Horace (65-8 B.C.), or Quintus Horatius Flaccus, was a Roman lyric poet, satirist, and literary critic. He is generally considered one of the greatest lyric poets of the world.
Horace's boast was to have been "the first to have brought over Aeolian song to Italian measures, " that is, to have used the forms and themes of the great lyric poets of Greece in Latin. Although this is not technically correct (Catullus preceded him by a generation), it was nevertheless true that he was the first consistently to imitate and emulate the poets of the great classical age of the Greek lyric, that is, Alcaeus and Sappho, and to adapt the lyric form to patriotic and philosophical themes, rather than to the expression of feelings of love and other personal emotions. The almost total loss of the early lyric poetry of Greece has left Horace as the main transmitter of this tradition to poets of later ages, over whom his influence has been profound ever since his own time.
Horace was born on Dec. 8, 65 B.C., at Venusia (Venosa) on the borders of Lucania and Apulia. His father was a freedman, probably of old Italian stock, and had retired on his savings as an auctioneer's clerk to live on a small farm there. He had, however, high ambitions for Horace, who was apparently his only son, and took him to Rome, where he studied under the famous grammaticus Orbilius. Orbilius left Horace with the impression of numerous floggings and a deep distaste for Livius Andronicus and the early Latin poets. Horace's father himself served as his paedagogus, an office usually reserved for a slave, whose job it was to accompany a boy to and from school and in general to protect him from moral and physical dangers. Horace later paid tribute to his father for this care and attention, attributing whatever good there might have been in his character to the effects of this tutelage.
After his work with Orbilius, and presumably after advanced training under a rhetor, although this is never mentioned by Horace, he went to Athens for further study. As far as we know, his father did not accompany him, and he may have died before Horace's departure. At Athens, Horace studied Greek literature and philosophy and seems to have mingled on fairly easy terms with the other Roman students at what was then little more than a university town. The news of Caesar's assassination in 44 aroused great enthusiasm in the student colony there, who, filled with the romantic idealism of youth, saw in Brutus and Cassius the embodiment of the ideal of the tyrannicide, exemplified in the old Athenian heroes Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were constant subjects for school exercises and were praised in the teachings of the philosophical schools.
Short Military Career
When Brutus himself visited Athens some 6 months later, Horace accepted his offer of a commission as a military tribune and found himself, along with fellow students like Cicero's son Marcus Tullius Cicero the Younger, an officer in Brutus's army. Horace saw some action and was at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C., which destroyed the army of the assassins. He says that he fled from the battle, leaving his shield behind: whether this is literally true or merely a literary convention intended to recall to the reader similar passages in the Greek lyric poets Archilochus and Alcaeus, and also perhaps designed to show that he was never a very significant figure in the resistance to Augustus, is a matter of dispute.
After the defeat at Philippi, Horace was a ruined man. His short military career was at an end; he was an officer of a defeated army and, technically at least, an enemy of the victorious Octavian (later Augustus), Mark Antony, and Lepidus. His father was apparently dead, and the estate which had come to Horace was confiscated to provide allotments for the soldiers of the victorious army on their demobilization. He was soon pardoned in the general amnesty granted by Octavian and then managed to obtain a position as a clerk in the treasury, which kept him from starvation. Whether he had written verse before, we do not know, but he now turned to writing verses in the hope of attaining recognition and patronage, and it is to this period that the earliest Epodes and Satires, full of the scenes and acquaintances of a rather bohemian life, belong.
Protégé of Maecenas
Horace was soon rewarded. Among the friends he made were the poets Varius and Virgil, who was then engaged in writing the Eclogues. Through them he secured, probably in 39 or 38 B.C., an introduction to Maecenas, the confidential adviser of Octavian, a generous patron of literature who was especially interested in obtaining the services of literary men for the glorification of the new regime. Horace was awkward and stammered, and Maecenas, as usual, kept his own counsel; Horace felt that he had failed in his efforts. Nine months later, however, Maecenas wrote to him, and he was admitted to the circle of Maecenas's friends. In 35 B.C. came Horace's first published work, Book I of his Satires; a second book followed in 30 B.C.; and the Epodes were published, at Maecenas's suggestion, in 29 B.C.
Meanwhile, Horace was growing in Maecenas's favor and eventually in that of the future emperor Augustus. In 37 B.C. Horace accompanied Maecenas, along with Virgil and Varius, on a diplomatic mission to Brundisium (Brindisi), the discomforts and incidents of which are commemorated in one of the most famous satires of Book I. Sometime later, probably in 34 or 33 B.C., Maecenas presented him with a farm in the Sabine country, near Tibur (Tivoli), which not only provided him with a modest competence and independence and leisure to write but also was a major source of delight to him during the rest of his life.
Thereafter Horace led a life of comfort and retirement in the company of his books and good friends, including many of the most prominent men in Roman political and literary life, and the major events of his life were the publication of his various books: the first three books of his Odes in 23 B.C., by which time he was already recognized as being almost a poet laureate; the first book of his literary and philosophical Epistles in 20 B.C.; the frigid Carmen saeculare, composed under commission to be sung at Augustus's revival of the Secular Games in 17 B.C.; the second book of Epistles, published about 14 B.C.; and, at Augustus's express request, the fourth book of the Odes, published perhaps in 13 B.C. In the last years of his life, probably after the composition of the fourth book of the Odes, he wrote his Ars poetica. Horace died on Nov. 27, 8 B.C., only a few weeks after the death of his friend and patron Maecenas, who, on his deathbed, asked Augustus to remember Horace as he would himself.
Suetonius related that at one time Augustus had offered Horace the position of private secretary; but Horace, who had by then acquired a love of leisure and lazy habits totally unsuited to regular work (Suetonius says that Horace lay in bed until 10, which is even more indolent than it would be today, since the Romans were up by dawn), also had the tact, and confidence in the Emperor's good graces, to refuse without offending. He also says that Augustus once wrote complaining that Horace was not mentioning him and his regime's accomplishments enough (this would not necessarily have been considered immodest even for a private citizen at the time) and asking further references to him. This was probably not long before the writing of the Carmen saeculare, since Horace seems to have felt that his literary activity was finished with the publication of Book I of the Epistles, perhaps because of fears for his health: we do not know when Augustus offered him the private secretaryship.
The Satires, Horace's first published works, although some of the Epodes seem to be earlier, were called by Horace himself sermonesas well as saturae. This combination of terms is accurate in describing their nature. Sermones means "discourses" or "essays, " with the emphasis on the conversational nature of these works. Satura, on the other hand, originally meant a mixture of some sort, a mingling of diverse elements. It had no original sense of personal criticism or attack, nor does it in Horace; in his use of the term he is actually going back to an earlier form of satura, preceding his exemplar, Lucilius.
In the Satires of Horace, the friend of and apologist for Augustus, the faults and vices attacked are attacked in the abstract; the persons mentioned are types, not recognizable persons; and the geniality and humor with which such characters as the boorish host who makes every conceivable blunder in giving a dinner party or the bore who persists in offering his services and forcing his attentions on Horace cannot be compared to the loathing with which Juvenal pours his scorn on his victims.
Horace, in his Satires, is at his best and most typical in the anecdotal relation of his journey to Brundisium or in the satire in which his slave Davus takes advantage of the license of the Saturnalia to treat Horace to a pointed and detailed account of his faults. It might be said that Horace is throughout more interested in self-revelation and exploration than in the exposure of public vices and faults.
The Epodes (or "lambs, " as Horace called them, from the meter which predominates in the collection) have had the least influence of any of his works. They seem to be mainly inspired by Archilochus; part of them are satirical, in either the modern or the usual Horatian sense, while others treat various themes—an invitation to dinner, the delights of the country, politics—and are more characteristic of the Odes.
It is generally considered that Horace's greatest achievement, and one of the greatest achievements of all poetry, was the first three books of the Odes. They are in many different meters and on many different themes, although some themes and types recur again and again—the pleasures of convivial drinking and conversation with friends; the joys (as distinct from the passions) of love (with a singularly unreal collection of girls); the shortness of life and the inevitability and finality of death; rather conventional hymns to the gods; and praises of the benefits and wisdom of Augustus's policies for the restoration of civil order and public morality, especially in the noble and stately first six odes of Book III, the "Roman Odes."
These "Roman Odes, " if overpraised in the past, remain worthy of praise; they are not likely now, however, to attract the unqualified and unexamined assent to their assumptions they once received. The official Carmen saeculare and Book IV, largely official and national, are generally of less value: the additional nonofficial poems of Book IV, usually considered little more than filler, include, however, what many consider the greatest of all his poems, the magnificent Odes IV, 7, on the inevitability of death. Here, as in general, Horace's supreme achievement is the expression of ordinary thoughts and sentiments with perfection and finality: this is the true classical ideal, expressed by Alexander Pope as saying "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed."
The Epistles of Book I are similar to the Satires, except that they are all written as letters, rather than as conversations and dramatizations of scenes. They are more reflective and philosophical in tone than the Satires and seem, as was indicated above, to have been meant as Horace's final statement, beyond which he did not intend to write more. In the last years of his life, however, he returned to the epistolary form to discuss his views on the nature of literature.
The second book of the Epistles consists of only two letters: the first, addressed to the Emperor, contains a sketch of the history of early Roman literature, which Horace prefers to the work of more recent writers, and an analysis of the inherent flaws of Romans which worked against the development of a great literature—coarseness of temperament, carelessness in composition, and the degenerate taste of readers; the second is largely autobiographical but also contains some remarks on the development of style, stressing the need for careful choice of diction and the essentiality of unremitting revision until perfect ease and aptness is obtained.
The Ars poetica (Art of Poetry), the last of Horace's works, is in form a letter to the Pisones, probably the sons of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, based on a lost Hellenistic treatise. It is divided into three parts, discussing, respectively, poetry in general, the form of the poem, and the poet. Throughout, suitability—of subject, of form and language to the subject, of thought and dialogue to the character—is stressed, and the poet is advised to read widely in the best models, to be meticulous in his composition, and to submit his work to the best criticism which he can obtain.
A very large part of the poem is concerned with the drama, and Horace's descriptions and precepts, hardened into unbreakable laws, had a great influence in and after the Renaissance, especially in setting the rigid rules which French classical drama imposed on itself. The poem as a whole, in fact, seems to the modern reader to suffer because it has been so often quoted and adapted, and its teachings so absorbed into the elements of criticism, that it must perforce seem hackneyed. Few works of literary criticism have ever had an influence approaching that of the Ars poetica or have contained such sound advice.
Further Reading on Horace
There have been several important books on Horace in English in recent years. Eduard Fraenkel, Horace (1957), provides the most masterly overall account of Horace's works. Sensitive attention to the lyric poems is given by L. P. Wilkinson, Horace and His Lyric Poetry (1945; 2d ed. 1951); N. E. Collinge, The Structure of Horace's Odes (1961); and Henry Steele Commager, Jr., The Odes of Horace: A Critical Study (1962). Two studies that deal with the Satires and Epistles are C. O. Brink, Horace on Poetry (1963), and Niall Rudd, The Satires of Horace: A Study (1966). See also Jacques Perret, Horace (1964); G. M. A. Grube, The Greek and Roman Critics (1965); and David West, Reading Horace (1967). Among the older works are W. Y. Sellar, Roman Poets of the Augustan Age: Horace and the Elegiac Poets (1892); John Francis D'Alton, Horace and His Age: A Study in Historical Background (1917); Grant Showerman, Horace and His Influence (1922); Tenney Frank, Catullus and Horace: Two Poets in Their Environment (1928), to be used with care; and J. W. H. Atkins, Literary Criticism in Antiquity, vol. 2 (1934).
Additional Biography Sources
Lyne, R. O. A. M., Horace: behind the public poetry, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.