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Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), Latin Poet and Satirist
Written by: Archdeacon Farrar, D.D., F.R.S.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus [Horace], Latin poet and satirist, was born near Venusia, in Southern Italy, on December 8, 65 B.C. His father was a manumitted slave, who as a collector of taxes or an auctioneer had saved enough money to buy a small estate, and thus belonged to the same class of small Italian freeholders as the parents of Virgil. Apparently Horace was an only child, and as such received an education almost beyond his father's means; who, instead of sending him to school at Venusia, took him to Rome, provided him with the dress and attendance customary among boys of the upper classes, and sent him to the best masters. At seventeen or eighteen he proceeded to Athens, then the chief school of philosophy, and one of the three great schools of oratory, to complete his education; and he was still there when the murder of Julius Cæsar, March 15, 44 B.C., rekindled the flames of civil war.
In the autumn of this year, Brutus, then proprætor of Macedonia, visited Athens while levying troops. Horace joined his side; and such was the scarcity of Roman officers, that though barely twenty-one, and totally without military experience, he was at once given a high commission. He was present at the battle of Philippi, and joined in the general fight that followed the republican defeat; he found his way back to Italy, and apparently was not thought important enough for proscription by the triumvirate. His property, however, had been confiscated, and he found employment in the lower grade of the civil service to gain a livelihood.
It was at this period that poverty, he says, drove him to make verses. His earliest were chiefly satires and personal lampoons; but it was probably from some of his first lyrical pieces, in which he showed a new mastery of the Roman language, that he became known to Varius and Virgil, who in or about 38 B.C. introduced him to Mæcenas, the confidential minister of Octavianus and a munificent patron of art and letters. The friendship thus formed was uninterrupted till the death of Mæcenas, to whose liberality Horace owed release from business and the gift of the celebrated farm among the Sabine Hills.
From this time forward his life was without marked incident. His springs and summers were generally spent at Rome, where he enjoyed the intimacy of nearly all the most prominent men of the time; his autumns at the Sabine farm, or a small villa which he possessed at Tibur; he sometimes passed the winter in the milder seaside air of Baiæ. Mæcenas introduced him to Augustus, who, according to Suetonius, offered him a place in his own household, which the poet prudently declined. But as the unrivalled lyric poet of the time Horace gradually acquired the position of poet-laureate; and his ode written to command for the celebration of the Secular Games in 17 B.C., with the official odes which followed it on the victories of Tiberius and Drusus, and on the glories of the Augustan age, mark the highest level which this kind of poetry has reached.
On November 27, 8 B.C., he died in his fifty-seventh year. Virgil had died eleven years before. Tibullus and Propertius soon after Virgil. Ovid, still a young man, was the only considerable poet whom he left behind; and with his death the Augustan age of Latin poetry ends.
The following is the list of Horace's works arranged according to the dates which have been most plausibly fixed by scholars. Some of the questions of Horatian chronology, however, are still at issue, and to most of the dates now to be given the word "about" should be prefixed.
The first book of Satires ten in number, his earliest publication, appeared 35 B.C. A second volume of eight satires, showing more maturity and finish than the first, was published 30 B.C.; and about the same time the small collection of lyrics in iambic and composite metres, imitated from the Greek of Archilochus, which is known as the Epodes. In 19 B.C., at the age of forty-six, he produced his greatest work, three books of odes, a small volume which represents the long labor of years, and which placed him at once in the front rank of poets. About the same time, whether before or after remains uncertain, is to be placed his incomparable volume of epistles, which in grace, ease, good sense and wit mark as high a level as the odes do in terseness, melody, and exquisite finish. These two works are Horace's great achievement. The remainder of his writings demand but brief notice. They are the "Carmen Seculare;" a fourth book of odes, with all the perfection of style of the others, but showing a slight decline in freshness; and three more epistles, one, that addressed to Flores, the most charming in its lively and grateful ease of all Horace's familiar writings; the other two, somewhat fragmentary essays in literary criticism. One of them, generally known as the "Ars Poetica," was perhaps left unfinished at his death.
In his youth Horace had been an aristocrat, but his choice of sides was perhaps more the result of accident than of conviction, and he afterward acquiesced without great difficulty in the imperial government. His acquiescence was not at first untempered with regret; and in the odes modern critics have found touches of veiled sarcasm against the new monarchy and even a certain sympathy with the abortive conspiracy of Murena in 22 B.C. But as the empire grew stronger and the advantages which it brought became more evident—the repair of the destruction caused by the civil wars, the organization of government, the development of agriculture and commerce, the establishment at home and abroad of the peace of Rome—his tone passes into real enthusiasm for the new order.
Horace professed himself a follower of the doctrines of Epicurus, which he took as a reasonable mean between the harshness of stoicism and the low morality of the Cyrenaics. In his odes, especially those written on public occasions, he uses, as all public men did, the language of the national religion. But both in religion and in philosophy he remains before all things a man of the world; his satire is more of manners and follies than of vice or impiety; and his excellent sense keeps him always to that "golden mean" in which he sums up the lesson of Epicurus. As a critic he shows the same general good sense, but his criticisms do not profess to be original or to go much beneath the surface. In Greek literature he follows Alexandrian taste; in Latin he represents the tendency of his age to undervalue the earlier efforts of the native genius and lay great stress on the technical finish of his own day.
Virgil, Horace and Varius, at the House of Mæcenas.
From his own lifetime till now Horace has had a popularity unexampled in literature. A hundred generations who have learned him as school-boys have remembered and returned to him in mature age as to a personal friend. He is one of those rare examples, like Julius Cæsar in politics, of genius which ripens late and leaves the more enduring traces. Up to the age of thirty-five his work is still crude and tentative; afterward it is characterized by a jewel finish, an exquisite sense of language which weighs every word accurately and makes every word inevitable and perfect. He was not a profound thinker; his philosophy is rather that of the market-place than of the schools, he does not move among high ideals or subtle emotions. The romantic note which makes Virgil so magical and prophetic a figure at that turning-point of the world's history has no place in Horace; to gain a universal audience he offers nothing more and nothing less than what is universal to mankind. Of the common range of thought and feeling he is perfect and absolute master; and in the graver passages of the epistles, as in the sad and noble cadence of his most fatuous odes, the melancholy temper which underlay his quick and bright humor touches the deepest springs of human nature. Of his style the most perfect criticism was given in the next generation by a single phrase, Horatii curiosa felicitas, of no poet can it be more truly said, in the phrase of the Greek dramatist Agathon, that "skill has an affection for luck and luck for skill." His poetry supplies more phrases which have become proverbial than the rest of Latin literature put together. To suggest a parallel in English literature we must unite in thought the excellences of Pope and Gray with the easy wit and cultured grace of Addison.
Horace's historical position in Latin literature is this: on the one hand, he carried on and perfected the native Roman growth, satire, from the ruder essays of Lucilius, so as to make Roman life from day to day, in city and country, live anew under his pen; on the other hand, he naturalized the metres and manner of the great Greek lyric poets, from Alcæus and Sappho downward. Before Horace Latin lyric poetry is represented almost wholly by the brilliant but technically immature poems of Catullus; after him it ceases to exist. For what he made it he claims, in a studied modesty of phrase but with a just sense of his own merits, an immortality to rival that of Rome.