Roman Lyric Poet Horace Dies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

By the time of his death, Horace had earned the status of one of the greatest and most distinctive lyric poets in a great age of Roman poetry.

Summary of Event

The death of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known to posterity as Horace, on November 27, 8 b.c.e., marked the end not only of a great poet’s life but of a major phase of poetry. Of the great Latin poets of the Roman Golden Age of literature, Catullus (c. 84-c. 54 b.c.e.) and Vergil (70-19 b.c.e.) had already died, and Ovid (43 b.c.e.-17 c.e.), a younger man who outlived Horace, proved more often to be a brilliant entertainer than a poet of high seriousness. The accomplishments of these major poets of the first century b.c.e. set standards for European poets over the centuries that followed. Horace Augustus Maecenas, Gaius

Horace was born on December 8, 65 b.c.e., in Venusia, in the Apennine Hills of southern Italy, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of modern Naples, but his father, a freedman, moved the family to Rome so that young Quintus might receive a good education. To complete this education, Horace was sent to Athens in 45 b.c.e. The next year he met Marcus Junius Brutus (c. 85-42 b.c.e.), who had fled to Greece after participating in the assassination of Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e.). Much later, in his Odes, book 2, poem 7, Horace tells of joining Brutus’s army in its unsuccessful struggle against what they saw as another potential tyranny then being led by Mark Antony (c. 82-32 b.c.e.) and Octavian, who would become the emperor Augustus. In this ode Horace confesses that he ran away from the Battle of Philippi (42 b.c.e.), after which Brutus committed suicide.

Back in Rome, finding that his father’s property had been confiscated, he found employment as a clerk and began writing poetry. This activity brought him into contact with Vergil and through him, around 38, with Vergil’s wealthy patron Gaius Maecenas. At first Horace wrote sermones, a term that might be translated as “learned discussions,” although later he would call them Satires (English translation, 1567). The first few of these poems establish themes that would prove important in his career and poetry to come: reasonableness, moderation, and tolerance. He published these poems in 35 b.c.e., dedicating them to Maecenas, who, two years later, made him a present of a small estate in the Sabine Hills northeast of Rome, which became his favorite dwelling place, much celebrated in his poetry. He completed another collection of satires, including his famous account of the city mouse who encourages a country mouse into town to enjoy the comfort and splendor of urban life, but as a result of the hubbub of the city, the country mouse discovers that he prefers the simplicity and quiet of his modest hole in the woods.

Horace

(Kim Kurnizki)

Around 30 b.c.e., Horace completed his Epodes (English translation, 1638), a collection of various experiments in verse that began to point the way to the poems of his maturity. Around this time, Horace also began to write the Carmina, or Odes (23 and 13 b.c.e.; English translation, 1621), that are his greatest poetic achievement. Like all Roman poetic forms, the ode was a Greek invention. The greatest Greek composer of odes, Pindar (c. 518-c. 438 b.c.e.), wrote elaborate, formal lyrics featuring songs of praise for triumphant athletes in the Olympic Games and other athletic competitions. In common with other Latin poets, Horace found his inspiration in the poetry of Greek poets, particularly Alcaeus and Sappho (c. 630-c. 580 b.c.e.), who wrote about a century before Pindar and are associated with the island of Lesbos. The result was a new and distinctive type of ode.

Horace used several different stanzas, often of four lines, in the Odes, and the poems are relatively short, few extending beyond fifty lines. His favorite subjects are love and friendship, but his love poems are radically different from the emotionally charged ones of Catullus, his great Roman predecessor in the lyric. Whereas Catullus’s love lyrics express a range of emotions generated by a tempestuous relationship with a mistress whom he calls Lesbia, Horace’s address several different women, none of whom can be confidently identified as a current or even former mistress. These poems tend to center on the experience of love as recollected in tranquillity and usually refer to the love affairs of friends in a detached, humorous, and delicately ironical manner.

An example is the famous “Ode,” book 1, poem 5, which is addressed to one Pyrrha, whom a young man (Horace calls him a puer, or boy) is wooing in a rose-strewn grotto. Pyrrha is lovely, blonde, and as treacherous as a stormy sea. The emphasis on her lover’s youth underscores his unawareness of the nature of the experience that awaits him. The speaker, who has been through it all, is addressing Pyrrha herself, gently chiding her rather than warning the young man directly. The lover will obviously have to learn for himself.

“Ode,” book 2, poem 4 counsels, rather ambivalently, Xanthias, a friend in love. Why not, he asks, love Phyllis if that is what you wish? At the same time he slyly refers to heroes of old who were “tamed” or “undone” by women. The speaker praises Phyllis’s physical attributes while assuring Xanthias that he himself has no designs on the young lady, for his days of striving to charm young women are over. The attitude toward the young friend is avuncular and encouraging, but at the same time seasoned by a recognition of the feminine guile that he knows that the latter is liable to encounter.

It would be a mistake to assume that the attitude of cool detachment in Horace’s poetry on the subject of love reflects a lack of feeling. His forte is the delicate and subtle control of emotion. Feeling is more easily discernible in the poems celebrating his Sabine farm and the panoply of pleasures associated with it: tasteful and simple furnishings, good food and wine, good friends, the cultivation of his Muse. He urges moderation, modesty, the avoidance of the ambition that adds apprehensions and complications to one’s life. He sums up this way of life in a poem of only eight lines, “Ode,” book 1, poem 38, wherein he castigates the “Persian pomp” that he recognizes as a temptation to his countrymen. Emotion also permeates “Ode,” book 2, poem 14, a lament on old age and death “whom no one conquers.”

By the time of the odes Horace had forsworn his antipathy to the man who became the first Roman emperor. Now he celebrates Augustus in several odes as the embodiment of Roman glory. In “Ode,” book 3, poem 2, the poet also extols the military virtues that he himself lacked, alleging the “sweetness” of dying for one’s country. Death, he points out, will overtake the coward who flees from battle. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Horace’s admiration for the soldierly qualities so foreign to his own nature.

Significance

Horace was not held in particularly high esteem in the Middle Ages, because his work could not be conveniently moralized, as Ovid’s was, or given the Christian coloring that medieval classicists found that they could impose on Vergil. Beginning in the Italian Renaissance, enthusiasm for his poetry mounted and spread to Spain, France, and England. In the seventeenth century, admiration for Horace pervades the work of Ben Jonson (1572-1637), Robert Herrick 1591-1674), and Andrew Marvell (1621-1678). In that century in particular, imitations and translations of Horace’s odes abounded.

Horace’s lyrics are notoriously difficult to translate. Not only is the effect of Latin quantitative verse impossible to replicate in a language like English; Horace brilliantly employs the flexibility of Latin word order to create effects that can seldom be duplicated in translation. The challenge of rendering Horace’s poetry effectively in English and other modern languages, however, continues to attract poets. In 2002, a set of translations of the odes into English involved the participation of a number of distinguished living poets.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frischer, Bernard D., and Iain Gordon Brown, eds. Allan Ramsay and the Search for Horace’s Villa. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2001. An expensively priced but handsomely illustrated collection of essays on the most important place in Horace’s life: his cherished Sabine farm.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyne, R. O. A. M. Horace: Behind the Public Poetry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. Concentrating on the political poems rather than the love poems, this book studies Horace’s relationship to the changing Roman sociopolitical scene.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McClatchy, J. D., ed. Horace, the Odes: New Translations by Contemporary Poets. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. By representing English versions by a number of skillful poets and translators of today, this work illustrates as well as can be expected the richness of Horace’s odes for readers unfamiliar with classical Latin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilkinson, L. P. Horace and His Lyric Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1968. This useful introduction to Horace has chapters on his life, his “character and views,” and the problems of translating his odes.
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Augustus; Callimachus; Catullus; Clodia; Juvenal; Ovid; Pindar; Sappho; Terence; Vergil. Horace

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