Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.16

Randall L.B. McNeill, Horace: Image, Identity and Audience.   Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.  Pp. 188.  ISBN 0-8018-6666-9.  $42.50.  

Reviewed by A.D. Morrison, University of Manchester (
Word count: 2094 words

McNeill's (henceforth M.) book is a sophisticated and rewarding examination of Horace's self-presentation in his poetry in the light of its social and political contexts. M. begins from the feeling of familiarity with and knowledge of Horace which most readers get from his poems but points out that there are in fact many 'Horaces' -- lofty vates, genial moralist, anxious arriviste, luckless lover, propagandist (pp. 1-2). Central to M.'s examination of these self-images is the view that their presentation depends on the portrayal of Horace's relationships with others (including his various readers/audiences). Horace does not present his self-images as self-contained independent characters but as fully integrated into a network of social interaction, with various attendant pressures (pp. 5-7). M.'s structures his book around these various relationships, which are explored in succeeding chapters: Maecenas (ch. 1), Horace's audiences (ch. 2), poets and critics (ch. 3), the Augustan regime (ch. 4). M. deals mainly with the Satires and Epistles 1 but discusses poems from all parts of the Horatian corpus.

Appropriately enough for a work on self-presentation, M.'s introduction is largely devoted to characterising his approach to Horace as a middle way between opposed 'rhetorical' and 'biographical' critics. The former examine the personae of 'Horace' portrayed in particular texts as literary fictions, without any necessary basis in Horace's actual biography (e.g. Freudenberg),1 or collapse the difference between the persona and Horace's actual self, because the persona in the text is all we have (e.g. Oliensis).2 The older biographical tradition, in contrast, holds that Horace's historical attitudes and allegiances can be reconstructed from his poetry (e.g. Lyne).3 M. feels that the former approach overlooks the fact that the poems might be important evidence for the historical Horace: 'We may have gone too far in rejecting or bypassing any consideration of Horace's poems as evidence for the direct and personal experiences of this unusual historical individual' (p.4). But, unlike many of his 'biographical' critics, M. is acutely aware of the gap between historical author and the personae he creates in his poems -- the real Horace cannot be separated from the fictional 'Horaces' (p. 7). What M. proposes is to employ Horace's poems as 'tools of detection', to explore how Horace's self-presentation affects perceptions of him by those around him and to reconstruct the wider social and political contexts in which the poems were composed (p. 7).

M. is, however, much closer to the 'rhetorical' than the 'biographical' approach. He is not interested in the reconstruction of the details of Horace's actual life, nor in the extraction of biographical data from the poems (as the quotation above might have led one to believe). His focus is on Horace's methods of presenting himself, his relationships and consequent pressures, and the ways his self-presentation can be used to handle these pressures. He is interested in finding out more about 'the society and culture in which he purports [my italics] to have operated' (p. 7) and think that careful scrutiny of Horace's self-portrayal allows us 'to identify the basic conditions and characteristics of his actual personal and social situation -- as he wished them to be understood' [my italics] (p. 7).

Chapter 1 ('Poet and Patron') examines the portrayal of Horace's relationship with Maecenas and the shifts and tensions within it. Epist.1.7, for example, illustrates one cause of such tension, the need to balance the duties to patron against one's personal independence. Horace portrays himself as having overstepped the mark by staying in the countryside for too long (and lying to Maecenas: 'mendax', Epist.1.7.2), but extricates himself from this predicament by portraying his relationship to Maecenas as one of genuine friendship, rather than client-patron dependency, through the anecdotes about the Calabrian host, the fox in the grain-barrel, and Philippus and Mena. But that a misjudgement of the relationship and its obligations might occur, and be portrayed as requiring a letter such as 1.7, demonstrates, for M., the precariousness of being a cliens (pp. 23-5). Elsewhere, Horace's relationship can seem very close and easy, as in Sat.1.5, where Horace is Maecenas' (independent) travelling companion (pp. 12-3), but also distant or limited, as in Sat.2.6.40-6, where Horace is Maecenas' friend only 'dumtaxat', 'up to a point' (pp. 17-18). Similarly in Sat.2.8 M. diagnoses Horatian discomfort at his exclusion from dinner at Nasidienus' -- 'nam mihi quaerenti convivam dictus here illic/ de medio potare die' (2.8.2-3). In a perceptive treatment M. suggests that we are regularly reminded of Horace's omission from the dinner (e.g. by the two 'umbrae' Maecenas brings with him, 2.8.21-2), so that the emphasis is on Horace's dispensability, and the fact that he is not always Maecenas' favourite company (pp. 18-21). M. thinks that Horace directs his audience's attention to the tensions and embarrassments inherent in his relationship with Maecenas (as presented in his poetry) as a way of managing what M. thinks must have been the very real pressures of being part of a project to legitimise Augustus and his rule and as a result being the junior partner in an unequal power-relationship. This management takes the form of a self-presentation which often characterises the relationship as one of close genuine friendship and emphasises Horace's independence alongside his gratitude (pp. 29-31). As M. rightly says, Horace's thematising of the relationship with his patron is very different from the presentation of poet-patron relations in other first-century poets such as Lucretius, Virgil or Propertius (pp. 31-4), though generic considerations must be taken into account here.

In Chapter 2 ('In the Public Eye') M. focuses on Horace's portrayal of the demands and pressures placed on him by his public. M. develops a useful model of Horace's contemporary readership as a series of five concentric rings (pp. 36ff.), with Maecenas as the innermost, then Horace's 'core readership', that is close friends and associates such as Virgil and Varus, then the social elite of equites and senators, a fourth ring of people trying to break into the social elite or criticising those who attempted this, and a fifth ring of the literate populace of Rome unconnected to Horace and the elites. All of these different groups are presented in Horace's poetry as exercising different pressures on Horace, and M. sees Horace as managing his self-image in order to accommodate these different audiences. With regard to the third ring of the social elite, for example, Horace anticipates hostility as an arriviste in poems such as Sat.1.6, where in lines 1-8 he advertises Maecenas' difference from those who turn up their noses at 'ignotos, ut me libertino patre natum', 'nobodies like me, "the freedman's son"', and in lines 45-8 returns to this and other jibes against him. This self-presentation as under attack legitimises self-defence and self-justification and enables the construction of an idealised self-portrait in 1.6, which otherwise might have seemed out of place (pp. 42-6).

This model of concentric rings M. describes as a 'revised interpretative model' (p. 6) for the understanding of Horatian audiences,4 and it succeeds in clearly delineating different groups in Horace's contemporary readership. It omits, however, any consideration of how this picture might fit with the idea of an ideal reader or superaddressee, able to appreciate all of the different levels of audience in Horace's work. It would also have been useful to hear more about post-Augustan readers of the Horatian 'monumentum aere perennius'. M. does consider the role of posterity in poems like Carm.2.20 and appears to include later readers in his fifth ring (or at least to associate such readers closely with that ring, pp. 56-7), but there is more to be said about the role of non-contemporary audiences in the operation of Horatian poems.

Chapter 3 ('Craft and Concern') argues that Horace's statements about poetry do not form a critical manifesto because they must be read in the light of Horace's self-presentation, a poetic fiction open to manipulation and change. For M.'s Horace consistency of theory is not a priority, and the contradictions of aesthetic pronouncements such as the abandonment of poetry at the beginning of Epist.1.1 are a demonstration that Horace's statements about poetry are a carefully controlled part of his self-presentation (p. 75), which is geared to depicting himself and his work as positively as possible (pp. 86-8). M. finds three main conceptions of poetry in Horace's work: poetry as a practical tool (e.g. for earning money, as in Epist.2.2.46-54, or as an emotional notepad in Sat.1.4.133-9), as a profession or vocation, i.e., Horace's 'chosen route to the achievement of individual greatness' (p. 69), developed particularly in the literary Satires, and as a public model. This last conception encompasses Horace's depiction of himself both as a parent to the people in the Satires, playing a role equivalent to that of his father in Sat.1.4.107-20, and as inspired vates in the Odes.

Chapter 4 ('Wordly Affairs') builds on the work of Ellul on the nature of propaganda, and DuQuesnay on the role of Horace's poetry (particularly the Satires) in the promotion of Augustus,5 to examine Horace's place in sophisticated, integrationist Octavian/Augustan propaganda. M. focuses attention on the impression Horace creates of embracing Octavian's cause, rather than the unanswerable question of the 'genuineness' of Horace's dedication to this cause (pp. 95-6). M. is rightly sceptical of Lyne's view that the stigma of being a 'turncoat' discouraged Horace from political poetry in the early thirties (p. 95), pointing out that Satires 1 is full of subtle indications of allegiance and positive depictions of Octavian and his associates. The celebration of Maecenas' clementia in Sat.1.3 hints at a similar character for Octavian, while the journey to seal the politically important Pact of Tarentum in Sat.1.5 depicts the Octavian faction as friendly and normal and Antony's lieutenant as a perfect gentleman (1.5.32-33), thus justifying and promoting the triumvirate (pp. 97-104). M. also illustrates Horace's portrayal of the burdens of propaganda, such as its reception by the laudandus, taken up in Sat.2.10-20 and Epist.1.13. The implication of Augustan power in these poems is of course itself encomiastic, but they also serve to remind other rings in Horace's audiences of the pressures involved in writing for the great (pp. 114-7). M. ends this chapter with an examination of Carm.2.1, where the description of Pollio's history of the civil wars implies praise for his independence but also reminds the outer rings of Horace's audience of the horror of internecine war and of Augustan clementia in allowing such discussion of the triumvirate and its faults (pp. 128-30). Again, the contrasting demands of different audiences are accommodated.

In his Conclusion ('Creating Reality') M. considers Horace's response in Odes 4 and Epistles 2 to the changed political circumstances of the established Augustan regime, and indicates the affinities of some aspects of Ovid's self-presentation in the Tristia and Ex Ponto to Horace's depiction of himself (in rather briefer compass than the blurb on the jacket might lead one to believe).

This book is an important contribution to the study of Horace's self-presentation and the contexts in which he wrote. It is engagingly written, easy to read and well presented, with very few typographical errors. The use of long endnotes, however, is somewhat frustrating, as these often complete or amplify the argument in the main text, such as notes 22 and 23 to page 8, which treat in greater depth the relationship of M.'s approach to those of Oliensis and Lyne and its theoretical affinities, positioning M. with reference to New Criticism, New Historicism and deconstruction. The relegation of this material to endnotes is presumably itself a strategy for dealing with M.'s different audiences, but the book would have benefited from the incorporation of much of this material into the main text.

M.'s approach also tends, naturally enough, to sideline generic considerations (amongst others) in favour of the effect of pressures from Horace's social and political contexts on his self-image. He argues convincingly that the techniques of self-presentation employed in Horace are similar across different genres, though the self-images themselves vary considerably (p. 140 n. 5). But some aspects of Horatian self-presentation show clear connections to generic 'pressures' and exploit generic precedents in the construction of a self-image. This is clear, for example, in the details of the persona of the satirist in Satires 1, such as his 'low-born' status as a 'freedman's son' (Sat.1.6.6), which recalls the identical claim of Bion of Borysthenes (F1A), and his resemblance to Cynic moralisers from Hellenistic diatribe, characters from Comedy, and the narrators of iambos (all of which are available as generic precedents for satire).6 Nevertheless, M.'s treatment of Horace's self-images and the contexts in which they were created deserves a wide audience.


1.   K. Freudenberg, The Walking Muse (Princeton 1993).
2.   E. Oliensis, Horace and the Rhetoric of Authority (Cambridge 1998).
3.   R.O.A.M. Lyne, Horace: Behind the Public Poetry (New Haven and London 1995).
4.   M. is revising models such as those in B.K. Gold, 'Openings in Horace's Satires and Odes', YCS 29 (1992):161-85 and Oliensis 1998.
5.   J. Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (trans. K.Kellen, J.Lerner, New York 1973); I.M.LeM. DuQuesnay, 'Horace and Maecenas' in A.J. Woodman, D. West (eds.), Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus (Cambridge 1984):19-58.
6.   This must affect assumptions such as M.'s that 'Horace's depiction of his social woes must surely have had some basis in actual experience [...] since otherwise the sheer implausibility of his presented scenarios would have drastically undercut the impact of his intended message' (p. 41). Not if these social woes and the persona suffering them had well-defined and established generic forerunners which an audience would perceive. On this in general see Freudenberg 1993.

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