Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.7.19

David Mankin, Horace: Epodes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. vii, 321. $22.95. ISBN 0-521-39774-X (pb).

Reviewed by Cynthia Bannon, Indiana University,

In a new Cambridge commentary on the Epodes, David Mankin redefines the relationship between Horace's poems and Greek iambic poetry through an analysis of the social and literary contexts of invective verse at Rome. In the "Introduction" to his Commentary (7), Mankin grounds his approach in the poet's own statement about generic models, quoting Horace, Parios ego primus iambos / ostendi Latio, numeros animosque secutus / Archilochi, non res et agentia verba Lycamben (Ep. 1.19.23-25). Mankin's interpretation shows how Horace adapted the conventions of iambic poetry to explore what Romans feared, ridiculed, and cherished.

The Epodes have traditionally been distinguished from early Greek iambic poetry because, it was thought, Greek poets like Archilochus wrote from "personal experience" whereas Horace peopled his iambics with stock figures, like the pharmakos Mevius in Epode 10 or the lena Lesbia in Epode 12 (7). But, Mankin argues, "[t]he 'realism' of the Greek epode has been over-emphasized" (182). Conversely, the social and cultural contexts of Horace's Epodes have been overlooked. Instead of presuming an opposition between "real-life" characters in Greek iambus and Horace's stock characters, as previous critics have done, Mankin reconciles this apparent opposition in the social function of invective verse. Building on recent studies of Greek iambi, Mankin asserts that Horace's Epodes, like other iambic verse, can be characterized generically as "blame poetry." In addition to providing humorous entertainment at symposia, blame poetry affirms friendship by dramatizing and mocking behavior and beliefs that are perceived as inappropriate or dangerous. "[I]ambus was meant to remind the audience of what might be a threat to the very shared customs, morals, and so on which brought them together and united them as an audience" (8). Mankin finds this theme right at the beginning of the Epode book: "H.'s depiction of his friendship with Maecenas in Epode 1 may thus serve as a kind of 'touchstone' for assessing the conduct of the characters, both friends and enemies, in the epodes that follow." (49).

Recognizing the social function of blame poetry allows Mankin to observe the interplay between the literary features of the Epodes and the Roman historical and cultural contexts in which Horace wrote. Mankin offers a rationale for Horace's choice of genre: iambic poetry seems to be the perfect literary form for a poet responding to civil war and its consequent social turmoil. "In the midst of a crisis which could be seen as a result of the decline and failure of traditional Roman amicitia, H. turned to a type of poetry whose function had been the affirmation of 'friendship' in its community (9). We are not to imagine that Horace thought blame poetry could cure society, but at least it could draw attention to potentially divisive issues as it drew friends together, closing rank against outsiders. Critics since at least as early as Porphyrio have attempted to identify figures in the Epodes with historical people. Mankin, however, tempers traditional historicizing criticism with attention to poetic convention. His notes are rich not only in information about Roman social and cultural practices but also with parallels from Greek and Latin poetry for Horace's language, imagery, and meter. Instead of seeing Roman stock figures as a departure from the 'personal voice' of Greek iambus, Mankin charts the continuity between Horace and his Greek models in poetic language and conventions and in the social function of invective. This dual approach reveals the particularly Roman reactions and contexts which Horace evoked through his adaptation of Greek iambic invective.

Although the idea of blame poetry is central to Mankin's reading of the Epodes, he does not allow it to obscure the other poetic and generic features of the poems. Rather his notes frequently point to several different kinds of poetry, formal and otherwise, that may have shaped an individual epode. In the especially detailed and entertaining notes on magic in Epode 5, Mankin connects Horace's treatment of magic with curse tablets, tragic and epic treatments of Medea, Roman elegy, and local histories. (Mankin should perhaps note that Horace may not have been the first to draw a connection between Medea and the Marsi, see Gn. Gellius hist. frag. 9.) Although Mankin cites parallels in Roman comedy (e.g. for the rival in Epode 15.13), he leaves unexplored the relationship between the social functions of comedy and those of invective verse. Mankin also examines diction and usage as evidence for the relationship between the Epodes and their literary models. While he observes some Neoteric influence in the Epodes (e.g. in his discussion of postponed et at Epode 1.12), he concludes that Horace sets his epodes off from the Neoteric as well as the pastoral language of Vergil's Eclogues, drawing instead on Lucretius (14): Horace's language in the Epodes "owe[s] a considerable debt, if not in 'philosophy,' at least in word choice and some aspects of style, to Lucretius. (14)." Throughout the notes, Mankin cites parallels for Lucretian usage, but readers who want to pursue such matters may wish that there were an index of sources.

Mankin's approach to the characters in the Epodes gives new life to the literary conventions of invective verse by recreating the Roman social world against which they played. Critics have recognized the animal figures in Epode 6 as a traditional element of fables and verse invective (cf. esp. Semonides 7), but Mankin suggests a reading that draws on the particular experiences of Horace's Roman audience. The animal forms "might be a kind of symbol for the changes in perception that lead people (Romans) from recognizing their kinship (all 'dogs') to seeing each other as members of different and hostile 'species' ('bulls' vs. 'dogs' ...), and finally make them capable of destroying themselves in a way alien to even the wildest beasts" (137). Mankin's treatment of the so-called stock characters in the Epodes brings together Greek iambic traditions and Roman social reality in a similar way. Other critics have seen Horace's use of stock figures in the Epodes as a departure from the conventions of Greek iambus, because the characters in Greek invective were thought to be "real," identifiable historical figures. Mankin, however, observes that both Greek and Latin blame poetry uses stock characters to explore the very real concerns of the poet and his audience (8-9). The characters don't have to be "real" or "historical" for a poem to speak to the real concerns of an historical audience. This is a valuable observation because it frees his readings from naive historicism and from a reductive analysis of cliches. In the introduction to Epode 4, for instance, Mankin is skeptical of attempts to identify the ex-slave with historical figures. Instead, he likens Epode 4 to Greek iambic poems involving 'exemplary characters' (99). The ex-slave and the attitudes expressed in the poem, however, may also draw on the the poet's observations of his own society or even Horace's own experience of snobbery; this approach raises the interesting possibility that the speaker in the poem is a woman (100). On the other hand, Mankin distinguishes Epode 4 from Latin invective poems "where the targets are named or readily identifiable as real people" (99). But, this distinction is less convincing because his evidence for the specific targets of Latin invective -- a list of Latin poems, most by Catullus, one by Calvus and one anonymous -- is not without problems. Citing the figures in Catullus' poetry begs the question of whether or not Latin invective had specific targets, because identifying the named characters in Catullan poems (with the exception of Cicero and Caesar) still vexes critics. Mankin's efforts to resolve the false dichotomy between stock characters and real-life are admirable, if not entirely persuasive, because they focus our attention on the play between fantasy and reality in the Epodes.

Mankin's approach allows him to trace themes through the Epodes, finding connections between the poems that are otherwise imperceptible. Interpreting the animals in Epode 6 as symbolic of the effects of civil war suggests a thematic link between this poem and Epode 7, which openly treats civil war. The lover in Epode 11 who is "caught in a 'vicious cycle', rushing from one 'flame' to another" is "ominously similar to what is happening" in Rome (193). "Both individual and society are impelled by 'madness' (6n., 7.13), and the 'advice and reproaches' of H.'s friends have no more effect on him (25-6) than his own exhortations have on his fellow citizens (7.15-16)" (193). And Epode 17, "like the other Canidia poems [e.g. Epodes 3 and 5], is another symbolic representation of the curse afflicting both individual and the city" (273). Even if the thematic links that Mankin traces among the epodes do not convince all readers, his suggestions offer a new perspective on individual poems and on the structure of the Epode book.

Mankin's commentary is a welcome addition to the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series, especially for those who teach Horace to undergraduates. The old stand-bys -- Bennett's edition of the Odes and Epodes, and Shorey and Laing's1 -- do not bring the Epodes to life the way Mankin's does. Garrison's 1991 edition of the Odes and Epodes2 also offers an up-dated approach to Horace's invectives, but lacks the detail and scholarship of the new Cambridge commentary. Though often long and detailed, Mankin's notes are not likely to deter most students because they combine learning with humor and an irresistible penchant for the odd fact. At Epode 9.16, Mankin compares the Romans' opinion that mosquito nets were for sissies with the U. S. army's ban on umbrellas (168). Or the vampire lore on the screech owl in Epode 5.20: "[i]n Romania the vampire is still called a strigoi" [116].

Mankin's commentary draws readers into the literary and social worlds of the Epodes in ways that make criticism accessible and meaningful for students. In his introduction to Epode 13, for instance, Mankin discusses how Horace adapts the myth of Chiron's prophecy to Achilles to his own sympotic context. "H. and his friends can console each other in a true convivium; at the time predicted by Chiron, Achilles would be isolated from other men. If the Centaur could urge his embattled, doomed, and lonely 'fosterling' to ease the 'whole evil' with wine and song, H.'s amici ought to be able to do the same." (214-215). Mankin's comments provide an opportunity to discuss how poets, ancient and modern, personalize myth. Mankin's notes seem to include the reader among Horace's group of friends who share common values and laugh at the same jokes. Of the greedy Alfius in Epode 2 he writes: '[i]t seems likely that while some of H.'s original audience might be fooled for a time or even until the final lines forced a second reading, the more alert would pick up on the 'clues' and realize almost from the beginning (1-8n.) that the speaker is a ridiculous imposter." (63) Readers who don't want to seem ridiculous themselves will take pride in catching on early, or so at least Mankin's rhetoric here seems to imply. This implication seems to me likely to appeal to college-aged students and other readers who like to be "in," as if we join the poet's circle of friends when we get the jokes.

Students and scholars alike will appreciate Mankin's clear writing style and the rich documentation in his notes. He provides literary parallels for language, imagery, and tropes from Horace's works as well as from both Greek and Latin literature. Roman authors are cited in Latin, while longer Greek texts are usually presented only in translation. Mankin is conscientious in specifying the context of each parallel, giving attention to grammar and diction. His discussion of grammatical points will help students to appreciate the subtleties of Latin syntax. His note on the crux at Epode 16.15-16 introduces students to textual criticism by explaining the different grammatical implications of each reading. Students will be able to learn why the text matters and at the same time hone their language skills. Using Mankin's commentary, students can develop a sensitivity not just to syntax but to poetic diction. For example, at 14.1, "[t]he image of 'pouring forgetfulness' anticipates the simile (3-4) and also suggests the ancient idea of sleep and other sensory inhibitors -- including love (16n) -- as liquids" (228). Modern American idioms appear side by side with ancient parallels in Mankin's notes, as on the potential pun in infirmas at 2.16, where he cites Porphyrio and Pliny for the proverbial stupidity of sheep: "in Latin as in English people can be 'fleeced' of their money" (72).

In addition to the commentary, Mankin's edition of the Epodes contains his text with an apparatus, an introduction, three appendices, a bibliography, and indices. The introduction follows the format of the series with brief essays treating various topics, from the poet's life to the textual tradition. Mankin uses these essays to introduce themes and topics that are developed in the commentary. His historical outline untangles the complicated events of the triumviral years in a way that helps students grasp the important events and issues. Mankin's presentation of iambic meter is thorough and clear. He first sets out the individual verse types and then explains how they are combined in systems, identifying which system occurs in each epode. Mankin also compares the metrical patterns of the Epodes with Greek and other Roman iambic poems, and introduces statistical analyses to buttress these comparisons. Mankin's attention to metrical detail may be too much for the average student, who might prefer a simple chart setting out the metrical schemes of each epode.

The appendices, bibliography, and indices at the end of Mankin's commentary are well-organized resources. Of the three appendices, the first will perhaps be the most useful for teaching, since it contains some of the fragments of Archilochus and other poets (quoted in Greek) that are mentioned in the Commentary. This appendix allows students with Greek the opportunity to evaluate how a Roman poet adapted and responded to his poetic models. Appendix 2 collects the ancient sources for Canidia as well as modern scholarly theories about her name and significance. Appendix 3 presents a detailed analysis of cretic-shaped words in the Epodes, complete with a list and with charts showing their frequency. This dense essay contributes to the scholarly discussion of poetic usage, starting from the question, how and to what extent do metrical constraints define poetic vocabulary. The bibliography is divided into three sections: abbreviations of reference works and collections; texts and commentaries for the works of Horace; other works, including, in general, books and articles cited in the commentary more than once. In the commentary, standard editions and commentaries are often cited only by the name of the editor or the commentator, a practice which may puzzle readers less familiar with the Classics canon. Studies of more specialized or technical topics appear only in the notes themselves, but there with full bibliographical information.

As Mankin's commentary makes the Epodes accessible and fun for modern students, his interpretation also reveals an appreciation of Horace's complex adaptation of literary models. His approach shows how Horace reinvigorated the traditions of iambic verse by incorporating Roman ideas and realia. Students and scholars alike will find much in Mankin's commentary that entices them to take another look at these varied, allusive and sometimes delightfully nasty poems.


  • [1] C. E. Bennett, Horace Odes and Epodes (New Rochelle, NY: Aristide D Caratzas, 1992), originally published in 1901; P. Shorey and G. J. Laing, Horace Odes and Epodes (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1960), originally published in 1919, Chicago: Benj. H. Sanborn and Co.
  • [2] D. H. Garrison, Horace Epodes and Odes. A New Annotated Latin Edition (Norman, Okla.: 1991).