Horace: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Nicholas Freer

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Quintus Horatius Flaccus (‘Horace’) was one of the leading Roman poets of the Augustan period, best known as the author of the Epodes, Satires, Odes, Carmen Saeculare (‘Secular Hymn’ or ‘Song of Ages’), and the Epistles (including the Ars Poetica, ‘Art of Poetry’).

Horace tells us more about himself than perhaps any other ancient poet, constructing a detailed autobiography that touches upon almost every aspect of his life. Indeed, the different poetic genres that constitute his literary output all seem to have been chosen due to the primacy of the poet’s voice (Harrison 2007a: 22). As a result, many readers have been persuaded that the poet has granted them privileged access to the ‘real’ Horace; for example, in an influential treatment of his life and work Hermann Fraenkel famously declared that Horace “never lies” (1957, s.v. Horace). However, recent studies have illuminated the ways in which Horace masks or manipulates his autobiography to suit his poetic or rhetorical aims (Harrison 2007a; Oliensis 1998; Horsfall 1998; Davis 1991), and scholars now tend to exercise caution when interpreting Horace’s self-representations as sources of biographical data.

In 42 BC, for instance, Horace fought on the losing side at Philippi, an episode recalled in his poetry on several occasions. In his most extensive account of the battle Hor. Od. 2.7.9-14, Horace claims that he was rescued by Mercury, who shrouded him in a thick mist in the manner of a Homeric deity, and that he shamefully abandoned his shield on the battlefield, a detail that evokes the similar losses suffered by his poetic models Archilochus, Alcaeus, and possibly Anacreon (Harrison 2007a: 25; Horsfall 1998: 46). By portraying his experience of the battle in symbolic and poetic terms, Horace thus blurs the distinction between the fictitious and the real. Several poems also incorporate standard episodes from the Hellenistic Lives of the Greek poets into his autobiography (e.g. the childhood miracle announcing his gift of poetry Hor. Od. 3.4.9-20), and it has been suggested that Horace attempts to direct and control his own reception through the manipulation of these biographical conventions (Graziosi 2009: 147-56).

The Roman historian Suetonius wrote a brief Life of Horace, preserved in several manuscripts of Horace’s poems. However, many of the details of his account appear to have been extrapolated from the poems themselves, a common practice in the ancient Lives of literary figures. For example, the rumours of Horace’s sexual intemperance Suet. Vit. Hor. may well originate in passages such as Satire 2.3.325, where the figure of Damasippus refers to the poet’s affairs with thousands of girls and boys (mille puellarum, puerorum mille furores) (Graziosi 2009: 158; Nisbet 2007: 21; Horsfall 1998: 48). Moreover, a fascination with Horace’s life-story seems to have inspired the creation of deliberate forgeries early on; according to Suetonius, the works falsely attributed to Horace include a prose letter in which the poet commends himself to his future patron Maecenas.

Just as the poems of Horace present many, sometimes contradictory, versions of the author, the figure of Horace has been reimagined, reconfigured, and appropriated in myriad ways through the centuries, and strikingly divergent images of the poet have been constructed through selective readings and interpretations of his corpus (Martindale 1993: 2-3). In the Middle Ages, Horace was widely thought to have lived through the various stages of life and written about them for the moral edification of members of his age group, as in the following remark by a twelfth-century scribe (Friis-Jensen 2007: 291):

Nota: Oracius fecit quatuor diuersitates carminum propter quatuor scilicet etates, odas pueris, poetriam iuuenibus, sermones uiris, epistulas senibus et perfectis.
Note that Horace composed four different kinds of poems corresponding to the four ages, the Odes for boys, the Art of Poetry for young men, the Satires for men in their prime, the Epistles for old and complete men.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, however, Dante portrays Horace in the underworld as “Orazio satiro” (Inferno 4.89), his epithet reflecting the special status given to the Satires and Epistles in this period (Friis-Jensen 2007: 302-4). Petrarch wrote a verse letter to Horace imagining the poet at ease in lush woodlands and meadows (Familiar Letters 24.10), while the English Renaissance author Ben Jonson introduced Horace as a character in his play The Poetaster, to serve as a spokesperson for Jonson’s own views on the moral function of the poet (McGann 2007: 313-16).

Images of Horace have continued to proliferate in more recent times. He has been envisioned as “fat, beery, beefy” Horace (see Wilkinson 1951: 2 n. 2) and, even worse, as “bald-headed, pot-bellied, underbred, sycophantic” (Pound 1929/30: 217). For others, he has remained a model of reason, moderation, and decency. In W.H. Auden’s The Horatians, for example, Horace finds his modern successors among clergymen and organists in cathedral towns (Martindale 1993: 2), and elsewhere he has been characterised as the “perfect Freshman adviser, always at home, always at leisure, ever ready to pour out for us a glass of one of the mellower brands and to expound the comfortable doctrine of nil admirari” (Rand 1937: 31).


  • Davis, G. 1991. Polyhymnia: The rhetoric of Horatian lyric discourse. Berkeley.
  • Fraenkel, E. 1957. Horace. Oxford.
  • Friis-Jensen, K. 2007. ‘The reception of Horace in the Middle Ages.’ In S. J. Harrison (ed.) 2007b: 291-304.
  • Graziosi, B. 2009. ‘Horace, Suetonius, and the Lives of the Greek poets.’ In L. B. T. Houghton and M. Wyke (eds.), Perceptions of Horace: A Roman Poet and His Readers. Cambridge: 140-60.
  • Harrison, S.J. 2007a. ‘Horatian self-representations.’ In S. J. Harrison (ed.) 2007b: 22-35.
    • (ed.) 2007b. The Cambridge Companion to Horace. Cambridge.
  • Horsfall, N. M., 1998. ‘The first person singular in Horace’s Carmina.’ In P. E. Knox and C. Foss (eds.), Style and Tradition: Studies in Honour of Wendell Clausen. Stuttgart and Leipzig: 40-54.
  • Martindale, C. 1993. ‘Introduction.’ In C. Martindale and D. Hopkins (eds.) 1993, Horace Made New. Cambridge: 1-26.
  • McGann, M. 2007. ‘The reception of Horace in the Renaissance.’ In S. J. Harrison (ed.) 2007b: 305-17.
  • Nisbet, R. 2007. ‘Horace: life and chronology.’ In S. J. Harrison (ed.) 2007b: 7-21.
  • Oliensis, E. 1998. Horace and the Rhetoric of Authority. Cambridge.
  • Pound, E. 1929/30. ‘Horace.’ Criterion 9: 217-27.
  • Rand, E. K. 1937. A Toast to Horace. Harvard.
  • Wilkinson, L.P. 1951. Horace and his Lyric Poetry. Cambridge.