BEHIND THE POETIC MASK
Horace scriba quaestorius
 
Octavia on coin
Coin 39 BCE commemorative marriage of
Anthony and Octavia. Octavia encircled
by Dionysiac symbols. VRoma archive
The traditional sequence of events is that after the defeat at Philippi, Horace returned to Rome where he obtained a post as scriba quaestorius. 1   This provided an income and gave him the free time to start on his career as a poet.

But this just does not hold water. An ex-soldier who had been on the losing side in the Roman civil war is hardly going to be favourably looked upon by the establishment at Rome, and Horace would certainly have a hard time obtaining a remunerative position such as scriba quaestorius which was not only a sinecure, but greatly sought after as a stepping-stone to the Roman Senate.

We should be sceptical. Horace had fought on the wrong side, and no doubt he would have followed the same sensible course as other Romans did in this predicament. The first thing to do is not to run back to Rome with your tail between your legs - then there is no way to prevent your name appearing on a proscription list.

Herod sets a good example here. After Actium, he didn't wait for events to take their course, but sped straight to Octavian and laid down his sword: he had been wrong in supporting Anthony, Octavian was the man of the hour. It paid off for Herod at Actium, and doubtless a similar approach would have paid off for some of the other individuals who found themselves on the defeated side at Philippi. Octavian and his associates would have been besieged with plaintiffs explaining 'it had all been a mistake' and offering their valuable services to the new leaders of Rome. No doubt this is when Horace changed sides.

Scriba quaestorius is usually translated as 'quaestor's clerk', a post at the Roman treasury concerned with public records. But it is unlikely that Horace ever had to resort to a stylus and tablet. Titles are slippery things, and are frequently misleading due to their traditional nature. For example, the last thing one could accuse a British 'civil servant' of being, is actually a servant.

A more meaningful translation of Horace's position might be head of the Roman state archives. Which tempts one to wonder if there are more machiavellian reasons why Horace was given the position. He would certainly be able to make sure nothing derogatory concerning Octavian or Maecenas' activites got onto the official Roman records. Nothing ever stuck to Octavian, or the great Augustus Caesar as he was to become known to history - he was the original Teflon Kid.

But however that may be, it is extremely likely that the position was purchased on Horace's behalf, or at least that a powerful friend greased the wheels. Leaders do not pay their senior staff out of their own pocket if they can help it, but there are ways and means. Horace would now have a regular income, courtesy of his benefactor for which Horace would be suitably grateful, but the income would be coming from the Roman state.

This is not too unusual. Many corporations today will have individuals on their books who are never seen but are permanently 'on secondment' in a staff position with the ruling elite. The powerful people who control large groups of companies don't pay their personal staff out of their own pocket. Within the corporate empire will be companies burdened with the salary payments and expense accounts of individuals who are only nominally on their books.

No doubt it would have been the same in Rome. Horace's Sabine farm may have been a gift, but Maecenas could well never have paid for it: it could have been an appropriation that was passed Horace's way. Or of course an appropriation Horace engineered for himself while in Maecenas' service. There are always legal fictions that can cover tracks.

To summarise, there is nothing to tell us when Horace obtained the scriba quaestorius, or whether it was Maecenas or an earlier benefactor who was responsible, but it is most unlikely to have happened in the way it is usually depicted.


NOTES

1     
Satire 1.6, briefly summarised in Mankin, op. cit., p. 1


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