Horace as Latin poet
— the traditional view


Imagine encountering the name Horace for the first time. A glance at a dictionary provides a brief identification:

Quintus Horatius Flaccus 65-8 B.C., Roman poet and satirist.1

A book from the local library provides more information:

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 BC) fought on the losing side at Philippi but won the lifelong patronage of the enlightened Maecenas, from whom he received his beloved Sabine farm. 2

If greater detail is required the introduction to a paperback translation can be consulted:

Brutus arrived in Athens to recruit officers for his army. Horace, who was now twenty-one years old, signed up and two years later at Philippi he was in charge of a legion. After that defeat ... Horace was pardoned by the Triumvirs and allowed to return to Italy ... He succeeded in finding a job in the treasury which gave him enough money to live on and enough leisure to do some writing. But when, on the recommendation of Virgil and Varius, Maecenas offered him patronage he was quick to accept it. 3

That would seem clear enough, although wording such as 'succeeded in finding a job in the treasury' appears somewhat anachronistic.

Other translations and commentaries can be consulted. It becomes apparent there is a consensus. The essential facts of Horace's life and even his dates are (apparently) set in concrete. But we soon notice a tendency for embroidery.

His father was a 'former slave who obtained his freedom perhaps through a combination of talent and hard work.' 4

Shortly after Philippi 'he clearly moved amid the vie mondaine of Rome ... it was presumably in such a milieu that he met two rising poets, Varius and Virgil.' 5

Omniscient fantasy is not unknown:

'They liked him (as Brutus, perhaps, had liked him) and introduced him to Maecenas, who also came to like him very much.'6

One wonders how the commentator could possibly know that? But unfazed, the commentator goes on to claim how:

'even the most powerful man in the world [Augustus] came to like the freedman's son.'7

What an amiable fellow Horace must have been!

But it is not only Varius, Virgil, and Maecenas, who like Horace: so too do a majority of scholars. When Horace appears to be overlooking the dark side of Augustan politics, the usual excuse is that the political situation does not allow Horace to speak out and all he can do is to subvert the surface message - 'sapping' in R.O.A.M. Lynne's terminology.8  It would appear Horace can do no wrong. Similar apologetic excuses are found when Horace appears to be revelling in sadistic situations that today we would consider abhorrent - a casual reader could be forgiven for mistaking Epode 5 for the script of a snuff movie.

But Horace the noble poet has been created, and will be perpetuated. For Roland Mayer, the Epistles 'prosecute a dual programme centred on spiritual and social self-improvement.'9  For Niall Rudd, Horace offers 'a critique of vice and folly' 10   and considered politics to be 'nonsense'.11

Awkward facts are glossed over. When Horace in Odes 2.7.10 says he threw away his shield (relicta parmula) when his side was defeated at the Battle of Philippi, a great deal of effort is expended in attempts to demonstrate that these words do not mean what they say, i.e., Horace's side was losing and he legged it away.

Eduard Fraenkel correctly pours scorn on this rewriting of the text, but then, unfortunately, goes into a long explanation claiming that Horace had not actually run away, but he had said he had run away because he was being tactful - he didn't want to hurt a friend's feelings by appearing to be braver than his friend. Fraenkel also explains that the 'educated and sensitive readers for whom Horace wrote' would have grasped the literary allusion to Archilochus and Alcaeus (who also used the phrase), and 'knew enough about Horace not to been lured into a realistic interpretation of that particular detail.' 12  (The words 'tell' and 'Marine' come to mind.)

This ode provides other examples of the way Horace has been sanatized. It is usually presented as describing a joyful meeting between old friends who had had the misfortune to have fought on different sides in the civil war - there is no hint that there might be a real political undercurrent.

To most commentators everything in the ode is sweetness and light. Horace wonders 'Who will throw a Venus and become king of the wine?' which provokes David West to inform the reader of his translation that 'Venus is the highest throw of the dice,' rather as if someone had played a Queen of Spades at a genteel rubber of Bridge.13  Of course it's nothing of the sort. This is the sort of 'dice' played by soldiers with a soldier's sense of the vulgar. A metal object with four 'feet' is used instead of dice. If it falls on its back with its feet waggling in the air, its a Venus, for obvious reasons. If it falls on its feet, then its a dog. Today we would say probably say doggy-fashion.

We may be inclined to wonder if perhaps a too-benign picture is being painted of this eminently-likeable and tasteful Horace? And haven't we come across all this before in association with Virgil?14

Perhaps we should look for a more scholarly approach. One such is available: David Mankin provides a referenced overview of Horace's life.15  The same bones of the story appear, but so too does selectivity, e.g., Mankin expresses doubt as to whether Maecenas ever gave Horace the famous Sabine farm.16  Other scholars express other doubts. Some consider the 'Suetonian' biography as confirmation of what Horace tells us in his poems; some consider it as having no independant status; and some ignore the issue.

So what are we to make of all this? A picture of Horace emerges, but rather fuzzy around the edges where some of the more sceptical scholars have nibbled at it. But no one appears to query the greatest assumption of all. No matter what else Horace may have done in his life, he is typecast: he is a poet, and from that all else flows. His works are studied as literature, and a literary slant is put on everything that pertains to his life. Horace has been dragged into the academic library, labelled, and placed on a precise shelf - Roman poets, Late Republic variety.

Poets have patrons; therefore Maecenas is Horace's patron. Patrons give gifts; therefore Maecenas gave Horace gifts. Poets have literary abilities; therefore employment as a Treasury scribe does not seem out of place. Suetonius' statement that 'Augustus offered Horace the post of secretary' is taken at face value because it seems an appropriate occupation for a poet.17

But none of this is necessarily the truth. Today, Byron is also classified as a poet, and yet we know Byron was far more than that. Byron himself did everything he could to avoid the label. He refused to take money for his early works. Writing poems was just something that educated gentlemen did - the phenomenal success of Childe Harold took him completely by surprise. He considered his plays superior to his poems, and probably would have continued with his theatrical activities if he had been able to remain in London.

Byron was never just a poet. He was an aristocrat who spoke in the House of Lords. He was a lover (too frequently to reference). An adventurer who swam the Venetian Grand Canal to visit a mistress, holding a torch in one hand to avoid being run down by passing gondolas. A romantic who swam the Hellespont in imitation of Leander. An associate of the Italian carbonari with his house used as an arsenal. And a Hellenist who died at Missalonghi for another revolutionary cause. Any reading of Byron's poems must take the whole of Byron's life into account. So too with Horace.18

There is no denying that Horace was a poet, but I would maintain that for twenty or so years from Philippi in 42 B.C. Horace's political involvement was his paramount activity and his poetry secondary.

Later, as Octavian's power became more and more entrenched, and that of Maecenas went into decline, one could say primarily Horace was a poet. Maecenas had literary pretensions of his own, and Horace's literary efforts have something in common with playing golf with the boss. When the boss lost power there was little left but the golf.


Collins Dictionary of the English Language 2nd edition (London and Glascow 1986)
A. Poole and J. Maule, The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford, 1995)
N. Rudd, Horace: Satires and Epistles (London 1987), p. 18
R. Mayer, Horace Epistles Book 1 (Cambridge 1994), p. 5
Mayer, op. cit., p. 6
Mayer, op. cit., p. 6
Mayer, op. cit., p. 6
R. O. A. A. M. Lynne, Horace Behind the Public Poetry (New Haven and London 1995), p. 207 n. 1
Mayer, op. cit., p. 5
Rudd, op. cit., p. 21.
Rudd, op. cit., p. 19.
E.Fraenkel, Horace, (Oxford 1957, reprinted 1997), pp. 11ff. If one were to take Fraenkel's view seriously, one would be forced to wonder why Horace would have given his enemies such useful ammunition.
D. West, Horace, The Complete Odes and Epodes, (Oxford 1997), p. 159.
See the discussion on the 'Harvard School' in S.J. Harrison, The Aeneid in the Twentieth Century in his Oxford Readings in Vergil's Aeneid (Oxford 1990), p. 5ff.
D. Mankin, Horace Epodes (Cambridge 1995), pp. 1ff.
Mankin, op. cit. p. 2 n. 13
From the Vita Horatii translated in B. Radice and W. G. Shepherd, Horace: The Complete Odes and Epodes with the Centennial Hymn (London 1983), p. 195.
These facts are available in any good biography of Byron, although there is no substitute for his letters. See L. Marchand, ed. Byron's Letters and Journals, 13 vols, London, 1973-1994

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