Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.37

Richard F. Thomas, Horace: Odes Book IV and Carmen Saeculare. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011.  Pp. xiii, 297.  ISBN 9780521582797.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Olga Vartzioti, University of Patras (


In the preface to this book, Thomas suggests that “the Carmen Saeculare and book 4 are not easy to situate in their political and aesthetic contexts” (p.vii). Indeed, there is still considerable debate about the tone, purpose and meaning of Odes IV and their relation to CS, not to mention discussion about CS itself. Therefore it is hard to maintain that there is no place for new critical views, and, why not, complete originality. Under these circumstances we welcome all the recently published critical discussion on Horace’s late lyrics.1 The volume in hand offers an overall view of the poet’s official “public exposure” and his literary debts and their ideological consequences.

In accordance with the general format of the Cambridge 'green-and-yellow' series the book is structured as follows: Abbreviations (p. ix-xii) citing all the approved textual and lexicographical bibliography, and furthermore, selected previous but still relevant commentaries on Horace’s text. This section serves also as a sine qua non “appendix” to the study’s very selective Bibliography (p.279-287). An Introduction (p. 1- 23) preparing the reader for the author’s interpretative approach in the commentary, is subdivided into seven sections: (1) “Horace’s literary career,” (2) “The date of Odes 4,” (3) “Structural patterns,” (4) “Thematic patterns,” (5) “Poetry and propaganda,” (6) “Reluctant praise,” and (7) “Pindar, Callimachus and aesthetic contestations”. I recognize in the Introduction’s thematic structure an analogy with what Horace himself seems to develop in Odes IV as a programmatic alternation between the (erotic) lyrics and encomia. To be specific, Thomas structures his interpretative approach by pairing themes, (1)-(2), (3)-(4), (5)-(6), concluding with the contradiction between these two very different contexts in (7). Like Horace, who leaves his readers to choose between aesthetics and politics (p.10), Thomas very carefully juxtaposes these issues in his thematic structure in order to highlight and interpret this bipartite character of the late Horatian lyrics.

In a critical discussion involving largely E. Fraenkel but also R. Syme 3 for their prominent role in Horatian Studies (pp.1,3,4,6,9,12,15,16) Thomas gives a concrete, accessible, and moreover, a dispassionate introductory view of the composition of the poems and their historical context. This introductory view has, in my reading, two prominent issues. First, it rehabilitates Odes IV as integrated lyric poetry and a sequel of the Odes I-III. Secondly, by unabashedly using the term “propaganda” and by acknowledging that Horace “participated willingly in the Augustan program” (p.11), Thomas argues that the various readings of Horace’s late lyrics depend on the reader’s sympathy or lack of sympathy with the régime (p.11). Horace’s direct or indirect addresses to Caesar in his literary career are facts in the poet’s life that refute a propagandistic role while, at the same time, tending towards collaboration (p.12) and set the tone of the poet’s “reluctant praise,” as Thomas argues constructively in the longest section of his Introduction (section 7 with almost 8 of 23 pages). It is obvious that Thomas’ commentary takes a critically alert and judicious approach to Horace’s text. ” Having in mind that a “commentary’s deep structure comprises a set of answers to a series of …questions “posed” by the primary text (but in fact asked by the commentator)”2 I would say that Thomas focuses strictly on the aesthetic and political context of Horace’s late lyrics.

Dealing with the highly aesthetic context of the Horatian (lyric) genre, Thomas argues for the poet’s primary dedication to artistic writing (sections 1, 3, 4); In this sense, it is stimulating that the commentator is aiming to weaken “stereotypes” or clichés in Horatian scholarship and to ask from a new perspective questions previously thought to have been answered. Thus, in section 1 (and 2 as well) Thomas rejects the putative poor reception of Odes I-III and states that Horace’s involvement with literary criticism since early in his poetic career should not be misjudged in terms of anything short of his poems’ appreciation (p.3-4). Thomas argues that Horace, when he is writing about the quality of his poems, only gives an intensely Callimachean perspective and serves programmatically the traditional poetics of aemulatio (p.3).

It is in this sense also that in (7) Thomas highlights the precedence of Callimachean aesthetics over Pindaric voices. From this point of view, he progressively helps the reader to listen behind the poet’s public voice, highlighting “the struggle between politics and poetics” (p.23). This is a central point in Thomas’ arguments aiming to show that, in Horace, aesthetics subvert politics only under certain conditions, “particularly when the political has a moralizing feel in it” (p.16). Concerning the issue of moralizing: Horace always makes statements or muted judgments about ethics in politics and poetics, and there is evidence that this is still happening in Odes IV and CS. But Thomas eschews moralizing or ethical criticism, (only citing once for further reading on p.1, n.3) while dealing widely with politics and aesthetics. If we consider Horace’s lyric poetry as a whole, despite the break of the Epistles, then we should expect that Horace in Odes IV and CS is dealing also with ethics in politics and poetics. It would have been much more instructive in a commentary volume like this for the reader to become conscious of the degree of the poet’s concern regarding his public image. From this point of view Thomas’ statement that “the first book of Epistles ostentatiously displays their relationship to the Horatian lyric that surrounds that book” (p.4) could have been a good starting point for a discussion on ethics or moralizing, and not only about issues of aesthetics and politics.

In Thomas’s commentary, the Latin text of the CS and Odes IV comprises a very selective, simplified version of apparatus criticus (only three sigla are used) and this produces an easily readable text. The commentary on each poem gives metrical information, a summary, and an introduction which smoothly leads into the commentary. The lemma commentary has the advantage of easy access to a particular line or point over the “essay commentary” style of the fuller, Italian commentary of Fedeli and Ciccarelli on Odes IV (2008, see n.1 above), even though, as Thomas acknowledges, his commentary is more selective.

Thomas gives the poem’s role in the book of Odes IV and its literary or pragmatic part in the Horatian corpus and/or contemporary literature. This reading focuses on the continuous movement of one poem to another and highlights the poet’s efforts to play with implicit contrasts in style and programmatic issues.

I appreciated the close reading of every poem in small units, which elucidated the structure of the poem. What was also generally helpful was the multiplicity of parallels cited, either by identifying the poem’s intertextualism or by discussing linguistic or semantic choices. However, concerning parallels there were some irritating instances I would like to call attention to. Let me cite an example Carm.4.3.11-12 nemorum comae/fingent Aeolio carmine nobilem (ad loc p.125). Horace’s intentional allusion to the topos of locus amoenus referring to his preferable generic choices is closely connected to the verb fingo. In an effort to establish the register of the verb (within the text) Thomas draws parallels with Sallust (Cat.1.1) and Vergil (Aen.2.79-80), though both writers use the verb in a different manner, and in any case, in a non- programmatic context. Though it is stated that parallels confirm the syntax of the verb, these choices, in my opinion, offer nothing important to the reading of the text (in contrast to the success of the parallel of Hor.S.1.4.17- 8). Moreover, as Thomas significantly notes elsewhere (p.114), the verb fingere is also used in Carm.4.2.32 carmina fingo in a programmatic context referring again to the poet’s preference in aesthetics (citing Lee 1970: 246-7). This time also, instead of citing at least one example of the verb in a context of creative (poetic) speech or imaginary thought (although TLL’s citations are given), we are offered a different refererence, also in Vergil (G.2.45 (carmine ficto) for the verb’s fictional character. This meaning cannot add to the verb’s use in this context, too. In both citations, if for Horace the point is the shaping of the poet or poems, then the use of the verb could be further commentated on for its programmatic statement. In this case the “particularly Horatian” (p.114) sense of the verb fingere could have been another perspective of Vergil’s Ecl.6.4-5 dicere carmen (which of course Thomas comments on Carm.4.12.9-10 dicunt…carmina for its programmatic use by Vergil). Arising from this, I would also note that the Vergilian and Ovidian parallels, useful critical tools indeed, are prominent as comparanda in this Commentary.

I have left CS to the end, even though it is dealt with first in the commentary. To my knowledge, the lemma commentary on CS is the most detailed yet, while the supplementary documentation on historical evidence (in the Appendices) helps readers to confront the poem’s conceptual composition while they are working with the text itself. In the Introduction there is not much discussion about the CS because Thomas avoids (sic, p.11) proposing CS as an overall prerequisite for the putative encomiastic character of Odes IV even though he concedes that some poems in Odes IV are, on some level, a response to the public encomium of the CS. Thomas proposes that in the fourth book of Horace “two millennia of reception have created an expectation of encomium, and this expectation is retrojected to the end of the Republic” (p.19). This is his central point. It is from this perspective that CS seems specifically treated, with three Appendices referring exclusively to it (origin, Acta of the Augustan secular games, and the Sibylline Oracle, pp.271-8). The appendices with all the historical evidence intend to show that we should rethink our position on these poems. Thus, Thomas’ point is the régime’s deliberate restructuring of tradition and the way Horace reacted to this. Thomas argues convincingly that Horace deliberately avoided any ideological or political ambiguity by distancing his poem from any specific correspondence between the patterns of the ludi and that of the poem (p.60). Horace’s contribution was limited to the composition of the poem, i.e. “an individual poetizing of the ritual of which it is part, with artistic, ideological and political implications” (p.58).

The author concludes his commentary with the Indexes, one of Latin words and one general, with proper names and stylistic terms (p.289-90 and 290-97, respectively). In the general index I found terms like “St. Elmo’s fire” or “sapping” (both on p.296) somewhat unexpected since it is difficult to imagine a context in which they would be used. On the other hand, I found only a few references to fundamental principles of ethics and moralizing in poetry and politics of the era. For instance, a meaningful term like Virtus, a lemma in CS 58 and also in Carm.4.8.26 ad loc, is rather in sideline and nowhere in the indices, despite the deficient (also) indexing of other relevant ethical or political values of the first passage. Perhaps this is because Thomas seems to reject the term’s prominent role in Horace’s political moralizing and poetics, although in the second passage under discussion (Carm.4.8.26 ) virtus is close related to politics. Concerning programmatic issues, it would help the reader if the term vates could be indexed also in Carm.4.8.26 (p.194), the term carmen also in Carm.4.2.32, and the term Decus in Carm.4.1.13 & 35 as well.

In conclusion, criticism apart and despite some personal disappointment about the lack of discussion about moralizing, the author has produced a stimulating and useful work of reference for anyone working on Odes IV and CS. The work is meticulous and substantial, and, above all, the debate about Horace's late lyrics has been resurrected. ​


1.   Apart from the volume in hand, see also Fedeli, Paolo and Irma Ciccarelli. Q. Horatii Flacci, Carmina. Liber IV. Firenze: Felice le Monnier, 2008 (Biblioteca Nazionale, Testi con commento filologico 17), 706 pp. BMCR 2009.08.60; Johnson, Timothy. Symposion of Praise. Horace Returns to Lyric in Odes IV. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2005 (Wisconsin Studies in Classics). 320 pp. BMCR 2005.08.21; Putnam, Michael C.J. Horace's Carmen Saeculare. Ritual Magic and the Poet's Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 192 pp. BMCR 2001.08.26; Notice also Philip Hills’ unpublished Diss. On Odes 4.1,2,10,11,15 (Cambridge 2002).
2.   Kraus in Gibson, R.K., Shuttleworth Kraus, C The Classical Commentary. Histories, Practices, Theory, Mnemosyne Bibliotheca Classica Batava, Leiden-Boston-Koeln 2002, p.8.
3.   E. Fraenkel, Horace, Oxford 1957 and R. Syme, The Roman Revolution, Oxford 1939.

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