Like songs today, Horace’s odes were about anyone and anything that struck the poet’s fancy. Some, for instance, praise his patron, while others eviscerate noted women or men for their immoral and feckless behavior. His subjects appear innumerable, but they do share one thing—the poet’s desire to be known.
Son of a former slave, Quintus Horatius Flaccus writes of the best and worst of men in first century BC. Though he grew up in a small Italian village, Horace received the best of educations in Rome, culminating in a grand tour of Athens. There, however, he was quickly swayed by Brutus, Julius Caesar’s assassin, and without an ounce of military experience, joined his rebellion as a legionnaire. In the first major battle at Philippi, Brutus’s forces were promptly routed and the rebellion died a quick death.
Somehow, miraculously, Horace wasn’t executed when captured but returned to Rome to find that his father had died and his home, possessions, and land had all been given to an honorable war veteran. Penniless, Horace found a secretarial job in the treasury, likely translating letters and copying figures. To both console himself and wreak a quiet revenge, he began to write vindictive odes as a hobby.
In modern times, odes are technically verses of praise, but in truth, Greek and Latin etymology clarify that an ode is simply a lyrical song. Like songs today, Horace’s odes were about anyone and anything that struck his fancy. Some praise his patron Maecenas and Caesar Augustus, while others eviscerate noted women or men for their immoral and feckless behavior. Other odes caution a limit to government’s role as the ship of stat, and several praise the seasons, the poets, and the gods. My favorites are the ones that begin with Horace praising others and end with the grandest of words about himself!
His subjects appear innumerable, but they do share one thing—Horace’s desire to be known, “for if no writings celebrate your worthy deeds, you reap no recompense.” In the same ode in Book IV, Horace declares that he would hand out trophies and prizes to his honorable friends if he could. But he can’t. Yet the best news is that he can keep his friends and their lives alive in poetry, “and verses we can bestow.” For Horace, this is the ultimate gift. Consider this early elegiac ode dedicated to fellow poet Quintilius Varus upon his death:
Book I, Ode XXIV
How can we restrain our sorrow, fence our grief for so dear a life?
Inspire me to lugubrious dirges, you upon whom your father Jove bestowed the voice so liquid with the lyre.
And so Quintilius lies heavily in everlasting sleep.
O, and whom will now Modesty and Faith inviolate, sister of Justice and naked Truth,
ever find his peer?
He died lamented by many good men
but by none lamented more, O Vergil, than by you,
You who loved him, vainly praying to the gods unbenevolent. . . .
O, it is hard! But patience makes light whatever it is impossible to correct.
Horace rarely praises in sincerity, but here his words appear heartfelt in his homage to Quintilius and his sorrow-filled friend. Quintilius was both gifted musically with liquid voice and lyre and with considerable virtue according to Horace’s ode. High praise indeed, perhaps high enough to be remembered for centuries to come. We are reading Horace now after all.
Yet Horace I believe also wants to be remembered for his wisdom, almost as if he wants to be quotable. Consider his conclusion to Quintilius. His final aphorism appears pat in translation. Now that a friend has died, we should be patient? Patience will eventually lighten the everlasting sting of death? It is hard to discern his intent other than to leave a word of wisdom. Perhaps that was the formula of the day.
Remember though, this ode was part of his very first public collection known as Book I. This next selection proffers a more mature attempt at lasting words.
Book II, Ode XVIII
Ceilings of gold or ivory
do not glisten in my house.
No beams of Mount Hymettus
rest on columns quarried in farthest Africa.
Nor have I, an unknown heir,
inherited the Palace of Attalus
nor do honorable clients
spin for me the Spartan purple.
But integrity I do possess
and a considerable vein of talent; and though I be poor
the rich man seeks me out. Hence for nothing more do I the gods implore
Nor greater gifts demand
of my powerful friend.
So, with my Sabine farm alone
I am sufficiently content.
Day is driven on by day.
Each new moon hastens to wane.
And you, on the very verge of the grave
are letting out contracts for cutting marble,
constructing palaces, unmindful of the tomb;
and not rich enough
with your estates on the mainland,
eagerly building along the beach of the sea . . .
Why are you ever shoving back your neighbor’s boundaries? . . .
Dispossessing husband and wife,
each bearing in their bosom
their household gods and squalid offspring
And yet no home or hall
More certainly awaits the wealthy Master
than the end destined by rapacious Orcus.
Why strive for more?
The earth opens alike for the poor
and for the sons of Kings.
Horace speaks of himself. He does not live in an exotic palace, but he is wealthy, for his patron Maecenas, ‘my powerful friend,’ gave him an estate, a ‘farm,’ twenty-five miles from the heat and stench of Rome. No wonder he is content compared to everyday Roman citizens. He then applauds himself for integrity and talent because his intent shifts. It’s as if he wants to distract us with his obvious self-satisfaction first. Clever ploy it is.
Horace’s true target is this poor greedy builder! He is aging and ‘on the verge of the grave,’ yet strives and strives, building palaces instead of building his own tomb. In the underworld, the god Orcus greedily waits for him. Horace’s intentional irony deepens as he explains the builder’s unjust acts: he moves boundaries and expels people and their hearth gods from their homes. Most importantly, he is not content as Horace is and must be blind to what death will bring. Horace’s conclusion here is not trite but well-reasoned—we all die, so why strive through life in greed?
We could read many more odes and trace the maturation of his style and growing wisdom, but perhaps these few provide a taste of Horace’s motivation. Like all men, he doesn’t want to be forgotten. His words are his legacy. Maybe bits of wisdom increase the value of those words. But most clearly, in Book III, Ode XXX, Horace vows he has “erected a monument more durable than bronze, / loftier than the regal pile of pyramids / that cannot be destroyed . . . by . . . the flight of centuries” because he will be crowned with the Delphic laurel, the victor’s wreath, before he dies. His fame drives him on.
Republished from the Poiema Institute with the author’s permission.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Horatius Reads Before Maecenas” (1863) by Fyodor Bronnikov (1827-1902), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.