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date: 19 June 2019

Horace (Horatius Flaccus, Quintus), Roman poet, 65–8 BCE

Summary and Keywords

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65–8 bce) is one of the most important Roman poets, a friend and contemporary of Virgil, who composed in the time of Augustus. He wrote significant works in a number of genres: hexameter satires and epistles, iambic epodes, and lyric odes. The first three books of his Odes (c. 23 bce) are his most influential work.

Keywords: Horace, Latin, poet, lyric, satire, iambic, epistle

Life and Chronology

A brief life of Horace of mixed reliability survives from the ancient world, attached to the name of Suetonius: it attests (credibly) the poet’s date of birth (December 8, 65 bce; for the year see Odes 3.21.1, for the month Epistles 1.20.27), his birthplace (Venusia, modern Venosa, on the border of ancient Apulia and Lucania—see Satires 2.1.34–35), and his date of death (November 27, 8 bce). Much of the information is based on Horace’s own works, but some appears to be derived from now-lost works of others. Its description of the poet’s father as an auctioneer and financial agent with freedman status is confirmed by Satires 1.6 (3, 86); nothing is known of the poet’s mother. It seems likely that Horace’s father was freed after temporary enslavement as a youthful captive in the Social War (91–88 bce), and in later life, he seems to have made enough money to send his son to the prestigious school of Orbilius at Rome (Satires 1.6.76–78, Epistles 2.1.71), and later to Athens for university-style study along with the sons of the Roman elite (Epistles 2.2.43–45).

It was in Athens that the young Horace attached himself to the cause of Julius Caesar’s assassin, Marcus Junius Brutus, who was there in the months after the Ides of March (Plutarch, Brutus 24.1). Horace went with him on campaign in Greece and perhaps in Asia, too (cf. Satires 1.7), serving as tribunus militum (military tribune; Satires 1.6.48), a high rank usually held by young aristocrats. In the autumn of 42 bce, he was on the losing side in the crushing defeat of Brutus at Philippi at the hands of M. Antonius and the future Augustus (Odes 2.7) and later returned to Rome. In the early 30s, he became attached to the circle of writers around Augustus’ key adviser, Maecenas, introduced by no less than Virgil (Satires 1.6.55–56, 2.6.40–42).

The poet claims that he lost his father’s land, perhaps in the land confiscations of 41–40 bce, and turned to poetry to make money (Epistles 2.2.49–52), presumably through patronage. In the 30s, he was able to buy the post of scriba quaestorius (quaestor’s clerk), a significant administrative post, probably with equestrian rank (cf. Satires 2.6.36–37, 2.7.53), and his financial position was bolstered by the gift from Maecenas of a substantial Sabine estate close to Rome (Epistles 1.7.15), which contained several subordinate farms as well as a villa (Satires 2.6). Horace’s personal relations with Augustus himself perhaps became closer after 19 bce, when the princeps, who had been absent for much of the 30s and 20s, was generally in Rome; the commission for the Carmen Saeculare in 17 bce is likely to have come directly from him. This active imperial patronage may explain why Maecenas receives only one (warm) mention in Horace’s poetry after 19, having been the dedicatee of most of his previous work. The ancient biography asserts that Horace died less than two months after Maecenas, in 8 bce; this might be derived from the poet’s assertion that he would not wish to outlive his patron (Odes 2.17.5–8).

The main chronology and sequence of Horace’s works is generally agreed. Satires 1 belongs to around 36/35 bce, Satires 2 and Epodes to around 30/29 bce, Odes 1–3 to 23 bce, Epistles 1 to 20/19 bce, the Carmen saeculare to 17 bce, and Odes 4 to 14/13 bce. Epistles 2.1 is clearly dated to 12 bce or after, with its address of Augustus as sole ruler (after the death of Agrippa); it seems most likely that Epistles 2.2 and the Ars Poetica belong in the same period 12–8 bce (though there is some debate here).

Early Works: Satires 1 and 2, Epodes

The three earliest books of Horatian poetry take their cue from self-consciously “low” literary predecessors. Satires 1 and 2 pick up the hexameter sermones or talks of Lucilius, the colloquial and parodic cousin of hexameter epic, while the Epodes take on the rumbustious and low-life world of archaic Greek iambic poetry. Horace thus constructs his poetic career as beginning near the bottom of the generic scale: such self-positioning, along with the elements of aggression fundamental to both these genres, nicely fits a poet who starts the period as an angry young man who has suffered real worldly dispossession. Within Satires 1 (dedicated at its opening to Maecenas), we find a narrative of autobiographical progress. Satires 1.1–3 present a kind of street preacher criticising the vices of Rome apparently from the outside, while later poems give us a poet who has entered the literary establishment via Maecenas:1.5 discreetly narrates a journey to Brindisi in Maecenas’ company on a key diplomatic mission, while 1.9 presents the poet’s awkward encounter in Rome with someone who wishes to know Maecenas better but is plainly unsuitable (unlike the poet). We find poems that characterise the poet in literary terms (1.4, where he discusses his relationship with Lucilius, approved for his excoriation of vice but criticised for crude style) and more personally (1.6, where he gives a moving account of his upbringing by his devoted and wise father as well as of his daily routine in Rome). Epode 1.7 gives us an anecdote from his past with Brutus, while 1.8 provides a reworking of the literary tradition of the Priapea, which honours Maecenas’ cleaning-up of the Esquiline hill in Rome. The book’s overall trajectory comes out especially in the two literary catalogues of 1.10: there, Horace looks to take his place among the master poets of his time just as he has taken his place among the associates of Maecenas (1.10.40–48) and seeks to please the discriminating critics of the period (1.10.81–92).

Satires 2.1 presents a comic consultation with the lawyer Trebatius Testa in the matter of whether Satires 1 was too hard-hitting; this is neatly balanced by another consultation in 2.5 at the start of the book’s second half, a satiric rewriting of Odysseus’ underworld conversation with Tiresias in Odyssey 11 on the topic of how to repair an impaired fortune by captatio or legacy-hunting. This is one of a series of poems in the book introducing other characters who seem to reflect aspects of the poet’s own life: both the moralist Ofellus (2.2) and the art dealer Damasippus (2.3) lost their property in the confiscations, while the fable of the town and country mice (2.6) presents two sides of Horace, oscillating between urban and rural worlds. Another feature is the reported lecture, a technique taken from Plato’s dialogues, ironically presented by the dissenting poet: in 2.3, Damasippus relays a pompous moral discourse by the Stoic Stertinius, while in 2.4, Catius retails the gastronomic advice of an anonymous gourmet, which he regards as key precepts for living. In 2.7, the poet’s slave Davus tells the poet some home truths on the privileged occasion of the Saturnalia, while in 2.8, gourmandise is a target again in the description of a ghastly dinner given by Nasidienus.

The Epodes, like Satires 1 present the poet’s progress from outsider to insider, this time using the template of archaic Greek iambic poetry, drawing especially on Archilochus, though Horace claims that he cannot match his model’s primal vigour. The hard-hitting analyses of the current ills of Rome in Epodes 7 and 16, perhaps the poems that triggered Horace’s recruitment into the Maecenatic circle, stand alongside Archilochean anticipations and celebrations of the victory at Actium in Epodes 1 and 9, both addressed in warm terms to Maecenas; it seems no accident that these poems occupy key positions (first and middle in the book).Epode 2 presents a paean to the simple rural life, deflated at the end by an Archilochean device that reveals that its speaker, Alfius, is an urban money-lender for whom such an existence is merely a fantasy; here and in Epode 16 there is clear allusion to Virgil’s Eclogues. The book’s opening sequence of ten poems of strongly Archilochean colour is followed by a group of poems that look to other genres (11–14), especially contemporary Roman erotic elegy; Epode 13, with its scenario of a landscape description with a storm motivating a sympotic occasion and moralizing reflections, presents a striking anticipation of the poet’s own Odes 1.9 (the Soracte poem). A key figure in the book is the witch Canidia, presented as presiding over the macabre sacrifice of a young boy in Epode 5 and as overcoming the poet by her evil spells in Epode 17; as a negative female in the book, she is joined by Cleopatra (Epode 9) and the ageing women viciously attacked in Epodes 8 and 12.

Middle Period: Odes 1–3 and Epistles 1

Though it is possible that it was also published serially in single books, the collection of Odes 1–3, which emerged as a unit about 23 bce, represents a single stage in Horace’s poetic career. Its opening and closing poems, Odes 1.1 and 3.30 are paired by their identical metre (the First Asclepiad), not otherwise used in the eighty-eight odes of the three books, notable indeed for their metrical virtuosity(the first nine poems of Book 1 are all in different Greek lyric metres): at the end of 1.1, the poet asks for inclusion in the canon of lyric poets (1.1.29–36), and at the end of 3.30, he suggests that he has done enough to deserve this (3.30.10–16). Maecenas is prominent in the collection, appearing as its dedicatee in 1.1, as repeated addressee in every book (1.20, 2.12, 2.17, 2.20, 3.8, 3.16), and as the recipient of its long penultimate poem (3.29).

Odes 1 with its large number of poems (37) presents something of a window-display of the poet’s adaptation of Greek lyric metre and themes: it looks back explicitly to the world of the archaic Lesbian lyric poet Alcaeus (see 1.32), but Sappho is also significant (see 1.13). As in the Epodes, there is contact with the contemporary genre of Roman erotic elegy (e.g., 1.33), and several poems are influenced by Hellenistic epigram (e.g., 1.28 and 1.38), which provides models for short-form works as well as themes. Some major poems treat pro-Augustan Roman politics, though 1.6, honouring Agrippa, suggests that Horace is no epic encomiast: 1.2 proclaims Augustus as the saviour of the troubled state, 1.12 places him second only to Jupiter and probably celebrates his daughter’s marriage to Marcellus, and 1.37 marks his defeat of Cleopatra, though it gives her dignity and courage in her self-chosen death. The book’s sympotic and erotic poems characteristically suggest that life is brief and should be enjoyed while possible, and that love is a passing and varied pleasure (though 1.13 can imagine a long-term relationship).

Odes 2 has a more moderate approach to both metre and subject matter. The first ten of its twenty poems simply alternate the commonest Horatian lyric metres (the Alcaic and Sapphic stanzas); the two poets linked with these measures are paired themselves in 2.13. It treats largely matters of ethics, love, and friendship, though it shows some anticipation of the national and grave themes ofthe “Roman Odes” at the beginning of Book 3 (cf. e.g., 2.15 and 2.18). It also displays the influence of Lucretius’ philosophical didactic and of the recent Georgics of Virgil, especially the latter’s rich evocation of the Underworld (cf. 2.13, 2.14, 2.19). Past civil wars are a key theme: the book’s opening sequence presents an ode to M. Asinius Pollio, historian, tragedian, and former officer of Julius Caesar and M. Antonius, which alludes to the delicate nature of writing about civil war, followed by an ode to Sallustius, heir of Sallust, historian of the conspiracy of Catiline, and an ode to Dellius, a notorious side-switcher in the recent civil wars of which he was another historian; the poet’s own appearance at Philippi, on the wrong side, is carefully treated in 2.7. The book’s finale in 2.20 presents a characteristic mixture of poetic ambition and self-deprecation.

In Odes 3, there is a clear elevation of content, marked both by length of poems and by interaction with higher poetic genres. The opening sequence of six substantial so-called Roman Odes tackles major themes of politics and public morality in support of Augustus, using an enigmatic style that combines a vatic, oracular stance with literary colour from epic (3.3, the apotheosis of Romulus, from Ennius; 3.5, the story of Regulus, probably derived from Naevius) and lofty Pindaric lyric (3.4, employing the Gigantomachy as a symbol for Augustus’ achievement); later poems look to figures from tragedy (Hypermestra in 3.11, Danae in 3.16) or epyllion (Europa in 3.27), and to key political events (Augustus’ return from Spain in 24 bce in 3.14). The book’s thirty poems combine these loftier elements with more erotic and sympotic material in a rich miscellany. We find (for example) a splendid scene of erotic reconciliation (3.9), a love-sick girl (3.12), the evocation of the spring of Bandusia, probably a metapoetic metaphor (3.13), a lively drinking party celebrating a friend’s success (3.19), and a brilliantly parodic hymn to a wine jar for another friend (3.21). Two longer poems toward the end of the book recall the Roman Odes in political and ethical themes and weight. As already noted, 3.30, the final poem, epilogue to both book and collection, claims a place for Horace in the canon of lyric poets, with some irony.

The first book of Epistles, a few years later, presents a conscious contrast with Odes 1–3, though it is again addressed to Maecenas. Its opening programmatic poem claims (with some irony, in carefully crafted hexameters) that Horace has renounced the frivolities of poetry for the serious concerns of philosophy (1.1.7–12). The collection’s overt shape as a letter collection to friends (many also addressed in the Odes) points to a genre of prose literature (cf. Cicero’s Ad Familiares), as does its philosophical content (cf. the epistles of Epicurus). The poet presents himself as a trainee moral philosopher who encourages his friends along the same road by appearing equally fallible, rather than as a stern and superior sage, while the sympotic and erotic themes of lyric are largely replaced by concerns with ethics, friendship, and patronage, all part of moral philosophy in Roman terms. Political elements are represented only incidentally; the poet writes to friends on campaign with Tiberius in the East (1.3, 1.8; cf. also 1.9, recommending a friend for Tiberius’ staff), invites Torquatus to dinner on Augustus’ birthday (1.5), reports the military victories of Agrippa, Tiberius, and Augustus as topical news to a friend away in Sicily (1.12), and sends a presentation copy of the Odes to Augustus away on campaign (1.13; 1.19 seems to respond ambivalently to the reception of the Odes at Rome). Several poems are concerned with the virtues of the poet’s country life (1.10, 1.14, 1.16), and 1.7 provides a thoughtful analysis of how the true friendship of the poet and Maecenas goes beyond the common relations of patronage (patronage is treated more traditionally in 1.17 and 1.18). The ironic epilogue (1.20) addresses the poetry book as if it were a runaway slave boy escaping its author/master against his will.

Late Works: Carmen Saeculare, Odes 4, Epistles 2, Ars Poetica

Horace was commissioned soon after Epistles 1 to write a lyric poem (conventionally labelled the Carmen Saeculare or “Song of the Age”) for performance by a mixed choir of boys and girls for Augustus’ ludi saeculares of 17 bce, celebrating the renewal of the saeculum or generation of 110 years (the performance is independently attested by an inscription). This poem represents an anomaly in his career as a one-off lyric piece outside a collection and shows the poet as a kind of Roman laureate, addressing the gods on behalf of the Roman state on a public occasion of the highest profile. This externally motivated resumption of Horatian lyric probably led to the fourth book of fifteen odes a few years later, perhaps partly stimulated (as the ancient biography suggests) by Augustus’ own request for poems in praise of the recent military victories of his stepsons Tiberius and Drusus (which appear as 4.4 and 4.14). The character of this fifteen-poem last lyric book is distinctly different from that of the first three; though it contains some erotic and sympotic material, including the first overt presentation of the poet’s homoerotic side (4.1 and 4.10), its prime theme is the capacity of poetry and the poet to commemorate the public deeds of great Romans, including Augustus (4.2, 4.5, 4.15); this is especially prominent in the two central poems (4.8, to Censorinus, and 4.9 to M. Lollius). This aspect Romanises and militarises the Greek epinician odes of Pindar (written for athletic victories), and it is no accident that Pindar appears prominently in 4.2 and that recognisable Pindaric techniques appear in 4.4 and 4.14. The book has a clear eye on the rising generation of young aristocrats connected with the imperial house: as well as the odes to Tiberius and Drusus, 4.1 addresses Paullus Fabius Maximus, future husband of Augustus’ cousin, 4.2 Iullus Antonius, his sister Octavia’s stepson. Maecenas receives only a passing (if highly affectionate) mention (4.11.17–20).

The three poems Epistles 2.1 and 2.2 and the Ars Poetica form a coherent final phase of Horace’s poetic career (12–8 bce). Maecenas is absent from all three. All deal with the theme of poetry in general from a didactic and critical angle. Epistles 2.1, addressing Augustus himself, argues against the automatic honouring of older writers, criticizes the crudity of early Roman literature, and praises the civilizing influence of literary Hellenism. Epistles 2.2, to the poetic Florus of Epistles 1.3, talks about the right and wrong ways to approach the profession of poetry, using Horace himself as an example. Finally, the Ars Poetica sets out a series of precepts on poetry, its kinds, and the behaviour of the poet for the appreciation of the next generation, addressed to two Pisones, probably the sons of Piso the Pontifex; its concentration on drama (surprising for Horace) follows in the tradition of Aristotle’s Poetics and the Peripatetic literary school and led to great influence in later European literature. Following Odes 4, all three poems deal with the theme of the usefulness of the poet and of Horace in particular to the community of Rome; they also share a sense of Horace’s self-location in the Roman literary tradition. A wide range of previous poets is discussed, and there seems to be some consciousness that the great period of Augustan poetry is coming to an end and that Horace is its final survivor.

Horace’s metrical and stylistic virtuosity was noted in antiquity: Ovid calls his poetry “cultured” and Horace himself “full of metre” (Tristia 4.10.49–50), clearly referring to the Odes, while a character in PetroniusSatyrica (118) alludes to his curiosa felicitas, his stylistic success through the application of effort. Like Virgil and other Augustan poets, Horace seems to have aligned himself with the verbal polish and relative brevity of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus; the hexameters of his sermones are appropriately more relaxed and colloquial than those of Catullus or Lucretius but contain many elegances such as memorable one-line apophthegms, while the short lines and stanzas of the Greek lyric metres of the Odes allow frequent effects of structure and arrangement as well as bold uses of word order. He has been consistently one of the most popular Latin poets in all forms of subsequent European reception, whether in ancient reworkings, neo-Latin imitations, or modern adaptations and translations into vernacular languages.

Bibliographien zur antiken Literatur. Niklas Holzberg’s extensive bibliography of scholarly publications on Horace to 2016.

Horace, by Randall McNeill.

Horace’s Epistles and Ars Poetica, by Stephanie McCarter.

Horace’s Odes, by Roland Mayer.

Horace’s Satires, by Kirk Freudenburg and Niek Janssen.


Davis, Gregson, ed. A Companion to Horace. Chichester: Blackwell-Wiley, 2010.Find this resource:

Günther, Hans-Christian., ed. Brill’s Companion to Horace. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.Find this resource:

Harrison, Stephen J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Horace. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Harrison, Stephen J. Horace. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Mariotti, Scevola, ed. Orazio: Enciclopedia oraziana, 3 vols. Rome: Treccani, 1996–1998.Find this resource:

Anglophone Commentaries

Brink, C. O. Horace on Poetry. Prolegomena to the Literary Epistles. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1963.Find this resource:

Brink, C. O. Horace on Poetry. TheArs Poetica.” Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.Find this resource:

Brink, C. O. Horace on Poetry. Epistles Book II. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Gowers, Emily. Horace, Satires I. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Harrison, Stephen. Horace: Odes Book II. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Mayer, Roland. Horace: Odes Book I. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Muecke, Frances. Horace: Satires II. Warminster, U.K.: Aris and Phillips, 1993.Find this resource:

Nisbet, R. G. M., and Margaret Hubbard. A Commentary on Horace: Odes I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.Find this resource:

Nisbet, R. G. M., and Margaret Hubbard. A Commentary on Horace. Odes II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.Find this resource:

Nisbet, R. G. M., and Niall Rudd. A Commentary on Horace. Odes III. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Thomas, Richard F. Horace: Odes IV and Carmen Saeculare. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Watson, Lindsay. 2003. A Commentary on Horace’s Epodes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

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