Horace; drawing by David Levine

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.

Political themes,12 however, though prominent, are by no means the dominant matter of the Odes. There is a delightful variety, as is clear from a look at the first nine odes of Book I. It begins with a dedication to Maecenas, followed by a tribute to Augustus; next come a bon voyage poem for Virgil as he sets out for Greece and a celebration of the arrival of spring. There follows the famous address to Pyrrha, a siren from whose clutches Horace has recently escaped. Horace next declares his unworthiness to celebrate the exploits of Agrippa, Augustus’ most successful general, and then offers a hymn in praise of the groves of Tibur, and a lament for the young man Sybaris, whose life is being ruined by his infatuation with Lydia.

Last comes one of the most famous poems he ever wrote, the Soracte ode, a call to defy the chill of winter by drinking good wine, and to enjoy youth and life while they still last. Some twenty of the Odes deal with the vicissitudes and complexities of love (the lovers are not always of opposite sexes), but Horace is not consumed with a passion for one woman, like Catullus for Lesbia, Propertius for Cynthia; in fact he mentions a whole galaxy of ladyloves, all of them with Greek names—Pyrrha (Redhead), Glycera (Sweetie), Barine (The Girl from Bari)—and the only one that sounds at all real is Cinara, whom he twice mentions as an early love of his in a tone that sounds sincere. The pleasures of wine and of the coming of spring are also recurrent themes; so are celebrations of a friend’s return, exhortations to enjoy life while you can without brooding on the future, and praise of the pleasures of the simple life. But Horace is always conscious of “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” and often, in the most joyous contexts, there creeps in the thought of the inevitability of death and the pre-Christian recognition of its sheer finality, the everlasting dark after the brief career in the sunlight.

The variety of the Odes’ content is paralleled by a variety of medium: each of the first nine poems in Book I is composed in a different metrical pattern. These meters, like those of the Epodes, are adapted from Greek models, but their provenance is lyric instead of iambic; most frequent among them are the characteristic stanzas of Sappho and Alcaeus, the form chosen for well over half of the 103 odes contained in the four Books. Horace claims, in the final ode of Book III, that his fame will never die and that he will be spoken of as “the first to adapt Aeolian song for Italian measures” (Sappho and Alcaeus wrote in the Aeolic dialect of Greek), and although Catullus had already used the Sapphic stanza for two poems (one of them a translation of Sappho’s most famous poem) Horace’s claim is valid. He was the first, but he was also the last; no poet that we know of followed his example.

In fact the Odes did not meet with a warm reception from the Roman public when they were first published, as we learn from Horace himself, who, in a later epistle, asks Maecenas: “Do you want to know why the ungrateful reader praises and loves my poems at home, but once abroad gives them a harsh critique? I don’t go on the hunt for the votes of a fickle public by giving dinners…. I listen to good writers and return their compliment, but I don’t canvas the tribes of literary critics.”13 Horace avoided the Roman equivalent of the book tour and the television talk show, but the cool reception of the Odes was probably compounded by the literary allusiveness of much of the poetry and the intricate complexity of his language. In the English sentence “Dog bites man” (to use the schoolteacher’s standard example) the words can be rearranged in six different ways, but only two of them make sense and they have exactly opposite meanings. In Latin, because the terminations of the nouns show clearly “who whom,” the six ways of arranging the words all mean the same thing—the only thing that changes is the emphasis. Horace takes full (some may have thought excessive) advantage of this flexibility to produce sentences much longer and more complicated than the schoolboy example which suggest, independently of the grammatical structure, interconnections and contrasts, arouse expectations that may or may not be fulfilled, and create patterns of verbal correspondence that build an inner aesthetic cohesion.

Though these aspects of the poems may have jarred the sensibilities of his contemporaries, Horace’s reputation grew after his death in 8 BC (shortly after the death of Maecenas); a few generations later he had become a classic. Quintilian speaks of him as the only one of the lyric poets worth reading,14 and Juvenal describes the “guttering lanterns” of the schoolroom—“one to each pupil,/So that every Virgil and Horace is grimed with lamp-black/From cover to cover.”15 English schoolboys too had to sweat over what Quintilian describes as “the variety of his figures of speech and the felicitous audacity of his choice of words,” not to mention his sometimes labyrinthine word order. Byron, for one, never got over the experience. “I abhorred/Too much, to conquer for the poet’s sake,/ The drilled dull lesson, forced down word by word/In my repugnant youth… Then farewell, Horace, whom I hated so/Not for thy faults, but mine….”16


Byron, however, was the exception. For most English writers, and not only writers, Horace became a familiar text, not only in the original but also in the wealth of translation, imitation, and adaptation that is so richly represented in Horace in English. A long and scintillating introduction by Carne-Ross is followed by some five hundred pages of Horatiana, opening with three versions from Tottle’s Miscellany (1557) of the tenth ode of Book II, an admonition to steer the middle course in dangerous circumstances and hope for better times to come (two of them anonymous and one by the unfortunate Earl of Surrey, who ended up with his head on the block in 1547). The book ends with a section called “Poems that would not have been written but for Horace”; the last one, by Donald Davie, is a reflection on Horatian style that ends with a reference to the English coalminers’ strike in 1984. Every Horatian genre is represented in the collection—satires, epodes, odes, and epistles—including the long first epistle of Book II, the so-called Ars Poetica, an enormously influential though somewhat derivative poem.17 It is translated in full by many hands; among them are those of Ben Jonson, Lord Byron, Roy Campbell, and C.H. Sisson. Among the Odes some are particularly favored by translators: there are six versions (one of them by Milton) of the lament for the young man ensnared by Pyrrha, six of the advice to Leuconoë to forget horoscopes and live for the day, carpe diem, five of the dialogue between estranged lovers who boast of their new loves only to be reconciled in the end, six of the ode to the aptly named Postumus lamenting the swift passage of time and the inevitability of death, and six of the perfect poem that begins with a view of the snow on Mount Soracte and ends with a celebration of the joys of youthful play and courtship.

The translations range from serious attempts to reproduce the form and atmosphere of the original to free adaptations to the time and social context of the translator, like the anonymous version of Horace’s address to Lyde, whose charms have faded with age, culled from a collection called Poetical Blooms by Young Gentlemen of Mr. Rule’s Academy at Islington (1776) which begins with: “The bloods and bucks of this lewd town/No longer shake your windows down/With knocking….”

Even more audacious is the exquisitely witty Application for a Grant by Anthony Hecht, based on the first ode of Book I, an address to Maecenas listing the ambitions of other men—to win an Olympic crown, an election, wealth, and so on—ending with Horace’s simple wish to be ranked by Maecenas among the lyric poets. Hecht’s version begins,

Noble executors of the munificent testament
Of the late John Simon Guggenheim, distinguished bunch
Of benefactors, there are certain kinds of men
Who set their hearts on being bartenders….
There’s the man who yearns for the White House, there to compose
Rhythmical lists of enemies….

It ends with

As for me…a laurel crown of the evergreen
Imperishable of your fine endowment
Would supply my modest wants, who dream of nothing
But a pad on Eighth Street and your approbation.

(Hecht was twice awarded a fellowship, but this poem was not what he submitted as his application.)

Another fascinating item is by Rudyard Kipling, whose fictional persona Beetle, as readers of Stalky & Co. will remember, bore the brunt of the formidable sarcasm of Mr. King as, like Byron, he was dragged through Horace word by word. It is one of the many versions of III, 9, the dialogue in which the estranged lovers make up, but it is transposed into the soft slurred dialect of South Devon, where Kipling went to school. “So long as ‘twuz me alone/An’ there wasn’t no other chaps,/I was praoud as a King on ‘is throne—/Happier tu, per’aps.” 18 Kipling also produced, like Hecht, a version of I, 1, the list of professions rejected in favor of poetry, which begins with chemistry teachers: “There are whose study is of smells/And to attentive schools rehearse/How something mixed with something else/ Makes something worse.”19

One of the most intriguing items in the book is the presentation on facing pages of two different versions of the first epistle of Book II, Horace’s long letter to Augustus in which he champions the role of poets in the community and deplores the low level of public taste. The version on the left is by Alexander Pope; it is addressed to another Augustus (the second name of George II of England). In his preface Pope explains his purpose: “The Reflections of Horace, and the Judgements past in his Epistle to Augustus, seem’d so reasonable to the present Times, that I could not help applying them to the use of my own country.” And apply them he does: Horace’s complaint that people venerate dead poets like Ennius and Pacuvius, whose work was far from perfect, turns up as: “Chaucer’s worst ribaldry is learn’d by rote/And beastly Skelton Heads of Houses quote.” The reader can appreciate every aspect of Pope’s performance because the translation on the facing page is an elegant but faithful version of the Latin by Colin McLeod, a brilliant Oxford scholar whose early death is lamented by his many friends.

Conspicuous among the many modern poet-translators of the Odes—Tomlinson, Michie, Middleton, Pound, Bunting—is David Ferry, who is represented by versions of thirteen poems, all but one of them here published for the first time. Ferry has now published a translation of all four books of the Odes, together with the Carmen Saeculare, the hymn Horace wrote for performance at the Augustan revival of a long obsolete festival now remodeled as a celebration of the glory of Rome under the new regime. All the translations are printed with the Latin text on the facing page.

Ferry is a well-known poet20 and also the author of a highly praised translation of the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh; his new book comes heralded with praise by Robert Fagles, W.S. Merwin, Rosanna Warren, and Richard Wilbur. It does not take the reader long to realize that their praise is fully deserved; these versions, unlike many, stand on their own feet as English poems. “Every act of translation,” Ferry writes in his introduction,

is an act of interpretation, and every choice of English word or phrase, every placement of those words or phrases in sentences—made in obedience to the laws and habits of English, not Latin, grammar, syntax, and idioms—and every metrical decision—made in obedience to English, not Latin, metrical laws and habits—reinforce the differences between the interpretation and the original. This is true however earnestly the interpretation aims to represent the sense of Horace’s odes, the effects and implications of his figures of speech, the controlled volatility of his tones of voice.

He hopes that his version, “granting these differences between English and Latin, is reasonably close.”

He wisely does not try to reproduce Horace’s meters in English. Alcaics and Sapphics, the two stanzas Horace uses most frequently, are not easy to handle when stress patterns are substituted for lines based on syllable length subtly modified by stress. Tennyson’s Ode to Milton, the text always cited in reference works to illustrate English Alcaics, is one of the very few successful attempts. Ferry also works independently of Horace’s stanzas, using whatever form suits his conception of the translation as an English poem. And he often rearranges Horace’s material to fit the run of his own verse, sometimes to stunning effect, as in the carpe diem poem (I, 11) addressed to Leuconoë. In the original that name occurs near the beginning of the ode but Ferry reserves it for the end—

Now as I say these words,
Time has already fled
Backwards away—
Hold on to the day.

Sometimes Horace’s packed Latin is expanded; four Alcaic lines of II, 3, become nine:

All of us together
Are being gathered; the lot of each of us
Is in the shaking urn
With all the other lots, and like the others
Sooner or later our lot
Will fall out from the urn; and so we are chosen to take
Our place in that dark boat,
In that dark boat, that bears us all away
From here to where no one comes back from ever.

There is nothing here that is not expressed or implied in the original; Ferry’s decision is amply justified. Besides expanding, he often omits details, but they are rarely important. Except in one spectacular case, where the reader who does not know Latin suffers a real loss: it is the final stanza of the Soracte ode (I, 9), Horace’s injunction to the young to enjoy life while they may. Ferry’s last stanza runs:

There’s love, there are parties, there’s dancing and there’s music,
There are young people out in the city squares together
As evening comes on, there are whispers of lovers, there’s laughter.

Horace is much more specific, as is clear from a plain prose version.

Now there’s not only the delightful laughter that betrays the presence of the girl hiding in the inmost corner, there’s also the love-pledge stripped off the forearm or off the finger that puts up only token resistance.

Ferry discusses this passage in his note on the translation. “I thought that stricter faithfulness would have made it more difficult to produce a viable English poem.” The point may be conceded, but Ferry’s generalities are a weak substitute for that girl’s laughter. Still, such cases are rare; we must be grateful for what Ferry has accomplished. This is a Horace for our times, and the welcome presence of the Latin text on the facing page may spur some who painfully juggled with Horace’s syntax in their school days to renew, through Ferry’s sensitive version, their acquaintance with this most subtle and musical of the Latin poets.

This Issue

June 11, 1998