Among the Latin poets, Horace feels the closest to ourselves- which may not be as close as all that. Horace’s metres and the organization of his stanzas are much more accessible, more unbuttoned, than the stately rolling hexameters and sonorous couplets of his colleagues. Many of his poems are also short, which suits our modern attention spans. And what Horace lacks in metrical inventiveness he makes up for in word-play.

            Then there’s the question of personality. There’s a real sense of personality in Horace as opposed to Virgil or Ovid or even Propertius, anonymous inside their ironclad hexameters, ghosts in their own poetic machinery. As Joseph Brodsky said, Horace is “sort of like a solo versus the chorus.”; and if there’s one thing we moderns admire and value above all, it’s the individual personality (whether or not we admire it because we no longer possess it, having been reduced by modernity to our own ghostly chorus of disassociated characters and de-centred subjects is a different question).

 The personality in Horace’s ouevre is, of course, Horace’s own: his famous equanimity; his epicurean detachment, as if the stoicism which was the Official Roman Philosophy- the backbone of the empire- had been surprised on its day off, wearing pyjamas and lolling under the olive trees with a good bottle of wine. There’s a lot of wine in Horace; he was a great vinophile. Which is another reason he’s so attractive to the rest of us. We’d all like to think we could become a great poet and something of a sage by doing nothing more than drinking wine and hanging out with friends at dinner parties

            When we feel that way, we allow ourselves to be fooled by an impersonation rather than a personality. The Horace in the poems is the impression Horace chooses to give us, not the man himself, and even then it’s contradicted by the keen professional pride he can’t help revealing. He goes from describing his “genial talent” in an early ode to claiming he’s written “a work outlasting bronze” in a later one, and you don’t do that sort of thing over dinner. Still, there’s probably some truth in the conventional image. Horace probably was a phlegmatic, easygoing chap, a clubbable sort, at ease with himself and others, and that temperament, not the norm among poets, probably paid a part in his personal success during his lifetime, never mind his artistic success down the ages.

            For Horace was a very successful man. He was born Quintus Horatius Flaccus in 65BC in Apulia, in the deep south of Italy, which is as provincial as you can get. His father was well-off enough to send the young Horace to Rome and then to Athens for his education. But Horace was neither wealthy nor powerful in his own right, nor did he have any wealthy, powerful connections. He had to carve out his way in the world, so it was all the more unfortunate that he started off by making a bad blunder. He got caught up in the civil war following the assassination of Julius Caesar- the events Shakespeare describes in “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra”. Horace backed the wrong man (Brutus) and ended up on the losing side. Nevertheless, after the war, he managed to get to Rome, find a job in the imperial civil service at the Treasury, become a protégé of Virgil and, through Virgil, meet the aristocratic Maecenas,  chief counsellor to the victorious Emperor Octavian (later named Augustus).

            My guess as to how Horace rescued his career after his youthful gaffe is that his obvious talent and pleasing personality combined to erase the political black mark against him. His life seems to have run smoothly thereafter-at least very little is known about it. Horace seems to have kept his head down, got on with the writing and never missed an opportunity to praise the Emperor. His poetry, unsurprisingly, hymns the virtues of keeping your head down, getting on with the writing or whatever it is you do, and praising the Emperor. In other words, Horace preaches contentment with one’s lot and the advantages of occupying a modest, middle station in life, though it’s important to realize Horace’s idea of a “middle station” has nothing to do with two kids, a mortgage and both parents working flat out to pay the school fees. Maecenas became Horace’s friend and patron giving him, among other gifts, the “Sabine farm” in the Tibur district (now named Tivoli) outside Rome. Thanks to Maecenas, Horace was able to live the way bright, ambitious provincial lads always want to live- like the aristos. Not like the superrich such as Maecenas himself, perhaps, but Horace in his beloved villa certainly lived the life of a country squire, including having the benefit of those useful Roman helpmeets, his own troop of slaves.

            Horace is often called a “private” poet, meaning he didn’t write epics like his friend Virgil. There are plenty of gods and heroes in Horace’s work, but they’re rarely the main protagonists. Horace relegates them to reference points; he uses them as ballast or makes them  the framework for the action, like a frieze around a temple. His favourite subject matter, especially in the Odes which are the summit of his art, is domestic- love affairs; parties; a friend setting out on a journey or grieving for a loved one; the arrogance of the rich; the wiles of femme fatales; homilies on the need for self-discipline and constancy. Either Horace’s subject matter made him into a moralist or he was a moralist by temperament, and that determined his subject matter. Horace’s kind of domestic material naturally goes along with moralising, and not only for poets, as anyone knows who’s listened to housewives gossiping across a garden fence. His poems often take the form Situation-Moral or Anecdote-Moral; or sometimes it’s the other way around as in Moral-followed by-Supporting Situation or Supporting Example.

            There’s one important exception to this view of Horace: he wasn’t a sexual moralist. That may seem like a pretty major exception, since nowadays we associate moralising almost  exclusively with sexual matters. Sexually speaking, Horace was a sexist, a patriarch, promiscuous, amoral, pathologically guiltless, a sexual predator  etc. etc. By modern standards he was probably a full-blown rapist: he certainly believed slaves constituted a sort of sexual free-for-all. But then Horace didn’t live by modern standards. He lived by the standards of pre-Christian Rome and by those standards his views on sex were about average.

           The interesting things about people are not how they conform to the average but how and where they depart from it. At first sight, Horace’s non-sexual moralising doesn’t seem like much of a departure either. His precepts are fairly basic. Moderation in all things. Time and tide wait for no man. Be content with what you’ve got. Life is short and youth and beauty are no defense against decay and death. In my schooldays, these were the hoary old cliches of the Latin lesson. Nowadays I doubt they even rate a mention by any self-respecting teacher. So it’s hard for us to realize how original, even revolutionary, they were when Horace first put them in his poetry.

They were revolutionary because they were appeals to reason, which is basically all that Horatian morality consists of.  And reason was still a relatively new (and hard-won) faculty in the ancient world. In Rome, reason- in the sense of reasonable behaviour- was more like the occasional exception to the rage, lust, rapine and murder that were as prominent features of The Glory That Was Rome as Roman law or the Pax Romana-  not least among the Emperors themselves. The ego’s mastery of the id  in the classical world was still a tentative thing, constantly breaking down and giving way to uncontrolled acting out of appetites, or for that matter, perversions. You could poison your rival, rape his wife and kidnap his children, then wipe the slate clean with a cult act, a going-through-the-motions offering to the gods. Socrates was the first to attack this mythical escape clause by bringing the new tool of reason, whose novelty gave it a psychological force it’s long since lost, to bear on concepts such as “virtue” or “courage”, turning them into building blocks his interlocutors could use to construct their own code of conduct. For Socrates, the good life turns out to be the rational life which turns out to be the moral life. That was like exploding a bomb under the ancient world view, albeit a bomb which never quite went off.

 Horace represents a later stage in this same process. Over and over again, he presents his readers with the same patient analysis, the same simple points, constantly repeated. Youth and good looks aren’t permanent. Feelings and fortunes change. Wealth is no protection. Old age and death are inevitable. What goes around comes around and if you treat your girlfriends-or your boyfriends-badly, remember the day will come when they’ll treat you the same way. This is reason giving birth to morality right in front of your eyes, then using poetry to install the rythmic roots of conscience. In technical terms, it’s Socratic and post-Socratic philosophic piety made accessible and entertaining for the man in the street or, more likely, the man in the Senate. If it seems cliched to us, if we absorb this sort of stuff in our cradles, the Romans were learning it for the first time in a world where force ruled and there was more blood and semen than is dreamt of by today’s tabloid press.

Why does the lesson have to be so simple and repetitive? Because that’s the only way the mind learns when it’s dealing with the instincts. At that level, the brain is still a primitive mechanism. It can only learn a few simple things and then only through endless repetition. Ask anyone who’s tried to give up an addiction, or even a cherished habit.

            Which doesn’t mean the Romans were the same as us. The Romans were different from us not just because they wore togas and didn’t get to fly in jumbo jets. Their consciousness was different, which means the difference was qualitative. Take Horace’s use of proper names for instance. Horace’s poems are full of named individuals but only rarely does he call them by their real names. For the most part, he uses aliases which are conventional, generic names- like calling every Englishman Smith or Jones or all Frenchwomen Brigitte. Writers don’t do that sort of thing by accident. Horace does it because it reflects his Roman view of what it means to be an individual, which is a more collective individuality than our own view. Horace emphasises what people have in common rather than what is personal and particular to each of us.

To put it another way, Horace sees individuals as human beings rather than human beings as individuals-and he sees them from the outside. His people are first and foremost creations of nature, both as living organisms and then as organisms shaped by nature’s categorical imperatives such as space and, above all for Horace, time. What interests Horace about any individual-and it was part of what interested Shakespeare about them too- is what we tend to think of as the broader background- life and death; youth and age; love and the end of love; health and sickness; happiness and grief; and so on. Of course, these conditions are the same for everyone, hence the generic names. For Horace, each man is interesting primarily as Everyman and each woman as Everywoman.

             Totally different from our modern idea. Where we see individuals as the independent creations of character (and some of us go further and see character as the creation of the unconscious mind or the family psychodrama, though this remains disputed in conservative circles), Horace saw them as the uniform creations of nature. His Lydias and Ligurinuses and Cyruses are differentiated, one from another, by their situations, the stories they’re involved in, sometimes by a physical description- but never by what we call character. They’re hollow, straw men and women,; but that doesn’t bother either Horace or us when we read him any more than it bothers us to see a pride of lions or a flock of sheep and not to know what each individual animal thinks and feels.

            Why doesn’t it bother us? Because we’re used to seeing animals as generic rather than individual, as embedded in nature. Now it’s been said that the one thing all poets have in common is a conviction of the superiority of nature over mankind. The great gift his historical period gave to Horace- and again something of the same is true of Shakespeare- is that Horace didn’t have to make the choice between man and nature, or even feel there was any gap between the two. Nobody sufffers from alienation in Horace. His people may be light on character but they’re rich, loaded when it comes to meaning which they come by naturally, as their birthright. In the golden moment Horace was lucky enough to live in and genius enough to write down, men are no longer myth-dominated playthings of the gods but not yet the god-dominated cyphers of the church- let alone modernity’s isolated subjects sputtering to extinction in an alien cosmos. They occupy a space, like a time out- they’ve been given a breather.

In Horace, the old gods have been reduced to signposts, to astrological referees. He still respects them but human life- and the human craving for a meaning to life- no longer rests on their frequently lethal whims. Men have come down to earth and live in harmony with nature- how could it be otherwise since we are a part of nature and no more than a compendium or quod est demonstrandum of nature’s laws? All we need to do is recognise who we are by keeping in mind some simple principles of detachment and right-mindedness (the similarity with Buddhist teaching is striking) that Horace will be happy to teach to us. Then, if a man walks out of his house and is frightened by coming face to face with a wolf, well, that’s as it should be. That’s what wolves are for. And if the man goes on to experience the wolf running away from him while he carries on strolling and singing the praises of his latest mistress- then you’ve got a poem. How delightful! How Horatian!

            The people in Horace’s poetry are like those sculptures where the artist carves the front of his figure from the marble, then stops half way, leaving his creation forever emerging from or retreating back into the rock. Switching the analogy from sculpture to history, the spiritual history of mankind consists of a long, slow, erratic- and often painful- withdrawal and relocation of meaning from Out There to In Here, starting with a world of myth and participation mystique, which then gives birth via a sort of Caeserean section to man as the measure of all things in the Renaissance and on down to our own, less than merry band of de-centred subjects and commodity fetishists. This anti-history of the spirit intersects with History as we know it, with the history of the body which a great historian defined as “the persistent and increasing capacity of the human species to control the forces of nature by means of manual and mental labour, technology and the organization of production.” Exactly how these two histories relate to one another no one knows for sure, but our poet, Horace, occupies one of the rare moments of equilibrium in the process. It wasn’t one of the most famous moments like Athenian Greece or Renaissance Italy, but it was one of the sweetest.

Bittersweet is a better word, since Horace was acutely aware that nothing in life was perfect or unchanging. You might even say that was his one Big Idea. As things turned out, his one Big Idea was enough. Not a lot different happened for the next 1,500 years, from Rome to the Renaissance- or from Horace to Shakespeare. Christianity makes a sizeable technical adjustment but that’s all it is. There’s no return to primitive participation mystique or Homeric Olympian Fascism. The individual retains his hard-won but, from our viewpoint, partial individuality and makes his slow journey towards greater differentiation as a type (see, for example, Chaucer’s pilgrims). Meanwhile, the (bitter)sweetness evaporates and the worm enters the bud: meaning is increasingly shadowed by Christian guilt, which is kind of an overcorrection of Horace who can be like eating too many sweets, resulting in indigestion. Horace is a little too sanguine, a litle too smug, and a lot too pleased with Caesar Augustus for our tastes. We find it hard to deal with a poet who so blithely ignores passion, tragedy, despair, violence and all the manifold evils in the world that can’t be dispelled by a glass of the best vintage and some wise advice about taking the long view and keeping things in perspective.

            In other words, we tend to prefer Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the next great leap forward in poetic consciousness. Shakespeare can do the same sort of poetry Horace did, but he can do something else as well. He can do you the music of the spheres or the seven ages of man which is the Horatian note. But he can also do Lear weeping for his dead daughter or Othello’s jealous rage, and that’s new. Shakespeare’s characters are just that- characters- individuals with their own names who at the same time keep all the old links, the old meaning-connection to the universe as a whole. If Horace sees individuals through the prism of the world and time and they tend to come across in outline (all that backlighting!), Shakespeare sees the world and time through the individual. That’s the Shakespearean Big Idea or Big Picture. Lear stumbles out on to the heath half-mad with rage and it’s all for good psychological reasons, recognizable motives. But at the same time, his situation also has a cosmic dimension. The storm rages as he rages. The king foolishly relinquishes his crown and the cosmic balance totters. Sometimes the times are out of joint. Man and the universe are still related, as they were to Horace, but the link between them is no longer an automatic, easygoing harmony. It’s something more complex, darker, and there are men who will gamble their lives to defy their fate.




            Are we getting too far away from Horace? Worse still, are we buying the dissimulation or the disinformation or their low-rent cousin, the spin, that Horace himself set in motion? Because Horace is the one who insisted he was a “private poet” in the first place. The actual evidence is not so clear. Horace probably wrote as many or more political poems and poems about the gods as he did poems about himself and his friends. It’s Horace who claims he’s not so good at public themes, who stresses “the peaceable music of my cithara” and says the battlefields he’s best at singing about are parties. We believe him because it suits our prejudices. A lot of his political poetry strikes us as stock patriotism, state art, imperial flattery written to order; while the poems  about the gods read like what Brodsky called “filler”.

We’re wrong on both counts. Where the gods are concerned, the ancients had a serious intellectual and emotional investment in mythology. That investment may have been less than a living faith by the time we get to Horace, but it was certainly more than mere decoration- which is how we tend to treat the reams of mythological references supplied by Horace and his fellow classics.

            The same goes for Horace’s political poems. Irony is the wrong spirit in which to approach them. Do Horace the courtesy of assuming he meant every word he wrote and his politics become a whole lot more interesting, not least because a lot of what he wrote is contradictory. Like his friend Virgil, who was five years his senior, Horace was political by circumstance, like it or not. His Roman generation was the equivalent of Europeans who grew up in the 1930s. Italy (that perpetual anchronism) was in the middle of a civil war, or rather of a series of civil wars since these were not civil wars in the modern sense but factional conflicts, armed jockeyings for power among the great and the not-so-good like the English Wars of the Roses. Like the Wars of the Roses, too, they marked a turning point in the history of the society, and were recognised as doing so at the time. The Roman wars Horace lived through- only a small part of the total since one authority counts a staggering twelve full-scale civil wars along with numerous massacres and assorted mayhem in the 100 years before 31BC- were the famous events Shakespeare covers in ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. In 48BC Casear defeated Pompey and declared himself dictator for life. In 44BC he was assassinated by Brutus and Cassius who promptly went on the run and raised an army including the 21-year-old Horace, then a postgraduate in Athens. They were defeated in 42BC by Caesar’s grand-nephew Octavian and Marc Antony at the battle of Philippi.

            At Philippi, Horace tells us, he threw down his shield and ran for his life along with thousands of others once they knew they day was lost. But it took another twelve years-until Horace was 32- finally to decide who would hold supreme power. In 31BC Octavian defeated Marc Antony and his mistress Cleopatra in the naval battle of Actium and scooped the pool (though even after that, Octavian still had to beat Antony again on land the following year). Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. There followed the long, stable reign of Augustus (the title the Senate gave Octavian), though it’s safe to say quite a few more years must have passed before law and order was restored to a countryside that had been lawless and war-ravaged for so long.

            Historians see Augustus’s reign either as the high noon of the Roman Empire or the beginning of the end for Rome, the start of five centuries of decline ending in the famous Fall. The basic reason for this clash of opinion is ideological. The civil war finally finished off the Roman Republic in favour of Imperial rule. Ever since, the Republic has had the glamour of a lost cause. John Stuart Mill saw its defeat as the death of freedom in the ancient world and the 21-year-old Horace would have agreed with him- that’s why he joined Brutus’s army in the first place. Nowadays we know better. The Republic had nothing to do with freedom, let alone democracy. It was a tight-knit oligarchy made up of super-rich aristocrats who monopolised political power and built the Roman Empire by acting as semi-autonomous warlords, conquering other peoples, then hauling immense amounts of booty and slaves back to Rome. They’ve been aptly described as “one of the most rapacious ruling classes that has ever existed” (though nowadays America’s rich are giving them a literal run for their money). When the Emperors took over from the Republic, it was more like a rationalization of the Empire than the death of freedom. The difference between Republic and Empire was like the difference between a gang of freelance crooks and a single criminal mastermind. The oligarchs kept their wealth and power and went on increasing it; only politically, there was now a centralized state with an ever-expanding bureaucracy, a professional army instead of a conscript army and so on and

 so forth.

            So how did Horace deal with a life half of which was spent amid civil war and disorder and the other half under a peace imposed by his old enemies, Octavian and co.? Well, for one thing, Horace had his father’s example to follow. Horace senior had been taken into slavery as the result of a previous civil war- probably because the area he lived in supported the losing side rather than because of anything Horace snr. did himself- but he regained his freedom, made some money and ended up owning modest property and slaves of his own. Horace senior’s career was by no means exceptional for the times. As we said, the wars were factional rather than civil wars as such, and changing sides with the prevailing wind was considered a practical necessity rather than a personal betrayal. Our Horace, Horace junior, was helped too by the character of Octavian, who was a ruthless killer but a skilful politician. Octavian tailored his killing to his political aims. After Philippi, he declared an amnesty for his opponents. Horace took advantage of it in order to return to Rome and launch his own career.

            As a rising poet, Horace couldn’t hide in anonymity or sit on the fence, hard as he tried. We watch him repeatedly sidestepping the inevitable demands to write in praise of Augustus (later on, he made up for lost time). That’s when he creates the legend of his “private” talent. He’d love to oblige but battles and affairs of state are beyond him. He’s really only good at rendering Greek meters into Latin and writing about love affairs and parties. Horace promotes this self-image so assiduously that we’re shocked when we find him telling a friend who is in mourning to pull himself together and concentrate on Caesar’s recent victories as an antidote for his grief.

            In fact Horace, no less than Virgil, was a political and national poet to his fingertips. And Roman nationalism was a singularly blatant and forthright affair:

                           Apollo guard us from the wretched plague

                            From hunger and from war the cause of tears    

                                      And bring them down upon 

                                      The Parthians and the Britons.


            Likewise Roman imperialism:

So long may warlike Romans in their triumph

Lay down the Roman law to conquered Medes

Let the name of Rome be heard across the sea


Let the Romans go to the limits of the world


Not for the sake of plunder but for the sake

                            Of extending Roman knowledge everywhere


Those last two lines are the excuse, the cover story the Romans told themselves. We in the West have given them far too much credence down the centuries, no doubt because we’ve felt the imperial itch ourselves and used the exact same cover story to justify it. It’s to Horace’s credit that he’s too great a poet to believe in his own rhetoric. For the most part,, the picture of Roman imperialism he gives us is stark and realistically bloody. Empire-building in Horace is a matter of brute force, smiting the barbarians in battle, crushing them beneath your feet, then dragging them back in chains to Rome for the triumphal procession- and then going out and doing it all over again until Rome is the sole ruler of the world.

Ancient Rome was a war machine, a conquest state in V. G. Kiernan’s phrase. That was its whole raison d’etre. When Horace tells his patron Maecenas to take a break from the affairs of state, the affairs he means are these- which tribes still haven’t been conquered? Which are the next wars to fight? And as for why any individual Roman joins the war machine, Horace is equally blunt about their motives in the ode to Iccius. Iccius has his “eye on/getting your share of the rich/exotic treasures that Eastern/Kingdoms promise the victor.” He’s already “linking the chains to shackle your prisoners”. He wants to return with a slave-girl whose lover he has killed in battle and a boy-slave belonging to some Eastern royal family who will become his “perfumed attentive cupbearer.”

            So much for “extending Roman knowledge everywhere”! Booty and slaves were more like it. But Horace goes farther in uncovering the psychic roots of Empire. For all their outward confidence and triumphalism, societies that turn imperial create deep internal currents of anxiety and unease. These are the currents Horace taps into, putting his criticisms of Roman society alongside his master-race encomiums, often in the same poem. Horace began his career as a social critic with his (fairly toothless) Satires. In maturity, his tone is less satirical than pedagogical, schoolmasterly. But his seemingly neutral nostrums turn out to be the basis for an all-out assault on the greed and degenerate nature of the Roman aristocracy, the very people who created and ran the Empire and not insignificantly, the same class who created Horace’s career and included his patrons and friends .

            Horace never tired of attacking them. It’s inflammatory stuff,  biting the hand that feeds you, although Horace was careful to keep his criticisms general and his praise of his actual patrons like Maecenas and of the Emperor Augustus himself fulsome and particular. But Horace leaves no doubt something is rotten in the state of Rome. We know what Horace wants Rome to be like because he tells us. He wants a return to the original Roman spirit- which his readers would have taken as code for the spirit of the Roman Republic, although it wasn’t healthy to say so outright. That original spirit was supposed to be stern, self-reliant, austere to the point of asceticism, always putting civic duty before personal greed.

In other words, it was a fantasy but in the hands of many writers over the last two millenia, Horace being one of the first, the fantasy has deeply coloured how we think of Rome, even today. A few years ago, the film “Gladiator” retailed the same fantasy, the same opposition between a brave, self-sacrificing, soldierly “noblest Roman of them all” whose life is destroyed by the corrupt, luxurious, decadent and power-mad intriguers of the aristocracy and the imperial court. In the film, the Good Rome has become the Rome of one of the better Emperors (Marcus Aurelius) rather than the Republic, but then politics have never been Hollywood’s strong point..

            They weren’t really Horace’s strong point either. The trouble with harking back to some original, pristine Roman spirit- and as I’ve said Horace is far from the only person to do this- is that  selfsame spirit created the luxury and decadence you want to use it to condemn. Horace never argues for a smaller, humbler Rome. He was a convinced imperialist, second to none in his enthusiasm for Rome uber alles. He never questioned the existence of the Empire. He just wanted it to be a different sort of Empire, a vehicle for “extending Roman knowledge” rather than an aggressive military enterprise whose aims were plunder and world domination.

             We have a name for people who tie themselves in this sort of political Gordian knot: it’s called being bourgeois or middle-class. And Horace was middle-class to his fingertips, the quintessential not very well-born lad from the sticks whose talents are recognized and who gets taken up by the rich. It’s never a completely comfortable position to find yourself in, then or now, and it was worse for Horace who was more or less on his own. When he looked around for a social group he could identify with, the only people he could find were the small, independent farmers- traditionally, the Republican ideal. Like Wordsworth in similar historical circumstances a couple of thousand years later, Horace on his Sabine farm chose to identify with a class that was already on its way out. By Horace’s time, the Roman imperial machine had already ground up and digested its own base. All those sturdy smallholders, those exemplars of the very Roman virtues Horace admires and never stops recommending- they’re toast. They’ve been forced off the land. Roman Italy has become a country of huge estates, owned by the aristocracy and worked by an army of slaves whose numbers have been estimated as high as two million.

            Middle-class politics end up as moralising because they’ve nowhere else to go. If you’re middle-class, you can’t just cheerfully exploit the system like the upper classes: it’s not your system and in any case chances are you’re being exploited yourself to a greater or lesser extent. You know what exploitation means, at any rate. On the other hand, you’ve too much invested in the status quo-and you’re too frightened of losing it- to agitate for the system’s overthrow or throw in your lot with the poor and huddled masses. In the end, like Horace, you’re left rather fruitlessly trying to persuade ruthless exploiters to behave less like ruthless exploiters, fat cats unlike fat cats  and so on.

            Horace may not have much to teach us politically. But politics’ loss turned out to be religion’s gain. Everything we know about Horace (admittedly not much) suggests he was a man with little or no interest in spiritual matters. But I want to argue that, as it were despite himself, Horace is a significant figure in the history of religion. The reason is his treatment of death. Death is Horace’s trump card and one he plays relentlessly. Whether he’s acting as an adviser for private life, a sort of agony uncle to his friends and their love affairs, or as a social and political critic, a Voice of Rome, his key argument is always the same: we’re all going to die and you need to keep that in mind and tailor your actions and your life accordingly.

There’s no point in piling up gold and building magnificent mansions overlooking the river- you’re still going to die. There’s no point in spending your life looking out for number one when you’ll die in the end and the people who’ll benefit will be your heirs who never cared about you anyway. Over and over again, Horace repeats the same point. If you’re looking for certainty in life, then death is the only certainty. Death is all there is (and if you’re wondering why he didn’t say “death and taxes” it’s because, thanks to the profits from the Empire, the Romans didn’t pay taxes).

            Now, death was a very touchy subject in the ancient world. The ancients had a well-developed idea of death, developed over centuries all the way back to Homer. The main elements of this conception were: death is final and death is also dreadful. It’s not mere oblivion. It’s worse than that. When you die, you go to Hades where you remain yourself-as it were- but a lifeless you, a shade, a wraith. When Odysseus visits Hades in ‘The Odyssey’ and meets and tries to comfort the shade of Achilles, he receives the following, famous reply:

                          No winning words about death to me , shining Odyssues!

                          By god, I’d rather be a slave on earth to another man-

                          Some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive    

                          Than rule down here over all the breathless dead. 

That’s how bad death was- a terrible shadow life, a living death wandering around Pluto’s halls mourning and craving for the life you used to have and now have lost forever. When Odysseus summons the shades to speak to them, he does it by sacrificing a ram. The blood attracts the dead. They swarm round trying to get at the hot, steaming blood which is what they lack. “Empty, flitting shades” according to the sorceress Circe who is helping Odysseus at this point. It’s a grim picture.

            Horace isn’t the kind of man to dwell on the horrors. He prefers to give us death as an abstraction. With him it’s just “death” or sometimes “death indomitable” or “death’s black fire”. When he wants to evoke the details, he settles for a mythological reference to Cerebrus or Prometheus or Ixion and leaves it his readers to call up the picture for themselves. Still, there’s nothing to suggest Horace held any but the conventional, classical view of death. Which is why, when he moves towards a new view, he does so unconsciously and because that’s where his logic takes him. Because Horace is so determined to use death as a moral touchstone, a moral ruler, he can’t avoid  raising the issue of social justice. If death is the great leveller, then mustn’t it also be the great equalizer? If the greedy rich man and the long-suffering poor man are both going to die, and to be equal in death, how can they really be equal without some balancing of the scales between them? Some kind of divine retribution for the rich man along with divine compensation for the poor man?

 Horace takes exactly this position. He takes it tentatively. He takes it in a sketchy way. But he takes it. I’m not saying he has any full-blown concept of social justice, a phrase which wasn’t in the Roman lexicon. The justice Horace refers to isn’t going to come in this world. There’s nothing here to frighten Horace’s patrons or the property-owning classes in general, which of course included Horace himself (Horace takes slavery for granted, though he does distinguish between good and bad masters). Any concept of justice based on death, like Horace’s, inevitably becomes a post-mortem notion, put off until the afterlife, which is why it belongs to the history of religion and not the history of politics. Nevertheless, it’s something new,  a genuine advance. Mortality, their equal subjection to death, makes men into a brotherhood which in turn implies the idea of justice which in turn- and this is its first result, its first actual precipitation into history- requires a much more active afterlife than the ancients had described.

What we start to get in Horace are intimations of something that won’t be fully realized until there have been two more deaths- Horace’s own and, ten years after Horace, the death of an obscure colonial victim of Horace’s beloved Empire, Jesus of Nazareth. It’s going to take a  whole new faith, Christianity, to proclaim this new idea of death and develop it to the point where there’s a heaven as well as a Hades, along with a purgatory, an apocalypse, a Last Judgement and a Resurrection. Still no notion of social justice or social reform. Christianity was careful to avoid any unnecessary clash with the state, rendering unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s. But that package spells the end of the classical world. The classical world can’t and won’t survive its own view of death.

            So Horace is a transitional figure in this and in other ways. If we look at his moralising, only this time at the impulse behind it rather than its content, there too Horace is half way between the Homeric world, which had no interest in ethics, only in fate, and the forthcoming Christian dispensation, which would urge people to love one another actively, to be compassionate towards other people in general and the poor and downtrodden in particular. When Horace preaches morality, it’s on a more elementary basis than Christianity- do unto others as you would be done by- and it’s always for the sake of the moral agent rather than the recipient. According to Horace, you should limit your desires and refrain, as much as possible, from exploiting your fellow human beings, not because you owe them anything, in the way of either love or duty, let alone because God wants it that way, but solely because it’s better for you to do so. You’ll be happier in the long run. As the philosophers from Socrates onwards had argued, the good life is the virtuous life, after all. Horace even gives this conventional wisdom of his day a new, typically Roman twist by equating the virtuous man, the individual of strong moral character, with the true Roman, the man who can contribute most to the Empire- in other words,  the man who can contribute most to the enterprise of exploiting and oppressing his fellow human beings. There are contradictions here Horace doesn’t take on board.

 Even without the contradictions, virtue as self-improvement, rationally calculating the best interests of one’s own soul, was never going to be a powerful enough antidote to the appetites, except for a small minority. Those fabled cooler heads who are able to prevail. There aren’t too many of them in any era. Horace’s moral philosophy isn’t powerful enough now and it certainly wasn’t then in the Age of the rampant Id, when there were far fewer legal or social restraints on behaviour. You need something that goes deeper than reason in that situation- a creed, a conversion experience, something able penetrate into the psyche and really change people. You need a new religion. One of the strong appeals of Christianity was its radically new morality, according to historian Robin Lane Fox,  along with the Christian vision of a kinder, less brutal, more egalitarian society that lay behind the new morality.

Horace never got as far as that. Even if Christ’s life had overlapped with his own by a few more years, Horace wouldn’t have known or cared what was going on in Judea or  Jerusalem.  He was a metropolitan to his fingertips. His interests revolved around Rome, what was happening in Rome, his circle of Roman friends. He was a Roman imperialist, a Roman patriot and a member (in his case, hard-earned) of the Roman upper classes, whatever his criticisms of the values those positions represent. Like Marcus Aurelius, he’s a Roman we find sympathetic to ourselves, who presents Roman ideas and character in their most appealing, if somewhat exceptional, light.

 One of the few pieces of information we have about Horace comes from Suetonius, who  tells us Horace lined his bedroom with mirrors so he could watch himself screwing from every angle. Horace loved youth, beauty, nature, love affairs, his villa, his friends, his lifestyle (or “fortune” as he called it). That’s part of what makes him a sympathetic personality. What makes him an interesting one is that he was as much a stoic as he was a libertine. Or rather, he was equal amounts of both. Disenchantment was his correction to self-indulgence and a life of pleasure-seeking; while pleasure, “accept(ing) the gift of pleasure when it’s given”, was his answer to disenchantment. It’s a tremendously attractive, self-regulating view despite everything it leaves out. If nowadays we are more interested in the things Horace left out- in madness, despair, rage, violence, racism, nihilism to name only a few- then, as every reader of Horace ends up feeling, that isn’t altogether to our credit.

He died when he was 57. There are no likenesses; but Suetonius describes him as short and plump, which I tend to believe if only because short, plump men often make good dancers. I can see Horace as a ballroom dancer, whisking his partner the Muse across the floor, switching effortlessly from quickstep to tango to foxtrot as the music changes and not above throwing in a showy reverse double lock or whatever they’re called when he finds himself in a corner. There’s a sprightly quality about Horace’s verse. He can turn on a dime and does so repeatedly, over and over, in almost every poem.


dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents © mike bygrave 2014