Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.35

Sergio Yona, Epicurean Ethics in Horace: The Psychology of Satire.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. ix, 348.  ISBN 9780198786559.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Mark Wright, Sturgis Charter Public School (


An easy way to sum up the critical fortunes of Horace’s Sermones in the first half of the twentieth century is the fact that despite being the earliest works Horace composed, they are placed after the Odes in the Oxford Classical Text. It took a focus upon Horace’s conscious artistry and his meta-poetics in his debut hexameters to raise the critical fortunes of the Sermones, particularly the work of William S. Anderson, James Zetzel, and Kirk Freudenburg. However, many of the most important works of this critical renaissance were founded upon the assumption that Horace’s pervasive irony included his moral statements, which, as the argument went, did not need be taken at face value and could in fact be passed over to focus on Horace’s Callimacheanism and his anxiety of influence with Lucilius. In fact, what they certainly couldn’t be were poems with any serious moral intent.1 However, by the 2000s this thread of criticism had begun to show diminishing returns and scholars increasingly reconsidered the moral content. Catherine Schlegel’s monograph and Emily Gowers’ invaluable commentary of 2012, as well as articles by Jerome Kemp,2 have demonstrated, contra those studying the aesthetics of the poetry, that Horace, despite his inconsistencies, does have some important things to say about Roman morality and ethics. Sergio Yona’s new monograph continues in this direction, providing copious philosophical evidence for Horace’s ethical concerns by drawing upon the works of Philodemus and their influence on the Sermones—further developing connections earlier pursued in articles by David Armstrong and others. Yona argues that Horace creates a persona of a frank Epicurean friend, drawing upon the works of Philodemus. For those arguing for a serious consideration of the moral and ethical content of Horace’s Sermones, this book is their Walking Muse; indeed, it is one of the most important books on Horace’s Sermones published since Freudenburg’s volume.

In his introduction, Yona addresses many of the major issues concerning Horace’s Sermones. There’s the obligatory consideration of Horace’s audience, as well as persona theory and an acknowledgment of its limitations. Yona seems content to mostly steer a middle ground on many of these issues, agreeing with Suzanne Sharland that Horace maintains a consistent persona in the two books of Sermones, a necessary assumption for Yona’s thesis. Yona then introduces the concept of “the psychology of satire” (p. 4-5), denoting Horace’s focus upon personal ethics and their effect upon his own mental health and that of his friends (like Maecenas).3 Besides the precis of Yona’s argument, the rest of the introduction examines the previous scholarship on Philodemus’ connections to Horace.

Yona spends Chapter 1 laying out what we know about Philodemus, his corpus of philosophical work, and the advances of papyrologists in deciphering more and more carbonized scrolls from the Villa dei Papiri outside Herculaneum. After a quick recap of the other major philosophical strands (particularly Aristotle—though Yona frequently and rightly notes that some Aristotelian commonplaces in Horace, like the mean, are also found in Epicurean ethics), Yona focuses upon Philodemus’ life and works, emphasizing in particular three themes: the acquisition of wealth, discerning flatterers from true friends, and the need for frank criticism as a moral corrective tool, found primarily in the works On Property Management, On Frank Criticism, and On Anger. These themes provide a constant framework throughout the rest of the book for reading Horace’s poems through the lens of Philodemus, especially since these three themes are also very prominent in both books of Sermones. From this source material, Yona adduces some key concepts for Horace: the use of Epicurean “pleasure-calculus” (i.e. calculating whether an action will bring greater pleasure or pain) in moral decision making; the morality of wealth acquisition (a preference to live frugally, but not saying no to windfalls); and the Epicurean ideal of rural retreat with friends for enjoyment and moral development. Important to this last point is the proper discernment of flatterers from friends—what marks the latter is a sincere interest in the moral development and correction of the friend. A proper Epicurean friend will closely observe his companion, noting signs of vices and using friendly frankness to correct their friend’s behavior. There is, as Yona shows, something of the psychologist in this vision of a good Epicurean friend. One thinks too of Persius’ assessment of Horace’s satiric strategy: omne vafer vitium ridenti Flaccus amico / tangit et admissus circum praecordia ludit (S. 1.116-17): “clever Horace touches upon every fault of his laughing friend, and once admitted plays around their heart.”

With this background in mind, Yona’s second chapter is comprised of a study of the first three, “diatribe” satires of the first book. This chapter is a thorough refutation of Turpin’s thesis of Epicurean parody in these poems,4 and is undoubtedly the strongest in the book. With constant recourse to the texts of Philodemus, Yona makes a convincing argument for a serious, Epicurean moral purpose (leavened, of course, with the crustula of humor) to these diatribes. Much of the chapter is devoted to a close reading of the first satire, on wealth and its limits, which Yona shows draws liberally from On Property Management. Yona is able to demonstrate that Horace’s seemingly awkward link between discontentment and avarice also has a precursor in Philodemus’ On Envy. In turning to the following poems, Yona shows how the moral calculus involved in choosing amorous affairs in 1.2 is just the Epicurean pleasure principle in action, and the discussion of frank criticism and the awareness of faults in 1.3 draws on Philodeman discussions of frank criticism and moral improvement. These ideas of frank criticism among friends inform Horace’s approach in all three diatribe satires, where “stinging criticism for the sake of healing” is a “hallmark of Epicurean frankness” as opposed to Cynic parrhesia (p. 106).

In his third chapter, Yona, as studies of the Sermones inevitably must, turns to Horace’s portrait of his pater optimus, a figure who authorizes both Horace’s moral pedagogy and his worthiness as a friend of Maecenas. Yona notes that although the debt to Terence’s Adelphoe and his character Demea seems clear, Demea’s ideas of moral pedagogy are not particular to that play, but can be seen in other Roman comedies, sometimes with positive results, such as Plautus’ Trinummus; perhaps Horace intends his portrait of his father to be one of those success stories. The vivid exemplary education of Horace’s father retrospectively becomes a model for Horace’s own method in the diatribe satires, while also relying on Epicurean empiricism and ideas of frank criticism. This makes the father/son relationship of Horace and his pater optimus a model for the friendship between Horace and Maecenas. Yona figures this friendship in terms of the ideal of Epicurean patronage, the most notable prior Roman example of which was Philodemus himself and L. Calpurnius Piso, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

The fourth chapter considers the poem on the pest (1.9) and starts to open up the book’s scope to the second book of Sermones with consideration of poems 2.5 and 2.6. Yona makes the case, with help from Plutarch’s How to tell a Flatterer from a Friend that the encounter with the pest allows Horace to characterize his persona by contrast and defend himself to detractors as a true friend of Maecenas, not a toady like the pest wants to be, or possessed of rank avarice and ambition like the Ulysses of 2.5. In contrast, Horace’s tactfully expressed gratitude for his Sabine estate in poem 2.6 again follows Epicurean economic ideas, especially in Philodemus’ On Wealth Management.

Yona’s final chapter is a reading of some poems in Book 2. He begins with a consideration of poems 2.2 and 2.3, contrasting the measured economic advice of Ofellus (read here as something approaching an Epicurean sage himself) against the Stoic rantings of Damasippus in 2.3. Yona sees the prolixity of this Stoic philosopher-manqué as a counter example to the concise Epicurean frankness of Horace’s conversations with Maecenas. The antithesis of ineffective discussion and efficacious Epicurean sermo is continued in the concluding section on 2.7, where “Horace presents his audience with a complementary self-examination of his own ethical credentials through the mouth of Davus” (p. 288). Yona contends that a running theme of the second book is this method of indirect characterization, where Horace burnishes his own moral bona fides by comparison to blowhards like Damasippus or wastrels like Ulysses.

While Yona notes (p. 3, n. 9) that his thesis cannot account for every poem in the two books, I do think he is being too modest here. While he points in particular to those perennial Horatian bugbears 1.7 and 1.8 (I too am in aporia over what to do with that farting Priapus), I found it especially surprising, given the book’s subject, that Yona didn’t include a discussion of the final poem, 2.8, with Nasidienus playing the host so very anxious to impress his guest and hopefully become his friend too—a studiously planned culinary disaster that becomes a mockery of Epicurean withdrawal and ease. Likewise, I would like to have seen consideration of S 1.5, which very easily lends itself to Epicurean themes,5 while allowing us to (however briefly) see Horace and Maecenas’ friendship in action—not to mention the appearance of some students of Philodemus like Plotius, Varius and Vergil (1.5.40).

Ultimately, Yona shows that Philodemus is a foundational philosophical influence on Horace’s moral and ethical thought in the Sermones, and in doing so widens new critical paths in the scholarship on these poems, especially for the riddling second book. Nearly 25 years on, it provides an invaluable complement to Freudenburg’s The Walking Muse and one hopes that it will have a similar influence over the next couple of decades.6


1.   These essays are collected in W. S. Anderson, Essays on Roman Satire, (Princeton, 1982). See too J. E. G. Zetzel, “Horace’s Liber Sermonum: The Structure of Ambiguity” Arethusa 13 (1980) 59-76, and K. Freudenburg, The Walking Muse: Horace on the Theory of Satire (Princeton, 1993).
2.   See C. Schlegel, Satire and the Threat of Speech: Horace’s Satires Book 1 (Madison, 2006), and E. Gowers, Horace: Sermones I (Cambridge, 2012). See too J. Kemp, “The Philosophical Background to Horace’s Satires” Diss, University of London, 2006, and articles derived from it: J. Kemp, “A Moral Purpose, a Literary Game: Horace Satires 1.4” CW 104 (2010) 59-76; “Flattery and Frankness in Horace and Philodemus” G & R 57 (2010) 65-76; “Fools Rush in: Sex, ‘the Mean’ and Epicureanism in Horace, Satires 1.2” Cambridge Classical Journal 62 (2016) 130-146.
3.   Compare also Will Batstone’s idea of “moral self-pedagogy” in the Sermones in E. Gunderson (ed.) The Cambridge Campanion to Ancient Rhetoric (2009), 224-6.
4.   See W. Turpin,“The Epicurean Parasite: Horace Satires 1.1-3”, Ramus 27 (1998) 127-140.
5.   See e.g. T. Welch,“Horace’s Journey Through Arcadia” TAPA 138 (2008) 47-74.
6.   The book is well produced, as one would expect from Oxford University Press, but some typographical errors (e.g. “flare” for “flair”, p. 79; “Luctrius” for “Lucretius”, p. 112; “apporach” for “approach”, p. 120; “second person plural” for “first person plural”, p. 198; “previsouly” for “previously”, p.293) were distracting. In addition, Turpin (1998) is misdated as Turpin (2009), when that is in fact the reprint of the original essay in Freudenburg, K. (2009) Oxford Readings in Horace’s Satires and Epistles.

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