Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known as Horace, was one of the leading poets of Rome during the time when the emperor Augustus came to power. Horace rose from a humble background to become a friend of the influential and the famous. Horace’s well-crafted and polished poems are often witty, and they are filled with good-natured acceptance of human weaknesses—including his own. Many of the poems also contain vivid descriptions of life in Rome and in the countryside. They combine Horace’s thoughts on universal topics, such as love and ambition, with personal details, such as his memories of his father.
The Life of a Poet. Horace was born in Venusia, a southern Italian city known today as Venosa. His father was a freedman, or former slave, who worked as an auctioneer, which provided his family with a good income. Horace’s father took the boy to Rome and arranged for him to receive an education as good as that of most upper-class Romans. For his higher education, Horace went to Athens, where he studied philosophy* and read the works of the Greek poets. Later, he would model much of his own poetry on these Greek poems.
Along with other young Romans in Athens, Horace became involved in the civil war that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. He joined the forces of Marcus Brutus, one of the assassins, and went to Asia Minor with Brutus’s army. In the army, Horace rose to a high position, especially for the son of a former slave. He lost his family fortune, however, when Brutus was defeated and disgraced. Horace returned to Rome and gained a respectable position in Rome’s treasury. He held this job for many years, while devoting his spare time to writing poetry.
* philosophy study of ideas, including science
Horace’s early poems caught the attention of Vergil, one of the leading poets of the day, who became a lifelong friend. Vergil introduced Horace into high literary and social circles. One of Horace’s new acquaintances was Maecenas, a friend and advisor to the emperor Augustus and a noted patron* of the arts. Maecenas became Horace’s patron, ensuring the poet’s financial future. Among other gifts, he provided Horace with a farm in Sabine* territory not far from Rome, and for the rest of his life Horace divided his time between Rome and this much-loved rural retreat. Many of his poems refer to the comforts and delights of living in the country: the peace and quiet, the beauty of the seasons, and the simple way of life. Horace never married.
* patron special guardian, protector or supporter
* Sabine referring to a mountainous region in central Italy, northeast of Rome, and the home of an ancient tribe known as the Sabines
Horace's Works. As far as scholars know, all of Horace’s works survive. He did not write plays or epic* poetry but instead wrote short poems (in several forms) that were published in various collections between 35 and 17 B.C. Since Horace did not title his poems, modern scholars generally refer to his poems by number, although some have acquired unofficial titles over the years.
Horace’s first published book, known today as Satires I, consisted of ten poems. Horace called them Sermones, or conversations, because their tone was casual, almost rambling, like easygoing talks. These poems are actually carefully crafted to display a variety of styles. They are filled with humor and with insights into the writing of poetry. Horace mocks people and their faults and vices, but, unlike other poets of the day, he avoids personal attacks on recognizable individuals. One of the best-known poems from this collection, sometimes called “The Bore,” describes his encounter with a pushy, social-climbing snob.
A few years later, Horace published a second volume of eight satires*. These poems were dialogues* in which Horace poked fun at popular philosophies of his day or praised the joys of country life. Around the same time, he also published a volume of 17 poems called the Epodes. This collection contains his earliest known poems, including several that mourn the destruction caused by the civil wars and wonder about Rome’s future. Some of the poems in this collection present a dark and gloomy view of human nature and the fate of civilization, but others have a brighter tone and offer a vision of a world filled with peace and fellowship.
Horace next turned to lyric* poetry, writing short, expressive poems that captured his thoughts and emotions in vivid images. In 23 B.C., he published 88 odes* in three sets, now known as Odes I~I1I. Later, he published Odes IV, another collection of 15 lyric poems. Some of these poems are addressed to the gods or to figures from Roman legend. A few celebrate the rule of Augustus and his attempt to restore Rome’s ancient rituals, customs, and dignity. One group of poems, from III.1 through III.6, explores the soul of Rome by weaving together past and present, history and myth.
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* satire literary technique that uses wit and sarcasm to expose or ridicule vice and folly
* dialogue text presenting an exchange of ideas between people
* lyric poem expressing personal feelings, often similar in form to a song
* ode lyric poem often addressed to a person or an object
The majority of the odes, however, examine private themes. Some focus on death and human limitations. “Ode IV. 12,” written after the death of Horace’s friend Vergil, remembers the friendship the two poets had once shared. Some of the odes praise the merits of a calm and simple life, urging readers to be satisfied with what they have. “Ode I.11” introduces the phrase carpe diem, or “seize the day”—meaning “make the most of today, for who knows what tomorrow will bring”—and several odes explore this theme. Some of these are drinking songs, and others are love songs.
The odes are probably Horace’s best-known poems, and several modern poets have referred to them or even imitated them in their own work. Often grouped with the odes is a poem called the “Carmen Saeculare,” which Horace wrote at the request of Augustus as the official poem of Rome’s public games in 17 B.C. It is a heartfelt hymn of praise for the peace and order that Augustus restored to Rome in the wake of the civil wars.
The last group of Horace’s works consists of two volumes of poems called the Epistles. Longer than the Odes and written in a conversational style like the Satires, the Epistles take the form of letters. These poems reflect Horace’s advancing age. In one poem, he compares his mature self with his younger self, writing that “My age is not the same, nor is my mind.” The epistles of the first volume are deeply personal poems, reflecting Horace’s concern with philosophical questions, such as how best to lead one’s life.
The second volume of the Epistles contains Horace’s thoughts on poetry and on the poet’s contribution to society. These poems contain entertaining stories about how he first came to write poetry and how he was unable to write in the noise and confusion of Rome. The most famous letter in this volume, “Epistle II.3,” has been known since ancient times as Horace’s Arspoetica, or Art of Poetry. It contains guidelines on selecting appropriate subject matter and style for poems, as well as many other suggestions for those thinking of taking up the poet’s craft. (See also Civil Wars, Roman; Literature, Roman; Patronage; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic; Poetry, Roman.)
POET AND PATRON
Although Horace accepted the gifts of his friend and patron Maecenas, he rejected the traditional relationship between poet and patron. A poet was expected to glorify his patron in verse and to write the kind of poems the patron wanted. Horace did not do this. One of his poems gently but firmly declares his independence from Maecenas. Horace wrote that, while he was grateful to Maecenas, he must remain his own man, even if this meant returning everything his patron had given him. Maecenas must have understood and accepted Horace's position, because in a later poem Horace celebrated the deep and lasting friendship between the two men. After his death, Horace was buried next to Maecenas.