Horatian Self-Representations

Horatian Self-Representations



Horatian Self-Representations

The first person is prominent in all of Horace’s work : ego and its oblique cases occur some 460 times in the 7795 lines of his extant poetry. Indeed, the different poetic genres which constitute his output all seem to have been chosen in part because of the primacy of the poet’s voice : Lucilian sermo with its strong ‘autobiographical’ element, Archilochean iambus with its ‘personal’ invective, Lesbian ‘monodic’ lyric with its prominent ‘I’, and epistolary sermo with its inevitably central letter-writer, further layered in the Ars Poetica with the didactic voice of the instructor. In what follows I want to consider some aspects of the poet’s self-representation in Horace’s work, in particular the deliberate occlusion in his poetic texts of some of the most important events in his biographical life [1] and his sometimes self-deprecating presentation of his poetic status.

The Protected Poet

Apart from the brief information about his schooling (Satires 1.6.71-88, Epistles 2.1.69-71), we hear little of the young Horace apart from one memorable anecdote at Odes 3.4.9-20 :

Me fabulosae Volture in Apulo
nutricis extra limina Pulliae
ludo fatigatumque somno
fronde noua puerum palumbes

texere, mirum quod foret omnibus
quicumque celsae nidum Aceruntiae
saltusque Bantinos et aruum
pingue tenent humilis Forenti,

ut tuto ab atris corpore uiperis
dormirem et ursis, ut premerer sacra
lauroque conlataque myrto,
non sine dis animosus infans.

‘I was covered by miraculous birds with fresh leaves in Apulian Vultur as a boy, when asleep tired out with games, having wandered beyond the bounds of the little villa, which was to be a matter of wonder to all those who occupy the nest of high Acerenza and the glades of Banzi and the plough-land of low-lying Forentium, so that I should sleep on with my body safe from dark vipers and bears, covered by a gathering of bay and myrtle, a child of spirit with the gods on his side’.

Scholars rightly point out that such myths of miraculous preservation in deadly perils of childhood (very real in the ancient world) belong especially to stories about poets, [2] and the reader may legitimately suspect that this episode may not be wholly autobiographical. Yet the traditional form and likely fictionality of the myth is carefully counterbalanced by the reality effect [3] in the minute details of Apulian landscape : this is the only time that the reader of Horace hears about the homely communities around Venosa. Thus we find a clear combination of fantasy and realism which avoids spilling over into one or the other.

A similar technique seems to be operating in the famous encounter with the wolf at Odes 1.22.9-16 :

Namque me silua lupus in Sabina,
dum meam canto Lalagem et ultra
terminum curis uagor expeditis,
fugit inermem,

quale portentum neque militaris
Daunias latis alit aesculetis
nec Iubae tellus generat, leonum

arida nutrix.

‘For a wolf fled from me though I was unarmed in a Sabine wood, as I was singing of my Lalage and wandering beyond my boundary-stone all free from care, such a monster as the military land of Daunus does not breed in its broad oak-groves or the land of Juba, the dry nurse of lions, produce’.

Once again, we may doubt whether such an encounter actually occurred : as commentators observe, the love-struck Horace here enjoys the freedom from harm traditional for lovers, and one might add that the poet is depicted as an amusing anti-Orpheus (wild animals flee his music instead of flocking to it). But once again an element of fantasy is combined with an element of detailed realism : the incident is carefully located on Horace’s Sabine estate or indeed in the wilds near it (matching the boundary-breaking of Odes 3.4.10), and though the wolf is implicitly compared with hyperbolic wit to African lions, [4] the reference to the ‘land of Daunus’ alludes to Horace’s birth-region of Apulia.

A similar lack of clarity can be found concerning another incident in Horace’s life, his escape from a falling tree. In the continued ‘autobiography’ of Odes 3.4, Horace names this amongst the three great perils of his life (3.4.25-8 ), while in Odes 2.17 it is seen as the greatest of them, from which he was saved by Faunus and the protection of Mercury, bringing in another deity whose patronage is claimed more than once (see below) for the poet (2.17.27-30) : [5]

me truncus inlapsus cerebro
sustulerat, nisi Faunus ictum

dextra leuasset, Mercurialium
custos uirorum.

‘I would have been carried off by a tree-trunk collapsing on my head, had not Faunus lightened the blow, the guardian of men under the protection of Mercury’.

In Odes 3.8, on the occasion of the Matronalia which seems to have coincided with the time of the incident (early March), he offers an annual sacrifice of thanksgiving for his deliverance, while in Odes 2.13 a whole poem is devoted to a curse on the tree and to imagining the trip to the Underworld so narrowly avoided. It is hard to believe that the incident is wholly fictional, and the fact that it is not mentioned in the more sober autobiographical details found in the Satires and Epodes might suggest that it took place after it may well have taken place after 30 B.C ; yet the poems offer no fixed date and location for such an important event, a gap which scholars have vainly sought to fill. [6] The symbolic point of the incident (the divine preservation of the protected poet) is clearly more important than its actual place in Horace’s life.

The Poet at War : Philippi, Naulochus and Actium

Horace fought at Philippi in 42 B.C. with the Liberators and against the future Augustus, a record which he does not attempt to conceal (cf. Satires 1.6.48, 1.7, Odes 2.7, Odes 3.14.37-8, Ep.2.2.46-48,), though flattering mention is usually made of the righteous might of the other side. [7] The main account of the battle is to be found in Odes 2.7, judiciously framed as a welcome for a former comrade (perhaps symbolically named Pompeius) returing to Italy via an post-Actium amnesty (2.7.9-14):

Tecum Philippos et celerem fugam
sensi relicta non bene parmula,
cum fracta uirtus et minaces
turpe solum tetigere mento;

sed me per hostis Mercurius celer
denso pauentem sustulit aere …

‘With you I felt the impact of Philippi and our swift flight, shamefully leaving behind my shield, when our courage was broken and those who threatened so touched the lowly ground with their chin; but I was taken away through the enemy’s ranks as I panicked by swift Mercury in a thick mist…’

As commentators have noted, Horace gives a brief and almost mythological account of the battle, and the stress is not on his command of a legion (cf. Satires 1.6.48) but on his loss of his shield, which recalls the similar losses suffered by Archilochus and Alcaeus, two of Horace’s poetic models, [8] and his protector is Mercury, god of poetry, removing him from the battle in a magic mist like a Homeric hero. Thus Horace’s role in a crucial military event is seen through a symbolic and poetic perspective, and we are little wiser about what really happened.

In the list of three main life-dangers in Odes 3.4, mentioned above, the falling tree and Philippi are followed by a Sicilian incident (3.4.25-8):

uestris amicum fontibus et choris
non me Philippis uersa acies retro,
deuota non extinxit arbor
nec Sicula Palinurus unda

‘I, a friend to your springs and dances [Muses], have not been wiped out by the battle-line turned back at Philippi, the accursed tree or Cape Palinurus in the Sicilian sea’.

This is the only allusion to this danger in Horace’s poetry. It seems likely that it belongs to the period of the war against Sextus Pompey and perhaps to the campaign of Naulochus (36 B.C.), in which a great storm at Cape Palinurus which did considerable damage to Caesar’s ships is clearly recorded. [9] If Naulochus is meant here, the final position of this event balancing Philippi at the head of the list might suggest that this time Horace was accompanying the ‘right’ side of the young Caesar. The non-mention in Book 1 of the Satires of any connection with Naulochus is unproblematic, since that book is remarkably reticent about the political situation of the time. [10] But once again an event which was clearly crucial in Horace’s life and perhaps significant in his recently-established position as amicus of Maecenas (Maecenas was at Naulochus, and Horace may well have accompanied him) [11] is recorded in his poetry with tantalising obscurity.

Whether Horace accompanied Maecenas to Actium, on which his poetry gives much more evidence, has been a question much debated by scholars. NISNBET. In the Epodes, published soon after the battle and written with the hindsight of Caesarian victory, Horace begins his poetry-book with a promise to attend his patron to the battle, and adds to this in the book’s central poem what looks like a first-hand report of the battle, both of which strongly suggest that the poet was present with Maecenas.

On the other hand, Odes 1.37 is cast as a celebration from Rome of the victory at Actium, the capture of Alexandria and the suicide of Cleopatra : like Philippi in Odes 2.7, the battle is barely described, and there is no hint of autopsy. Of course, it is more than likely that Horace returned to Italy after Actium and did not go on to the Alexandrian campaign which concluded nine months later (the two are conflated in the ode), but it is surprising that he does not hint at his presence for at least part of the military proceedings he describes. The poetic need for a schematic account of the battle, and the concentration on the end of Cleopatra, here elides any overtly autobiographical reminiscence.

Poet and Patron : Estates and Rewards

Maecenas’ gift to Horace of the Sabine estate was clearly a major event in his life, which gave him both financial independence and access to the relaxed rural life which he so often desiderates in his work. [12] But this event is nowhere directly recorded in the poems, and indirect allusions are so vague that an argument has been made that Horace was never given the farm but bought it himself independently. [13]

One major piece of evidence usually cited is Satires 2.6.1-5 :

Hoc erat in votis: modus agri non ita magnus,
hortus ubi et tecto vicinus iugis aquae fons
et paulum silvae super his foret. auctius atque
di melius fecere. bene est. nil amplius oro,
Maia nate, nisi ut propria haec mihi munera faxis.

‘This was my wish : a measure of land not that large, with a garden and a continuous spring of water, and a small stretch of woodland in addition. The gods have done more generously and better than that. That’s splendid. I awsk for nothing more, Mercury, except to make these gifts truly my own’.

Though his gratitude for the estate and incredulity that it is now his is clear, nowhere here does the poet thank Maecenas, who is not even addressed in the poem (though his friendship for the poet is strongly emphasised in 2.6.30-58). And though allusions to the Sabinum and its wine are common in odes to Maecenas and can easily be interpreted as elegantly understated thanks (Odes 1.9.7, 1.20.1; cf. 3.1.47, 3.4.22), the two further passages which refer to the Sabinum could easily be taken as general or non-committal. At Epodes 1.25-32, in the opening poem to Maecenas. Horace alludes only vaguely to Maecenas’ generosity, though the context of landowning suggests the estate :

libenter hoc et omne militabitur
bellum in tuae spem gratiae,
non ut iuvencis inligata pluribus
aratra nitantur mea
pecusve Calabris ante Sidus fervidum
Lucana mutet pascuis
neque ut superni villa candens Tusculi
Circaea tangat moenia:
satis superque me benignitas tua
ditavit …

‘Gladly I will serve this war and every war in the hope of your favour, not so that my ploughs may be bound to and rest on a greater number of oxen, or so that my herds may change Lucanian pastures for Calabrian before the burning star rises, or so that my bright villa shining high up at Tusculum may touch the walls of Circe. Enough and more than enough has your kindness enriched me …’

The comparative ‘pluribus’, perhaps ‘more than I have now [on my estate]’ is the only real clue that Maecenas’ generosity to Horace has taken the form of land. Equally vague is Odes 2.18.9-14, which again makes the point (without direct reference to Maecenas ) that Horace needs no more than he has been given already :

at fides et ingeni
benigna uena est pauperemque diues
me petit; nihil supra
deos lacesso nec potentem amicum
largiora flagito,
satis beatus unicis Sabinis.

‘But I have loyalty and a generous vein of talent, and a rich man seeks my company, poor though I am : I trouble the gods for nothing more, nor do I ask my powerful friend for greater largesse, rich enough with my single Sabine estate’.

Again the comparative largiora suggests that the rich friend has already shown generosity in the form of the Sabinum and the rich friend is surely Maecenas, but again the overall impression is vague and generalised. As has been recently noted, Horace’s indirection approach to acknowledging the gift of the Sabinum not only shows delicacy towards Maecenas but also serves to conceal the crudely material workings of the client/patron relationship.

The Poet’s Fame : Immortality and Self-Deprecation

The poet’s future fame is a common topic of self-presentation in the poetry of Horace’s middle and later periods (the Odes and Epistles). In Book 4 of the Odes this topic seems especially serious, perhaps owing to the conscious closure of a poetic career and consequent concern with commemoration, but in Odes 1-3 and the first book of Epistles the poet rarely treats this theme without some form of concomitant self-deprecation, one of his most attractive self-presenting strategies..

The future fame of the poet is immediately faced in the opening Ode (1.1.29-36) :

Me doctarum hederae praemia frontium
dis miscent superis, me gelidum nemus
Nympharumque leues cum Satyris chori
secernunt populo, si neque tibias
Euterpe cohibet nec Polyhymnia
Lesboum refugit tendere barbiton.
quod si me lyricis uatibus inseres,

sublimi feriam sidera uertice.

The ivy-wreath, the prize of poetic brows, causes me to mix with the gods above, and I am separated by the cool grove and the light-moving bands of Nymphs with Satyrs from the common people, if Euterpe does not hold back the pipes or Polyhymnia shun to tune the Lesbian lyre. But if you set me amongst the lyric poets, I will strike the stars with my head on high’.

The proud boast of divine fellowship, the patronage of the Muses and the ambition to become a member of the classic canon of lyric poets are lofty ideas, but all are punctured by the sting in the tail : the poet will strike the stars with his head, an incongruously literal picture which suggests a nasty headache. As we shall see, the deflation of grand claims is a topic of these Horatian self-promotions.

Similarly two-edged is the famous picture of Horace as a swan in the final poem of Book 2 of the Odes. Once again air travel is at issue, and the poet begins by presenting himself as a grand poetic bird soaring immortal above earthly trivialities through the fame of his poetry (2.20.1-8) :

Non usitata nec tenui ferar
penna biformis per liquidum aethera
uates neque in terris morabor
longius inuidiaque maior

urbis relinquam. Non ego pauperum
sanguis parentum, non ego quem uocas,
dilecte Maecenas, obibo
nec Stygia cohibebor unda.

‘Not normal or slender is the wing on which I will be carried, a biform poet, through the clear heaven, nor will I linger longer on earth, but bigger than all envy I will leave its cities. I, the son of poor parents, I who am your guest, beloved Maecenas, shall not perish or be held by the water of Styx’.

But in the two central stanzas of this poem this elevated picture is again deflated (2.20.9-16) :

Iam iam residunt cruribus asperae
pelles et album mutor in alitem
superne nascunturque leues
per digitos umerosque plumae.

Iam Daedaleo ocior Icaro
uisam gementis litora Bosphori
Syrtisque Gaetulas canorus
ales Hyperboreosque campos.

‘Now already rough patches of skin settle on my legs; I am being changed into a white bird on top, and smooth feathers are growing from my fingers and shoulders.

A tuneful bird, I shall visit the shores of the moaning Bosphorus, the Gaetulian Syrtes and the Hyperborean plains’.

The poetic swan here becomes jarringly literal, with the physical details of the process of metamorphosis (rough skin, white hair and feathered fingers and shoulders). It also pursues a dubious flight path : comparing oneself to Icarus is not a recipe for a safe flight (as Horace notes at Odes 4.2.1-4), and this perhaps doomed swan will fly not to pleasant climes but to the ship-grave of the Bosphorus, the deserts of Africa and the sterile tundra of Scythia. This is world-wide fame only of a sort; these virtually uninhabited regions are not cultured places or appreciative locales for poetry. Once again immortality is comicised.