Horace (Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism) - Essay


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Horace 65 b.c. -8 b.c.

(Full name Quintus Horatius Flaccus.) Latin poet.

Considered one of the great Latin lyric poets, Horace is renowned for his Odes (c. 23 b.c. and c. 13 b.c.), which express in conversational style the pleasures of friendship and love, and his Satires (c. 35 b.c. and c. 30 b.c.), which are mild and witty and represent a break from the invective-laden attacks of his predecessors. The Odes are unrivaled in their adaptation of Greek meter for Latin verse and are noteworthy for appearing to be autobiographical and ironically self-effacing. Horace's poetry is also important historically because it reflects the mood of the Roman empire at a time of peace following a long period of civil wars. The Ars Poetica (On the Art of Poetry; c. 19 b.c.) served as a manual of style for neoclassical poets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Horace’s poems and satires, considered exemplary, were compulsory study in British schools, influencing Samuel Johnson, Andrew Marvell, and John Dryden, among others. Eminently quotable, Horace is given seven pages in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. With the designation of the Horatian ode and the Horatian satire genres, his name has also become an adjective.

Biographical Information

Horace was born in 65 b.c. to a former slave who eventually owned a small property in the Apulian military colony of Venusia, in southeast Italy. His father earned enough money to send his son to Rome to be educated by Orbilius, a recognized grammarian. Under his strict teacher, Horace studied Greek and read the works of Livius Andronicus, Homer, and other poets. Horace credited his father with teaching him much about human nature and the absurdities of the world. Leaving Rome, Horace studied with various noblemen at the Academy in Athens. After Julius Caesar's assassination by Brutus in 44 b.c., Horace joined Brutus's army, eventually attaining the rank of tribunus militum—a notable achievement for his age and his low social status. After the disastrous defeat of Brutus in the military campaign of Philippi, Horace returned home to Rome where, although his father's property had been seized, he was given a job as a civil servant. He began writing poems and these led his friends Virgil and Varius to introduce him in about 38 b.c. to Gaius Maecenas, an important adviser of Octavian, Brutus's successor. Horace took pains to avoid a typical sycophantic relationship with his patron and he and Maecenas formed a strong friendship based on mutual respect. It is to Maecenas that Horace dedicates his first two books of the Satires and his Epodes (c. 29 b.c.). Horace was able to return to the country, to a modest Sabine farm (possibly a gift)—a life he loved and used as a backdrop to many of his poems. He politely turned down other government positions offered him by Octavian, now known as Augustus, but with the death of Virgil, Horace became the nation's unofficial poet laureate—evidenced in part by his commission in 17 b.c. to write the Carmen Saeculare (Secular Hymn), in honor of the revival in Rome of the Secular Games. Horace outlived Maecenas by only a few months and is buried beside him.

Major Works

There is considerable debate among scholars about the dating of much of Horace's work. Historical references and allusions sometimes indicate a likely date, but often not a definitive one. Analysis of his meter in terms of line length and syllable count also yields clues, but it is unlikely that critics will ever completely agree on absolute dates. Horace's first volume of Satires consists of ten poems in hexameter verse, their subject matter usually involving the poet's praise for balance in everything and disdain for public life and ambition. One of his best-known edicts from this work is “There is measure in everything. There are fixed limits beyond which and short of which right cannot find resting-place.” The second volume of Satires contains eight poems, mostly in the form of dialogues, and may have been published slightly after the Epodes, a work of seventeen poems—mostly iambics written in the manner of Archilochus—in which Horace expounds on political and social problems, pokes fun at various acquaintances, and remembers the battle in which Antony and Cleopatra were vanquished by Octavian. Books I through III of the Odes are generally believed to have been published together around 23 b.c. although their date of creation undoubtedly spans many years. These Odes, widely considered Horace's masterwork, comprise eighty-eight poems in the meter of the Greek poets Alcaeus and Sappho; their subject matter concerns personal relationships and practical philosophy. The fifteen odes which form the fourth volume were published around 13 b.c. Two volumes of Epistles date from about 20 b.c. and 15 b.c. In hexameter verse Horace adopts what seems to be a casual, conversational tone to express his concerns regarding a moral life. The dating of his most famous epistle, the Ars Poetica, is problematic, ranging from 19 b.c. to 10 b.c. It contains numerous maxims intended to guide poets, for example: “It is when I struggle to be brief that I become unintelligible”; “You may gain the finest effects in language by the skillful setting which makes a well-known word new”; “If you wish to draw tears from me, you must first feel pain yourself”; and “To poets to be second-rate is a privilege which nether men, nor gods, nor bookstalls ever allowed.”

Critical Reception

Horace was revered in his own lifetime and many of his poems were analyzed in academies. For centuries no one improved on his efforts in using Greek meter in Latin. After a lengthy period of relative neglect, vigorous interest in Horace's poetry was reawakened during the Renaissance, and Horace’s works remained influential and extremely praised through the nineteenth century. With the demise of Latin courses in modern times, public appreciation of his work has declined and his poetry is now chiefly the province of scholars. Horace, with typical self-mockery, acknowledged that he was not the most original or most inspired of poets; while recognizing this, critics find much to praise in him, particularly his ability to come across as a friend to his readers, his lack of bitterness, and his mastery of stanzaic meter. Moses Stephen Slaughter writes: “His thought, never very original or very intense, has long since become absorbed in the common thought of the world, but his happy expression of it can never be neglected or forgotten.” Taking a historical/political view, Grant Showerman writes that Horace’s work “is the eloquent record of the life of Rome in an age which for intensity is unparalleled in the annals of the ancient world.”

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Satires Book I (poetry) c. 35 b.c.

Satires Book II (poetry) c. 30 b.c.

Epodes (poetry) c. 29 b.c.

Odes Books I-III (poetry) c. 23 b.c.

Epistles Book I (poetry) c. 20 b.c.

Ars Poetica [On the Art of Poetry] (poetry) c. 19 b.c.

Carmen Saeculare [Secular Hymn] (hymn) 17 b.c.

Epistles Book II (poetry) c. 15 b.c.

Odes Book IV (poetry) c. 13 b.c.

Odes and Epodes of Horace (translated by Joseph P. Clancy) 1960

Satires and Epistles of Horace (translated by Smith Palmer Bovie) 1962

Third Book of Horace's Odes (translated by Gordon Williams) 1969

The Odes and Epodes (translated by C. E. Bennett) 1991

Satires I (translated by P. Michael Brown) 1993

Epodes (translated by David Mankin) 1995

The Odes of Horace (translated by David Ferry) 1998

The Complete Odes and Satires of Horace (translated by Sidney Alexander) 1999

Clement Lawrence Smith (essay date 1895)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Odes and Epodes of Horace, Ginn & Company, Publishers, 1895, pp. ix-lxxxvii.

[In the following excerpt, Smith discusses Horace's life—including his education, time served in Brutus's army, friendship with Maecenas, and political views—and provides an overview on his works and manuscripts.]



1. Our knowledge of the facts of Horace's life is derived in part from a biography, appended to certain manuscripts of his poems, which has been shown by conclusive evidence to be, in substance, the life of the poet which Suetonius wrote in his encyclopedic work,...

(The entire section is 9389 words.)

W. Y. Sellar (essay date 1899)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Horace as a Lyrical Poet” in The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age: Horace and the Elegiac Poets, Clarendon Press, 1899, pp. 133-99.

[In the following excerpt, Sellar examines and rates the merits of The Odes, discusses why there is such a wide range of opinion among Horace's critics, and analyzes how Horace achieves his desired tone and effects.]



It is for his Odes that Horace claims immortality, and it is to them that he chiefly owes it. Scarcely any work in any literature has been so widely and so familiarly known. Almost from the time of their author's death, they became what they have...

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J. W. Mackail (essay date 1908)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Horace” in Latin Literature, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1908, pp. 106-19.

[In the following essay, Mackail compares and contrasts Vergil and Horace, evaluates Horace's work, and explains how, with a mixture of luck, skill, and genius, Horace both perfected the Latin lyric and stopped its progress.]

In that great turning-point of the world's history marked by the establishment of the Roman Empire, the position of Virgil is so unique because he looks almost equally forwards and backwards. His attitude towards his own age is that of one who was in it rather than of it. On the one hand is his intense feeling for antiquity, based on and reinforced by that immense...

(The entire section is 4584 words.)

Archibald Geikie (essay date 1912)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The ‘Divini Gloria Buris’—Lucretius, Virgil, Horace” in The Love of Nature among the Romans: During the Later Decades of the Republic and the First Century of the Empire, John Murray, 1912, pp. 50-82.

[In the following essay, Geikie explores the influence that country life had on Horace's poetry, both during his childhood years and in his adulthood, while he was living on a farm given to him by Maecenas.]

… As another remarkable example of the influence of an early life in the country upon a poetic temperament we may look at the case of Horace (b.c. 65-8). His birthplace lay not in a luxuriant plain, like that of Virgil, but at Venusia, in a...

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J. F. D’Alton (essay date 1917)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Literary Criticism” in Horace and His Age: A Study in Historical Background, Longmans, Green and Co., 1917, pp. 250-91.

[In the following essay, D’Alton examines Horace as a critic—judging his abilities and considering his influence, theories, standards, and models—and explains how his opinions sometimes differed from those of his contemporaries.]

Horace entered early into the arena of literary criticism. When he returned from Philippi, and was compelled by poverty to take to literature, he essayed a species of poetry, that was invested with an element of danger for a young man aspiring to win an honourable place in Roman Letters. In his Satires, he...

(The entire section is 14601 words.)

R. S. Conway (essay date 1921)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Horace as Poet Laureate” in New Studies of a Great Inheritance: Being Lectures on the Modern Worth of Some Ancient Writers, John Murray, 1921, pp. 44-65.

[In the following essay, Conway commends Horace's poems concerning national events, because the poems demonstrate that Horace steadfastly honored Roman history. Conway notes that Horace praised rulers only so far as they helped mankind, and was not impressed by the superficial, but saw the essence of his subject.]

What do we expect of a Poet Laureate, of a poet who handles national themes?1 He records and he interprets events of national importance. But how does this differ from the function of...

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Grant Showerman (essay date 1922)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Horace Interpreted” in Horace and His Influence. 1922. Reprint. Longmans, Green and Co., 1927, pp. 3-39.

[In the following essay, Showerman profiles Horace as a person, a poet, and an interpreter of his times.]



In estimating the effect of Horace upon his own and later times, we must take into account two aspects of his work. These are, the forms in which he expressed himself, and the substance of which they are the garment. We shall find him distinguished in both; but in the substance of his message we shall find him distinguished by a quality which sets him apart...

(The entire section is 7163 words.)

E. E. Sikes (essay date 1923)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Roman Criticism—I. From Cicero to Horace” in Roman Poetry, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1923, pp. 27-65.

[In the following excerpt, Sikes surveys the history of Roman literary criticism, examines theories regarding the function of poetry, analyzes the role of meter, and investigates the question of whether poetry is a product of genius or of art.]


It is the veriest commonplace to call the Romans a “practical” race; and no one who knows their achievements in arms and law, in politics and architecture, would disagree. But this unimpeachable truth is often taken to imply that a genius for the practical must be opposed to...

(The entire section is 12842 words.)

Archibald Y. Campbell (essay date 1924)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Experiment—The Epodes” in Horace: A New Interpretation, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1924, pp. 128-46.

[In the following excerpt, Campbell examines the works of Horace while he was a novice poet, and explores his use of invective in the Epodes.]

That the infant Horace was covered by doves with bay and myrtle leaves we need not necessarily believe, but his self-chosen apprenticeship to the Muses must have begun when he was very young. Even his earliest extant compositions—Sat., I. vii., and Epodes, vii. and xvi. and perhaps ii.—though the first is poor in humour and some of the others are even (a strange thing in Horace) diffuse...

(The entire section is 7710 words.)

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight (essay date 1925)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Augustus and Horace” in Horace and His Art of Enjoyment, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1925, pp. 64-82.

[In the following essay, Haight explores the impact of Augustus's rule and policies on Horace, who became the “quasi-official laureate of the Empire.”]


The epoch in which Horace was to pass the remaining years of his life stands out like the Age of Pericles, the Florence of the Medici, the time of Louis Fourteenth, the Elizabethan Age, as a period of creative production that merited the name “Golden.” Unlike the last century of the Republic and the times of Cicero, it was not a period of tremendous...

(The entire section is 4888 words.)

Moses Stephen Slaughter (essay date 1925)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Horace: An Appreciation” in Roman Portraits, Yale University Press, 1925, pp. 59-82.

[In the following essay, Slaughter examines Horace's character, influences, and merits as a poet, and contends that his ethical qualities and humanity pervade and distinguish his work.]

“To mould the faltering speech of childhood, to fashion the heart of youth by gentle precepts, to be a corrector of harshness, malice, and anger, to portray virtuous actions and by familiar examples train the rising generation, and finally to sustain the weak and console the discouraged,” is the mission of the poet to society as set down by Horace in his latest published work.


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Humbert Wolfe (essay date 1929)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Satire,” The Criterion, Vol. 9, No. XXXIV, October, 1929, pp. 7-22.

[In the following essay, Wolfe lays out the task of the satirist, asserts that he seeks not only judgment but condemnation, and contrasts satire with the lampoon, parody, burlesque, and allegory.]

The satirist holds a place half-way between the preacher and the wit. He has the purpose of the first and uses the weapons of the second. He must both hate and love. For what impels him to write is not less the hatred of wrong and injustice than a love of the right and just. So much he shares with the prophet. But he seeks to affect the minds of men not by the congruities of virtue, but by the...

(The entire section is 5683 words.)

Ezra Pound (essay date 1930)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Horace,” The Criterion, Vol. 9, No. XXXV, January, 1930, pp. 217-27.

[In the following essay, Pound profiles Horace, finding much to assault, but crediting him as “the most skilful metrist among the Latins,” and explaining, with examples, why most attempts to translate Horace fail.]

Neither simple nor passionate, sensuous only in so far as he is a gourmet of food and of language, aere perennius, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, bald-headed, pot-bellied, underbred, sycophantic, less poetic than any other great master of literature, occupies one complete volume of the British Museum Catalogue and about half the bad poetry in English might seem to...

(The entire section is 2805 words.)

Peter Oliver (essay date 1947)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introductory Essay” in Quintus Horatius Flaccus: A Selection of His Works, translated by Fred Bates Lund and Robert Montraville Green, Club of Odd Volumes, 1953, pp. vii-xiv.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1947, Oliver explains that the best way to read Horace is in Latin, but barring this, that it is essential to have the Latin original beside the translation or translations and to avail oneself of commentary and notes.]

The way to enjoy Horace is to read him and not about him, and the way to read him is in Latin. These translations, published by and for the friends of the two translators, at first consideration, then, avail little, for...

(The entire section is 2379 words.)

L. P. Wilkinson (essay date 1951)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Horatian Ode” in Horace & His Lyric Poetry, The University Press, 1951, pp. 123-49.

[In the following excerpt, Wilkinson analyzes the technical aspects of many of Horace's lyrics, outlining their chief characteristics and construction.]

Perhaps it will be best to clear the way for the study of what Horatian lyric is by recollecting what it is not. In the first place, it is rarely ‘lyrical’, being the product of meditation rather than immediate emotion. There are, of course, exceptions, in tone if not in inspiration—I, 19 (Mater saeua Cupidinum), I, 26 (Musis amicus) and IV, 3 (Quem tu, Melpomene), for instance—but they...

(The entire section is 8934 words.)

Steele Commager (essay date 1962)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The World of Nature: Time and Change” in The Odes of Horace: A Critical Study, Yale University Press, 1962, pp. 235-306.

[In the following essay, Commager contends that Horace's nature poetry is not concerned with nature intrinsically, but with that aspect of nature from which one can draw moral lessons.]


Discussions of Horace's treatment of nature have so tended toward the bucolic that the writer whom they present seems more nearly a farmer than a poet. His claim to be a ruris amator (Ep. 1.10.2) has been singled out for acrimonious debate, with the landscape of the second Epode providing...

(The entire section is 6356 words.)

Niall Rudd (essay date 1966)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poet and Patron (1) (I.6)” in The Satires of Horace, University Press, 1966, pp. 36-53.

[In the following excerpt, Rudd examines Horace's relationship with his friend and patron, Maecenas, and explores how Horace dealt with its political ramifications in his poetry.]

1. 6

It is hard for an Englishman, with his long history of civic order, to imagine the almost continuous violence which Rome endured in the last sixty years of the Republic. Sulla, who played a large part in crushing the Italian rebels in 88 b.c., had only just left to take command in the east when Marius and Cinna seized power in Rome. The slaughter of their...

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Noel A. Bonavia-Hunt (essay date 1969)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Horace and His Lyre” in Horace the Minstrel: A Practical and Aesthetic Study of His Aeolic Verse, The Roundwood Press, 1969, pp. 1-38.

[In the following excerpt, Bonavia-Hunt offers evidence that Horace was a musician, that music heavily influenced his lyric verse, and that his Carmen Saeculare was written for singing.]

«Señora, donde ay musica,
no puede aver cosa mala»


The purpose of this Section is to state the case for an affirmative answer to this question. Having done so, I leave it to the Opposition (the majority of scholars and scholiasts) to prove me wrong if it can. Nor do...

(The entire section is 8680 words.)

M. Owen Lee (essay date 1969)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Images” in Word, Sound, and Image in the Odes of Horace, The University of Michigan Press, 1969, pp. 47-58.

[In the following excerpt, Lee examines Horace's use of imagery, particularly the “frightful realism” of his death-connoting images.]

“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor, and this is the one thing that cannot be learned from others.”


Poetry never explains. It simply presents us with rhythmed words. Yet when we have examined the words and sounds in a poem we have not reached its inner life, or touched on the process in the poet...

(The entire section is 3293 words.)

Richard Minadeo (essay date 1982)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Love Odes” in The Golden Plectrum: Sexual Symbolism in Horace's Odes, Rodopi, 1982, pp. 14-64.

[In the following excerpt, Minadeo concentrates on Horace's use of sexual images and symbolism.]

Horace was an orderly lyrist. Each of his first nine odes is dressed in a distinct meter, the nine comprising all of the major verse forms to follow. Similarly, the nine furnish the essentials of the work's sexual symbolism. As was Horace's evident plan, the fifth and ninth odes would suffice for a preview of the symbolism, but, in view of its superb corroborative effect, I shall also include the eleventh in my own introduction.

We start with the...

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David H. Porter (essay date 1987)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Larger Context: Epodes, Odes 1-3, Odes 4” in Horace's Poetic Journey: A Reading of Odes 1-3, Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 254-73.

[In the following excerpt, Porter explores the complexities of Odes 1-3 and describes them as standing midway between the Epodes and Ode 4 in terms of movement and theme.]

In conclusion we may briefly view Odes 1-3 in the larger context of Horace's total lyric output. In composition and publication the collection falls chronologically between the Epodes, which Horace completed around 30 b.c., and Odes 4, which Horace completed probably in 13 b.c., and we shall...

(The entire section is 6869 words.)

David Armstrong (essay date 1989)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Later Life and Works” in Horace, Yale University Press, 1989, pp. 117-62.

[In the following excerpt, Armstrong focuses on the three poems included in the second book of Horace's Epistles. ]

… After the publication of Odes 4, Horace may have ceased to write. He died on November 27, 8 b.c., shortly after Maecenas's death in the same year. So his promise in Odes 2.17 to accompany Maecenas on every road, even the last, came true; whether from grief or by coincidence, there is no evidence. One thing about his death sounds strange for a Roman who figured in business and society as importantly as Horace did. Death came to him suddenly,...

(The entire section is 3555 words.)

Kirk Freudenburg (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Horatian Satire and the Conventions of Popular Drama” in The Walking Muse: Horace on the Theory of Satire, 1993, pp. 3-51.

[In the following essay, Freudenburg discusses Horace's use of satiric persona, the influence of Bion on his satire, and his handling of the diatribe.]


“The poet's work may be a mask, a dramatized conventionalization, but it is frequently a conventionalization of his own experiences, his own life. If used with a sense of these distinctions, there is use in biographical study.”1 Since the days of the great “Personal Heresy” debate,...

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Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Cooper, Lane. A Concordance to the Works of Horace. Washington: The Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1916, 593p.

Every word used in Horace's writings, with complete line for context, organized in an alphabetical sequence.

Goad, Caroline. Horace in the English Literature of the Eighteenth Century. 1918. New York: Haskell House Publishers Ltd., 1967, 684p.

Compiles quotes of Horace as used in the works of great writers of the eighteenth century including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Henry Fielding.

Thayer, Mary Rebecca. The Influence of Horace on the Chief English Poets...

(The entire section is 629 words.)