Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace in English), was one of the leading poets of the Augustan Age. He is considered not only the finest of Latin lyric, but, along with Vergil and Ovid, among the greatest Roman poets.
Horace was born at Venusia (mod. Venosa) on 8 December 65 BCE to a former slave who worked for a tax farmer. His father sent him to Rome to be educated by Lucius Orbilius Pupilius, and later Horace went to study Platonism at the Academy in Athens.
During the second civil war, Horace fought against Octavian at the Battle of Philippi—famously memorialized in one of his odes—and thus his lands, like Vergil’s and Tibullus’, were confiscated and given to soldiers.
Horace survived poverty after joining the literary circle under Maecenas, one of Augustus’ closest advisers and a sort of “cultural minister” for the Principate. He gained favor with Augustus, and was appointed to write the Carmen Saeculare for the Ludi Saeculares in 17 BCE, games which were held once every century.
Horace died on the 27th of November, 8 BCE, and left his estate in Licenzia to Augustus.
Horace was a profuse and ornate writer. He first began to publish his Satires (Lat. Satirae) and Epodes (Lat. Epodae) beginning in the 30’s BCE and spanning over a decade. Unlike his later successors Persius and Juvenal, Horace was hardly a “moralist”, and his Satires were witty and clever, taking jabs at caricatures rather than the public at large. Additionally, the Satirae were also called the Sermones, Latin for “conversations”, which better reflects the nature of the poetry.
The Epodes were modeled after Archilochus’, utilizing iambic poetry, though with much less invective. Even the invective odes were not in the same tradition as Archilochian (or even Catullan) invective, the genre for which the iambic meter was traditionally reserved.
Around 23 BCE, Horace published the first three books of the Odes (Lat. Carmina), as an experimentation with lyric poetry (traditionally Greek poetry sung to a lyre), especially the poetry of Alcaeus, but also including other famous lyric poets, like Sappho and Pindar. The Odes are among Horace’s most famous poems, and they included such memorable lines as carpe diem (“Seize the day”) and dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland”). The fourth book, characteristically more pious than the first three (though those are already more in-line with Augustan propaganda than either his Satires or Epodes), was written in 11 BCE, and appears to have been commissioned by the emperor himself.
His next works are the Epistles (Lat. Epistulae), letters composed in dactylic hexameter. The first book contains a variety of subjects, but the second book is famous for being the Ars Poetica (Eng. Art of Poetry), a poetic treatise on the art of poetry, written in the tradition of Aristotle’s Peripatetic school of poetic thought. One of the famous images in the Ars Poetica is that of a creature with the top of a woman and the bottom of a fish, representing the ugly cacophony of combining two disparate genres in the same poem. Throughout the Middle Ages, Horace’s Ars Poetica largely and for the most part displaced Aristotle’s original thesis on poetry.
Horace was famous in his own day. His poetry was so well-liked that he was picked by Augustus to compose the Carmen Saeculare for the ludi saeculares, festival games that took place only once every hundred years.
While Horace was technically not the first Roman to write poetry modeled after the Greek lyric poets (Catullus preceded him by decades), he was the first to compose books of it (the four books of his Carmina), and he was particularly proud of that fact. However great his achievement was, no Roman afterward would take up his trailblazing. Though he is best known today for this endeavor, the ancients instead read him more for his Satires and Epodes. Indeed, later satirists (especially Perseus, but also Juvenal) would draw on Horace’s compositions for their own, though they developed him in a very different direction.
Interestingly, the Ars Poetica was first translated into English by Queen Elizabeth I.
Horace’s poetry, especially the Odes but throughout all his works, have produced a number of magnificent lines often borrowed and quoted throughout the ages, even to this day.
Nil sine magno vita labore dedit mortalibus.
“Life gives nothing without great labor to mortals.”
“Seize the day.”
Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus.
“Now is the time for drinking, now the time for beating the loose earth with feet (i.e. dancing).”
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
“It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland.”
Pulvis et umbra sumus.
“We are dust and shadow.”
Exegi monumentum aere perennius.
“I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze.”
Quoted with slight variation on the Minerva Mosaic at the Library of Congress (right)
- Fraenkel, Eduard. 1957. Horace. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Highet, Gilbert. 1974. Masks and faces in satire. Hermes 102:321–337.
- Coffey, Michael. 1976. Roman satire. London: Methuen.
- Armstrong, David. 1989. Horace. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Levi, Peter. 1998. Horace: A life. New York: Routledge.