Article abstract: The most important Roman lyric poet, Horace took an appealing, deceptively casual approach to poetry. His poems became a beloved source of proverbial wisdom and a model for Renaissance and neoclassical poets throughout Europe.
Horace (HOR-uhs) was born in Venusia, a military colony in southern Italy. Nothing is known of his mother or siblings. His father was a freed slave whose profitable post as an auctioneer’s assistant enabled him to buy land and to send his son to school in Rome. There, with the sons of senators and knights, Horace was educated in the Greek classics. Horace asserts in his Satires (35, 30 b.c.e.; English translation, 1567) that he received better education from his father, who accompanied him on walks through Rome’s bustling marketplace while commenting on the character, appearance, and manners of passersby.
Sometime in his late teens or early twenties, probably in 45 b.c.e., Horace went to the Academy in Athens to study moral philosophy. As this education was unusual for a freedman’s son, it is likely that Horace’s father recognized his son’s brilliance and wished to give him every chance for success. In Athens, Horace began to write Greek poetry. In 44 b.c.e., Marcus Junius Brutus came to Athens after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He recruited young Romans studying there to fight with him against Caesar’s successors, Marc Antony and Octavian. The call to fight for freedom and the Republic stirred Horace to join Brutus’s forces in 43 b.c.e. Though young and inexperienced, he became military tribune (that is, an officer capable of commanding a legion) and probably rose at the same time to the social rank of knight. At the Battle of Philippi, in 42, Brutus was killed and his army defeated. Rather than continue a hopeless cause, Horace returned to Rome.
His prospects were not bright. He had chosen the losing side; his father was dead; and the farm in Venusia had been confiscated for distribution to a loyal legionnaire or officer. However, Horace still had equestrian rank and must have had some money because he soon purchased the post of scribe in the quaestor’s office, where public financial records were kept. In 39 b.c.e., a general amnesty for Brutus’s followers removed whatever stigma was attached to Horace’s military service.
While a scribe, Horace began writing verse again, Latin imitations of the satirical, witty Greek poet Archilochus. A friendship was begun between Horace and the poet Vergil. The two were physical as well as poetic contrasts. Horace was short and stout; Vergil was tall and lean. The longevity of their friendship showed that these differences made them complements, not opposites.
What drew Horace and Vergil together was a common interest in poetry. Vergil was at work on the Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e., also known as Bucolics; English translation, 1575), idealized poems about rural life, while Horace was writing realistic, trenchant observations of urban mores. Though their topics differed, these young writers shared an interest in the craft of poetry. Vergil was acquainted with Gaius Maecenas, one of Octavian’s counselors, who acted as patron to promising poets. In 39 or 38 b.c.e., Vergil introduced Horace to Maecenas. At their second meeting Maecenas invited Horace to join his literary circle. Horace, still without a published poem, accepted the offer. The decision shaped the rest of his life.
In late 35 b.c.e., Horace published the first book of Satires. It is a misleading title for most modern readers, who associate satire with ridicule and attack. To Horace, the word meant a mixture, or medley, indicating that the work lacked a narrative structure, consistent characters, and interrelated themes. Horace also referred to these poems as sermones (conversations), which suggests their casual tone and varied subject matter. One poem describes a trip with Vergil, another tells a ribald story about witches, a third is a fond remembrance of his father, and a fourth is a witty portrait of a boor. All the poems display a mastery of metrical form and reveal a good-humored and congenial persona. The poems are like conversations over dinner, and the poet is a most attractive host.
In 33 b.c.e., Maecenas rewarded Horace’s skillful and popular poetry: He gave Horace land in the Sabine Valley. Prudently, Horace leased most of it to tenant farmers and built himself a house. The so-called Sabine Farm became his beloved retreat from the world, where he lived simply but comfortably amid attentive servants and good friends, with leisure to concentrate on writing. Maecenas also gave Horace property in Rome and a house in Tibur. All the evidence indicates that Horace and Maecenas not only were mutually useful acquaintances but also possessed a deep friendship based on a mutual love of literature.
Horace published two works in the year 30 b.c.e. One was a second book of Satires, less personal and more consciously literary in subject matter than the first book. This volume includes the famous story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse as well as a parody of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). The second work was the Epodes (English translation, 1638), which was actually written ten or twelve years earlier. Shorter and more lyrical than Satires, these seventeen poems treat a miscellany of topics: the pains and pleasures of love, impatience with pretenders and sycophants, tribulations of the civil war. The poems reflect a variety of moods as well as topics, but this variety does not result in incoherence. Rather, the contrasts create the sense of balance, the portrait of personality that cannot be moved from the golden mean, either by life’s follies or by its tragedies.
Horace himself testifies that these years were the happiest of his life. He spent most of the time at Sabine Farm, reading and composing. Maecenas’s circle remained intact for more than a decade. Most educated Romans, including...