In 17 BC Augustus, his rule firmly established after a century of devastating civil wars, celebrated the Secular Games. For these he commissioned an official hymn from the 48-year-old poet and former adversary, Horace. The latter, whom the emperor knew well enough to twit with affectionate, mildly obscene pleasantries, wrote the Secular Hymn, trained the singers and was rewarded with a mention of his contribution inscribed on a marble pilaster commemorating the games: Carmen composuit Q. Horatius Flaccus. (Horatius Flaccus wrote the poem).
Though it has been described as the most noteworthy inscription in the Baths of Diocletian, this pilaster, the only surviving contemporary artefact relating to Horace, is no longer on view. Perhaps this reflects the neglect into which Horace has fallen, now often dismissed as a poet of grey mediocrity, a new interpretation of the aurea mediocritas (golden mean) advocated in his odes. Horace himself, complex, multifaceted, iridescent, would smile wryly.
With no artefacts as a guide, we need to read his works and make our own connections to get glimpses of Horace in Rome. In his first work, Satire I, published in 35 BC, he conjures up an image of himself as a boy brought to Rome from Venusia (Venosa) in Apulia by his freedman father, an auctioneers assistant, a poor man with a few / scraggy acres (Satire I. 6. 71-2, tr. Niall Rudd), whose main aim was to give his promising son an excellent formal education. His sturdy countryman father undertook Horaces moral education himself. With humorous common sense (a tone that Horace adopted for his satires), he would point out to the boy, the foolish spendthrifts and adulterers they passed on the streets as examples not to be followed.
That Horace did not always take his fathers advice to avoid squalid sex is clear from the Epodes (published in 30 BC), a young mans work, full of erotic anger and longings. To Maecenas, the eccentric statesman, rich patron and friend, who had presented him with a comfortable country estate (near present-day Licenza) so he could devote himself to poetry, he complains that love prevents him from writing:
Why this lassitude spreading through my senses / numbing all memory / as if down my parched throat I had poured / a cup bringing Lethean sleep?
(Epodes 14. 1-4)
Roughly 1,850 years later, Horaces lines inspired Keats in the opening of Ode to a Nightingale:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense
This is probably the most famous ode in English poetry, one proof among many of Horaces influence, over centuries, on lyric verse. (Does Horaces shade visit the tomb of Keats near Cestius pyramid, erected the year Horace died?)
The Epodes also reflect the fear and turmoil in the Roman world as, in the course of 40-30 BC, relations worsened between Octavian (later Augustus) and Antony, who was embroiled with Cleopatra. In the very first lines Horace salutes Maecenas who is off to support Octavian:
Youre venturing, dear friend, in light galleys / against tall,
heavy enemy ships
(Epodes 1. 1-2)
A bas-relief in the section of classical sculpture in the Vatican Museums gives some idea of a light galley, with Egypt and Cleopatra? suggested by the crocodile at the lower left. It was in such a galley that Cleopatra (finally defeated in 31 BC) was to be conveyed to Rome. But she,
even braver now she chose to die, defied / the rough sailors
who were to take her, a fallen queen, / to be paraded in a haughty
triumph / too proud a woman to eat dust.
(Odes 1. 37. 29-32)
This tribute to Cleopatra, earlier evoked as crazed, drunk with delusions, appears in Odes I-III (23 BC). Horace considered these his masterpiece, since with the help of the muses, always gratefully acknowledged, he had produced original, musical verse by adapting Greek metres to grave, laconic Latin. Polyhymnia is one of the muses mentioned and it is pleasant to think that Horace knew the statue, thought to be of her, now in the Montemartini Museum in Rome. Leaning on a rock pillar, she supports her small, eager yet pensive face on her right hand, her wavy hair tied back in a knot, a hairstyle Horace appreciated and which could symbolise his verse: elegant, dense, restrained.
These were qualities particularly savoured by Maecenas and his circle, who probably heard these odes (also Odes IV and the Epistles) read in Maecenas auditorium in present-day Largo Leopardi in Via Merulana (whether or not Horace, a reluctant reader, read the odes and whether this was indeed an auditorium, as the stepped rows suggest, or a summer dining-room, are open-ended questions). They would also have savoured his finely-balanced tone with its wit, humour, wry wisdom, mockery, muted tenderness, quick shifts, ironies and ambivalences, as he treats of poetry, wine, friendship, love, death, Roman affairs and how to live in an uncertain world. Spending more time on his farm, Horace urges his patron Maecenas to be less of a workaholic, visit him, leave behind these luxurious surroundings, forget the smoke and wealth and noise of Rome and remember:
That man will lead a happy life / and be the master of himself who at each days close / can say, Today I have lived.
(Odes III. 29. 12; 41-3)
Dying a few weeks after Maecenas, Horace was buried near him, not far from the alleged auditorium in Largo Leopardi. No tomb, no memorial remains, just the work still available.