The Epistles of Horace book 2

If only my powers matched my yearning…
(Epistles Book 2, number 1)

The ancient Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (universally referred to as ‘Horace’ in the English-speaking world) wrote two books of epistles.

The first one, published in 21 BC, contains 20 shortish poems on a variety of subjects. The second one, published some ten years later in 11 BC, differs in two ways. First, it contains just three poems, but they’re long ones: whereas epistle 1.8 is 17 lines long and 1.9 is just 13 lines, the first two epistles in book 2 are 270 lines and 216 lines long, respectively, and the third one is nearly as long as the two preceding ones put together (476 lines). The second difference is that, whereas the 20 odes in Book 1 are varied in subject matter, the three longer poems in Book 2 are all very much on the same subject – poetry.

Epistle 1 (270 lines)

This poem is addressed personally to Augustus and is a defence of modern poetry.

Horace opens with a panegyric to Augustus and his achievements (bringing peace, re-establishing the rule of law etc) and says that, unlike earlier heroes of Rome, Augustus hasn’t had to wait till he’s dead to be worshipped: the population realises his importance while he’s still alive.

But then it turns out he’s said all this to make the point that when it comes to poetry, the Romans take a very different view from how they regard their leader. Instead of valuing the new for its achievements they obsessively worship the old and fusty, using age alone as a measure of quality. He lists the first Roman writers, from Ennius in epic to Terence in comedy, and says these are the writers the Roman population venerate as if they could never be improved upon. But they’re wrong. Many of those pioneering works are crude and clumsy but people persist in venerating them and rubbishing much better work, purely because it’s new.

It makes me annoyed that a thing should be faulted, not for being
crudely or clumsily made but simply for being recent.

People venerate and defend the old works because it’s what they grew up with and understand, which leads them to frown on new works because they don’t properly understand them.

What if the Greeks had only venerated the old and stifled innovation? We wouldn’t have most of the works we now enjoy and which the Romans can copy so freely.

Then Horace changes tack somewhat and laments the fact that Rome is undergoing a craze for writing poetry; everyone’s at it, even he, who had sworn to pack it in, is up before dawn calling for pen and parchment. But they’re all amateurs! You wouldn’t take medicine from someone who wasn’t a doctor or ask someone who wasn’t an experienced sailor to take the helm of your yacht: so why should you read verses by a complete amateur?

On the upside, one thing that can be said for proper poets is they live very modestly. Horace never cheats, fights, causes social strife –, on the contrary, he is content to sit quietly, reading and scribbling, living off pulses and second-rate bread. Here is how the poet serves his country:

The poet shapes the tender faltering speech of a child,
already turning the ear away from coarse expressions.
Later he moulds the disposition by kindly maxims,
using his voice to correct cruelty, envy and temper.
He recounts noble actions, equips the new generation
with old examples, and brings relief to the poor and sick.
Where would innocent boys and girls who are still unmarried
have learnt their prayers if the Muse had not vouchsafed them a poet?
The choir asks for aid and feels the deities’ presence;
by the poet’s prayers it coaxes heaven to send us showers;
it averts disease and drives away appalling dangers;
it gains the gift of peace and a tear of bumper harvests.
Song is what soothes the gods above and the spirits below.

I’ve quoted this passage at such length for two reasons. One is to refute Horace’s optimistic claim for the poet, that:

He recounts noble actions, equips the new generation
with old examples

Is that true of Catullus, with his spiteful lampoons of helpless victims, with his hate poems against Lesbia after she dumped him? No. It’s not even true of Horace himself, whose 104 odes I have just read and which are about drinking, parties, the joys of the countryside, advice to friends about affairs, poems of longing for beautiful young boys, and so on.

To claim his own poetry is full of noble actions designed to instruct the next generation is ludicrous. A lot of it is just tittle-tattle and gossip, entertaining but hardly educational. In other words, this is the kind of stock, boilerplate excuse poets trot out to justify their profession to the public when the reality of what they write is often wildly different.

But the second reason is sociological. It would be easy to end the quote at the word poet, as if writing poetry were a solitary activity to be enjoyed by solitary readers. It certainly is this, but the final five lines are interesting because they put the act of poetry in a much more public context. Remember that Augustus commissioned Horace to write a hymn to be sung by a choir at the opening of the Secular Games, which Augustus revived in 17 BC. By a choir! Learning his words and learning to sing them to (presumably) an ancient melody.

And what could a public hymn to be sung by a choir in front of an audience of hundreds of thousands of Roman citizens possibly be about but an invocation of the gods and plea for peace and plenty? So I included this latter half of the quote to show the intensely public and social side of the poet’s role in ancient Rome. (I was going to write ‘very unlike our own times’ when I remembered the stunning performance by poet Amanda Gorman at Joe Biden’s inauguration as president in January 2021.)

Horace changes tack again to give a brief history of Roman poetry. The native Roman tradition began with coarse rural songs sung at country festivals of marriage or harvest. These became so wild and often abusive that they eventually had to be reined in and restricted by laws. Only late in their history did the Romans become aware of the centuries-old tradition of Greek poetry, overflowing with sophistication, a wide variety of metres, a number of well worked-out genres and conventions. Only after the final Punic War and crushing of Carthage in 146 BC did educated Romans think of imitating the sophisticated Greeks, and even then moments of ‘farmyard’ vulgarity still came through.

This morphs into contempt for current Roman taste. Horace thinks Plautus’s comedies were feeble with poor characterisation of his various stock types (I genuinely enjoyed Plautus’s comedies). But he is appalled by the modern theatre which doesn’t even stage plays any more so much as pageants and spectacles, featuring bears or boxers – a cross between pantomime and the circus. Nonetheless, Horace is full of admiration for playwrights who write proper plays and evoke genuine deep emotions: that’s something he could never do.

Then he switches tack again and brings Augustus back to the poet who writes not for a fickle audience but for the individual reader. Now it’s true that poets are sometimes their own worst enemies, and he gives an interesting list of the ways they can screw up:

  • thrusting a book on Augustus when he is tired or worried with important concerns of state
  • being oversensitive to criticism of even a single line
  • when, in a reading, they repeat a favourite section without being asked
  • when they moan that their excellence goes unrecognised
  • when they arrogantly assume that as soon as Augustus hears they’re writing something, he’ll immediately summon them to court and make them a gift to relieve their financial worries

Nonetheless, it is important to choose the right poet, qualified and able poets, to celebrate your successes. A long paragraph tells the story of Alexander who patronised a third rate poet, Choerilus, and so, alas, was never immortalised in verse. Horace then flatters Augustus for his excellent choice of chief poets, namely Virgil and Varius.

Horace draws to a close by wishing that he, too, could write epic poetry about Augustus’s achievements, describing ‘the Parthian foe overawed by your imperial Rome’ but alas, he is not talented enough: ‘If only my powers matched my yearning’. But he would be rash to embark on a task so far beyond his abilities.

I don’t understand the final 11 lines. I think the general idea is that it is better to have no lines at all written about you than to be remembered for being memorialised in hilariously bad verse. It would be embarrassing and might even be fatal!

All this I take to be yet another grovelling apology to Augustus for not writing him some grand, noble and dignified Poem, and instead offering short, ad hoc poems which play to Horace’s talent for moral sermons and gossipy odes.

Epistle 2 (216 lines)

Is addressed to Julius Florus and is a long apology by Horace for not writing lyric poetry.

But I had barely got going before, once again, as so often in Roman literature, I stumbled over the slavery issue. Epistle 2.2 opens with 20 lines describing the imagined sales patter of a slave trader, describing the merits of a young man he’s selling. It’s obviously designed to be comic in the way a modern comedian impersonating the bluster of a second-hand car trader could be done for comic effect. Horace has his slave trader make his sales pitch a bit more plausible by admitting that, ok, the slave for sale isn’t perfect: once or twice he dodged his work and hid under the stairs ‘for fear of the strap on the wall’ i.e. of being whipped (which was the standard punishment for slaves, in Republican Rome in the 20s BC as in European sugar plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries).

The point of this elaborate analogy is that Horace tells Florus that the slave trader of the anecdote was being honest about his merchandise’s flaws – and that, in the same way, he, Horace, was being open and honest when he told Florus, as he was leaving for duty in the army abroad, that he, Horace, is lazy and was unlikely to send letters as often as Florus demanded, and also was unlikely to send him as many poems as he hoped.

He, Horace, was quite frank about this, so why is Florus now upbraiding him? That’s the point of the opening anecdote…But I’m thinking about the slave boy cowering under the stairs, waiting for the master to come after him with the blood-stained whip…

If slavery matters, it matters everywhere, at any time, and to all peoples who have been enslaved.

Forcing myself back into the ‘civilised’ ‘cultured’ world of Horace’s poetry, the epistle now cuts away from this anecdote to give us another vignette, this time about one of Lucullus’s poor soldiers who’d saved up a nice sum of money. One night someone stole it. Next day, bubbling with rage, the aggrieved soldier flung himself at the enemy and dislodged them from a well-defended position. For this act of bravery he was acclaimed, decorated and given money. At which point he stopped being angry. So that when the general came to him a few days later to ask him to lead a similar assault on another fort, the soldier refused. If you want someone to lead a suicidal attack, the yokel told the general – find someone who’s just been robbed.

Horace then cuts away again, this time to a passage of autobiography: He tells us he was raised in Rome, went for further education in Athens, but was caught up in the civil wars and recruited into Brutus’s army (which was based in Greece) and found himself commanding a legion at the Battle of Philippi, where he saw the line break and be massacred, so flung away his shield and ignominiously legged it (as he had already described in ode 2.7. All this is by way of saying that when he finally fetched up back in Rome, discovering his father was dead and his land confiscated, he wangled a minor job in the Treasury and took to writing verses, inspired by ‘Lady Poverty’.

The point of this digression being that Horace is like the soldier who had his wallet stolen. When he was poor, he was highly motivated and turned out verse at speed. But now he is successful and well enough off to suit his needs, like the soldier once he’d made his pile, he doesn’t need to return to the fray.

He takes another tack at justifying the same thing, saying his slowing down in writing poems is due to age. Age strips away all our pleasures, fun, sex, parties and sport. Now it’s denuding him of his ability to write poems.

The poem is turning into a litany of excuses. His next excuse is that, even if Horace did write some new verse, it’s impossible to please everyone: take three guys and the chances are one will like lyric poetry, one iambics and one ‘the tangy wit of Bion’s homilies’. So, what kind of poem should Horace write or avoid?

He then changes tack to make another excuse: How can Florus expect him to write poems while living amid ‘the storms of city life’ in Rome? There are two types of distraction: people, who endlessly demand attention, want him to be their patron, do business with him or are ill and demand visits. The second is the sheer racket: building works, wailing funeral processions, lumbering carts, mad dog barking, how can a man concentrate on writing verse?

He changes the subject again to mock the literary world, full of writers lavishing extravagant praise on each other, and in particular of poets, ‘that hypersensitive species’. He recalls putting up with recitals from terrible poets and replying tactfully. But now he breathes a sigh of relief that that period is over, his work is done, and he doesn’t have to listen to another word.

Too many modern poets praise their own work, regarding each line as sacred. Horace, by contrast, says the true poet is as stern as a censor, cutting any word ‘deficient in lustre or lacking solidity’ or which he deems unworthy of honour. He will revive worthy old words from the time of Cato, which have fallen into disuse and he will adapt new ones, where needed. Thus his work will flow strong and clear like an unpolluted river, enriching the land with his wit and the wealth of his language.

But then, it’s best to abandon verse altogether. It’s a children’s activity. Instead seek the good life:

instead of hunting for words to set to the lyre’s music
to practice setting one’s life to the tune and rhythms of truth.

I don’t fully understand the next 30 lines or so but I think they are a version of Horace’s core moral message, which is that we should be content with what we need and not be greedy, not hanker after unnecessary wealth or luxury.

I shall enjoy what I have and draw on my modest supplies
as needed…

We shouldn’t waste our lives scheming to make money and then splashing it around wastefully. Instead we should:

make the most of the short and beautiful time

What started in a tone of abject apology to Florus for not having kept up his side of the correspondence or sent the poems he promised, has somehow turned right around to become quite a harsh criticism of his friend. Quite rudely, he says possessing a thicker wallet doesn’t appear to have made Florus any the wiser. Florus claims he isn’t a miser, but Horace rather accusingly asks whether he’s banished the other vices, related to miserliness. Is his heart no longer obsessed with futile ambition, or with fear of death? Does he treat dreams and prophecies as the jokes they are, or live in superstitious fear of them? Florus should be improving his mind and morals, living sensibly. In a brutal last few lines, Horace concludes:

If you can’t live as you ought, give way to those that can.

Epistle 3 – The Art of Poetry

Epistle 3 has a special place in literary history as it is clearly quite different in length and ambition from the other epistles and quite early on was extracted and published by itself with the title Ars Poetica or The Art of Poetry.

The epistle is addressed to Horace’s friend Lucius Calpurnius Piso (a Roman senator and consul) and his two sons and forms a long and wide-ranging meditation on the rules and conventions applying not only to the kind of lyric poetry Horace himself wrote, but, above all, to plays.

What struck me most was the structurelessness of it. There’s no introduction or explanation or laying out of the themes. Instead Horace launches right in, in the conversational tone, and rather haphazard structure, of the epistles rather than the academic tone of a treatise.

Horace kicks off by explaining the importance of unity and simplicity by imagining the case of a painter who painted a human head on a horse’s body, a body which was itself covered in feathers and ended in a fish’s tail. How absurd everyone would find that. Well, that’s because an artist should observe decorum and restraint. Don’t just tack beautiful passages about temples or rainbows onto a work if it’s about something else.

Make what you like, provided the thing is a unified whole.

Horace himself tries to be brief and smooth, though he admits often failing at both.

Writers must give thought to what subject and format suits their powers, rather than attempt something they’re incapable of. If you choose a theme within your scope, the rest should follow. It should become obvious what to leave in and what to leave out.

Do not be afraid of simple and obvious words. Often they are best. Invent new words reluctantly. New terms imported from Greek are acceptable if kept to a minimum. Language is like trees. The old leaves (words) wither and fall, to be replaced by new ones. In the long run, our entire civilisation will crumble and fall, so how can we keep our language from changing and evolving?

Usage is king. Usage determines the meaning and validity of words. Use the language the men of your time use.

Horace briefly explains the advent of different metres for the various kinds of poetry: epic, elegiac, dramatic, and lyric.

Everything has its appropriate place and ought to stay there.

So the first job of the poet is to learn about the different genres, their histories, the appropriate subject matter for each, their format in terms of metres, their diction.

But correctness is only the beginning. A poem must be attractive, it must evoke the listener’s emotions. It must match the words to the emotion being portrayed or the audience will burst out laughing.

Follow the tradition regarding well known characters, for example the heroes of the Trojan war or the gods. If you dare to innovate a character, making him or her consistent. ‘You’d be well advised to spin your plays from the songs of Troy’ i.e. rely on tried and trusted characters from legend.

My Roman friends, I urge you:
get hold of your Greek models and study them day and night.

The good writer doesn’t start with bombastic invocations and promises. Chances are you won’t be able to live up to it. The mountains will labour and give birth to a mouse! The good writer hurries the reader into the middle of things (in media res) as though they are quite familiar.

Horace gives an entertaining review of the ages of man, entertaining in that classical sense of pleasingly reiterating obvious clichés and stereotypes. The old man is:

morose and a grumbler, he is always praising the years gone by
when he was a boy, scolding and blaming ‘the youth of today’…

So attribute behaviour and views to characters which are appropriate for their stage and situation in life.

Some actions should be presented onstage, for things seen make much more of an impression than things merely described. However, there are events which shouldn’t be described but must take place offstage and be reported, for example Medea killing her own children or Atreus killing, cooking and serving up his brother’s sons to him at dinner. (Hannibal Lecter has been on my mind and this line reminds me of how modern American culture deliberately, consciously, drives a coach and horses through norms of restraint and decorum.)

He then gives very strict rules about plays. All plays should contain exactly five acts. Do not let a god intervene. You can have a fourth character but they should not speak (thus following very strictly the convention of ancient Greek theatre.) The chorus should take the place of an actor, sing between the acts, but only of subjects which are tightly relevant to the plot. The chorus should side with the good and give them advice, and try to restrain the bad.

Horace gives in to his own stereotype of the ‘grumpy old man’ and laments the good old days and simplicity of Greek drama. Back then the ‘pipe’ then was a simple instrument which performed simple ditties because the theatre was relatively small and not packed, and the audience had ‘honest hearts, decent and modest.’

But victories brought wealth which encouraged (presumably he’s talking solely about Athens here) the Athenians to allow drinking in daytime, allowing greater liberty in tunes and tempos, encouraged actors to dress up in more and more sumptuous costumes and ‘mince’ across the stage, the tunes of the lyre became more complex and the delivery of moral homilies became more complex and obscure.

Horace attributes the word ‘tragedy’ to the Greek tragos, meaning goat, and ‘satire’ to the mythical figure of the half-goat satyr.

In Greek theatre three tragedies were performed in succession, and were followed by a comic to lighten the mood and lead into festival and celebration. This satyric drama was not the same as comedy and had its rules and restraints. Horace warns against having gods or heroes who feature in the tragedies dragged onstage and mocked in the satyr play.

If he ever wrote a satyr drama, it would mix high and low, blending ‘familiar ingredients’. The artifice would be in creating seamless joins, ‘such is the power of linkage and joinery’. But don’t be crude: cultured ‘knights’ i.e. semi-aristocracy, are repelled by jokes from the streets and back alleys.

Horace turns to (briefly) consider specific metres, considering ‘feet’ such as the iamb (da-dum) and the spondee (dum-dum).

Not for long, though because he moves on to give a brisk history of the origin of the dramatic genres. Thespis invented tragedy and was followed by Aeschylus who elaborated it. This was followed by Old Comedy which became, however, too abusive and violent and so had to be reined in by law.

Roman playwrights have copied the Greeks and left nothing untried; they have often been at their best when they’ve departed from Greek models. But their weakness is carelessness. A good work should be like fingernails, trimmed and filed to a perfect shape. Some writings have encouraged writers to believe that the true poet is mad and so they’ve cultivated eccentricity instead of studying.

Horace sees himself as a grindstone which sharpens the steel but takes no part in its creation. Hence this epistle of advice. At bottom, the fundamental basis for writing is Good Moral Sense.

Moral sense is the fountain and source of proper writing.

The Greeks had this. Study Socrates. Be clear on what is due to your country and friends; what is involved in loving a parent, brother or guest; what is the conduct required of a judge or senator; what are the duties of a general. This way you will know the correct sentiments and speech to give to these kinds of characters when you present them. The playwright should look to real life for examples of behaviour and speech.

A play with attractive moral comments and credible characters may work onstage even if it lacks finish and polish and style. The basic subject matter wins assent.

One problem is that, unlike the Greeks, the Romans are a money-grubbing nation, and he gives a little vignette of children being taught their fractions.

The aim of the poet should be to instruct and delight. To do so: keep it brief. Old people in the audience want morals; young dandies appreciate style. To please both, make your work useful and sweet (utile et dulce), blending help and delight.

That said everyone makes mistakes, and he can forgive blots of style in an otherwise good-hearted work. Even Homer nods.

The raison d’etre for a poem is to please the mind. It’s alright to have average lawyers or generals. But a poem, in order to justify its existence, should be as excellent as possible. Therefore, read your works to good critics, to Horace himself if you can, but then…sit on it for 9 years. Then take it out and reread it and edit and trim it coming it to cold and mature.

You can always delete what hasn’t been published; a word let loose is gone forever.

A brisk summary of the founding of civilisation by Orpheus, Amphitryon and so on. The establishment of laws and boundaries. Homer inspired to battle. Song was the medium for oracles. Poems sought a king’s favour, or celebrated the end of a season’s work. Therefore, don’t be ashamed to study the tradition.

Is it a gift or craft which makes good poetry? Both. Olympic athletes train hard for their supremacy. So do musicians. Why is it only poetry where any amateur can put forward shoddy offerings and claim himself to be a genius?

Quite a funny passage describing the rich man surrounded by flatterers who announces he has written some verses, does anyone want to hear them? Of course the flatters jump to attention and turn pale with emotion, weep, or laugh and cheer, as required by the verse. Doesn’t mean it’s any good. Beware of flatterers.

He remembers how honest his friend Quinctilius was. If you read him your verses he’d honestly tell you  which bits to amend. If you swore you’d tried already, he’d recommend you go back to the drawing board and try to express it some other way. An honest friend honestly points out your errors and so saves you from being laughed at if you publish rubbish.

After all this description of sense and hard work and clarity of thought, Horace ends, very incongruously, with 20 or so lines describing the ‘madness’ of the poet, who wanders the fields, head in the air, reciting his lines, and if he happens to fall into a deep well, who’s to say he didn’t do so on purpose! Consider Empedocles, so irrational he threw himself into the volcano of Mount Etna.

So why is a wretched poet condemned to write poetry? Is it punishment for some gross act of sacrilege like ‘pissing on his father’s ashes’. Did he profane a holy place?

All this seemed very out of place with Horace’s usual calm, even tone, and I began to suspect it was comic hyperbole, when, in the last few lines, he claims that a poet is like a wild bear which has smashed the bars of its cage and scattered everyone, cultured or not, by the threat of reciting. The wild poet threatens to grab anyone who comes within reach, in a fatal bear hug, and then read them to death!

Yes. I think this entire final passage is intended to be ironic, a satire on the popular stereotype of the poet – which is completely unlike the careful, studious, hard-working figure the preceding 450 lines had gone to such lengths to describe.


Credit

Niall Rudd’s translation of the Epistles of Horace was published by Penguin books in 1979. All references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The Epistles of Horace: Book 1

In a world torn by hope and worry, dread and anger,
imagine every day that dawns is the last you’ll see;
the hour you never hoped for will prove a happy surprise.
(Epistle 4)

As to the genre of ‘epistles, according to translator Niall Rudd in his introduction, one of the earliest examples of an epistle as a literary form is a fragment of an epistle by Lucilius (180 to 103; the founder of the genre of satire, none of whose works have survived complete) complaining to a friend who had failed to visit him when he was sick. And it appears from other references that Lucilius had given some thought to the place of ‘the epistle’ in literature. But the idea of composing a whole book of verse epistles was completely novel and apparently invented by the ancient Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (usually referred to in English as Horace).

Horace wrote two books of epistles, which take their place in his oeuvre thus:

Book 1 contains 20 epistles. Book 2 contains just 2 (long ones), followed by the 476-line epistle universally referred to the Ars Poetica or Art of Poetry.

Horatian urbanity

The epistles are characteristically Horatian in the way they are addressed to the same kind of circle of friends as the odes and reflect on similar themes of: friendship, the nature of civilised behaviour and how to achieve true happiness (adopt the golden mean; leave the stressful city for the relaxed countryside; don’t hanker after wealth and luxury; be content with the simple things of life, like wine and the company of good friends).

What is an epistle?

The English word ‘epistle’ comes direct from the Latin word epistola which means ‘a letter’, itself derived from the Greek epistole meaning ‘message, letter, command, commission, whether verbal or in writing’.

Were Horace’s ‘epistles’ actual letters, written to people, sent and expecting a reply? Critics debate this question to this day. Some of the epistles contain specific questions to the addressee and explicitly expect a reply (for example, Epistle 3 to Julius Florus posted to Tiberius’s army). Others are more like moral essays, addressed to an individual but which make general points about life i.e. not letters in our sense (Epistle 2 to Lollius Maximus). The shortest one really feels like a note to a friend (Epistle 4, 16 lines). Either way, there’s no doubt they are the result of much art and effort; no-one ‘dashes off’ a 300-line poem in finely judged hexameters on the spur of the moment.

One other thing that’s so obvious no-one comments on it, but in a standard letter the author indicates their identity. In English we used to write ‘Your sincerely’, ‘Kind regards’ or similar. There’s nothing like that here. The text of each epistle just ends.

Wikipedia has a handy one-line summary of each of the epistles, which I found very useful to consult before reading each one, and so get a quick grasp of the general purpose and shape of each of the poems.

Age-appropriate genres

Rudd mentions a twelfth century scholar who suggested that Horace wrote his four major types of poetry for four different age groups: the odes for boys, the Ars Poetica for young men, the satires for mature men, and the epistles for old and complete men.

This doesn’t reflect modern scholarly opinion about when the different types were published, but contains a big grain of truth. The odes feel very active and exuberant; the Ars Poetica is a useful vade mecum for poets just starting out; the satires are for men of business and affairs; the epistles are for men heading into old age, who are past life’s storms and stresses and able to look back and reflect on their own and other people’s behaviour.

‘Morality is obvious’

In some ways Horace’s epistles continue the form of the satires, but the epistles are more philosophic, more ethical and meditative. For me the most obvious difference is that many of the satires were in dialogue form, like mini plays; whereas the epistles are more often monologues (although several of them include the imagined dialogue of critics or opponents, and some of them morph into anecdotes which features the dialogue of the characters involved).

As so often when classic poets or writers give life advice, Horace’s lessons are often obvious and a bit boring. In Epistle 1 (to Maecenas) Horace tells us that Virtue’s first rule is ‘avoid vice’ and Wisdom’s first rule is ‘get rid of folly’. Not exactly ground-breaking information stuff, is it? In Epistle 2 (to Lollius Maximus) he says:

  • despise pleasure – often the price of the resulting pain outweighs it (drunkenness leads to illness, promiscuous sex leads to disease)
  • the greedy are never content, always wanting more
  • envious people are driven mad by wanting what everyone else has
  • unrestrained anger drives people away and makes them hate you

So don’t overdo it. Moderation in all things. Train yourself to be happy with what you’ve got.

Maybe this is as useful as moral writing can get. Maybe reflecting on these suggestions for the half hour or so it takes to read each poem does make readers stop and think a bit about their own attitudes and behaviour. Maybe they have had a beneficial effect on people’s lives. But it’s difficult to know how you’d go about measuring this.

I’m tempted to say, though, that the interest isn’t in the moral lessons, which are a bit samey and a bit obvious, it’s in two other things. One is the incidental social history which the epistles are full of, descriptions of the habits and behaviour of the rich and boastful of his day, of the poor in their crappy slums, tips on how to be the client of a rich patron, how to approach Augustus so as not to irritate him and so on – a mosaic of snapshots of Roman society.

Second, and a bit deeper, is the psychology of the thinking about the moral lessons. The lessons themselves, when bluntly stated, are a bit trite. But when he reflects on his own attitudes to them, how he’s come to these conclusions, how he tries to apply them in his own life – then the lessons come a bit more to life, they are dramatised. If the ostensible lessons are mostly a bit obvious, the text and texture and presentation are often interesting and genuinely entertaining.

Addressees

In my review of Horace’s Odes I remarked that the sheer number of people Horace addresses in them creates a sense of a sociable, civilised society. Same here, along with endearingly casual references to the ordinary humdrum concerns of him and his friends. Not great affairs of state or business deals or law cases, but who’s going to whose dinner party, who’s falling in or out of love, impressions of famous tourist attractions, what the weather’s like on the coast this time of year, the changing scenery around his farm (1.16) and so on. Tittle tattle. Gossip. Thoughts.

The poems are addressed to:

  • Maecenas, Horace’s patron (1.1, 1.7, 1.19)
  • Lollius Maximus, served under Augustus in Spain (1.2, 1.18)
  • Julius Florus, a young aristocrat who wrote satires (1.3)
  • Albius Tibullus, the poet famous for his elegies (1.4)
  • Manlius Torquatus, an aristocrat (1.5)
  • Numicius (unknown) (1.6)
  • Celsus Albinovanus, serving on Tiberius’s staff in Asia (1.8)
  • Tiberius, future emperor, recommending a friend (1.9)
  • Aristius Fuscus, friend (1.10)
  • Bullatius (unknown) (1.11)
  • Iccius, steward of Agrippa’s property in Sicily (1.12)
  • Vinius Asina, a centurion in Augustus’s praetorian guard (1.13)
  • the unnamed bailiff of his country property, written to when Horace is in Rome on business (1.14)
  • Numonius Vala (1.15)
  • Quinctius Hirpinus (1.16)
  • Scaeva (1.17)

But just listing the addressees doesn’t convey their sociable quality. The poems address named individuals, as above, but often refer to other people as well, male or female, sometimes to mutual friends, sometimes to the rich and grand, sometimes to figures from Roman history (all Roman writers were obsessed with figures from their history), to figures from myth and legend (that bloody Trojan War!), and sometimes contain anecdotes like the extended story about the lawyer Philippus who persuaded the auctioneer Volteius Mena to change professions and become a farmer ((1.7). The epistles are inclusive, chatty, populous. From one perspective, the pleasure of Horace’s poems is the pleasure of gossip.

Themes

Since Wikipedia and umpteen other websites give epistle-by-epistle commentaries, I’ll look instead at recurring themes.

Maturity

Born in 65 BC, Horace was about 44 when the first book was published. He says his age and keenness are not what they were. He feels like an old horse which has had its best days. Time to get a bit serious:

Now I am laying aside my verses and other amusements.
My sole concern is the question ‘What is right and proper?’

Certainty instead of change

Everyone has an opinion, and even people with well-worked out opinions change them from time to time. The great flux of dinner party chat and commentating. Instead of this endless flux, Horace wants certitude.

Be content with what you have

…Avoid what’s big. In a humble house
you can beat kings and the friends of kings in the race for life….
If you’re happy with the deal you’ve received, you’ll live wisely. (1.10)

Whatever lucky hour heaven has offered you, take it
gratefully (1.11)

The retired life

Small things for the small. It isn’t royal Rome
that attracts me now, but quiet Tibur or peaceful Tarentum. (1.2)

Country over city

If we are supposed to live in accordance with nature,
and we have to start by choosing a site to build a house on,
can you think of any place to beat the glorious country?

In any case, do what you will, you can’t fight the deep slow force of nature.

Expel nature with a fork; she’ll keep on trotting back.
Relax – and she’ll break triumphantly through your silly refinements. (1.10)

In praise of wine

Think of the wonders uncorked by wine! It opens secrets,
gives heart to our hopes, pushes the cowardly into battle,
lifts the load from anxious minds, and evokes talents.
Thanks to the bottle’s promptings no-one is lost for words,
no one who’s cramped by poverty fails to find release.
(Epistle 5)

The first half of 1.19 jokingly claims that all the best poets were drunks.

Sex and slavery

Maybe I’m overdoing it, maybe it’s a personal obsession; I wonder because so few of the translators and writers of introductions mention it, but – this was a slave society. A society built on slavery. Slaves were worked to death in the gold and silver mines to produce the fancy trinkets which Catullus and Horace mock. Slaves by the hundreds of thousands worked the huge estates which produced the food to feed the empire.

Horace writes repeatedly about his lovely little farm, the Sabine farm, the lovely scenery around it and so on. (Scholars and historians refer to it as the Sabine farm because he tells us, in Epistle 1.10, that his villa was next to the sanctuary of the Sabine goddess, Vacuna.) He describes it with such affection that it is easy to join his affectionate tone. But it was run by slaves, 8 slaves, slaves he called ‘boy’. Slaves who I know, from umpteen other sources, were not only bought and sold, but could be whipped or subject to any other form of punishment at the whim of the owner.

If a slave’s testimony was required in a trial, it had to be extracted under torture. Quite trivial offences could be punished by having your legs broken, or being crucified. Plautus’s plays are full of slave characters nervously worrying about being crucified if their master’s scams and tricks are revealed.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m eccentric, but the knowledge that the lovely lifestyle praised in all these poems was based on the sweat and punishment of hundreds of thousands of slaves brings me up short. Makes me shiver with horror.

Epistle 1.18 is quite a long set of advice to Lollius Maximus on how to behave well if you are the client of a rich patron. There’s loads of points of etiquette or correct behaviour you have to look out for. Immediately after telling him to be careful what he says, and who to, because tactless remarks are always passed on, he comes to this bit of advice:

Don’t let any maid or lad arouse your desires
within the marble hall of the friend you hope to impress.
The owner may give you the pretty boy or the darling girl
(and add nothing of substance!) or cause you pain by refusing.

Hang on. ‘The owner may give you the pretty boy or the darling girl…’ As if you said, ‘Oh I like that vase’ and the rich blasé owner said, ‘Well, have it’, in the same spirit you might say, ‘Your wine girl is very sexy’ and the rich blasé owner would just say, ‘Well, you can have her.’ The girl gets no say. She is a slave. So is the boy you fancy. Either of them are just handed over to you for your sexual pleasure.

All this is said in passing because Horace is concerned about the problems of etiquette which arise if you let one of your patron’s slaves arouse you. The fact of a human being being treated as an object by everyone, including (apparently) the translator, goes unremarked. But I remark it. And I can’t help finding it disgusting.

Bookishness

In 1.18 Horace utters a little prayer, which includes the line ‘May I have a decent supply of books and enough food for the year’. In 1.2 he instructs Lollius Maximus to send for a book and a lamp before daylight and study noble aims. In 1.7 he tells Maecenas he plans to go down to the seaside and ‘take it easy, curled up with a book’. Epistle 13 entirely consists of instructions to Vinius Asina about delivering a copy of his odes to Augustus. Epistle 3 enquires about the literary activities of a bunch of young writers who are officers with Tiberius’s army.

These and other references add a layer of bookishness the general air of civilised chat and banter. But I couldn’t help starting to detect in them what I understand is called ‘the Liberal Fallacy’, which is the belief that, if only people – the population in general – were more bookish, and read the right sort of books, and read them in the right sort of spirit, well…the world would be a much better place.

A decade ago I read an article in the Guardian by a nice middle-class white man which overflowed with empathy for black people and women, with sensitive support for #metoo and Black Lives Matter. What made it Peak Guardian was that at the end of the article he included a reading list. The article wasn’t about a particular subject and so the reading list wasn’t addressing a particular topic: it was a reading list to help the article’s readers become like the author, sharing, caring and inclusive. I wish I’d bookmarked it because it perfectly embodied this belief: If only everyone were bookish like me, what a wonderful world it would be.

The two obvious flaws with this view are that:

  1. Most people don’t read, certainly not books. Huge numbers of working class people struggle to read or have a low reading age, or aren’t interested; and I’ve met many highly educated professional people who have the smarts to read, but are simply too busy: one or two thrillers on their annual holiday and that’s their lot. So an outbreak of mass reading is never going to happen.
  2. Anyway, reading doesn’t make you a better person, in fact excess study can reinforce evil behaviour, vide the very intelligent and well-read Lenin, Trotsky, and any number of revolutionaries. Pol Pot was educated at some of Cambodia’s most elite schools and worked as a teacher. Mao went to university, worked for a while as the university librarian, was an intellectual, wrote numerous books. Bookishness, by itself, means nothing.

Obviously book learning was nowhere near as poisonous in Horace’s day as it had become 2,000 years later, and curling up with a good book is still a fabulous thing to do, I do it all the time. But believing that reading makes you a better person or that if only more people read books, the world would be a better place are both absurd contentions. It would be lovely, but…

Leave your cares

Ultimately Horace has three messages:

  1. Stop worrying, be happy.
  2. Learn to be content with what you have.
  3. Enjoy the simple and good things in life while you can.

They’re summed up in Epistle 5 where he tells Manlius Torquatus to leave Rome. Leave the city. Stop worrying about politics and ambition and money. Forget about your wretched law case. Stop worrying about the ‘threat’ from the Parthians or the Cantabrians or whoever. Come down to my place in the country. I’ve got some good wine stored up and I’ve invited all our friends. We’re going to drink our fill and stay up late into the night laughing and joking. Who knows what the future holds. Stop worrying about it because you can’t do anything about it. This is what life is about. Wine and good company. As he tells Albius in Epistle 4: ‘Come and see me when you want a laugh.’

It is a hugely attractive and sane worldview.


Credit

Niall Rudd’s translation of the Epistles of Horace was published by Penguin books in 1979. All references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The odes of Horace

The gods watch over me; a heart
That’s reverent and the poets art
Please them.
(Horace Book 1, ode 17, in James Michie’s translation)

Come, learn this air
And sing it to delight me.
A good song can repair
The ravages inflicted by black care.
(Book 4, ode 11)

Horace’s works

Scholars broadly agree the following dates for Horace’s body of poetry:

Horace’s odes

Horace published 104 odes. They are divided into 4 books. He published the first 3 books of odes in 23 BC, containing 88 carmina or songs. He prided himself on the skill with which he adapted a wide variety of Greek metres to suit Latin, which is a more concise, pithy and sententious language than Greek.

I shall be renowned
As one who, poor-born, rose and pioneered
A way to fit Greek rhythms to our tongue… (3.30)

Horace aimed to create interest by varying the metre as much as possible, using over a dozen different verse formats. He was particularly indebted to metres associated with two Greek poets, Alcaeus and Sappho. Of the 104 odes, 37 are in Alcaics and 26 in Sapphics i.e. over half.

The precise definition of these forms is highly technical, so I refer you to the Wikipedia articles for Alcaics and Sapphics.

Despite all this skillful adaptation, the odes were not greeted with the acclaim Horace hoped for, which may explain why he seems to have abandoned ode writing and returned to the hexameters in which he had written the satires. Using this he now proceeded to write two books of epistles, ‘elegant and witty reflections on literature and morality,’ according to James Michie, which scholars think were published in 20 and 12 BC, respectively.

In 17 BC Augustus commissioned Horace to write an ode to be sung at the start of the Secular Games which he had reinstated as part of his policy of reviving traditional Roman festivals, customs and religious ceremonies. Soon afterwards, Augustus asked Horace to write odes on the military victories of his grandsons Drusus and Tiberius. Whether these commissions renewed an interest in the form or spurred him to assemble works he’d been writing in the interim we don’t know but in about 11 BC Horace published his fourth, final and shortest book of odes, containing just 15 poems.

What is an ode?

The following is adapted from the Wikipedia definition:

An ode (from Ancient Greek: ᾠδή, romanized: ōdḗ) is a sub-type of lyrical poem. An ode generally praises or glorifies an event or individual. Whereas a pure lyric uses impassioned and emotional language, and a satire uses harsh and demotic language, an ode – insofar as it is an address to a named individual, whether friend, emperor or god – generally has a dignified and sincere tone (although part of Horace’s practice was experimenting with and varying that tone).

Greek odes were originally poetic pieces performed with musical accompaniment. As time passed they gradually became known as personal lyrical compositions whether sung (with or without musical instruments) or merely recited (always with accompaniment). The primary instruments used were the aulos and the lyre. There are three typical forms of odes: the Pindaric, Horatian, and irregular.

  • The typical Pindaric ode was structured into three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. However, Horace’s odes do not follow this pattern.
  • Horatian odes do not have the three-part structure of Pindaric odes. They tend to be written as continuous blocks of verse, or, more often, are divided into four-line stanzas. It’s in this division into neat 4-line stanzas that they most imitate Greek lyricists such as Alcaeus and Anacreon.
  • Irregular odes use rhyme but not the three-part form of the Pindaric ode, nor the two- or four-line stanza of the Horatian ode.

An ode is short. I’ve recently read the Eclogues of Virgil which are fairly long and the Georgics which felt very long: Horace’s odes are the opposite. Some are as short as 8 lines, for example book 1 ode 30 and 4.10.

Subject matter

Horace was praised by critics for not just adapting the Greek forms of Alcaeus and Sappho to Latin, but filling them with details of the social life of Rome in the age of Augustus. He broadened the subject matter to cover a much wider range of subjects including love and jealousy, friendship and mourning, hymns to various gods, addresses to the all-powerful emperor Augustus, reflections on mortality, promotion of the golden mean and patriotic criticism of excess luxury and calls for society to return to the sterner, abstemious values of their Roman ancestors. There are several poems consisting entirely of eulogy to Augustus, describing him as a blessing to the nation, the only man who could bring peace and wishing him success in his military campaigns in the East. I enjoy John Dryden’s description of Horace as “a well-mannered court slave”. It doesn’t feel that when you read all his other poems, but when you read the Augustus ones, you immediately get what Dryden was saying. The word ‘poet’ is only one letter away from ‘pet’.

Underlying all the poems, and appearing them as either passing references or the central subject, are two ‘philosophical’ themes: the uncertainty and transience of life, and the need to observe moderation in all things, what Aristotle had defined as ‘the golden mean’ between extremes:

All who love safety make their prize
The golden mean and hate extremes… (2.10)

James Michie

Greek and Latin poets did not use rhyme to structure their poetry, they used the counting of syllables in each line according to a variety of patterns established by various ancient Greek poets and copied and adapted by the Romans.

English poets by contrast, since the Middle Ages, use beats or emphasis instead of counting syllables, and have used rhyme. Not exclusively, witness the reams of blank verse used in the dramas of Shakespeare and his contemporaries or in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but certainly in short lyrics and Horace’s odes are short lyrics. All 104 of Horace’s odes fit onto just 114 pages of English verse.

This explains the decision of James Michie, translator of the 1964 Penguin paperback edition of the complete odes of Horace, to cast them into predominantly rhymed verse.

The Penguin edition is interesting and/or useful because it features the Latin on one page, with Michie’s English translation on the page opposite. I did Latin GCSE and so, with a bit of effort, can correlate the English words to the original Latin phrases, though I don’t have anything like enough Latin to appreciate Horace’s style.

Book 1 is the longest, containing 38 odes. Book 2 has 20. Book 3 has 30, and the final, short one, book 4, has 15.

Themes

Direct address to gods

Any summary of Horace as the poet of friendship and conviviality has to take account that about one in six of the poems are straight religious hymns to named deities. Michie’s (admirably brief) introduction explains that the poems give no evidence about how sincerely Horace felt these religious sentiments. Probably he was religious in the same way most educated Romans of his time were, as Cicero was: viewing religion and the old festivals and ceremonies as important for the social cohesion of Rome.

In this view the correct ceremonies had to be carried out on the correct occasions to the correct deities in order to ensure the state’s security and future. Whether an individual ‘believed’ in the gods or not was irrelevant: correct action was all. The importance of internal, psychological ‘belief’ only became an issue with the slow arrival of Christianity well over a hundred years later. In the meantime, correct invocations of the gods could be seen as part of civic and patriotic duty, especially for Augustus, who in so many ways tried to restore the old ceremonies, rites and festivals of Republican Rome.

1.10 To Mercury

You are the one my poem sings –
The lyre’s inventor; he who brings
Heaven’s messages; the witty
Adventurer who takes delight
In slyly stowing out of sight
Anything he finds pretty.

1.21 To Diana

Virgin maidens, praise Diana.
Young men, sing a like hosanna

1.30 Prayer to Venus

O Queen of Cnidos, Paphos,
Come, leave, though dearly thine,
Cyprus; for here’s thick incense,
And Glycera calls divine
Venus to her new shrine.

1.31 Prayer to Apollo

What boon, Apollo, what does the poet as
He pours the new wine out of the bowl at your
New shrine request?

Incidentally, note the slight complexity of this long sentence. It took me a few readings to realise it is:

What boon, Apollo, what does the poet (as
He pours the new wine out of the bowl at your
New shrine) request?

We’ll come back to this issue, the sometimes grammatically challenging nature of Michie’s translation.

1.35 Hymn to Fortuna

O goddess ruling over favoured Antium,
With power to raise our perishable bodies
From low degree or turn
The pomp of triumph into funeral,

Thee the poor farmer with his worried prayer
Propitiates…

To women

The poems of heterosexual men are often about difficulties with relationships. Horace has poems directly addressing women, lovers, more often ex-lovers; or addressing women who are messing with his friends’ emotions; or poems to male friends offering advice about their relationships with women. I can see how a feminist critic might object to Horace’s basic stance and to much of the detail of what he says. For me the main effect is to create a sense of the extended social circle the poet inhabits.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key. (2.1)

Horace plays at being jealous, while never achieving the emotional intensity of Catullus. And this is because his ‘love’ poems, such as 1.13, often turn out to be really promoting his philosophy of life, namely moderation in all things, wine, women, politics and poetry.

1.13 To Lydia

Happy are they alone whom affections hold
Inseparable united; those who stay
Friends without quarrels, and who cannot be torn away
From each other’s arms until their dying day.

1.16 is addressed to an unnamed women who he has, apparently, infuriated by writing a witty lampoon about her. Horace apologises unreservedly for upsetting her. But the poem is really about the emotion of anger, how ruinous it is for individuals and nations, how it must be avoided at all costs. Moments like this accumulate to make you suspect that even Horace’s most ‘passionate’ poems are clever artifice. It is hard to imagine the poet who promoted moderation and sensible restraint at every opportunity ever losing his head over anyone, no matter how he poses.

1.19 The Poet’s Love for Glycera

The Mother of the Loves, unkindly
Goddess, and Semele’s son combine
With wild abandon to remind me
That though I had thought desire
Dead, it still burns. The fire

Is Glycera.

1.23 To Chloe

This is such fun I’ll quote it in its entirety. Whether it reflects any real situation, I doubt. It feels more like a witty exercise, in the manner of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. To understand it you need to realise the first line means ‘Chloe, why won’t you venture near ME’, but Michie cannot quite say that in order to preserve his tight rhyme scheme. And to know that ‘dam’ is an archaic poetic word for ‘mother’. So that the majority of the poem is treating this young woman, Chloe, as if she is as timorous and scared as Bambi.

Chloe, you will not venture near,
Just like a lost young mountain deer
Seeking her frantic dam; for her each
Gust in the trees is a needless fear.

Whether the spring-announcing breeze
Shudders the light leaves or she sees
The brambles twitched by a green lizard,
Panic sets racing her heart and knees.

Am I a fierce Gaetulian
Lion or some tiger with a plan
To seize and maul you? Come, now, leave your
Mother: you’re ready to know a man.

So, in fact, this middle-aged man is preparing ‘to seize and maul’ this timorous young woman. If we attribute the speaking voice to 40-something Horace, it is inappropriate. But if it is a song to be sung by any young man, less so.

Here he is gently mocking a friend (in fact a fellow poet, Tibullus) because his girlfriend’s dumped him:

Tibullus, give up this extravagant grieving
For a sweetheart turned sour. ‘Why was she deceiving?’
You ask, and then whimper long elegies on
The theme of the older man being outshone… (1.33)

In praise of booze

Horace is surprisingly insistent on the blessings of wine and the vine, with a number of poems recommending it as the appropriate accompaniment to all sorts of situations, from cheering up a doleful lover to consoling a parent for the loss of a child, celebrating an old friend having his citizenship restored or safely returned from a long journey (1.36), or just a way to forget sorrows and anxieties and be sociable (2.11). In ancient Rome wine was never drunk neat, but always diluted with water:

Come, boy, look sharp. Let the healths rip!
To midnight! The new moon! The augurship
Of our Murena! Mix the bowls – diluted
With three or nine parts wine: tastes must be suited.
The poet, who loves the Muses’ number, nine,
Inspired, demands that measure of pure wine. (3.19)

Above all wine was shared. In ancient Rome wine was drunk in social situations, among friends and with slaves to open the bottles and mix them correctly. In Horace’s day, men who got together to hold a convivial evening elected one of their number ‘president’ by rolling dice to see who got the highest score, and the president then selected which wines were to be drunk, in which order, to command the slaves, and institute topics of conversation or games.

Who’ll win the right to be
Lord of the revelry
By dicing highest? (2.7)

In other words, ‘wine’ symbolises not just a drink but a much deeper concept of sociability and conviviality. And importantly, this sociability was the cure for anxiety, depression and grief. So ‘wine’ isn’t at all about seeking intoxication or oblivion; quite the opposite: ‘wine’ symbolises the moderation and sociable common sense which Horace is always promoting. Even when he appears to be promoting booze, it’s really this idea he’s promoting.

Let Damalis, the girl we crown
Champion drinker, be put down
By Bassus at the game of sinking
A whole cup without breath or blinking. (1.36)

And, as with almost all aspects of Roman life, there was a ‘religious’ aspect in the sense that the Romans thanked the gods for all their blessings (just as they attributed all disasters to the malign influence of Fortune). It was ‘fitting’ to thank the gods, and often this was done with ‘libations’ i.e. pouring part of each bottle of wine onto the ground as an offering to the gods, as thanks for blessings received, as hope for blessings continued.

Pay Jove his feast, then. In my laurel’s shade
Stretch out the bones that long campaigns have made
Weary. Your wine’s been waiting
For years: no hesitating! (2.7)

In the following extract the ‘fast-greying tops’ means the greying heads of hair of Horace and his friend, Quinctilius, who he’s trying to persuade to stop being so anxious about life.

Futurity is infinite:
Why tax the brain with plans for it?
Better by this tall plane or pine
To sprawl and while we may, drink wine
And grace with Syrian balsam drops
And roses these fast-greying tops.
Bacchus shoos off the wolves of worry. (2.11)

1.11 carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero

Horace’s attitude overlaps with the modern notion of mindfulness. According to this website, ‘Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. As he tells Maecenas:

Be a plain citizen for once – you fret
Too much about the people’s sufferings.
Relax. Take what the hour gives, gladly. Let
Others attend the graver side of things. (3.8)

The shame of recent Roman history i.e. the civil wars

This attitude is not bourgeois complacency (‘Hey slave, bring us more booze!’). Well, OK, it is – but it is given more bite by the historical background. Rome had just emerged from about 13 years of civil war (Antony and Octavian against Caesar’s assassins) or a very uneasy peace leading to another civil war (Octavian against Antony). Unlike most bourgeois Horace had led a legion in a major battle (Philippi), seen men hacked to pieces around him, and seen his cause completely crushed. What good had the assassination of Julius Caesar and then Brutus and Cassius’s war against Octavian and Antony achieved? Nothing. Absolutely nothing except tens of thousands of Roman dead and devastation of entire provinces.

And he refers to it repeatedly, the utter pointlessness and futility of war.

Alas, the shameful past – our scars, our crimes, our
Fratricides! This hardened generation
Has winced at nothing, left
No horror unexplored… (1.35)

Our fields are rich with Roman
Dead and not one lacks graves to speak against our
Impious battles. Even
Parthia can hear the ruin of the West. (2.1)

So Horace’s is not the complacent attitude of a pampered aristocrat who has never known trouble, but of a self-made man who has seen a whole lot of trouble and therefore knows the true value of peace. Although he wears it lightly, it is a hard-won philosophy. And he refers to it, repeatedly.

Greek mythology

Horace is so identified in my mind with Rome, with Augustus, with the golden age of Roman literature, that it comes as a shock to see just how much of the subject matter is Greek. Take 1.15 which is a dramatic address to Paris as he abducts Helen by the sea goddess Nereus, foreseeing the long siege and destruction of Troy. 2.4 is about inappropriate love but stuffed with examples from Troy. But all of the poems contain references to Greek mythology and require a good working knowledge of its complex family trees: just who is son of Latona, who is Semele’s son? Who are:

Yet how could mighty Mimas or Typhoeus
Or Rhoetus or Porphyrion for all hid
Colossal rage or fierce
Enceladus who tore up trees for darts

Succeed? (3.4)

Or take the long poem 3.27 which contains a rather moving soliloquy by the maid Europa who, in a fit of madness, let herself be raped by a bull, a sophisticated poem full of unexpected compassion for the miserable young woman who is, of course, Jupiter in disguise. The poem contains a twist in the tail, for Venus has been standing by all through the girl’s frantic speech, enjoying the scene with that detached cruelty typical of the gods and only at the end reveals the bull in question was none other than Jupiter in disguise, hence explaining the girl’s powerlessness to resist.

False modesty

That said, there is another repeated trope which, as it were, modifies the Hellenic influence and this is Horace’s stock protestations that his muse and lyre and skill aren’t up to epic or serious verse, are instead designed for more homely, lowly subject matter. He turns this into a joke on a couple of occasions when he’s getting carried away invoking the Mighty Warriors of the Trojan War and suddenly realises what he’s doing, back pedals and dials it down.

Where are you rambling, Muse? This theme’s beyond your
Light-hearted lyre. End now. Absurd presumption
To tell tales of the gods
And mar high matters with your reedy voice! (3.3)

Maybe 1.6 is the best expression of this repeated trope of inadequacy. To understand it you need to know that Varius is a rival Roman poet, famous for his high-flown tragedies, and that the poem is directly addressed to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the Roman general who Augustus relied on to win his battles.

That eagle of Homeric wing,
Varius, will in due course sing
Your courage and your conquests, every deed
Of daring that our forces,
Riding on ships or horses
Accomplish with Agrippa in the lead.

But I’m not strong enough to try
Such epic flights. For themes as high
As iron Achilles in his savage pique,
Crafty Ulysses homing
After long ocean-roaming,
Or Pelops’ house of blood, my wings feel weak.

And both my modesty and my Muse,
Who tunes her lyre to peace, refuse
To let her tarnish in the laureate’s part
Our glorious Augustus’
Or your own battle-lustres
With my imperfect and unpolished art…

Feasts, and the war where girls’ trimmed nails
Scratch fiercely at besieging males –
These are the subjects that appeal to me,
Flippant, as is my fashion,
Whether the flame of passion
Has scorched me or has left me fancy-free.

As usual, the translation is fluent and clever, but I stumbled over the grammar of ‘Augustus” and it took me a few goes to realise he’s saying ‘my muse refuses to tarnish either Augustus’s, or your, battle-lustres’. Maybe you got it first time, but at quite a few places, Michie’s ingenuity in rhyming results in phrases which made me stumble. Anyway, here is Horace again, protesting the modesty of his poetic aims and means:

The history of the long Numantian war;
Iron Hannibal; the sea incarnadined
Off Sicily with Carthaginian gore;
Wild Lapiths fighting blind-

Drunk Centaurs; or the Giants who made the bright
Halls of old Saturn reel till Hercules
Tame them – you’d find my gentle lyre too slight
An instrument for these

Magnificent themes, Maecenas… (2.12)

Friends

The majority of the poems address a named individual, buttonholing and badgering them, and the number of these addressed poems, added to the variety of subject matter, creates a sense of great sociability, of a buzzing circle of friends. Horace comes over as a very sociable man with a word of advice for all his many friends, something which really struck me in the run of poems at the start of book 2:

Sallustius Crispus, you’re no friend of metal
Unless it’s made to gleam with healthy motion… (2.2)

Maintain and unmoved poise in adversity;
Likewise in luck, one free of extravagant
Joy. Bear in mind my admonition,
Dellius… (2.3)

Dear Phocian Xanthias, don’t feel ashamed
Of loving a servant… (2.4)

Septimius, my beloved friend,
Who’d go with me to the world’s end… (2.6)

Pompeius, chief of all my friends, with whom
I often ventured to the edge of doom
When Brutus led our line… (2.7)

Barine, if for perjured truth
Some punishment had ever hurt you –
One blemished nail or blackened tooth –
I might believe this show of virtue… (2.7)

The clouds disgorge a flood
Of rain; fields are churned mud;
The Caspian seas
Are persecuted by the pouncing blasts;
But, Valgius, my friend, no weather lasts
For ever… (2.9)

Licinius, to live wisely shun
The deep sea; on the other hand,
Straining to dodge the storm don’t run
Too close in to the jagged land… (2.10)

‘Is warlike Spain hatching a plot?’
You ask me anxiously. ‘And what
Of Scythia?’ My dear Quinctius
There’s a whole ocean guarding us.
Stop fretting… (2.11)

Male friends he addresses poems to include: Maecenas his patron and ‘inseperable friend’ (2.17), Virgil, Sestius, Plancus, Thaliarchus, Leuconoe, Tyndaris, Aristius Fuscus, Megilla of Opus, Iccius, Tibullus, Plotius Numida, Asinius Pollio, Sallustius Crispus, Quintus Dellius, Xanthias Phoceus, Septimius, Pompeius Varus, C. Valgius Rufus, Lucius Licinius Murena, Quinctius Hirpinus, Postumus, Aelius Lama, Telephus, Phidyle, Ligurinus, Julus, Torquatus, Caius Marcius Censorinus and Lollius.

The women he addresses include: Pyrrha, Lydia (who appears in 4 poems 1.8, 1.13, 1.25, 3.9), the unnamed lady of 1.16, Glycera (twice 1.19, 1.30, 1.33), Chloe, Barine, Asterie, Lyce, Chloris, Galatea and Phyllis.

All go to create the sense of a thriving active social life, an extended circle of friends and acquaintances which is very…urbane. Civilised, indulgent, luxurious:

Boy, fetch me wreaths, bring perfume, pour
Wine from a jar that can recall
Memories of the Marsian war… (3.14)

The predominant tone is of friendship and fondness and frank advice:

Then go, my Galatea, and, wherever
You choose, live happily… (3.27)

But the reader is left to wonder whether any of these people (apart from Maecenas and Virgil, and maybe one or two others) ever actually existed, or whether they are characters in the play of his imaginarium.

The simple life

Again and again Horace contrasts the anxious life of high officials in Rome with the simplicity of life on his farm out in the country, and the even simpler pleasures of life the peasants who live on it. The theme is elaborated at greatest length in one of the longest poems, 3.29, where Horace invites careworn Maecenas to come and stay on his farm, yet another excuse to repeat his injunction to Live in the Present, for nobody knows what the future holds.

Call him happy
And master of his own soul who every evening
Can say, ‘Today I have lived…’

Homosexuality

As long as a Roman citizen of the upper class married, sired male children and performed his religious and family duties, the details of his sexuality weren’t important, or might have prompted waspish gossip, but weren’t illegal. Homosexuality isn’t as prominent in Horace’s poetry as it is in Virgil’s, but it’s here as part of his urbane mockery of his own love life and one poem in particular, 4.1, is a passionate and surprisingly moving poem of unrequited love for a youth named Ligurinus.

Why then,
My Ligurinus, why
Should the reluctant-flowing tears surprise these dry
Cheeks, and my fluent tongue
Stumble in unbecoming silences among
Syllable? In dreams at night
I hold you in my arms, or toil behind your flight
Across the Martian Field,
Or chase through yielding waves the boy who will not yield.

This Ligurinus is (apparently) a pre-pubescent boy because another entire poem, 4.10, is devoted to him, pointing out that one day soon he’ll sprout a beard, his peaches and cream complexion will roughen, and he’ll no longer be the hairless beauty he is now.

It is very striking indeed that earlier in book 4 Horace writes a series of poems lamenting the decline and fall in Roman social standards, singling out greed and luxury, and also adultery which, of course, makes it difficult to determine the real father of a child – and yet this flagrantly homosexual and, possibly, if the boy is under 16 which seems pretty certain, pederastic poem, passes without comment and presents no obstacle to the poet’s earlier harsh moralising.

Sucking up to Augustus

As is fitting, the first poem in book 1 addresses his patron (and friend) Augustus’s minister for the arts, Maecenas. And the second poem addresses the boss man himself, Augustus, unquestioned supreme ruler of Rome and its empire, who is subsequently addressed at regular intervals throughout the series of poems. Here is Horace, addressing Jupiter king of the gods but describing Augustus (referred to here by the name of his adoptive great-uncle, Caesar, by which he was widely known, before the title ‘Augustus’ was bestowed in 27 BC):

Thou son of Saturn, father and protector
Of humankind, to thee Fate has entrusted
Care of great Caesar; govern, then, while Caesar
Holds the lieutenancy.

He, whether leading in entitled triumph
The Parthians now darkening Rome’s horizon,
The Indian or the Chinese peoples huddled
Close to the rising sun,

Shall, as thy right hand, deal the broad earth justice. (1.12)

Here Horace is asking the fickle goddess Fortune to protect Augustus and the Roman armies engaged in battle:

Guard Caesar bound for Britain at the world’s end,
Guard our young swarm of warriors on the wing now
To spread the fear of Rome
Into Arabia and the Red Sea coasts. (1.35)

1.37 includes a brief description of Octavian’s historic victory over the fleets of Antony and Cleopatra at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Thunder in heaven confirms our faith – Jove rules there;
But here on earth Augustus shall be hailed as
God also, when he makes
New subjects of the Briton and the dour

Parthian. (3.5)

Incidentally, I don’t know why there are so many references to conquering Britain. In his long reign Augustus never sent armies to invade Britain, that was left to his great-nephew, the emperor Claudius, in 43 AD.

Book 4 contains noticeably more praise of Augustus (‘O shield of Italy and her imperial metropolis’) than the previous books: was it clearer than ever that the new regime was here to stay? Had Horace got closer to Augustus? Was it a shrewd political move to butter up the big man?

We know that Horace had been personally commissioned to write the two odes in praise of Drusus (4.4) and Tiberius (4.14) which overflow with slavish praise of their stepfather, Augustus, and the book includes a poem calling on Apollo to help him write the Centennial Hymn which Augustus commissioned (4.6). So this book contains more lickspittle emperor-worship than the previous 3 books combined.

How shall a zealous parliament or people
With due emolument and ample honours
Immortalise thy name
By inscription and commemorative page,

Augustus, O pre-eminent of princes
Wherever sunlight makes inhabitable
The earth? (4.14)

And the final ode in the entire series, 4.15, is another extended hymn of praise to Augustus’s peerless achievements.

Book 4

In his edition of Horace’s satires, Professor Nial Rudd points out that book 4, published about 12 years after books 1 to 3, has a definite autumnal feeling. Virgil is dead (19 BC) and Horace’s patron, Maecenas, no longer plays the central role he had done a decade earlier. The odes to Tiberius and Drusus highlight that a new young generation is coming up, and Horace refers to his own grey hair and age. Had Maecenas previously formed a buffer between him and the emperor, and, with his declining influence, has the emperor become more demanding of direct praise?

Famous phrases

It’s difficult for a non-Latinist to really be sure of but all the scholars and translators assure us that Horace had a way with a phrase and that this meant he coined numerous quotations used by later generations.

Probably the three most famous are ‘carpe diem’ and ‘nunc est bibendum’ and ‘dulce et decorum est’, from 1.11, 1.37 and 3.2, respectively. Here’s the source Latin and Michie’s translations of each instance:

Carmen 1.11 (complete)

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati!
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare 5
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Don’t ask (we may not know), Leuconie,
What the gods plan for you and me.
Leave the Chaldees to parse
The sentence of the stars.

Better to bear the outcome, good or bad,
Whether Jove purposes to add
Fresh winters to the past
Or to make this the last

Which now tires out the Tuscan sea and mocks
Its strength with barricades of rocks.
Be wise, strain clear the wine
And prune the rambling vine

Of expectation. Life’s short. Even while
We talk, Time, hateful, runs a mile.
Don’t trust tomorrow’s bough
For fruit. Pluck this, here, now.

Carmen 1.37 (opening stanza)

Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero
pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus
ornare pulvinar deorum
tempus erat dapibus, sodales…

Today is the day to drink and dance on. Dance, then,
Merrily, friends, till the earth shakes. Now let us
Rival the priests of Mars
With feasts to deck the couches of the gods…

3.2 comes from the series of 6 poems which open book 3, which are longer than usual and adopt quite a strict scolding tone, instructing Romans of his day to abandon luxury and return to the noble warrior values of their ancestors. It needs to be read in that context:

Carmen 3.2 (Opening only)

Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta

vitamque sub divo et trepidis agat
in rebus. Illum ex moenibus hosticis
matrona bellantis tyranni
prospiciens et adulta virgo

suspiret, eheu, ne rudis agminum
sponsus lacessat regius asperum
tactu leonem, quem cruenta
per medias rapit ira caedes.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo…

Disciplined in the school of hard campaigning,
Let the young Roman study how to bear
Rigorous difficulties without complaining,
And camp with danger in the open air,

And with his horse and lance become the scourge of
Wild Parthians. From the ramparts of the town
Of the warring king, the princess on the verge of
Womanhood with her mother shall look down

And sigh, ‘Ah, royal lover, still a stranger
To battle, do not recklessly excite
That lion, savage to touch, whom murderous anger
Drives headlong through the thickest of the fight.’

The glorious and the decent way of dying
Is for one’s country. Run, and death will seize
You no less surely. The young coward, flying,
Gets his quietus in his back and knees…

Two points. One, quite obviously ancient Rome was an extremely militarised society with all its politicians expected to have served in the army or, as consuls, be sent off in command of armies in umpteen foreign campaigns. Two, with this in mind it’s worth pointing out that the poem goes on to contrast the glory won by death in battle with the vulgar world of democratic politics and elections.

Unconscious of mere loss of votes and shining
With honours that the mob’s breath cannot dim,
True worth is not found raising or resigning
The fasces at the wind of popular whim…

The fasces being the bundle of wooden rods, sometimes bound around an axe with its blade emerging, which was carried by the lictors who accompanied a consul everywhere during his term of office and which symbolised a magistrate’s power and jurisdiction.

Summary

Michie is very proficient indeed at rhyming. More than that, he enjoys showing off his skill:

Boys, give Tempe praise meanwhile and
Delos, the god’s birthday island. (1.21)

A cheap hag haunting alley places
On moonless nights when the wind from Thrace is
Rising and raging… (1.25)

When the brigade of Giants
In impious defiance… (2.19)

But I think the cumulative effect of so much dazzling ingenuity is that sometimes  the poems reek more of cleverness for its own sake than the kind of dignified tone which the Latinists describe as having. At times the cleverness of his rhyming overshadows the sense.

Boy, I detest the Persian style
Of elaboration. Garlands bore me
Laced up with lime-bark. Don’t run a mile
To find the last rose of summer for me. (1.38)

Throughout the book, in pretty much every poem, although I could read the words, I struggled to understand what the poem was about. I had to read most of them 2 or 3 times to understand what was going on. Half way through, I stumbled upon the one-sentence summaries of each ode given on the Wikipedia page about the Odes. This was a lifesaver, a game changer. From that point on, I read the one-sentence summary of each poem to find out who it was addressed to and what it was about – and so was freed to enjoy how it was constructed, and the slickness of Michie’s translations.

Bless this life

Above all, be happy. Life is short. Count each day as a blessing.

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully… (1.9)

You can see why all the translators, scholars and commentators on Horace describe him as a friendly, reassuring presence. A poet to take down off your shelves and read whenever you need to feel sensible and grounded.


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