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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.