Carpe Diem! The Politics of Reading Horace

Horace
Horace and a Latin dictionary held together by duct tape.

“What do you make of it?” a thoughtful but nervous professor asked during a graduate Horace seminar.

This was, in my view, an odd question.  Did he know Horace’s odes?  Or was this a new approach to teaching?  Later, when I read his criticism, I was moved by his elegant prose and the depth of his knowledge of Roman poets. I truly think this kind-hearted professor was trying to create an atmosphere conducive to an experimental age. 

It was a time that had flipped everyone upside down. The anti-war protests were over and buildings were no longer seized by students demanding the cessation of funding from the military-industrial complex, but fulminations against “irrelevance” continued to hit enrollment in the liberal arts.  Students fulfilled their two-year language requirement with Latin, then disappeared.  When I was a T.A., some protested that the Latin sentences in Wheelock (the first-year textbook) were hawkish and sexist.  I countered by bringing in love poems by Catullus and Ovid.  And in my upper-level classes, both at the university and later when I taught high school, I taught poetry instead of prose. But Horace was too complex for all but the best students.

odes horace modern libraryHorace is perhaps the most challenging of Latin poets.  In retrospect, it is easiest to cozy up to Horace for coining phrases like carpe diem (seize the day) and aurea mediocitas (the golden mean). We prefer the love and nature poems to the political odes.  Certainly Horace’s political odes, which often celebrate the achievements of Augustus, are so steeped in history and politics that they may exasperate, even seem alien, on a first reading. After years of reading widely in Latin literature, we understand the trauma of the civil wars that tore Rome apart for most of the first century B.C., until Octavian (later known as Augustus) defeated Antony in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. and  became Princeps (“Chief Citizen,” though he was actually emperor). Some readers accuse Horace of brown-nosing to Augustus, but I believe he genuinely admired him.   Of course flattery was necessary and writers learned to tread lightly. The poet Ovid was banished to an island for carmen et error (a poem and an error). Horace made no such error.

It was the “personal” poems of Horace that most appealed on a first reading. And we were delighted by Horace’s advice to relax with wine rather than worry about the future.  (We worried about the future all the time.) Alas, the cheap Chablis we bought at the grocery store was barely potable. Still, we understood the symbolism of wine. And here is my translation of two charming stanzas about wine from Horace’s Ode II.X. (You can read the whole translation at my blog Mirabile Dictu.)

Why do we not loll carelessly
and drink under the tall plane or pine tree,
our white hair fragrant with roses,
and anointed with Syrian

balsam oil, while we may? Bacchus
drives away our gnawing cares. What boy will
more quickly quench the cups of burning Falernian
with flowing water?

Horace’s references to wine have fascinated generations of critics.  Harry Eyres, author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet, the son of a wine merchant, ponders these allusions at length.  Though he does not agree with Boris Johnson that Horace was “a wine snob,” he admires Horace’s knowledge of wine.  Eyres writes,

I think Horace was more than a wine snob; he was a true connoisseur, who knew and cared about wine’s intimate secrets, the different crus and vintages, which mattered as much to the Romans as they do to us….  He was a wine lover, who saw beyond wine as a status symbol to the divine power of wine as a consoler and inspirer of humanity.

ship of state horaceHorace was a master of adapting Greek meters to Latin poetry, translations and adaptations of Greek lyric poetry into Latin verse, and creating an elegant web of syntax that must be unraveled with a spider-architect’s care.  Rex Warner, a classicist and translator, wrote that Horace inspired “enduring affection” in readers but he added,  “This is not to say, however, that he is an easy poet for everyone.  I should suggest too that he, or rather his readers, have often suffered from a too ready acceptance of one or more rather prevalent misconceptions of his aims, his character, and his methods.” 

Carpe diem, open a bottle of cheap wine, and enjoy the odes.