Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus)

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) (65-8 B.c.) Roman lyric poet and satirist

Born to a foundering world, Quintus Horatius Flaccus toward the end of the Roman Republic (ca. 510-27 B.C.), the Roman poet Horace wrote of stability and human contentment in an age of folly. A native of Venusia (present-day Venosa) in southcentral Italy, he was the son of a freedman farmer and grain factor who had survived his own share of war. Although educated in Athens in literature and philosophy among elite young Romans, the poet remained touchy about his past to avoid being labeled a parvenu.

Horace was 21 when the assassination of Julius Caesar precipitated 17 years of civil war. In the period preceding the battle of Philippi in 42 B.C., he soldiered in Macedonia as a staff officer under Marcus Brutus, the enemy of Mark Antony and Caesar's nephew Octavian (later Augustus Caesar). Backing the losing side cost Horace his civilian job and his family's land. In reduced circumstance, he earned a living with a desk job in the imperial treasury; he depicted his displacement in “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse” (30 B.c.), a gentle beast FABLE included in his Sermonum (Satires, 35-30 B.c.). Targets of his derision ranged from luxuries and sexual license (in the first satire) to the diminution of the peasant class. These humorous poems established Horace's fame.

Following the fall of the Roman Republic, Horace lived in two worlds: as a civil clerk and as an intellectual on a first-name basis with the arts patron Maecenas and the poets Lucius Varius Rufus, TIBULLUS, and VIRGIL, Rome's most revered epic poet and propagandist for Augustus, the city's first emperor (ruled 27 B.C.-A.D. 14). Augustus courted Horace's friendship. According to the Roman historian SUETONIUS'S De vita Caesarum (Lives of the Caesars, ca. A.D. 121), the emperor said, “Enjoy any privilege at my house, as if you were making your home there” (Suetonius 1920, 487). Perhaps out of self-preservation, Horace exalted Augustus in verse as an epiphanos (god on earth) or sacred guardian of the people, a concept that risked the traditional Roman disdain for hereditary monarchy. Of two minds on the subject of the shift in sovereignty, the poet overtly thanked the princeps (chief) for grounding the new empire on law and morality; in the subtext, he laced his odes with attacks on the empire's prideful architecture, sexual promiscuity, secularism, and Persian frippery and incense, which debased a generation.

Propaganda and Practicality

Admired for his decorum, Horace was a mellow pragmatist who adopted wisdom from a long list of literary influences. At first, he saw no reason to regret the passing of republican Rome, but, by 23 B.c., over two decades after the murder of Julius Caesar, the poet edged a new optimism with caution. He endorsed the emperor's long-term vision for national rebirth and accepted Augustus's claim as Rome's savior and only choice for stability, peace, and prosperity. Horace's most diplomatic ode of the period, “Aurea Mediocritas” (“The Golden Mean,” 23 B.c.), reminds the reader of Aristotle's precept—that balance guides the individual through good times and bad and steadies the mind for difficult decisions. He urged Roman leaders to halt unholy civil slaughter, Roman against Roman, and to direct military energies to the creation of an empire by subduing Arabs, Britons, Gauls, Parthians, and Scythians.

Horace's Carmina (Odes, 23-13 B.c.) voiced his wish to educate readers on morality. The text reprises the tone and atmosphere of classic Greek poets in their praise of state sovereignty. In book 3, the poet honors the military victories of General Drusus and his brother Tiberius against Alpine barbarians. The collection of 103 poems is best remembered for recommending carpe diem (seize the day, Ode 1.11), an epicurean aphorism encouraging enjoyment of the moment rather than postponing pleasure to an uncertain future. Horace scorned debauchery and requested a return to the moderate rites of Bacchus, the Roman wine god. In a rhetorical question, book 1 of the Odes reminds Romans that neglect of religion leaves them defenseless in time of catastrophe. The poet asks what god citizens will invoke when the empire tumbles, what plea will the Vestal Virgins raise to their divine patron, who no longer listens to their cries. In Carmen saeculare (Secular Hymn, 17 B.c.), a text intended for choral reading, he promoted patriotism, family values, and traditional worship of the gods, especially Apollo, Mars, Mercury, and Venus, the mythic mother of the Trojan hero Aeneas in Virgil's AENEID (17 B.c.).

At Horace's death at age 57, he willed to the emperor his estate outside Tibur (today's Tivoli) in the Sabine uplands. For Horace's compact verse and sunny epicureanism, Roman literati held him second only to Virgil. In the 17th century, Horace's verse influenced the elegant style and tone of the Parisian fabulist JEAN DE LA FONTAINE.


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Smith Palmer Bovie. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

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