Episode 51: Horace and Augustan Poetry

Horace (65-8 BCE) was a central figure in shaping Augustan Age tastes in satire and literary criticism. His bumbling, self conscious persona has been charming readers for millennia.

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Horace and Augustan Poetry

Statua di Orazio

A statue of Horace in Venosa, the poet’s hometown.

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 51: Horace and Augustan Poetry. This is the second of two programs on the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a writer who lived from 65-8 BCE and witnessed firsthand the fall of the republic and the birth of the empire. In our previous show, we learned about Horace’s life – how he was the son of a former slave, how his father helped set him up with a good education in Rome and Athens, and how while studying in Athens in the late 40s, Horace joined the losing side of the civil war, eventually fleeing the battle of Philippi in October of 42 when he saw that Brutus’ forces had no chance of victory. We talked about how afterwards, with his family property stripped away, Horace acquired a civil service job associated with the Roman treasury, evidently an undemanding post that allowed him time to work on his poetry, cultivate friendships with the poet Virgil, and later, with Virgil’s lavishly wealthy patron, Maecenas. We read some of Horace’s poems about the awful civil wars that he lived through. And we read some of Horace’s poetry concerning the issue of patronage itself – how Horace glorified Augustus and Maecenas in a number of poems and how elsewhere, he seems to express more ambivalent feelings about his obligations to the new imperial regime.

Generally last time we were most concerned with Horace in the context of the civil wars and the birth of the Augustan regime. In this show, we’re going to focus a lot more closely on Horace’s writings. Among many things, Horace was a satirist, and satire, to the later Roman scholar Quintilian, was the quintessentially Roman genre, and Horace was its greatest practitioner.1 One of Horace’s most frequent satirical targets is himself, and after talking about Horatian satire in general and Horace’s contributions to it, I’ll tell you about Horace’s poetic persona – blundering, self conscious, and altogether, generally, very endearing. After we get a good sense of how Horace made a place for himself in Roman satire, we’ll switch topics slightly and talk about Horace’s ideas on literature. One of his most important texts – maybe his most influential – is the Ars Poetica, or “the Art of Poetry,” a long letter that he wrote to a prominent Roman senator in which he lays out some practical and gently conservative advice on what poets should and shouldn’t do. By the end of this show, then, you’ll have a good understanding of Horace’s creative output, and more generally a sense of what was happening in Latin literature at the beginning of the Augustan Age. So let’s begin by talking about Horace and Roman satire.

The Beginnings of Roman Satire

I want to begin our discussion of Roman satire by quoting a scene from Plautus – one of the funniest scenes in Roman comedy. The lines I’ll quote are from Plautus’ play Miles Gloriosus, often translated as “The Swaggering Soldier,” from the E.F. Watling translation first published by Penguin in 1965. In these lines, the titular swaggering soldier, whose name is Pyrgopolynices, is going on and on about how great he is, and his lackey or squire, Artotrogus, is diligently pretending to be impressed and to enumerate all of his master’s accomplishments – including ones that never happened. Anyway here’s the little excerpt, and the first speaker is going to be the swaggering soldier Pyrgopolynices.
PYRGOPOLYNICES: My shield, there – have it burnished brighter than the bright splendour of the sun on any summer’s day. Next time I have occasion to use it in the press of battle, it must flash defiance into the eyes of the opposing foe. My sword, too, I see, is pining for attention; poor chap, he’s quite disheartened and cast down, hanging idly at my side so long; he’s simply itching to get at an enemy and carve him into little pieces … Where’s Artotrogus?
ARTOTROGUS: Here, at his master’s heels, close to his hero, his brave, his blessed, his royal, his doughty warrior – whose valour Mars himself could hardly challenge or outshine.
PYRGOPOLYNICES [reminiscent]: Ay – what of the man whose life I saved on the Curculionean field, where the enemy was led by Bumbomachides Clytomestoridysarchides, a grandson of Neptune?
ARTOTROGUS: I remember it well. I remember his golden armour, and how you scattered his legions with a puff of breath, like a wind sweeping up leaves or lifting the thatch from a roof.
PYRGOPOLYNICES [modestly]: It was nothing much, after all.
ARTOTROGUS: Oh, to be sure, nothing to the many more famous deeds you did – [aside] or never did. [He comes down, leaving the Captain attending to his men.] If anyone ever saw a bigger liar or more conceited braggart than this one, he can have me for keeps … The only thing to be said for him is, his cook makes a marvellous olive salad …
PYRGOPOLYNICES: [missing him]: Where have you got to, Artotrogus?
ARTOTROGUS: [obsequiously]: Here I am, sir. I was thinking about that elephant in India, and how you broke his ulna with a single blow of your fist.
PYRGOPOLYNICES: His ulna, was it?
ARTOTROGUS: His femur, I should have said.
PYRGOPOLYNICES: It was only a light blow, too.
ARTOTROGUS: By Jove, yes, if you had really hit him, your arm would have smashed through the animal’s hide, bones, and guts.
PYRGOPOLYNICES [modestly]: I’d rather not talk about it, really.
ARTOTROGUS: Of course, sir; you don’t need to tell me anything about your courageous deeds; I already know them all. [Aside] Oh dear, what I have to suffer for my stomach’s sake. . .
PYRGOPOLYNICES: I wonder if you remember … [He seems to be vaguely calculating.]
ARTOTROGUS: How many? Yes, a hundred and fifty in Cilicia, a hundred in Scytholatronia, Sardians thirty, Macedonians sixty – killed, that is – in one day alone.
PYRGOPOLYNICES: How many does that make altogether?
ARTOTROGUS: Seven thousand.
PYRGOPOLYNICES: Must be at least that. You’re an excellent accountant. . .
ARTOTROGUS: And what about Cappadocia, sir, when you slaughtered five hundred at one fell swoop – or would have done if your sword hadn’t got blunted first?
PYRGOPOLYNICES: They were only poor footsloggers; I decided to spare their lives.
ARTOTROGUS: Need I say, sir – since the whole world knows it – that the valour and triumphs of Pyrgopolynices are without equal on this earth, and so is his handsome appearance? The women are all at your feet, and no wonder; they can’t resist your good looks; like those girls who were trying to get my attention yesterday. . .
PYRGOPOLYNICES: It really is a bore to be so good-looking.2
Now, this play – “The Swaggering Soldier” – first went onstage around 200 BCE, about 170 years before Horace’s poetic career started picking up steam. The character Pyrgopolynices – again that’s the braggart soldier, is an egomaniacal buffoon who eventually gets beaten up by an old man and his cook for trying to sleep with a married woman. I think that this scene neatly showcases some important aspects of Roman satire.

One of the main things that Roman satire, and really all satire does, is that it targets puffed up and self aggrandizing people, or comparably imperious and bombastic schools of philosophy, and pricks the balloon of their conceit. Plautus’ play that we just quoted from is funny for many reasons, but when the swaggering soldier Pyrgopolynices is onstage, and he’s blathering about his good looks, and the audience and other characters alike understand that he’s just a boorish jackass, the play is at its funniest. By poking fun at the pretensions of arrogant people, whether they are phonies, or occupy actual positions of power, satire of any age deflates the cant and bluster of the egotistical and doctrinaire, and reminds us that we are all mere mortals.

While the Roman scholar Quintilian famously called Rome’s satirical poetry “all our own,” satire as a general practice goes back to at least the Old Comedy of Aristophanes. In our show on The Clouds, first staged way back in 423 BCE, we watched Socrates and sophism being dismissed as flatulent nonsense. In our episode on Lysistrata, the war hawks and magistrates of Sparta and Athens are exposed as overblown idiots. Making fun of pomposity, then, goes back to the stages of Classical Athens, if not far earlier. Plautus’ play The Swaggering Soldier was modeled on a lost work of Greek New Comedy called The Braggart. Obviously, no one culture invented satire. Making fun of one another, and calling each other out on our braggadocio and our grandiose creeds, is simply human. In fact, the later Roman author Juvenal, writing some time in the decades around 100 BCE, titled his first work Difficile est Saturam non Scribere, or “It is Hard Not to Write Satire.”

So, when Quintilian, who lived a couple generations after Horace, called satire an entirely Roman genre, he didn’t mean that Romans were the first people to ever use comedy to undermine the pretensions of puffed up people. The Latin word for satire, satura, likely comes from the phrase lanx satura, which was used to describe a plate full of votive fruits given as an offering to the gods. In other words, satura initially may have just meant a literary mishmash or miscellany offered up for a reader. However, around the final quarter of the 100s BCE, what Quintilian calls satire was born – a specific kind of comedy written in verse, usually hexameter, that dated back to a writer called Gaius Lucilius.3 This particular subgenre of what we today more generally call satire may indeed have been a Roman invention, in Quintilian’s words, tota nostra, or “all our own.”4

Gaius Lucilius and Satire in Hexameter

Lucilius’ work is almost entirely lost, but we still know a bit about it. Rome’s earliest satirist proper died a few years before 100 BCE. He was widely known throughout the first century BCE. Cicero describes him as “a man of great learning and wit.”5 Quintilian attests that “some of [Lucilius’] devotees are so enthusiastic that they do not hesitate to prefer him not merely to all other satirists, but even to all other poets.”6 Juvenal, who lived about a generation after Quintilian, modeled his own work on that of Lucilius.7 In short, there is plenty of evidence that suggests that although Lucilius’ works have been lost, they were widespread throughout the late republic and early empire.

There are two things that are useful to know about Lucilius’ contributions to Roman literary history. The first has to do with why he began writing satire in hexameter, and the effect that this produced.
IF you reMEMber hexAMeter WAS the one POets like HOMer used.
THIS meter WAS used for EPics and LOFTy tales CONcerning GREAT heroes.
WRITers and READers who HEARD it would THINK of tales STATEly and GLORious
JUST a few LINES of it CONJuring IMages OF war and BRAVery.
That’s dactylic hexameter, the meter of Homer and Hesiod, and also, more pertinent to Romans, the meter of a lost Latin epic called the Annales, written by the Roman poet Quintus Ennius some time around 200 BCE. Hexameter, in the Roman literary imagination, was the serious meter, the meter that had propelled the stories of Odysseus and the Trojan War, the birth of the Greek gods, and later, in the lines of Quintus Ennius, the epic tale of Rome’s birth. In the late 100s BCE, however, the Roman satirist Lucilius began to use this august meter for comedic purposes, evidently with extraordinary effect.

We have a genre called the mock-epic in English literature, and Lucilius seems to have written something like this. The great Ennius’ earlier lost epic, The Annales, again a proper, serious epic about the foundation of Rome, seems to have begun with a scene in which gods debate whether or not the founder of Rome Romulus ought to be deified. And the satirist Lucilius, taking off on this same scene, began his own mock epic with the death of an evidently very corrupt and degenerate senator in 125 BCE. Lucilius’ gods try to decide, not whether this profligate senator should be deified, but how Rome should be punished for the wicked senator’s vices. Lucilius, then, uses satire to take the great martial epic of Rome, which set Rome up as a product of divine providence, and instead show Rome as a cause of divine disgust. In the words of classicist Robert Cowan,
The relationship [between the early Roman epic by Ennius and Lucilius’ later satire of it] is not merely one of parody, but of distortion, perversion, and debasement. Everything which is lofty and noble in epic – the auspicious foundation of the city, the apotheosis of its king for his great virtues, the elevated diction, style, and subject matter – is negated, debased, perverted. . .By appropriating, deforming, and distorting epic’s defining metrical form, Lucilian satire took its place as. . .epic’s “evil twin.”8
This was the advanced state into which satire had evolved by 100 BCE – a genre which could reliably disassemble conceit and pretension, just as it had for hundreds of years, but in its most distinctive Roman incarnation, used the metrical structure of epic in order to disparage both contemporary society and epic itself.

Bakalovich catullus

Catullus (c. 84-54 BCE), though barely a generation older than Horace, lived in a very different, and much less dangerous Rome than Horace did. Catullus reads to his friends in this 1885 painting by Stepan Bakalovich.

When Horace published his first book of satires around 35 BCE, while he certainly knew the work of Lucilius, he lived in a very different Rome than the earlier writer. A century before Horace began publishing his works, during the more politically freewheeling Republic, a writer like Lucilius who had some advantageous political connections seems to have been able to disparage high profile public targets, generally speaking, with impunity. We don’t know exactly what sorts of laws existed against libel in the Republic. Cicero wrote that although the ancient Twelve Tables of Roman law “treated very few crimes as capital offenses,” these laws did “include the case where a person chanted or composed a song which brought infamy or disgrace to another” as punishable by death.9 If these laws existed, they were either very narrowly restricted to music, or generally unenforced. Back in Episode 49, we heard the poet Catullus disparaging Caesar and his lieutenant Mamurra some time in the 50s BCE – Mamurra is depicted as a fat lecher and a wastrel, Caesar and Mamurra as male lovers pocked by diseases, pedophiles and sodomites.10 Catullus, in short, goes after specific, named public figures, and does so with guns blazing. But something changed during the Second Triumvirate and the reign of Augustus thereafter. While occasionally Horace, writing twenty years later, ventures into the gross and scabrous, his satires are not smack downs of public figures so much as they are mockeries of excessiveness or indecency in general. Horace might offer generic names in his satires for the sake of telling a story, but he does not aim for character assassinations like earlier satirists seem to have.11 He describes his satires as sermones, a word meaning “conversations,” and Horace’s conversations amble along, moralizing congenially on human behavior in general where previous satirists had mercilessly denigrated specific targets. His departure from an earlier, coarser style of satire, as we’ll see in just a minute, is self conscious and deliberate.

So far, we’ve talked about Greco-Roman satire in general. We discussed how from the days of Aristophanes, or the late 400s BCE, satire was deployed to disparage self-important philosophers and pompous politicians. We saw how by the time of Plautus – around 200 BCE – this tradition was still thriving onstage, and audiences continued to be delighted by send ups of swaggering soldiers and other boastful stock characters. By 100 BCE, the satirist Lucilius had developed Roman satire proper, the hexameter verse satire that used the lofty form of epic for comedic purposes. And half a century later, in the 50s, Catullus could still throw shocking insults at Julius Caesar himself. Horace knew these traditions, and two decades after the death of Catullus he not only pioneered a new evolution in Roman satire, but also explained why he thought his gentler and more generically moralistic satire was superior to that of Lucilius and those like him. So let’s get some of Horace’s poems on our desk, and get a sense of what his satire sounds like, and why, just before the Augustan Age, he began steering satire in a new direction. [music]

Horace’s Version of Roman Satire

Horace, a literary historian as well as a poet, opens the fourth poem in his first book of satires with the same background that we’ve just discussed. “Aristophanes,” writes Horace, “and other authors of the Old Comedy, satirized with considerable freedom anyone who deserved to be marked down for his wicked and thieving ways, for being an adulterer or an assassin, or in any other way notorious. Lucilius depends entirely on these men, following in their footsteps and changing only the meters and rhythms they used” (1.4.1-7).12 While Horace clearly understands Lucilius’ comedic lineage and his contributions to satire as a genre, Horace is quite critical of his earlier Roman counterpart. In this same poem he calls Lucilius “unpolished” (1.4.8), Horace accuses Lucilius of being excessively prolific, “like a muddy river” (1.4.11).13 Elsewhere, Horace levels other accusations against Lucilius. He says Lucilius has no aim but “to make the listener grin from ear to ear” (1.10.7).14 To Horace, Lucilius was a sort of ill-natured jokester, abundant in his output but badly in need of polish and pruning (1.10.67,70). Horace saw no overarching aim other than eliciting laughter in the pages of Lucilius, and worried that Lucilius was harsh on the people whom he satirized – that Lucilius sought “to strip off the skin in which each man strolled along” (2.1.63-4).15 While Horace also has words of admiration for his predecessor, Horace nonetheless often uses Lucilius as a point of contrast to his own aims and poetic style.

If we take his satires at face value, Horace strongly disapproved of the practices of spreading and exchanging malicious rumors, and badmouthing friends and strangers alike. Let’s hear a longer statement from Horace on the subject of defamation and backbiting – this is fourth satire of Book 1, translated by John Davie and published by Oxford University Press.
The man who runs a friend down behind his back, who doesn’t
defend him from another’s accusations, who wants the public to laugh
loud and long at his remarks, and to be thought of as a wit, who can
make up what he hasn’t seen but can’t keep a confidence, he has a
black heart; good Roman, keep not his company. . .
[Horace imagines a scene in which people are surreptitiously badmouthing each other at a dinner party, and then continues.]
[Malignant gossip] is the ink of the black cuttlefish, this is unadulterated venom:
this fault, I promise, will be far from my writings and my mind, as it
has been in the past, if there is any promise I can truthfully make.
If I say something is too outspoken, perhaps too calculated to raise
a laugh, you’ll be forgiving and grant me this measure of justification:
my excellent father taught me the habit, by marking out the
various vices by examples, so that I should steer clear of them. (Sat 1.4.81-5, 101-107)16
I think that quote embodies a lot of what Horace believed about how satire could best be used. Satire, to Horace, shouldn’t vilify degenerate people – it should vilify debauchery itself, in all of its incarnations. Rather than anarchically seeking to elicit laughter at anyone’s expense, as Horace believed Lucilian satire did, Horace saw his own satire as partly a sort of moral instruction. In an earlier satire, Horace asks his patron Maecenas, “[W]hat’s the harm in using humour to put across / what is true, just as teachers sometimes offer their pupils biscuits to / coax them into wanting to learn their ABC[s]?” (1.1.24-6).17

Adalbert von Rössler Horaz

Adalbert von Roessler’s Horace, 1922.

If you read what survives of Roman satire in chronological order, and move from Catullus to Horace, you indeed see a startling and sudden difference in style. Catullus can be horrifically disgusting and mean, especially when maligning a politician or rival poet, and does not apologize for his own sexual conquests or his violent jealousies. Horace, operating just two decades later, is a mellow referee of social norms, mocking sin but not sinners, at times sounding like the Biblical Book of Proverbs or Ancient Egyptian wisdom literature. The later Roman poet believed that satire could be didactic, and in the eighteen satires that Horace published, not to mention various humorous parts of his epistles, epodes and odes, poetry that sounds almost like wisdom literature cautions you to avoid the mistakes of both the miser and the spendthrift, to chart a course between gluttony and asceticism, and in all ways to be moderate and virtuous. “Silver,” writes Horace in an epistle, “is less valuable than gold and gold [less valuable than] virtue” (Epis 1.1.54). Another epistle advises the reader to “Scorn pleasures: pleasure does harm when the cost is pain. The greedy man is always in need: look for a fixed limit in your heart” (Epis 1.2.55-6). These principles – often, incidentally, Epicurean principles – are at the core of Horace’s moral philosophy, and he believed that comedy could be a valuable tool for ethical instruction. “A jocular approach,” he wrote in one of his satires, “often cuts through more forcefully and effectively than one that is earnest” (Sat 1.10.14-5).

Horace thus makes fun of sin, and not sinners, using an amicable style of comedy to point out the intrinsic faults of various vices. Epicurus, and after him Lucretius, as we saw a couple of episodes ago, taught that a moderate lifestyle, focused on tranquility attained through having one’s basic needs met, was the key to happiness. Horace espouses this philosophy clearly throughout his writing, arguing in a satire that “the man whose small desires match his needs doesn’t swallow water thickened by mud or forfeit his life among the waves” (Sat 1.1.59-60). Similarly, in one of his odes, Horace writes that “Who seeks much / lacks much. Bless’d is he to whom the Gods have / given just enough” (Ode 3.16.42-3).18 The same poem proposes, “A brook of pure water, a few acres of timber, / and confident hope of harvest: my lot / is more bless’d than that of fertile / Africa’s bright [and rich] lord” (Ode 3.16.29-32).

These statements show Horace’s Epicureanism, and more generally the aphoristic style he often employs. Against the opulent and gluttonous, and equally against the miserly and ascetic, Horace proposes a middle way, a way characterized by acknowledging one’s limitations and being content with one’s lot. “The ox,” he says in an epistle, “longs for a saddle. . .when weary of work, the horse for the plough [and yoke]: let each be content to practice the trade he knows, that’s my advice” (Epis 1.14.40-5). Though people long for things that they do not have, Horace observes in a satire, “The greatest pleasure resides not in an expensive aroma but in yourself” (Sat 2.2.19-20). One of his epistles advises that “If your stomach, lungs, and feet are in good condition the wealth of kings will not be able to add anything greater to your store” (Epis 1.2.4-6), and the subject of feet and being content with one’s lot comes up elsewhere, when Horace writes, “If a man is not content with his fortune, it will be like what happens sometimes with a shoe, tripping him up if it is too big for his foot” (Epis 1.10.42-4).

Fedor Bronnikov 014

Fyodor Bronnikov’s Horatius reads before Maecenas (1863).

These quotes, I think, show the core of the ethical philosophy that Horace propounds throughout his poems – be moderate, be content with your lot, enjoy your somewhat plain fare, and so on. And while this ethical philosophy unfolds throughout Horace’s poetry, it often does so as a sort of counterpoint to vices or ideologies that he is criticizing. He pokes fun at the antisocial impulses of Cynicism (Epis 1.17), depicting the philosophy’s founding father as merely a pretentious panhandler. He treats Stoicism with similar disparagement, mocking its austerity and bombast throughout several satires (Sat 1.3, 2.3, 2.7), and implying that Stoics and moralizing elitists like them are harsh on others but let themselves off easily. Depicting the Stoics as traffickers of self-congratulatory hogwash, Horace writes in a satire, “In short, give yourself a shaking and see if nature or instead bad habit has at any time planted in you the seeds of any faults” (Sat 1.3.35-6).

So far, I hope I’ve given you a sense of what it’s like to go from something like Aristophanic Old Comedy, or the vicious satirical style of Catullus, and then venture into the pages of Horatian satire. Horace is milder. He is morally didactic. He is loosely Epicurean, cautioning his reader against excess, arrogance, and overreaching. What I’ve described so far has been a portrait of a reasonably interesting figure – one with a definitive but harmless pedagogical aim, one with a preachy and prudish style, and one who expends a broad erudition in the inculcation of pragmatic but hackneyed principles – a poet of constraint and platitudes. There’s a lot more to Horace than this, as we’ll see soon. But still I want to pause for a moment and turn to history.

Some of Horace’s characteristic restraint may simply have been a personal disposition. In a quote we heard above, we learned that Horace’s affection for didactic satire came in part from his father. So maybe a personal disinclination toward harsh libel generally kept Horace from developing a style like Catullus’ or Lucilius’ before him. But another explanation, and a common one, is that the Horace lived in the same place, but a very, very different time than Lucilius. As classicist Robert Cowan observes,
[M]any readers of the Satires. . . have the constant feeling that Horace is self-consciously not writing about politics. . . The mild, integrative approach focusing on moral and social ills replaces the aggressive, scathing Lucilian voice addressing political concerns, not because it reflects the sunny spirit of reconciliation and coalition, the ‘new politics’ of a (not quite) post-civil war era, but because under the constraints of that new political reality, which is post-civil war because only one man has been left standing, Horace cannot write about politics with Lucilian vigor and freedom. (xvi)
It’s difficult not to agree with this assessment. Rome during the Second Triumvirate and the reign of Augustus was a place with new rules for the freedom of expression, even if these rules were often tacit. In the 50s, Catullus could call Caesar a sexually diseased pervert. Twenty years later, had Horace done the same to the new Caesar, at the very least his patronage, but perhaps far more would have been cut short. Further, Augustus himself favored personal rectitude and marital fidelity, and made a show of living modestly, as Horace, in his poetry, at least, also championed. A famous passage in Suetonious recounts how “Except on special occasions [Augustus] wore common clothes for the house, made by his sister, wife, daughter or granddaughters; his togas were neither close nor full.”19 Augustus, who passed laws forbidding adultery and requiring elites to marry in 18 BCE, would have likely found Horace’s mild and moralizing satires preferable to Catullus’ records of trying to seduce the married Clodia Pulcher and carrying on a handful of sexcapades in the meantime. Further, the moderatism central to Horace’s moral philosophy might have been just the sort of thing Augustus would have wanted circulating amidst his subjects. In a pair of aphorisms we heard earlier, Horace writes, “Who seeks much / lacks much. Bless’d is he to whom the Gods have / given just enough.” These lines, which advise being content with one’s lot and feeling blessed even with one’s privations, were perhaps good council to all those who lived beneath the boot heels of Augustus, however notoriously subtle and delicately wielded those boot heels were.

Alright. So far in this program, I’ve given you a sense of Roman satire’s scurrilous prehistory prior to Horace, how Horace’s own satire was generally milder and less political, and how part of the reason for these qualities in Horatian satire was the politically perilous time during which he published his works. Now it’s time to change topics slightly. Because while Horace could write staid and demure moral advice – while he could stand aloof from public life and speak in generalities about the best methods of self conduct, there was one real world person whom he vigorously, and continuously talked about and frequently and often disparagingly. That person was himself. [music]

The Horatian Persona

When you’re reading Horace’s satires for the first time, in my opinion, there is a single moment that you never forget afterward. So let me set this up for you. In one of his satires, Horace includes a fairly typical statement about the how it’s best to have simple tastes, and how if you fancy yourself a gourmand or a connoisseur of fine wines, your affections for fine dining go out the window when you’re actually hungry. Horace writes, “when work / has blunted the edge of your fussy tastes, and your throat is dry, your stomach empty, then despise plain food, then drink only mulled wine” (2.2.13-15). It’s a simple enough idea – if you’re really hungry and thirsty, you’re going to be pretty easy to please with food and drink. Fine. Now, the moment I described just a second ago, starts out very similarly, but then takes a very different direction. Here it is – a quote from Horace’s satires.
When your throat is parched by thirst, you don’t ask for a golden cup, do you? When you’re hungry, do you turn your nose up at everything except peacock and turbot? When your groin swells up and a maid or slave-boy of your household is available to get stuck into there and then, do you prefer to burst with lust? I don’t: it’s love that’s available and easy to come by that I like. . . Let her be tall, and with good skin; smartly presented but without wishing to create the appearance of greater height or a paler complexion than nature has given her. When such a girl has slipped her left side under my right, she is Ilia and Egeria: I give her whatever name I like and don’t worry while screwing her in case her husband comes dashing back from the country. (Sat 2.1.113-9, 2.2.123-8)
Horacy - domniemany portret

A relief of a seated figure drinking a cup of wine, possibly Horace himself.

The passage I just quoted epitomizes the fascinating qualities of classics. You think, from time to time, you’re reading some ancient Latin poetry with all the decorum of an eighteenth-century conduct book – right up until the point where, amidst his other words of advice, Horace tells you that if you’re horny, you should really just have sex with whomever is around – boys, girls, men, women – just go for it – what are you, anyway? Picky?

The morality Horace preaches throughout his poetry – the general advice to steer a course between extremes, to be content with modest incomes and plain fare – often contrasts with his autobiographical yarns, however fictional or embellished they might be. One of his satires talks of taking a trip to southwest Italy with his patron Maecenas. This was a politically important trip – it took place in either 38 or 37 BCE, and it essentially involved setting up a meeting between Mark Antony and Octavian at a moment when the Second Triumvirate was starting to combust. In this tale, characteristically, Horace has little to say about politics and the great power brokers of Rome, instead rambling on about the logistics of the journey with Maecenas. “Being lazy types,” Horace explains, “we split this journey, which travelers more / energetic than ourselves do in a single stretch” (Sat 1.5.5-6). Portions of the journey are described with local color detail, as when Horace recollects an uncomfortable boat journey with a drunk captain, bitten by mosquitoes and kept awake by frogs and snoring. The journey gets a little better when Horace meets the poets Varius and Virgil, who join them. We perhaps expect the sojourn to culminate in a successful diplomatic meeting, but instead, the whole narrative trails off after Horace reveals an embarrassing sexual episode. The envoys were staying in a town called Apulia, and Horace was waiting for a slave girl to come and have sex with him.
Here, [Horace recounts,] like a total idiot, I waited right up to midnight for a lying girl to turn up; but sleep carried me off, eager though I was to make love; as I lay on my back dreams then turned to obscene fantasies that made a mess of my nightclothes and stomach. (Sat 1.5.82-6)
Now, of course today the thought of slaves being used for sex makes us revolted. But we can still understand the ridiculousness and irony of the situation. Horace is on a mission of singular diplomatic importance for the future of the Mediterranean world. He recollects going about it rather lazily, being uncomfortable during a boat ride, and embarrassing himself by having a wet dream just prior to arriving at his destination. The narrative maunders off in Brundisium, rather than Tarentum, their final destination. In the great epic of the republic’s last civil war, Horace depicts himself as a sort of third string character – a clown and buffoon.

While modern readers can find a lot to like about Horace’s unpretentious, earthy self presentation in much of his poetry, sometimes this earthiness makes us feel our historical distance from him. Behind the sage advice and amusing yarns of his poems there lurks an underclass of slaves and sex workers, waiting in the wings to satisfy the demands of owners and patrons. This social class’ status is never discussed or disputed – sexual partners of various flavors are available to be used, regardless of their consent. This was the social echelon in which Horace operated – a fraternity of the economically powerful that enjoyed extravagant freedoms, often at great costs to those around them. Thus, when Horace advises us to try our best and be content with relatively little (Epis 1.2.4-6), we find this counsel not too far from what we might read in the advice column of a modern magazine. But when he recommends having sex with whatever slave girl is around, or recollects waiting for a sex slave who never shows up, or, in an Epode (Ep 8), says obscenely nasty things about an old woman who has not been able to arouse him, his poetry bears the mark of its origins most keenly. Augustan Age poetry was Roman literature, but it was also Broman literature, and its tacit exclusionism and chummy jokes were the products of patrician entitlements.

While Horace wrote for, and within a circle of rich Roman men, he nonetheless never pretends to command any real position of moral authority within this circuit. In another satire, he describes himself as “the son of a freedman, the man everyone snipes at for being the son of a freedman” (Sat 1.6.45-6). While he often recommends abstemiousness in diet, he doesn’t pretend to practice it himself. He tells a fellow writer in one of his Epistles, “whenever you want a laugh at a porker from Epicurus’ herd, make sure you come and see me, plump and sleek from looking after my body’s needs” (Epis 1.4.14-16). And Horace’s self mockery is nowhere clearer than in one of his final satires – Book 2, Satire 7, a story Horace tells about one of his slaves critiquing and insulting him.

Now, on Saturnalia, Roman slaves, evidently, were able to speak to their masters with a greater degree of freedom than normal. Horace’s slave, who has recently been exposed to Stoic philosophy, takes the opportunity to do so. Specifically, Horace’s slave has picked up on the idea that everyone other than the wise man is a slave – a slave to something, or someone. And Satire 2.7 is a long and humorous tale in which Horace’s slave convinces Horace that Horace is a slave to his own passions, excesses, and self contradictions. “In Rome,” Horace’s slave says, “you yearn to be in the country, in the country you praise the distant city to the stars without a second’s thought” (Sat 2.7.28-30). Horace can’t muster any evidence to the contrary, and the accusation is especially funny since elsewhere Horace’s satires pervasively make fun of people who seek what they don’t have.20 The slave claims that Horace pretends to be happy to stay at home when he has no dinner invitations, and yet Horace simultaneously jumps at the chance to go out on such evenings. He points out that Horace doesn’t like being alone and doesn’t use his leisure time well – he says Horace drinks and sleeps and yet can’t get away from himself. And near the end of the exchange, observing Horace’s general indolence and ineffectualness, his slave concludes, “It’s clear enough that you, who give me orders, are the miserable servant of another and, like a wooden puppet, are moved by strings that other hands pull” (Sat 2.7.80-2). Horace, in turn, realizes that the budding stoic has him cornered, sighing, “I admit it, I’m an inconstant fellow, led by his stomach, my nose leans back at a savoury smell, I’m weak, lazy, and, if you like, call me a greedy-guts into the bargain” (Sat 2.7.38-40).

The Wisdom of the Common Man

There are dozens of examples throughout Horace’s poetry – particularly his satires and epistles – in which he admits his own shortcomings – gluttony, laziness, inconsistency, low birth, a lack of ambition, and on and on. I have to imagine that self-mockery has been a tool in the comedian’s arsenal since the very beginning – in the pages of Plautus and Menander, particularly, an array of clownish slave figures certainly manage to be both socially critical as well as bumbling and lowborn. Horace often wields the perspective of the buffoon to his advantage, proffering common sense moral advice but at the same time not pretending to be any shining exemplar of discipline and self-restraint. The result is, to me, often astonishing. Within a Greco-Roman poetic tradition dominated by the impersonal sagas of Hesiod and Homer and later those of the Roman epic poet Quintus Ennius, Horace inserts himself – a small, flabby, prematurely gray, unassuming man no better than anyone else who gently makes fun of various vices, and by his own admission is as culpable of them as anyone.21 He wasn’t the first poetic autobiographer. Before him, Sappho had composed autobiographical love lyrics around 600 BCE. Horace’s hero Archilochus, around 650, had penned stories of slander and sex in which he was personally involved. Hesiod, fifty years earlier still, presented Works and Days partly as an indictment of his lazy brother. By the generation of Horace and the one before him, Greek and Roman poets continued to write about themselves and their doings. What I think Horace does that is particularly effective, though, is that he uses his unassuming poetic persona to write morally didactic poetry.

This sounds like a rather minor step forward in literary history, but I actually think it’s a major one. Some time close to when Horace lived – likely in Alexandria, a Hellenized Jew was producing the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, a late piece of Jewish wisdom literature like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes before it.22 This book exemplified an old tradition prevalent in Judaism and Christianity – the description of ascribing a modern piece of writing to an ancient source. The Book of Enoch, The Wisdom of Solomon, First and Second Baruch, along with many other canonical books like the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes – these texts claim to be written by patriarchs and early kings from Jewish history, although they are riddled with anachronisms that reveal the actual periods of their composition. While Greco-Roman writers like Plato and Cicero don’t purport that their philosophical works are authored by figures from an ancient and storied past, nonetheless the speakers of their dialogues are at a remove from their real world authors. Whether we’re talking about Ecclesiastes, or Plato’s Republic, Solomon or Socrates, in the ancient Mediterranean, wisdom literature and philosophy often introduced a third party figure or figures as the progenitors of philosophical ideas.

Horace does not do this. Nor does he attempt to adopt a position of unassailable dominion over his subject matter. Instead, the fallible and human poetic persona that he adopts throughout his poetry introduces his counsel as nothing more or less than the recommendations of a single contemporary man. Horace’s satirical writings, as silly, or lewd, or trite as they can be, nonetheless lie near the beginning of a tradition of writers introducing wisdom as the property of the common, frail, faulty contemporary human, rather than wisdom as the exclusive product of the enlightened or divinely inspired. [music]

The Ars Poetica and Horace’s Thoughts on Literary Theory

Okay, a bit of review. In our previous show we talked about Horace’s youth and the history of the civil wars that took down the Roman republic, and then went on to discuss the issue of Horace and the increasingly centralized patronage system of Augustan Rome. In this show, we’ve talked about Horace’s contributions to Roman satire, and how these contributions – specifically Horace’s milder and less slanderous style – may have been influenced by the patronage system and perhaps even Augustus himself. We talked about Horace’s humble poetic persona, and how although he recommends certain practices of optimal self conduct, he doesn’t pretend that he himself always practices what he preaches. And we’ve just talked about how his combination of self-effacing autobiography and philosophical moralizing work very effectively together. Horace’s appeal, after all, is not that he is an austere sage telling you what to do, but instead that he is a human just like you, who is also trying to get along and be a better person.

Q. Horatii Flacci ars poetica. Epistola ad Pisones. With an English commentary and notes. Fleuron T046134-1

Frontispiece from a 1749 edition of the Ars Poetica.

There’s another major topic related to Horace that we haven’t discussed yet, and I want to turn to this topic now. In his satires, epistles, epodes and odes, Horace has a lot to say about literature itself – what it is, some of the history behind it, how to best go about it, what it ought to do, and pitfalls that writers ought to avoid. At the center of Horace’s ideas on literary theory is a later epistle called the Ars Poetica, or the Art of Poetry. While he writes widely on the subject of literature, the Ars Poetica is one of his most famous texts. I want to tell you a bit about Horace’s ideas in literature in general – throughout all of his poems, and then we’ll zoom in and talk about the Ars Poetica, or, again, Art of Poetry.

We’ve heard some of Horace’s thoughts on literary history before in this podcast. In a letter to Augustus, thinking back on the subject of Roman literature, Horace wrote, “Graecia capta ferum uictorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio” (Epis 2.1.156-7), or, “Conquered Greece took prisoner her rough conqueror and introduced the arts into rustic Latium.” This is one of Horace’s more famous lines, and it concisely records a complex phenomenon what we’ve discussed over many episodes, but of course it’s just a small moment in Horace’s many statements about literary history and theory.

Put very briefly, Horace sees literature as an ongoing, multigenerational process, in which new writers learn from old without being enslaved to them, in which nothing – not even Homer – was immune to vigorous criticism, yet at the same time in which certain kinds of departures from the past were fruitless, and finally, a process that required hard work and finely honed technique from a writer as well as natural talent. So, let’s look at some of the details.

Although Horace was clearly a serious journeyman student of the classical literature that had come before him, he emphasizes from time to time that poetry is supposed to be fun. In an epistle to his patron Maecenas, Horace wrote, “[N]o. . .poems written by drinkers of water can live or give pleasure for long. . .[T]he sweet muses as a rule have smelled of wine in the morning” (Epis 1.19.1-2,5). And while Horace held that poets had the right to be freewheeling and creative, even outside the Ars Poetica Horace lays out some rules for what poetry ought to do. In his first book of satires, Horace remembers how he once tried his hand at writing in Greek, but a Roman deity visited him and warned him, “It is just as mad to carry timber to a forest / as to wish to swell the teeming ranks of the Greeks” (Sat 1.10.34-5). Close imitation was, to Horace, a fault – “O you imitators,” he exclaims in an epistle, “servile herd, ho often have your antics stirred me to anger, how often to laughter!” (Epis 1.19.19).

Imitation was acceptable up to a point. Horace allows himself a moment to brag about his own project of literary imitation. Horace writes, in regards to his Greek predecessor Archilochus, “This man I have brought to the public’s ears, I, Latium’s lyric bard, when no other lips had sung his verse before” (1.19.32-4). And while Horace could tout himself for having helped bring Archilochus into the Latin speaking world, Horace nonetheless believed that the texts and authors of the past should never be exempt from rigorous analysis and criticism.

A few episodes ago we talked about Livius Andronicus – the Greco-Roman author first to stage a play in Latin in 240 BCE, who by Horace’s time was still widely in circulation even though only scraps of his writing survive today. In an epistle to Augustus, Horace explained that it vexed him when this first poet of Rome, Livius Andronicus, was regarded with unconditional reverence. Horace writes, and again this is the John Davie translation,
I’m not attacking Livius’ poems and don’t think destruction should fall on his lines recited to me as a boy. . .but that they should be thought faultless and beautiful, and all but perfect, I find astonishing; if among them a perfectly chosen word happens to dart out, and if one or two verses are a little better turned, then these unfairly carry and sell the whole poem. [And in the same letter, Horace writes that in contrast,] It annoys me that anything is criticized, not because people think it is coarse or inelegant in style but because it is modern, and that, instead of indulgence, honour and prizes are claimed for early writers. (2.1.76-8, 69-75)
Here, Horace cautions against idolizing established and canonical writers at the expense of newer and emerging ones. The statement is characteristically balanced, containing a tempered respect for the past but also an optimism and faith in the future. So, we’ve heard a bit about Horace’s ideas on literature – let’s move on to the Ars Poetica and go over the basics of this important treatise.

The Ars Poetica is letter that Horace wrote to the Roman statesman Lucius Calpurnius Piso, and his two sons. It is a mildly conservative discourse on how to be a good writer, and good contributor to literary history. Some of the advice that it offers is simple and practical. Horace writes, “Choose a theme that is equal to your powers, you writers, and reflect a long while on what your shoulders refuse, and have the strength, to carry” (Epis 2.3.39-40). He praises brevity, recommending that “Whatever instruction you pass on, be sure to be brief, so that with speed the mind may grasp it receptively and retain it faithfully” (Epis 2.3.333-6).

Advising that writers should be brief, and not bite off more than they can chew, Horace offers more practical guidance on how to be a good poet. He talks extensively about people who perfect one thing at the expense of others – one example is “a craftsman, the lowest in reputation, who will represent you [finger]nails and copy wavy hair in bronze but who lacks success in his work as a whole because he doesn’t know how to portray an entire figure” (Epis 2.3.32-5). A poet, then, ought to have the whole project in mind when it begins, and not just some of its details. While this advice to writers is clear and articulate, it’s also not particularly revolutionary – I mean I think most writers understand that they need to pick topics they can handle, be brief when they can, and plan ahead of time. Where Horace’s general observations about poetry get interesting, to me at least, is his analysis of how much of being a good poet involves talent, and how much involves work.

I think most of us who have pursued an ambition have thought about how getting better at something involves a combination of talent, and hard work. We all know supremely talented people whose laziness is their Achilles heel, and on the opposite side of the coin, industrious workhorses who don’t quite have what it takes to reach the summits of their hopes and dreams. Horace speaks extensively on this subject in the second half of the Ars Poetica. So, while the title of the Ars Poetica is usually translated as “The Art of Poetry,” the word ars can also be translated as “craftsmanship.” Horace draws a distinction between two things, the first being ingenium, or talent, and the second being ars, or craftsmanship. There was an idea in the Greco-Roman world that great poets were made so by divine inspiration – by entering into trances spurred on by gods or muses that were essentially states of temporary madness. Horace makes fun of the idea of afflatus, or divine creative inspiration in the following lines.
Because [some thinkers believe] that natural talent [or ingenium, or spontaneous inspiration] is a greater blessing
than miserable craftsmanship [or ars,], and debars [from the muses] poets
who have their sanity, a sizeable number of [poets] don’t bother to have
their nails or beards trimmed, and choose lonely places to frequent,
giving the baths a wide berth. (2.3.295-300)
The Death of Empedocles by Salvator Rosa

Salvator Rosa’s The Death of Empedocles (1665-70). Horace cautioned against such radical behavior in artists and intellectuals (Empedocles is said to have thrown himself into a volcano).

Here, Horace deprecates the old Greek idea of the divinely inspired poet with god given talent, depicting poets in this vein as men who pretend to be the instruments of muses, but are actually just stinky hermits. Horace derides such poets elsewhere, recollecting how the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles hurled himself into a volcano in the pursuit of a poetic death. The Ars Poetica, in fact, closes with the image of a madcap poet like Empedocles so confident in his natural ability that he grabs passerby in something like a bear hug. Envisioning this self-proclaimed genius, Horace writes, “he puts [everyone] to flight, learned and unlearned alike, / with his remorseless recitations; indeed the man he catches he holds / fast in a great hug and reads him to death” (Epis 2.3.474-6).

So, in this dichotomy between the hardworking and the talented, Horace spends some time making fun of the idea of talent, or ingenium, depicting the idea of god-given talent as something that causes all sorts of eccentric, gross, and even dangerous behavior in the ranks of aspiring poets. One almost expects him to come down hard on the idea of hard work and craftsmanship as the real ingredients of good poetry, rather than some illusory will-o’-the-wisp called “talent,” but ultimately Horace says that a combination of both things are necessary for the best poetry. “[M]y own view,” he tells the letter’s recipients, “is there is no good in study unaccompanied by a rich vein of natural ability or in talent that is untrained; so it is true that the one demands the help of the other and forms with it a friendly pact” (Epis 2.3.409-12). However much he makes fun of the notion of ingenium, elsewhere in his writings – specifically, his odes – Horace does claim divine inspiration from time to time.

In addition to general advice and the notion that great poetry is the product of both work and talent, Horace has some specific prescriptions for literary practices that one ought to follow. Some of these prescriptions have to do with adhering to the traditions of the past and keeping up certain formal conventions. Now, remember, Horace did believe in the innovations of contemporary literature. In the Ars Poetica itself, he writes that “As woods change their leaves when each year declines, and the earliest fall: so with words the old generation perishes, and, like our own young, the newborn flourish and grow strong” (Epis 2.3.60-3). Yet although new leaves grow every season, Horace argues, they shouldn’t take on shapes that are too unconventional or outlandish.

For instance, Horace writes that when using figures from Greek mythology, those figures ought to behave in the ways they would in the pages of Homer or Sophocles. An Achilles, or a Medea, for instance, should behave as Achilles or Medea would, if you happen to write works that use these characters. Connectedly, Horace maintains, other characters – children, youths, men, old men, etc., should act their ages. Plays, according to Horace, must be in five acts. Plays should only have three actors, and should not have a plot-resolving deus ex machina. Plays should feature choruses that favor good behavior and support moderatism and justice, and they are best accompanied by a traditional Roman tibia, rather than some novel equivalent.

Horace and the Purpose of Literature

While he lays out specific regulations for the treatment of various character types, and for the form and content of plays, Horace is much more general in his assessment of what literature as a whole ought to do. What should literature do? Literary history is full of various statements about the purpose of literature, from Henry James’ rather uncontroversial statement that a novel’s only obligation was to be interesting, to Walter Benjamin’s more contestable claim that art in the age of mechanical reproduction should politicize for a communist cause.23 Back in Episode 10, we saw Plato laying out a program of censorship for the Iliad, in which he emphasizes that literature and music in general must create a warlike citizenry that did not question the authority of their superiors. Amidst all the many theories of what literature should do, from the common sense to the anachronistic to the somewhat disturbing, Horace’s recommendations are pretty simple and benign. He writes that “Poets aim either to confer benefit or to give pleasure, or to say things which are at once both pleasing and helpful to life. . .[T]he writer who blends the profitable with the agreeable wins every vote, by charming and instructing the reader at the same time” (Epis 2.3.409-12, 344-5). If it sounds like something you’ve heard before, that may be because the great English poet Philip Sidney, who knew Horace’s work well, describes poetry’s purpose as “to teach and delight” in his “Defense of Poesy,” published about 1600 years after Horace’s death.24 Aristotle also holds literature should delight and teach. In Poetics, written 300 years before Horace, Aristotle maintains that poetry contains representations of things, humans enjoy these representations, and “because they delight in seeing images. . .it comes about that they learn as they observe.”25 So, while the idea that poetry should please readers and offer them instruction at the same time, while it wasn’t original to Horace, through Sidney and others became one of the most famous statements in the Ars Poetica.

I think the “charming and instructing” statement, in general, epitomizes the prescriptive but simultaneously open ended nature of Horace’s famous exposition on poetry. Follow some ground rules, Horace says, and pay some basic deference to the traditions of the past; don’t quit bathing or start looking like a wild man, work hard, polish your manuscripts, and offer your reader some combination of fun and instruction, and you’re off on the right track. Those are Horace’s recommendations in a nutshell, and a final quote from the Ars Poetica shows that however stringent he could be with some of his requirements for poetry, Horace maintained an open mind about things that he read. One of my favorite passages from him is on the subject of admiring books for their strengths, rather than caviling about their weaknesses, and I wanted to close our discussion with this last beautiful quote from The Art of Poetry.
There are. . .faults which we may wish to countenance; for
the string does not always produce the sound which hand and heart
intend, and often returns a sharp when a flat is called for; the bow will
not always strike whatever target it threatens. But when the beauties
in a poem are more numerous, I, for one, shall not be offended
by a few blemishes, which either carelessness has let fall on the page
or human nature has taken insufficient care to avoid. (Epis 2.3.348-353)
For an essay that has offered some pretty specific stipulations about what literature should do and how polished it should be, these lines indicate that Horace loved literature past and present, and although he found none of it to be perfect, he preferred to look for the good qualities, rather than the bad. Elsewhere in his poetry, Horace calls himself fat, lowborn, lazy, unproductive and with a feeble intellect. A man whose friends clearly loved him in spite of his faults, Horace extended a similar courtesy to the books that he read. [music]

Horace’s Most Famous Odes

In 23 BCE, Horace published a collection of 88 odes. These were creations of a slightly different caliber than his satires and his epistles. They were denser and more challenging than his earlier works. He is more impersonal in the odes, and less humble. Their metrical complexity and allusions proved daunting to some. He actually wrote the Ars Poetica – the long treatise on literary theory we just looked at – after his 88 odes went into print and had lukewarm reception, and so perhaps if the Ars Poetica takes a kindly tone toward imperfection, it does so because Horace himself was still reeling from the unexpectedly poor response his recent publication had elicited.

Horace’s odes are more solemn and serious than his satires, epistles, and epodes, the epodes being a collection of seventeen diverse lyric poems that he published in about 30 BCE. And while his odes didn’t win him fame in 23 BCE, in later literary history – particularly in English literary history during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Horace’s odes were on every student’s desk, subject to reading, analysis, admiration, and imitation. In the previous show we looked at the unusually martial fifth ode of Book 3 – the one that urges young men into warfare and states, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” or, “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.” While the Latin of this line was made famous in the early 20th century in a scathing anti-war poem by Wilfred Own, there is another line from Horace – just a phrase, actually, that’s probably even more famous. It’s in the closing line of a short, ten-line ode out of his first book of odes. In fact, let’s look at that whole ode, so you can hear the origin of that common Latin expression carpe diem. This is the W.G. Shepherd translation, published by Penguin in 1983.
Do not inquire, [Horace writes,] what we may not know, what end
The Gods will give. . .do not attempt
[astronomical] calculations. The better course
is to bear whatever will be, whether Jove allot
more winters or this is the last which exhausts
the Tuscan sea with pumice rocks opposed.
Be wise, decant the wine, prune back
your long-term hopes. Life ebbs as I speak-
so seize each day, and grant the next no credit. (Ode 1.11.1-10)
It’s not a novel statement in what we’ve read together up to this point. A character tells the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, “Gilgamesh, let your belly be full, / enjoy yourself always by day and night! / Make merry each day, / dance and play day and night.”26 Similarly, the Late Bronze Age Egyptian Song of the Harper advises its reader to “Let thy desire flourish. . .Follow thy desire, as long as thou shalt live.”27 The book of Ecclesiastes tells its audience, “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart. . .Enjoy life. . .all the days of your vain life that are given to you” (ECC 9:7-8).28 And long after Horace urged an unknown addressee to seize the day, the English poet Robert Herrick wrote, admittedly directly inspired by Horace himself, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying; / And this same flower that smiles today / Tomorrow will be dying.”

I don’t want to cheapen the beauty of Horace’s ode by enfolding it in a bunch of other poems that express the same sentiment. I think that these quotes, which span five very different cultures and 3,600 years of literary history show the simple, elemental appeal of Horace’s most famous phrase. Sumerians, Egyptians, Persian-period Jews, Romans, English people – they knew that there is a time for work and discipline, but there is also a time to forget about one’s long, segmented plan for the future, and just exist. In the carpe diem idea cropping up perennially in world poetry, Horace, perhaps, gets the credit for saying it best of all.

And yet a different ode expands the theme further. This ode, also published in 23 BCE, would have been written around the time Horace was 40, just as the previous one was. While the conversational style of Horace’s satires and epistles often makes them meander from topic to topic and combine observation with moral inculcation, some of Horace’s best odes are sustained treatments of single subjects, like the particularly gorgeous one we’re about to hear. This is also from the W.G. Shepherd translation, published by Penguin.
[A]ll must die: be sure to retain
an equable mind in vexation
avoiding also intemperate joy at advantages gained,

whether you lead a life of gloom
or relax stretched out on some sequestered
lawn throughout the holy days
and rejoice in classic Falernian wine.

Why do the pines and silvery poplars
share their hospitable shade?
Why does runaway water
tremble in winding streams?
With us, for us. Command all perfumes, wines
and the too brief spell of the rose
while affairs and times
and the Fates’ black thread allow:

then goodbye freehold woodlands, home
and the manor the yellow Tiber washed
and the spoils piled up to the heights,
which your heir shall get.

Rich man born from [an] ancient [family]
or poor man, it makes no odds, from the lowest
race under sky you shall fall
[death’s] victim, who pities none.
All are thus compelled;
early or late the urn is shaken;
fate will out; a little boat
shall take us to eternal exile. (II.3.1-28)
The central meditation on the universality of death here could have come from Job, or Ecclesiastes, Gilgamesh or the Iliad. But that doesn’t make their Latin iteration any less significant. Horace’s great contribution to the tradition of poetic meditations on mortality was adding himself – his own personality and foibles – to a genre that’s often detached and impersonal. Let’s look at another poem on the subject of aging and mortality – one that includes a bit about Horace’s own experiences in his later years.

As a younger man, Horace had lampooned the austerity and the creeds of stoicism in various satires and epistles. Horace had already deemed stoicism puffed up, hypocritical, resonant but implausible, and in many ways demonstrated that its doctrines were often unlivable for the average living, breathing, and feeling person. A late ode, the first in a fourth volume of odes he published near the end of his life, continues his lifelong critique of stoicism, only on a much more personal level. The ode begins with Horace admitting that he’s not much of a lover any more at fifty years old, and asking Venus to ignite the passion of someone else. Here’s the Shepherd translation of a pivotal part of this ode, just after Horace resolves to rescind his passion.
[M]e [Horace writes] – neither woman, boy,
nor credulous hope of sharing souls
nor contests in wine,
nor garlands about my hair, can move me now. Then why, my [young love], why
these unaccustomed tears on my cheeks?
Why does my eloquent tongue
ineptly fall silent among the words? Each night in my dreams
I hold you captive, or else pursue
your obdurate flight
across the Field of Mars, through swirling water. (IV.1.29-40)
I think that of all Horace’s various dismissals of stoicism, and of all the times he calls attention to his own frail humanity and his various hypocrisies, this poem is one of the most powerful. He can ask Venus to quell his passions, and he can pretend to the dignity of middle age, but in doing so he overestimates the extent to which time has changed him. He can affect the staunch discipline and dutifulness of the stoic, but leaving the youthful world of love and passion brings tears to his eyes. It’s a – to me – a particularly piercing poem on aging, because it points out how much time changes us, but also, just as tragically, how little.

At fifty or so, when he published his final book of odes, the theme of aging inspired some of Horace’s most powerful and beloved poems, like the one we just looked at. Another poem on the theme of aging is the seventh ode in Horace’s fourth volume of odes, a piece that the classicist and poet A.E. Housman considered the greatest poem in ancient literature.29 Let’s hear an excerpt of this poem, again in the Shepherd translation.
Snows are dissolved and grass returns to the meadows
and foliage to trees;
Earth suffers her changes and diminishing rivers run
between their banks. . .
The year and the hour that snatch our day warn us not
to hope for eternal life.
Frosts melt for Zephyr; the summer tramples
the spring but will die
when autumn pours out harvest; and soon the numb
short days recur. . .
Who knows whether the high Gods will add more tomorrows
to the sum of todays?
[O]nce you have perished and Minos has passed
his royal verdict,
neither race. . .nor eloquence, nor righteous
deeds shall restore you. (IV.7.1-4,7-12,17-18,21-2)
Again, the ideas here, profound as they are, are familiar. The seasons pass, coming and going with all the inevitability of our own deaths. The poem is written in an unusual meter in Latin – Archilochian couplets – and so maybe in casting these statements about humanity’s transience and the fading of the seasons into an ancient meter, Horace knew he was cementing his own poem within an old literary tradition, and in doing so, joining the ranks of poets like Archilochus, Mimnermus, and Homer, archaic Greek writers who had penned similar meditations.30 While the transience of human life is a common theme in ancient literature, Horace came along late enough to voice a counter assertion. He had read Greek poetry that dated back to the 700s and 600s. He had mastered the complex world of Greco-Roman polytheism, and the idiom of an allusive poetic language that fused past with present, and mythology with reality. He knew, in short, that poetry was old, and that in contributing to it he might expect that his words would outlive him. And the closing poem in his first volume of odes announces just this. “I have achieved a monument more lasting / than bronze, and loftier than the pyramids of kings, / which neither gnawing rain nor blustering wind / may destroy, nor innumerable series of years, / nor the passage of ages. I shall not wholly die, / a large part of me will escape” (Ode 3.30.1-6). Of course he was correct. Because two thousand years later, we’re still enjoying his work. And year after year, readers of poetry will continue to discover Horace, gawk at the sheer breadth of what he accomplished, and fall in love with his modesty, his honesty, his gentle humor, and his offhanded genius. [music]

Horace and Pastoral Poetry

Virgil died in the autumn 19 BCE. Two years later, Augustus commissioned Horace to write a celebratory ode, often called the Centennial Hymn, for the Secular Games that year, an important public display, performed only once in a century, that required the work of a master poet. The Centennial Hymn itself is a benediction for Rome and its festival, its citizens, Augustus himself and his new edicts, a sonorous piece of nationalism that shows that by 17 BCE, Horace was more or less the poet laureate of the Augustan regime.31

He’d become central within Augustan poetry due to many of the factors we’ve talked about, but one of them was surely his versatility. Over the course of these past two episodes we’ve seen a diverse span of content from Horace, and we’ve barely talked about his technical contributions to Latin poetry at all. Horace was one of the most important figures in Roman literary history to transpose some of the structural features of Greek poetry into Latin. He joined various predecessors like Quintus Ennius in adapting Greek hexameter into Latin. He joined Plautus and Terence in using the iambics of Greek New Comedy, and Catullus in experimenting with the meter of Sappho. Horace went back to other archaic lyric poets like Archilochus, Simonides, Stesichorus, their successors in the 400s, Pindar and Bacchylides, and their successors in the 200s – Alexandrian poets like Callimachus, his technical curiosity driving him to adapt exotic and antique meters into Latin poetry.32 And while Horace’s structural contributions to Latin poetry surely impressed a circle of literary insiders who also practiced poetry, the breadth of topics, and emotions, genres, themes and tones that he is able to use must have also endeared him to his contemporaries. Classicist Betty Radice writes that
Horace offers. . .a wide range of poetic personae. He can speak now as the Muses’ priest, the inspired follower of Bacchus, the immortal bard, and then be gently chiding some wayward girl in almost avuncular terms; he is the wryly humorous man of forty of whom lovers need not be jealous, and then he is himself a lover locked out. Sometimes he seriously attacks the social evils and insecurity of his times, the decay of family life, the overspending and overbuilding, and then he escapes to his country retreat to enjoy the good things of life– while they last, for his mood quickly shifts to the inevitability of approaching death. He is at once the loyal friend to the companions of his republican youth, the grateful admirer of Maecenas and Agrippa, the supporter of Augustus’ measures to restore political stability to Rome, and the self-sufficient individualist who can still enjoy taking part in a simple rustic festival for the gods of rural Italy.33
In 17 BCE, the broad spectrum of personalities and topics to be found in Horace must have compelled Augustus to request the Centennial Hymn from the middle aged poet. In the last ten years of his life, Horace had become Rome’s journeyman writer – no one trick pony, nor a genre writer, but a person who’d mastered a score of meters and an equal number of themes and topics.

Daniel Maclise - The Wrestling Scene in As You Like It

Daniel Maclise’s painting of a famous scene in Shakespeare’s As you Like It, the most famous pastoral play in English.

One of his themes – one which we haven’t talked about much, was country life. During the Hellenistic period, beginning in Alexandria in the 200s BCE, a tradition of writing about life in the countryside began to spread from the lines of the Greek poet Theocritus, whose Idylls praised the innocence, cleanliness and beauty of the country and the rural folk who lived there. Theocritus is the first known practitioner of a genre we call “pastoral poetry,” a genre in which idealized shepherds, farmers, milkmaids, and country lasses play out light dramas of courtship and daily living. To the chaotic, urbanizing Hellenistic world, Theocritus’ timeless poems about life amidst flocks and babbling brooks were, in part, escapist fables. Two centuries later, by the time Horace began publishing works during the Second Triumvirate, pastoral poetry was becoming popular in Rome.

The contrast between urban bustle and rural serenity has deep roots in literary history, roots that go back to ancient Sumer.34 By Horace’s life, there was more reason than ever to extol the fresh air and expansive vistas of the country, as the city Rome had ballooned to include over a million people by the Augustan Age. Poorly planned from the beginning, although Augustus and Agrippa implemented many structural improvements to the city, Rome was notoriously crowded, stinky, overbuilt, and stiflingly hot in the summer. In contrast to the teeming city, Roman writers of the late Republic and early Empire wrote reverently of their country estates, including Cicero, Horace himself, Pliny the Younger, and many others. To those who could afford to leave Rome after business was conducted there, poetry about country life allowed them to escape the urban sprawl even while still confined in the capital.

An epistle Horace wrote to his friend Quinticus contains a vivid description of Horace’s estate in south central Italy, far from the madding crowd of Rome.
There is an unbroken line of hills, except for a shady valley that separates
them, yet such that the sun looks upon its right side when rising
and warms its left when departing. . .The climate would
win your approval. What if you knew that the bushes yield a rich crop
of ruddy cornel-cherries and plums, that oak and ilex delight the
cattle with their abundant acorns and their master with the abundant shade?. . .
This. . .retreat, so charming, yes, if you believe me, so beautiful, keeps me
safe and sound, you’ll be pleased to now, in September’s season. (Epis 1.16.5-11,14-16)
Elsewhere, Horace wrote, “I praise the brooks of the lovely countryside, its woodland and rocks overgrown with moss. In short, I know life and am a king the moment I leave behind those things [others] extol to the heavens with loud applause, and, like the slave who refuses the sacrificial cakes and runs away from his master the priest, it is bread I want and now prefer to honeyed cakes” (Epis 1.10.6-12).

Now, as I said in a previous episode, this vision of rural life was a far cry from the average commoner’s existence on the Italian peninsula, and even more distant from the often overtaxed peasants in Rome’s provinces abroad. As we read Horace’s many references to the healthiness and beauty of country life, we wonder how much it can be taken at face value, and one of Horace’s epodes shows us that the poet understood well enough what country living was like for the median rustic. The epode begins suspiciously – all in quotes, so we know we’re hearing the words of a speaker.
Happy he who far from business dealing
(like uncorrupted folk of yore)
and free from interest owing,
works with his oxen his family land
[H]e weds his lofty poplar trees to nubile shoots of vine;
in some secluded dale reviews
his lowing, wandering herds;
he prunes back barren shoots
with his hook and grafts on fruitful;
he stores pressed honey in clean jars. (Epode 1.2.1-4,9-15)
Oh, how nice it is, in other words, to live the simple life of country folk, who don’t have to think about loans and debt, and serenely check on their flocks, do some light pruning work, and live on the bounty of nature. The speaker of these words, however, ends up being a moneylender named Alfius, and the poem closes with, “Thus [said] Alfius, a moneylender, / on the point of turning farmer: / [and then] he called in all his capital / on the [fifteenth], or on the [first of the month] / [and] he’s busy loaning it out again” (Epode 1.2.68-72). So, although Horace could, like many of his contemporaries, write sweet praises of rural life, he also understood that a farmer or sharecropper was vulnerable to the economic schemes of the rich and powerful. [music]

Moving on to Virgil

I want to thank Professor Aven McMaster of Thorneloe University again for input on this and the previous two programs. She’s been a huge help, and from making in depth notes on three episode transcriptions, to helping me with pronunciation, to just shooting the breeze about Latin poetry over email with me, she’s helped me bring this sequence your way. Aven’s podcast is again The Endless Knot, and if you like my show I think you’ll have a great time listening to The Endless Knot – that’s at alliterative.net.

I also want to thank the many of you out there listening who stepped forward to help me out on Patreon after I made my announcement last time. Everybody who pledged a dollar a show or more, or does in the future, thanks for helping bring our podcast’s structured and chronological approach to literary history to the world. Amidst some fun stuff I’ve loaded onto the Patreon page this week is a 15-minute long comedy song called “The Presocratic Hoedown,” a tune that was too long, and slightly too offensive, to go on the episode for which I originally wrote it. I hope all of you who are serving as my Maecenases and Augustuses on the Patreon page enjoy that one. I’ve also loaded up about forty-five minutes of bonus content there having to do with odes – an explanation of what odes are, together with short introductions to and full readings of some of the most famous odes in English – Pope’s “Ode on Solitude,” Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” Shelly’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” I thought it would be fun to do a little extra on odes this week for Horace’s sake, and these are some of my favorite poems, too.

Angelica Kauffmann - Virgil reading the ‚Aeneid‘ to Augustus and Octavia (Hermitage)

Angelica Kauffman’s Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (1788). A passage in Suetonius recollects how Octavia fainted at a portion of the poem which mentioned her dead son Marcellus.

Speaking of Horace, Horace had a friend who was an even more prolific author of pastoral poetry. This friend was from the opposite end of the Italian peninsula. Just five years older than Horace, the poet Publius Vergilius Maro lived from 70-19 BCE, and he’s known to us today as Virgil, author of the Aeneid. Virgil wrote the Aeneid in the last decade of his life. Prior to creating Rome’s great surviving epic, during the 30s Virgil had already written two works which would be hugely influential in the history of poetry – the Eclogues, a set of ten poems largely on the joys and trials of rural life, and the Georgics, a series of four long poems on farming.

In the next show, Episode 52: White Flowers Die, the first of six episodes on Virgil, we’ll talk about the poet’s first publication. The Eclogues, which helped Virgil find literary sponsorship under Maecenas and Augustus, were published in the early 30s and thereafter became the most influential work of pastoral literature, ever. From Horace himself, to later Latin poets, medieval mystery plays a thousand years later, and of course the poetry of Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, Robert Herrick, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale and As You Like It, the poems of Aemilia Lanyer, Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and on and on, the ten poems Virgil wrote in the Eclogues had a formative influence on a broad and diverse set of writers central to the Anglophone tradition. In our next show, we’re going to learn the basics of Virgil’s life, the pastoral tradition as it dates back to Theocritus, the ins and outs of Virgil’s pastoral poems, and the historical forces that may have compelled him to try his hand at the pastoral genre in the early 30s BCE. And if you think pastoral poetry is little more than babbling brooks and singing shepherds, you’re going to be surprised at how dark it is – and how dark it was from the very beginning. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and the great Virgil and I will see you next time.


1.^ “Satire, on the other hand, is all our own,” Quintilian famously wrote in The Institutes of Oratory (10.1.93), and in this genre, “Horace. . .must be awarded the first place” (10.1.94). Printed in Quintilian. The Complete Works of Quintilian. Delphi Classics, 2015. Kindle Edition, Location 11111.

2.^ Plautus. The Pot of Gold and Other Plays. Translated by E.F. Watling. Penguin Classics, 1965, pp. 153-5.

3.^ See R. Bracht, Branham and Kinney, Daniel. “Introduction.” Printed in Petronius. Satyrica. Edited and translated by R. Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997, p. xxiv.

4.^ The Institutes of Oratory (10.1.93)

5.^ Cicero. On Oratoryu> (2.25). Quoted in Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 34490.

6.^ The Institutes of Oratory (10.1.93). Quoted in Quintilian (2015) Location 11111.

7.^ See Ramsay, G.G. “The Satires.” Printed in Juvenal. Delphi Complete Works of Juvenal. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 48.

8.^ Cowan, Robert. “Introduction.” In Horace. Satires and Epistles. Translated by John Davie. Oxford: OUP, 2011. The quoted phrase “evil twin” comes from Ll. Morgan. “Getting the Measure of Heroes: The Dactylic Hexameter and its Detractors. In M. Gale (ed.), Latin Epic and Didactic Poetry: Genre, Tradition and Individuality. Swansea, 2004, p. 8.

9.^ Cicero. The Republic and the Laws. Translated by Niall Rudd and with an Introduction and Notes by Niall Rudd and Jonathan Powell. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998, p. 79. On the subject of the censorship of libel in Rome see also Horace himself – Epis 2.1.153-61.

10.^ See Catullus 29 and 57.

11.^ An exception is certainly Epode 8, a vicious slander of a fading woman, and to a lesser degree Epodes 4 and 6.

12.^ Printed in Horace. Satires and Epistles. Translated by John Davie. With an Introduction and Notes by Robert Cowan. Oxford: OUP, 2011, p. 14.

13.^ Ibid, p. 14.

14.^ Ibid, p. 29.

15.^ Ibid, p. 33.

16.^ Ibid, p. 16.

17.^ Ibid, p. 4. Further references to the Satires and Epistles can be found in this same volume.

18.^ Horace. The Complete Odes and Epodes. Translated and with Notes by W.G. Shepherd and with an Introduction by Betty Radice. Penguin Classics, 1983, p. 149. Further references to the Odes and Epodes will be quoted from this edition.

19.^ Suetonius. Life of Augustus 73. Quoted in Suetonius. Delphi Complete Works of Suetonius. Delphi Classics, 2012. Kindle Edition, Location 8924.

20.^ Sat 1.14.40-5 demonstrates a good example.

21.^ The description comes from Epis 1.20.20-6, a passage we heard last time.

22.^ See The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fourth Edition, ed. Michael D. Coogan et. al. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 1427.

23.^ “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.” James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” Printed in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2, ed. Nina Baym et. al. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1998, p. 374. Mankind’s “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.” Benjamin, Walter. “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Printed in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent Leitch, et. al. New York and London: W.W. Norton and company, 2001, p. 1186.

24.^ Sidney, “The Defense of Poesy.” Printed in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, ed.M.H. Abrams et. al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000, p. 937.

25.^ Aristotle. Poetics. Printed in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, et. al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 93.

26.^ Anonymous. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated by Andrew George. New York: Penguin Classics, 1999, p. 19.

27.^ Printed in Eaton, Michael. TOTC (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series). Ecclesiastes. Intra-Varsity Press, Kindle Edition, p. 34.

28.^ Printed in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fourth Edition, ed. Michael D. Coogan et. al. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 945.

29.^ Housman’s own translation of the poem, “Diffugere Nives,” is a classic in its own right.

30.^ See, for instance, Mimnermus 2.

31.^ The description is Betty Radice’s. See Radice, Betty. “Introduction.” In Horace. The Complete Odes and Epodes. Translated and with Notes by W.G. Shepherd and with an Introduction by Betty Radice. Penguin Classics, 1983, p. 1.

32.^ See ibid, p.18.

33.^ Ibid, p. 19.