and much imitated celebration of the joys of the simple country life, which ends with the revelation that these are the reflections of a usurer who, preparing to retire as a simple farmer, calls in all his loans, but a few weeks later is back in the money market. Other epodes feature witches at their devilish work as they prepare to immolate a young man and use his organs for love charms, pronounce a curse on an enemy about to put to sea, or record the poet’s love pangs. But sometimes the note is more solemn, as in the heartfelt appeal to the Romans (which must precede the battle of Actium) to hold back from a renewal of civil war. It was perhaps prompted by a naval offensive launched by Sextus Pompeius, who had established naval control of the western Mediterranean and was cutting off food supplies to Rome; he was defeated by Octavian in 36 BC and the stage was set for the final confrontation of Octavian and Antony at Actium in 31 BC, a victory celebrated in the ninth epode.

This epode praises Octavian (soon to be granted the title Augustus) with fulsome flattery, hailing him as greater than Scipio Africanus, who destroyed Rome’s most dangerous enemy, Carthage, in 146 BC. This seems to be the first overt praise of Octavian to appear in Horace’s poems. In the two books of the Satires, Caesar, as Horace calls him—it was still just a name, not a title—is rarely mentioned even incidentally; the one place that is more than a passing reference (Satire II, 1. 10-20) is a polite refusal to sing praise of his recent victories on the grounds that Horace lacks the talent to sing of “ranks bristling with lances, or Gauls dying with shattered spear-heads or the wounds of Parthians falling from their horses.” It looks very much as if Horace, having been once bitten, is now twice shy; he does not want to end up on the wrong side a second time. Only after Actium makes it perfectly clear who is top dog does he declare himself. One can hardly blame him. Like Bertolt Brecht, he lived “in dark times.”

Yet there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his praise of Augustus in the three books of odes he published around 23 BC and the fourth book he added ten years later, somewhat reluctantly one feels, but at the express request of Augustus, who asked him to celebrate the victories of his lieutenants Drusus and Tiberius. Octavian had been unscrupulous and ruthless in his pursuit of power—the executions of 43 BC which he and Antony authorized claimed many victims among the Roman upper classes, including Cicero—but after Actium he seemed to most Romans their only bulwark against a renewed outbreak of the civil war that had plagued the Roman world for the better part of a century. Even the bitterly hostile assessment of Augustus offered by Tacitus many years later admits that “he seduced everyone with the pleasures of peace.”11

It is a theme explicitly stated by Horace in the fourteenth ode of Book III: “I shall not fear civil strife nor violent death while Caesar rules the earth.” This is not the only passage that praises Augustus, but Horace does not entirely repudiate his past loyalties. In one long ode (I, 12) that deliberately recalls the odes Pindar composed to praise victors in the great games, he asks what man, what god he shall celebrate. A list of gods from Jupiter on down is followed by a roll call of Roman heroes, beginning with Romulus, Rome’s first founder, just as Augustus, who of course ends the list, claimed to be its second. But this list includes, in an emphatic phrase—“Cato’s glorious death”—the name of the last senatorial leader to fight against Julius Caesar, who, after his defeat at Utica in North Africa, read Plato’s Phaedo, and then committed suicide. Horace even devotes an ode (II, 7) to a joyous celebration of the return to Italy of an old friend who had fought by his side at Philippi but who, unlike him, has continued to fight against Octavian, first with his namesake (and possible relative) Pompeius and later with Antony in the East. He handles the matter with exquisite tact, but it was nevertheless a subject not likely to appeal to Augustus.

  1. 1

    Unless otherwise attributed, all translations in this review are by the author.

  2. 2

    Peter Levi’s lively Horace: A Life (London: Duckworth, 1977) is an attempt to construct a biography from the poems, which he quotes copiously throughout in his own skillful translations. He recognizes the difficulty of the enterprise. “The self he so brilliantly projects, this way or that as the argument requires, is like something mythical or fictional projected by Plato, like the personality of Socrates for example. He shows a dangerous facility, and yet we believe him every time.” But there is much to be learned from this entertaining book, and even what in the end fails to convince is well worth reading.

  3. 3

    For a magisterial discussion of this much discussed question, see Gordon Williams’s article “Libertino Patre Natus: True or False?” in Homage to Horace: A Bimillenary Celebration, edited by S.J. Harrison (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 296-313.

  4. 4

    Epistles II, 2.50.

  5. 5

    Satires II, 6.17, and I, 4.42.

  6. 6

    Epistles I, 19.23ff.

  7. 7

    Q. Horatii Flacci Carminum Libri IV Epodon Liber, edited by T.E. Page (St. Martin’s Press, 1962).

  8. 8

    For example Epode VIII, 1-6. (The adjectival terminations show that the person addressed is female). “What right have you, rotting away in your later years, to ask me what is paralyzing my virility? It’s your blackened teeth, your forehead ploughed with furrows by decrepitude, and your disgusting asshole gaping between your withered buttocks….”

  9. 9

    Don Juan I, xliv.

  10. 10

    In the event, Maecenas stayed in charge at Rome, so Horace did not have to go.

  11. 11

    Annals I, 2.

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