Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.11

Emily Gowers (ed.), Horace: Satires Book I. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xi, 370.  ISBN 9780521458511.  $40.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Suzanne Sharland, University of KwaZulu-Natal (


Emily Gowers’ commentary on Horace’s Satires Book I for Cambridge University Press’ ‘green and yellow’ series, is the product of the labours of a decade and a half. This meticulous commentary in a convenient pocket-size form will be useful and inspirational to everyone interested in Horace, from experienced scholars to students meeting the liber sermonum for the first time. Gowers is also the author of The Loaded Table,1 a fascinating study of the meaning and metaphor of food in Latin literature, as well as the writer of a number of astute articles on Horace and other Latin poets. She has always taken an independent, innovative approach to interpreting Horace’s satires, based not only on a thorough and close reading of the text, but also on her inclination to question what the notoriously playful Horace may be up to in his various guises. The commentary does not disappoint at all in this regard, as Gowers maintains her exacting standards of scholarship and engaging, articulate style throughout.

The work is preceded by a full introduction to Horace and his place in the history of Roman satire, his poetic ancestors and influences as satirist (pp. 1-28). This includes a significant section on the ‘Afterlife’ of Satires Book One, investigating the impressive influence that the book has had on later European literature (pp. 25-7). Each poem in Horace’s collection is given a detailed individual analysis and discussion, prior to the line-for-line commentary. Although she confesses a commendable ‘bias’ towards contemporary interpretations of Horace’s Satires (p. vii), Gowers does give space to the concerns of prior scholarly generations, and often decisively solves thorny issues in a sensible way. Her approach to Horace is both subtle and varied, and she has a keen eye for irony and contradiction. While I am unable to give the whole commentary the attention it deserves here, I shall limit myself to the aspects and treatments which I found most appealing.

It is in an altered political landscape that Horace claims to transform the type of poetry written by his predecessor Lucilius, with the result that, Gowers observes, ‘Roman satire, like Roman pastoral, is essentially nostalgic: it mourns the lost conditions for its existence and classifies itself at the moment of potential extinction. Starting with [Horace], Roman satire is always ‘meta-satire’, poetry that tells us, tongue in cheek, why it can no longer be full-bloodedly satirical’ (pp. 7-8). Instead, Horace turns the potent potions and aggressive impulses traditionally ascribed to satire – such as black ink and poison, biting and scratching – against himself, to the point of self-laceration: amid the rigours of his project of stylistic reform, the satirist in frustration scratches his own head, bites his own nails, and has to smear black ointment on his infected eyes (pp. 11, 307). Conjunctivitis is the price the self-satirical Horace pays, like the wordy Stoics (see Crispini lippi, Satires 1.1.120), for too much writing, or rather, for a satirist in the Callimachean mould, for too much editing, or maybe, in the midst of great political events, it indicates a choice of not wanting to see (and thus not being in a position to reveal) too much (Satires 1.5.30, 49).

Yet Horace’s Satires are unavoidably political, addressing Octavian’s high-profile supporter and right hand man Maecenas in their very first line, ‘the most blatant act of name-dropping in the book’ (p. 62), and indicating that ‘[Horace] has already arrived: he is speaking to Maecenas’ (p. 59). Gowers’ treatment of the ‘diatribes’, Satires 1.1-3, gives full acknowledgement to the complexity and sophistication of these poems which are presented on the surface as moralising lectures. She rightly dismisses Freudenburg’s suggestion (1993: 23-4)2 that the four exempla of paired and mutually envying dissatisfied professionals at Satires 1.1.4-12 (soldier and merchant, lawyer and farmer) are ill-chosen and are part of a deliberate presentation of the speaker as incompetent, suggesting instead that this looks rather more like satire on human irrationality (p. 64). Gowers likewise has a different interpretation of Horace’s use of what she terms ‘signposts’, phrases and short sentences indicating to the addressee where the speaker is going and how long it will take him to get there (ne te morer, ‘so as not to delay you’, 1.1.14; non longa est fabula, ‘it’s not a long tale’, 1.1.95; iam satis est, ‘that’s enough now’, 1.1.120). She suggests that these may not be so much an indication of clumsiness on the part of the speaker (Freudenburg 1993: 12), but simple politeness towards the addressee (p. 66). Of course, Horace’s promises are also lies; shortly after assuring us that he will not add another word (1.1.121), he begins his second satire, and in the very last line of the book he’s still giving the impression of tacking on further words in an apparent ‘aside’ to his slave (meo citus haec subscribe libello, ‘quickly go and add these lines to my book’, 1.10.92; pp. 85-6). Gowers suggests that Horace was aware of and often actively played around with the different possible origins for the term satura later catalogued by Diomedes (1.485 GLK). Although he fails to name the genre he is writing in until his second book, Horace often uses images of fullness and satiety, even referring to a tightly stuffed inn at Satires 1.5.4 (p. 11). Satires 1.2, however, sees him in ‘satyr’ mode, discoursing on sex, an important part of the satiric genre even if the link between ‘satyr’ and satura is etymologically implausible. Obscenity, Gowers observes, ‘is not just a powerful instrument for uncovering euphemism and hypocrisy: it is also the first target of censorship’ (p. 89). Thus, like satyrs bringing up the rear in a funeral parade (in this case, Tigellius’), Horace’s satire has to be full of ‘satyric’ coarseness so as to keep alive the flame of Lucilian free speech (p. 89). Yet addressing such advice to ‘a culpable master, the ladies’ man Maecenas’ could prove controversial (p. 89), just as lecturing, in the preceding satire, on miserly greed and acquisitiveness to an extremely wealthy assumed beneficiary of the proscriptions, might also be problematic (p. 63). Although the last few lines of the second satire have images both of Horace ‘on top and out of harm’s way’ (p. 89), engaging in easily available and stress-free sex (dum futuo, 127), and as the escaping adulterer running for his life (127-133 – a case of experto crede?, pp. 117-118), Gowers concludes that ultimately the satirist appears to be rejoicing in the role of the invulnerable outsider as he seizes on ‘the most vulnerable chinks in the armour of the ruling class – the sexual transgressions of its womenfolk and the humiliation of the males who abet them’ (p. 89).

Another metaphor for Horatian satire is the journey. Gowers herself has been an avid follower of Horace’s zigzagging stop-start ‘inconsequential’ journey to Brundisium in Satires1.5, having published an important article on this in 1993,3 and she furthers our understanding of this pivotal satire in this commentary. Gowers ingeniously suggests that the ‘companion’ Heliodorus, whom Horace mentions taking along with him (sometimes thought to be Apollodorus), may actually not be a person, but a book, Heliodorus’ tourist guide Theamata Italica (p. 183). Although allegedly based on Lucilius’ Iter Siculum, Horace’s poetic journey is a slow, creeping progression at the pace of his pedestrian muse. With his nose to the ground, his eyes bleary, and his mind on his stomach and groin, Horace seems to fixate on the minor irritations of travel: ‘Sightseeing is minimal and the focus is on low-level incidents, despite the fact that a major diplomatic mission, the official purpose of the journey, is somewhere just out of view’ (p. 182). Gowers observes that the biggest surprise of the piece is Horace’s detour from the Via Appia onto the Via Minucia, to end his journey at Brundisium instead of Tarentum (pp. 182-3).4 Horace’s zigzagging route to the south looks, to my mind, deliberately obscure, as if he were trying to shake off some slow but relentless pursuer (making his assiduously following reader the equivalent of the ‘bore’ in Satires 1.9? Or is the ghost of Lucilius on his tail?).5 Gowers discusses the various known meetings and agreements between Antony and Octavian to which Horace’s journey could possibly refer, but also examines the now widely acknowledged possibility that this trip is a fictional construct, a practical example of the literary theory laid out in Satires 1.4, the preceding poem (p. 183). Gowers also argues that the journey is effectively symbolic of Horace’s life journey from southern Italy to Rome in reverse (p. 182), and she suggests, quite plausibly, that the metrically unnameable town at lines 86-90 may in fact be Horace’s hometown of Venusia. This would mean that ‘a special kind of mock-modesty’ – characteristically Horatian – is at play here (p. 209).

Gowers is particularly brilliant at discussing the ‘anecdotal’ poems (7, 8, 9) of Satires Book One, especially Satires 1.7, Horace’s shortest and most controversial satire (p. 250). Recounting an incident in Brutus’ camp prior to the Battle of Philippi, and ending with a joking request that Brutus pursue his ‘family business’ and slit the throat of a character with the cognomen Rex (‘King’), this satire, Gowers agrees, is ‘the closest to the bone for Octavian’s regime’ (p. 251), although Brutus and his supporters come off far worse. She exploits the ‘cutting’ metaphor throughout her discussion of this poem, noting how it bristles with razors, swords, and sharp blades long before the punch-line referring to the tyrannicide’s knife (p. 251).6 Gowers points out Horace’s punning reference to Philippi in Rupili pus in the satire’s first line – along with the first two words ‘proscribed’ and ‘king’ (p. 253): one would imagine that, having escaped Philippi and earned Octavian’s favour, Horace would leave his awkward past well alone, but the fact that he does the opposite (cf. Odes 2.7, 3.4) says much for Octavian’s clementia and Horace’s own freedom of speech (libertas), courtesy of the same. It would suggest that, in spite of the man to whom he was heir, Octavian himself was not a would-be rex. Yet, with all the references to cut-throat barbers and their special relationship with tyrants (pp. 254-5), Gowers leaves us in no doubt as to the ‘close shave’ this poem really is. Other treatments I particularly enjoyed were Gowers’ take on the farting Priapus of Satires 1.8 and the attempted evasion of the ‘bore’ of Satires 1.9. In spite of Horace’s approval of Latinitas in Satires 1.10, throughout her commentary Gowers notes a number of fascinating bilingual puns.

Gowers writes in her preface that she finds it as hard to know where Horace is going now as when she first encountered him, and that she means this only as a compliment (p. vii). We may not know either, but with Gowers as guide, it is impossible not to enjoy the twists and turns of the journey.


1.   Emily Gowers The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
2.   Kirk Freudenburg The Walking Muse: Horace on the Theory of Satire Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
3.   Emily Gowers ‘Horace, Satires 1.5: an inconsequential journey’ PCPS 39 1993: 48-66 = Chapter 6, pp. 156-180 in Kirk Freudenburg (ed.) Horace: Satires and (p. vii) Epistles Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
4.   Gowers includes a useful map (drawn by her son Richard) on p. xi, illustrating Horace’s possible routes to Brundisium.
5.   Recently, Jennifer L. Ferris-Hill has suggested that Horace’s pursuer in Satires 1.9 may be understood as Lucilius (‘A Stroll with Lucilius: Horace, Satires 1.9 reconsidered’ AJP 132 2011: 429-455). This may have appeared too late for Gowers.
6.   See also Emily Gowers ‘Blind eyes and cut throats: amnesia and silence in Horace Satires 1.7’ Classical Philology 97 2002: 145-61.

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