Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.11.11

Ellen Oliensis, Horace and the Rhetoric of Authority.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998.  Pp. xii, 241.  ISBN 0-521-57315-7.  

Reviewed by William S. Anderson, University of California, Berkeley (

The key word in the Introduction to O.'s book and one which keeps re-echoing in various permutations throughout its chapters is "face". Drawing expertly on modern theories of sociolinguistics, O. charts the path by which Horace presented his "face", protected his "face", and "faced" down his critics over his career, in different ways in different genres, and with less bold-"facedness" in later years as he acquired the authority that he desired. The "rhetoric of authority", then, of the title refers to the rhetorical arts by which he fashioned his own authority and dealt with the threats to such authority from other worthy men like Maecenas and Augustus and from the many unworthy characters whom he carefully represents in his verse as negative alternatives to his "face". O. has written an important book that places the poet Horace and his career in a significant light.

Starting chronologically with the earliest publications of Horace, O. shows how the poet struggled to acquire "face" in Book 1 of the Satires and then, five years later in Book 2, abandoned that "face" by systematic acts of "self-defacement". Readers of Horace have long been interested in the way he introduces himself in Book 1, particularly in the two sections where he elaborately uses the rhetorically useful portrait of his father to define himself, and also in the Satires where he recounts complex anecdotes about his experiences, such as 1.5 and 1.9. O., however, focuses attention on a binary scheme of "face-saving" and "defacement". The Horace who addresses Maecenas in 1.6 pointedly labels himself both in his own words and in those of his enemies as the son of a freedman, and the Latin is placed in the hexameter (libertino patre natum) so that the awkwardness of the fifth foot implies the social embarrassment from which the freedman's son began his climb to respectability as both poet and citizen of Augustan Rome. However, the rhetoric of 1.6 makes a virtue of Horace's humble beginnings while reminding his audience of the moral inferiority of those who have misused their noble heritage and of their misplaced ambitions to achieve little for themselves and even less for Rome. The uncritical reader might then accuse Horace of mere hypocrisy: he gains "face" by ridiculing others and "defacing" them. But that simplistic viewpoint is easily refuted by careful reading. Horace scrupulously uses his rhetoric to distinguish his goals from the purposes of those he satirizes: they are seeking wealth and power, whereas he focuses on friendship and modest Epicurean pleasure. The garrulus of S. 1.9 thinks himself an equal of Horace in ambition, but Horace defines his relationship to Maecenas in completely non-political terms; and thus he gains "face" legitimately at the expense of the so-called "bore".

O. devises ingenious titles for her chapters and sections, and they sometimes provoke not only creative thought but also some hesitant disagreement. Thus, the difference between the poet of Book I of the Satires and Book II can be suggested by the contrast between "discriminating" of I and "self-incriminating" of II. That self-incrimination targets in the first place the principal speakers of the Satires of II, who tend not to be Horace and are rightly and deliberately discredited by Horatian art. O. also suggests, however, that these new "satirists" who replace Horace in II expose the satirist of I as being, like them, one of "life's losers" who used satire as "a consolation prize". Now that he is a made man, he doesn't need that kind of consolation for himself, but, by continuing to create substitute satirists speaking from situations of personal failure, he inevitably reflects back on his earlier self. And these new satirists are occasionally allowed to incriminate Horace directly, as, for example, the slave Davus in 2.7, who accuses his master of being a "slave" in general and in particular to Maecenas. Yet we might object that Horace, by inserting these satiric reflections against himself, is defusing them, implying their exaggeration. I myself think the same of what now seems to be a commonly accepted motivation for 2.8, the ridicule of Nasidienus: supposedly, we are to imagine that Horace is griped because he was not invited to the lavish dinner along with Maecenas. I see no reason why a clever artist like Horace would entice us to assign such a petty explanation for his concern with Nasidienus. That Horace is self-effacing in Book II seems evident: that we should go beyond and apply the term self-incriminating, in all the ways that O. provocatively proposes, remains, I think, questionable.

O.'s chapter on the Epodes is substantial (almost as long as the two short sections of Chapter 4 which she devotes to the four Books of Odes). The theme that she announces in her title is: "making faces at the mirror". What she means by this is that, in her reading, Horace acts out the typical iambic belligerence against a series of enemies of his cultural world, specifically of Maecenas and Octavian and the poetic values he prizes; but sooner or later the enemies he denounces turn into reflections of himself. Epode 4 offers her a particularly fine example, and O. produces a very effective interpretation of that short poem. The speaker in the Epode violently attacks an upstart and declares the absolute discordia between the two of them. However, as he watches the other strutting down the Via Sacra, he hears the indignant murmurs of freeborn Romans and lets them voice feelings which implicitly touch upon the way Horace himself rose from obscurity, especially when he, like this man, had the audacity to serve as tribunus militum. In a similar way, Horace's apparent hostility to Canidia and to the disgusting women of Epodes 8 and 12 proves to be an embarrassing kind of kinship. The witch and the invective poet are closely related. (O. has published several articles on Canidia, but for some reason she chooses to ignore that earlier work in these discussions and in her otherwise full bibliography.) O. links the themes of powerlessness and impotence, which Horace develops in his misogynistic epodes, with other themes of the collection, namely, Horace's concern with the moral disintegration of Rome under the pressures of Civil War and the poet's confession that, because of erotic entanglements, he cannot complete his poetic book. The pressure to finish comes from his patron Maecenas, with whom, as O. notes, Horace indicates a complex relationship, not only in the epodes which deal specifically with his unproductivity but also in the two, 1 and 9, which concentrate on Horace's absence from, and vicarious participation through Maecenas in, the Battle of Actium. She even suggests that in certain ways the famous Epode 2, beatus ille, dramatizes the fantasy of Horace's desire to escape from Maecenas, just as Epode 16 develops its fantasy of escape from the political turmoil of Rome. We might not fully agree with every suggestion that O. advances, but she certainly makes more of the Epodes as a book of thematically related poems than most scholars.

In dealing with the Odes, O. limits herself to the ways in which Horace combines, as she puts it, "boldfacedness and self-effacement" to act out his role as "imperial poet". Again, she means this in a special way: Horace, on the one hand, exerts imperial authority in his own personal domain of lyric poetry, and, on the other hand, he celebrates with due subordination and respect the imperial achievements of Augustus. To characterize Horace's mastery in the lyric realm, she develops the notion of "the poetics of potency", an obvious answer to the theme of impotentia in the Epodes; and she focuses on the way he achieved closure and ended the Odes. Enjoying his sense of power and authority as creative and successful poet, Horace relishes the physical and psychological security that Augustus has made possible for his people in a pacified Mediterranean world. Although lyric of a Callimachean quality might not seem to be ideal for imperial themes, O. argues that Horace does follow the imperial line remarkably well. Many of his odes advocate limits on ambitions and passions, and they also dramatize the value of limit by their choice and placing of the thematic words. On this latter point, she could be a little more cautious. The Alcaic stanza frequently indulges in enjambment, both at line- and stanza-end, and it is doubtful to me that we should interpret the effect as regularly reinforcing imperial limits. What she infers about the enjambment in C. 1.35.33-8 might rather be construed as the dramatization of high emotion: that would be consistent with en entirely different dramatic context but deep emotion in C. 2.7.23-28, 2.11.13-20, and other odes. O. makes some nice observations about the ways in which Horace complicates the closure of some poems, like C. 1.17 and 3.6, with what she calls "disclosure", when the poet opens up to us some of the dangers of violence or intemperate behavior that always threatens any order (as Vergil knew when he drew the picture of a very wild and menacing impius Furor chained but gnashing its teeth in Aeneid 1).

When the poet deals explicitly with the emperor, as O. demonstrates, he minimizes his own personal experiences and biography, and thus occurs what O. calls the effacement or even self-effacement of Horace. Hence, the difference between 1.1, where the poet concentrates on his view of his lyric ambitions, and 1.2, where the speaker has no personality or history, only a general anxiety that Augustus exclude from his and the Roman world the various threats to peace. This leads O. to formulate an "exclusionary rule", according to which Horace generally voices his authority in the absence of Augustus, but yields to the imperial presence (p. 128). She notes this effect in the juxtaposed 3.24 and 25, but wisely she does not insist on absolute dichotomy throughout the collection of Odes. The Roman Odes show how creatively Horace can bend the rule of exclusion: he talks of himself a bit and a great deal about Augustus in the same poems, but he carefully avoids addressing the princeps or assuming his presence at his bits of autobiography. The most egregious "bending" occurs in 3.4, where Horace starts off with nine stanzas about his own poetic career and creed. He does break off, of course, at 37 to introduce the way the Muses revive Caesar after his warlike toil and then continues with his version of the imperial Gigantomachy. However, the encounter of poet and prince has been dramatic, and it evokes complex responses from modern readers. O. is willing to entertain Davis' theory that Horace is developing his credentials for imperial panegyric, but she also suggests that those initial stanzas serve "as a declaration of poetic autonomy". A brief one, because Horace, like the Titans, must be repressed and effaced by the entry of Augustus on the scene. In two other poems, O. notes, Horace forces a juxaposition which is potentially a clash between his poetic person and that of Augustus, namely, 1.37 (the Cleopatra Ode) and 3.14, where, after hailing the emperor's return from Spain as a public holiday, the poet withdraws for his very private drinking and amatory pleasures. The poems end with emphasis on that private happiness. O. summarizes Horace's feelings towards the Augustan regime cautiously and intelligently: he was definitely not a 100% toady, but he had a hard time finding a personal space outside the prevailing climate where he could express himself. And when later it came to Book 4 of the Odes, he abandoned any attempt to separate himself: in 4.14 and 15, as she puts it, "the emperor usurps the place of the poet, and the empire overwhelms the poem" (p. 153).

The Odes constitute too large and complex a field to be compressed adequately into the theme which O. pursues in this book, and no reader should imagine that she has attempted to cover all the lyric poems or all the various themes that interest Horace. But in the light of her topic, the rhetoric of authority, she has ably studied the potential clashes of authority when poet deals with emperor and the artful manner in which Horace withdraws from confrontation.

Similarly, in a chapter on the Epistles, O. fixes primarily on those involving Maecenas or Augustus, because there Horace faces the greatest challenge to preserve his own face. In Epist. 1.1 and 7, she finds evidence for Horace's refusal to recognize any strings attached in his relationship with Maecenas. The first Epistle is both dedication to Maecenas and recusatio, in which she assumes that Horace demonstrates that he, not Maecenas, is the "benefactor" by insisting that he has done enough (satis 2) as a metaphorical gladiator. But that ignores the force of the gerundive dicende (1), which suggests the overriding and recognized obligation as poet to Maecenas. Horace may indeed have fought long enough in the gladiatorial "games" of youthful topics, but he remains Maecenas' friend and poet, I think, in Epistles I; and that is why Maecenas has a special role in 1.19. O. lays great stress on 1.7, where Horace is notoriously reluctant to accede to Maecenas' pressures. She calls it "an exercise in polite rudeness or amicable hostility" (p. 157) and argues that Horace is renegotiating the obligations which he has to his patron -- why not call him his friend? She is particularly interesting in her view of the complicated story of Mena, which somehow epitomizes the ambiguities of the positions of Horace and Maecenas, especially with its Sabine villa that becomes a curse for poor Mena. In the end, she contents herself with calling the whole thing a "peculiarly uncommunicative communication".

However, she may give away her real feelings when she calls Epist. 1.15 a highly pointed commentary on 1.7. Here, according to O., we find Horace planning the winter trip which he had mentioned to Maecenas as for his health. But his "health" seems to be quite fine, and he obviously intends to exercise it lustily with food and sex, not nurse it with moral reading. This "hedonistic debauch" would seem, then, to be rude defiance of Maecenas? That conclusion depends on a lot of things, including the relative dates of the two poems and the carry-over of themes and personal associations from 1.7 to 1.15. The same may be said about 1.10, addressed to Aristius Fuscus, who as lover of the city is viewed by O. as alter Maecenas, but better. O.'s tendency to reduce other epistles to aspects of the assumed tension between Horace and Maecenas reaches a climax in her view of 1.17 and 18, which, according to her, "Maecenas would be likely to overread with particular interest" (p. 168). Both are addressed to young men well above Horace's social status, who are on the verge of entering the ratrace of imperial society in Rome to seek patronage. At this point, Maecenas and Horace had been closely associated for more than fifteen years, and Horace was over forty. Horace was addressing a new generation and a very different cultural situation, and I suggest that his position with Maecenas constitutes a comfortable model, not an embarrassing parallel, by which to measure the uncertain futures and dubious talents of Scaeva and Lollius. Thus, I am hesitant about this claim: "As regards Maecenas, the letter to Lollius is guilty of an ungraciousness that Horace allows himself nowhere else in his poetry" (p. 172). The difference between the poems addressed to Maecenas and those addressed to others who do not closely resemble either Horace or Maecenas should caution us against too ready inferences.

O. also touches on three Epistles which she construes as "for Augustus", a section of 1.5, the commendatio of 1.7, and the delivery of poems to the emperor in 1.13. Here, she suggests, as Horace carves out his own space apart from Maecenas, he also does the same with Augustus. At Torquatus' banquet on the eve of Augustus' birthday, the guests will celebrate in freedom, excluding the emperor. The letter of recommendation, addressed to Tiberius, projects a writer who can be respectful without being sickeningly fawning: he knows his own value. And the letter to Vinnius, bearer of his poems, "shows Horace adjusting his face for public viewing" in a fussily amusing manner. O. toys with the possibility that 1.13 was originally designed as the final poem of the collection of Epistles I, to demonstrate Horace's switch of allegiance from Maecenas to Augustus, then replaced by the present 1.20, with its impersonal appeal to all Romans in his audience. It is an interesting hypothesis, but she prudently does not insist on it. A short discussion of the epistle to Augustus, 2.1, completes the picture of Horace's problematic contact with powerful politicians.

The last chapter takes up the Ars poetica and the art of self-fashioning it embodies. Operating from a position of achieved prestige as older poet, Horace still has to contend with an audience whose social prestige is far above his (and whose true commitment to poetry remains in doubt). Thus, he can teach only what he can do and what they cannot; and the poem is a "face-off" between his poetic authority and their social prestige. O. places much stress on the opening and closing images of the poem. The monstrous painting of 1-5, which corrupts the form of beautiful woman by giving her features of a centaur, a bird, and a mermaid she takes in a special way to lead to what she calls the "fashioning of men", the creation of a prejudicial male gaze, and a kind of gendered laughter at the exposure of gross female sexuality. Much of that interpretation depends on her view of the detail that the woman ends turpiter (3) in "a black fish". To my knowledge, O. is unique in assuming that Horace's male audience concentrates hilariously on "the genital fishtail" exposed to view.

Arguing that Horace closely agrees with the ideas of Cicero's De officiis, O. goes on to describe what she sees as a deep interest in the AP in fashioning gentlemen that can be glossed from Cicero. That might interest the Pisones, but it is less clear that they worry their heads about fashioning poets, which is the main interest of Horace. So a kind of cleavage develops between the social elite like the Pisones and the master poets who, like Horace, come from the lower classes but commit themselves fully to the tasks and ideals demanded by true poetry. And so we come to the final section of the AP, which is surprisingly non-doctrinaire, but elusively satirical. O. fixes our attention on what she calls "the immortal leech". At the most obvious level, the mad poet, likened to a bear and a leech, recalls the crazy painter of the opening with his wildly monstrous picture. That would mean that we are invited to scorn him. However, since Horace himself authors this view of the crazy poet for his improbable open ending for the AP, it is tempting to agree with O. that at a deeper level he is representing the powerful surge of poetic creativity that possesses the true poet, illogical and insane though it may seem to be, and impels him to fasten aggressively, even murderously, on his audience. Thus, Horace ends his purported handbook by "making a face" at his readers.

O. ends her fine book with a 4-page "postscript", in which she briefly presents Ode 4.3 as a kind of solution to all the tensions which she has studied: here, Horace does not have to face opposition or to make a face of authority for himself because he omits all the elements he earlier has used to define himself; and similarly he ignores the autobiographical detail which he marshalled so carefully behind his poetic authority. The ode to Melpomene abdicates authority, excludes Canidia, Maecenas, and Augustus, and places the poet in debt only to the Muse. It is a proud poem, of course, and creates a kind of inscription for his breathing statue: Romanae fidicen lyrae (23). Of course, this poem antedates the assumed date of the AP, so it should be viewed more as a possible solution, not the permanent answer to Horace concerns with authority. But it is an attractive solution to a book that makes an important contribution to Horatian studies.

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