The close and intimate life of the Greek city-state gave rise to most of the literary forms of ancient literature, the greater number of which were adopted and adapted by the Romans. However, the epistle, the letter in verse, was a Roman literary invention brought to perfection by Horace during the first days of the Roman imperial period. With Rome administering most of the known world, friends would often be separated in different parts of the empire for years; even those who remained in Italy would often, as did Horace, retire to their country estates. Letter writing in verse not only became a matter of occasional necessity but also was often the only means of communication. It was natural that poets and men of letters should turn the epistle into a literary form so that even at a distance friends could share both poetry and, in some measure, epistolary conversation.
Horace’s epistles were published in two books: The first, containing twenty letters, or verse poems, appeared about 20 or 19 b.c.e. The second, containing two long letters, probably appeared in 13 b.c.e. Some scholars argue that the second book of epistles should contain the famous Epistle to the Pisos, the Ars Poetica. However, this work has traditionally been published separately.
In his first book, Horace is a moralist; in the second, he is a literary critic. The shorter epistles in the first book, some less than fifteen lines long, are familiar and intimate; there is no doubt that they were written as letters first and poems second. In these shorter letters Horace, a man of forty-five, claims his days of writing lyric poetry are finished, expressing interest in the writing of the younger generation, inviting a friend to dinner, and the like. The longer epistles of the first book, however, are much more formal and tend to be didactic; they smack of the tour de force, and although they may well have been sent to the people to whom they are addressed, they read more like open letters to the poet’s general audience. Typical of these longer letters, and setting the moral tone of the first book, is epistle 1, addressed to the poet’s friend and patron, Maecenas. In it the poet bids farewell to poetry and states that in his declining years he will devote himself to philosophic inquiry. He will, however, be an eclectic, limiting his speculation to the precepts of no single school of philosophy, for his interest is to find what is ultimately and lastingly profitable for the achievement of virtue. The calm pursuit of wisdom, he states, is the highest good, not the frantic pursuit of things. Showing himself to be as much a Stoic as anything else, he claims that the secret of happiness is not to value anything too much. Other matters he speaks of in the first epistle are the need to control the passions so as not to ruin enjoyment, the need to train one’s character, and the need to adapt oneself to both company and oneself alone. In conclusion, Horace’s wish from life is enough books and enough food to keep him comfortable.
Thus setting the tone, Horace proceeds to write of the following matters in the successive epistles of the first book. Epistle 2, to Lollius, begins with the old doctrine that important moral lessons are to be learned from the study of Homer. Horace quickly turns to his real subject, however, which is the foolishness of putting off or not exerting the effort requisite for moral self-improvement. Epistle 3, to Julius Florus, was written to a friend who was abroad campaigning with Claudius; the poet inquires about other young friends on Claudius’s staff. He is particularly interested in their literary activity. Epistle 4, to Tibullus, the poet, is a short note of warm friendship in which Horace gently recommends the Epicurean idea that one should live each day as if it were the last. Epistle 5, to Torquatus, is an invitation to a frugal but cheerful and friendly dinner party. Epistle 6, to Numicius, is a lay sermon on the famous Horatian phrase Nil...
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