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BEHIND THE POETIC MASK
Horace and Maecenas
Satire 1.5

 
Horace certainly didn't just write poetry. Maecenas was a man on his way up, and there would have been plenty of tasks that Horace could have performed. We catch a glimpse of this in Satire 1.5. Horace recounts his journey from Rome to Brindisi (about 340 miles), probably in 37 BCE.

All is ambiguity in the poem. Initially Horace is accompanied it would seem only by Heliodorus, a "professor of rhetoric, the greatest scholar in the land of Greece" (Rudd's translation). It has been suggested by some very convoluted reasoning that this was a well-known teacher in Rome of a similar but unmetrical name of which this is the metrical equivalent. (1)   But what would a teacher be doing on this journey? I suspect that here we are straining at a gnat. No doubt the reference was perfectly clear (and possibly very funny) for those in the know, but it is probably unrecoverable today.

This is a humourous poem. The appalling initial stage of the journey is recounted - which is clearly intended to be funny by being so over the top. Eventually Horace arrives at Anxur where he awaits Maecenas. They then go on together and then at Sinuessa are joined by - of all people! - Varius and Vergil. One suspects Horace cannot resist the Laurel and Hardyish image this is supposed to conjure up. (Horace loves his little digs at Virgil.) Much play is made about how finer men never walked the face of the earth, etc., but not one word is mentioned about their leader, Octavian. But to pretend to absent-mindedly forget Octavian was there but to remember Vergil and Varius is a joke in itself, at least to Maecenas' group.

There are plenty of jokes for Maecenas and his cronies to guffaw over when the poem is read to them when they are back in Rome. Horace fails to get off with a girl and has a wet dream. Maecenas takes exercise. (Presumably an unlikely occurrence.) A town is renowned for - fish. And there are plenty of snidy comments about people who are outside the group of cronies. Horace gets through the whole poem without once mentioning what the journey was about.

In reality Maecenas had arranged to meet up with Octavian at Sinuessa, from where they would proceed to Tarentum near Brindisi where a deal would be hammered out with their arch-enemy Anthony. This was an extremely serious matter, and a dangerous one. By leaving Rome for a known destination at a known time, Octavian and Maecenas were putting themselves at risk.

So what was Horace's role in all this? He doesn't explain, of course. Why does he need to? A contemporary reading the poem would have known what his role was. But I think we could hazard a guess. Initially he goes on ahead. To make sure fresh horses were available? Organise accomodation for the main party? Spy out the land? Reconnoitre for signs of an ambush? Make sure that Octavius wasn't playing a double game and was planning some mischief of his own? Probably all of those. And no doubt he had an armed escort to help him accomplish these tasks. (2)

Horace had a role in Maecenas affairs which probably encompassed several overlapping activities. Aide-de-campe. Spin doctor. Henchman. Whatever needed to be done. And after all that Horace could be relied upon to entertain. He was good company. A ready wit. And he could always keep himself in the limelight by producing another glittering poem dedicated to Maecenas.

NOTES

1   
See Frank Tenney, Classical Philology 15 (1920) p. 393. Quoted in P. M. Brown, Horace Satires I (Warminster 1995, p. 140.
2   
An armed escort has also been suggested as a protection against brigands. See Brown, op. cit., p. 139.


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