BMCR 2004.09.31

A Commentary on Horace’s Epodes

, A commentary on Horace's Epodes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. xvii, 604 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0199253242 $150.00.

This is the third and most important commentary on the Epodes in little over a decade, following on from Cavarzere (Venice, 1992) and Mankin (Cambridge, 1995). The commentary follows the format of Nisbet and Hubbard in its lack of a text. W(atson) is very attentive to possible sources and parallels and is strong on the historical and social context of the poems.

The commentary on each individual poem commences with an interpretative essay, smoothly synthesizing existing scholarship. No doubt W. will be criticized in some quarters for his avowedly intentionalist rhetoric, but one of the many joys of this work is that in those places where one feels reservations about W.’s literary judgement, he supplies, via meticulous referencing and generously full summaries of rival interpretations, an excellent starting point for dissenting readings. W.’s introduction covers: 1 historical background; 2 literary background; 3 the Epode book; 4 style; 5 poetic quality; 6 numeros … secutus; 7 conspectus of metres; 8 text.

Surprisingly, the introduction lacks a discussion of the word epode and does not attempt to catalogue the standard paraphernalia of iambic poetry. Moreover, although the individual commentaries on 5 and 17 are packed with valuable references to the Magical Papyri, a more systematic discussion of the importance of magic in the collection would have been welcome at the outset.

1 is brief and standard. In the commentary proper Watson is excellent on issues of dating.

2 is thorough, if uncontroversial, steering a judicious middle course, observing that to set the influence of archaic iambus in opposition to Callimachus’ Iambi is to create a false dichotomy. In particular, W. stresses (p. 11) that the thematic variety of the Epodes is not simply a Hellenistic feature; variety is also to be found in the work of archaic iambographers.

3 is especially good on the recurrent motifs of the collection (pp. 26ff.) but less than convincing on “associative bridging” (p. 23f.) in the Epodes, an approach favoured in the 1980s by Matthew Santirocco and others in their work on the Odes, which stresses the importance of connections between contiguously positioned poems. Frequently, these putative “connections” are simply the result of generic commonplaces; just as Santirocco makes great play of references to drinking and bad weather in adjacent odes (no great surprise in sympotic lyric!) so, according to W., Epodes 4, 5 and 6 are connected by their “shared canine motif” (references to canines, teeth etc. are rather to be expected in iambic poetry). Of course, the arrangement of poems was important from the Hellenistic era onwards (and W. is good on the connections between the Epodes and Callimachus’ lyric “iambi” 14-17, p. 16), and we need to pay attention to beginnings, middles and ends, in particular, but the assumption that every individual poem is likely to have important associations with those poems that immediately precede and follow is specious and tends unhelpfully to privilege the thematic totality of a collection over the understanding of the argument of each discretely produced poem.

4 is brief, and by W.’s own admission, a mere summary of the more notable stylistic features of the Epodes. In particular, more on how different registers are employed would have been welcome here.

5 claims that the Epodes have not received their critical due and attempts “to rescue them from the critical doldrums in which they have languished” (p. 36). This is something of an overstatement, and even the two “less fashionable” pieces ( Epodes 3 and 8) on which he concentrates in this section have received detailed critical attention, notwithstanding the commentaries mentioned above. Nevertheless, in the eyes of W., who has clearly imbibed something of the iambist’s art himself, the existing criticism on these poems is of little value: Gowers’ treatment of 3 is “lengthy but fanciful” (p. 36 n. 222) and Henderson’s quirky take on 8 is memorably dismissed as “characteristically impenetrable [pun, I think, intended!] … featuring a gratuitous technopaegnic vagina”. Although W.’s brief analysis of Epodes 3 well demonstrates the shifts in tone and register and the garlicky puns of the piece, this reader was still left cold. His analysis of 8, however, both here and in the commentary proper, is one of the many highlights of the work.

6 shows how Horace’ claim (at Epistles 1.19.24f.) to have adopted the metres of Archilochus is essentially valid, notwithstanding the fact that elegiacs and trochaic tetrameters are absent from the Epodes.

8 gives a conspectus of readings in W., Garrod, Klingner and Shackleton Bailey. W. is conservative, but his commentary puts the case for competing readings very fully throughout.

Epode 1

Publishing deadlines are presumably to blame for the lack of reference to DuQuesnay’s important discussion of the political aspects of this Epode.1

p. 57 W. follows Kraggerud in assuming that Maecenas probably was present at Actium (DuQ. also follows this line). This seems fair – why would Horace prominently advertize Maecenas’ involvement with Actium if he were absent from the battle?

W. is sceptical of an allusion to Callimachus’ Ibis in line 1, but accepts Holzberg’s metapoetic interpretation of the fleet setting sail at the outset of the collection.

On superstite (5), W. reasonably criticizes Mankin for his inference that Horace is expressing indifference to the fate of Octavian and his troops so long as Maecenas survives.

p. 70 on lines 25-30 W.’s note on the disavowal of the usual sordid motive for war again cries out for a reference to DuQuesnay, who develops this point more fully.

Epode 2

p. 76-77 W. argues for dating the poem after the Georgics.

p. 79 discusses the appeal of Cipriani’s monograph2 which tries to show how the dissonance between lines 1-66 and the concluding couplets is related to a tension in upper-class Roman attitudes to land-holding and farming and relates the epode to Caesar’s lex Iulia de modo credendi possidendique intra Italiam, which attempted to force moneylenders to purchase a certain amount of land in proportion to their overall assets. The problem with this approach, as W. points out, is that iam iam futurus rusticus strongly implies that Alfius will never actually embrace a rustic way of life.

p. 85 W. follows Fowler and Oliensis in seeing a self-directed irony as the poet and Alfius are assimilated in their hypocritical urban fantasizing. pp. 93-4 W. criticizes Mankin for his assertion that faults in Alfius’ agricultural knowledge indicate that he is not a true rustic, since the “errors” identified by Mankin are not in fact so clear-cut. p. 114 W. criticizes Mankin (again!). Mankin observes that the speaker is suspiciously well informed about the luxuries which he rejects in ll. 49-60, whereas W. claims that the faenerator is a skinflint, opportunistically using the cover of rusticism to save money. On balance, Mankin’s interpretation here still seems more plausible, to this reader anyway. pp. 122f. W. provides a typically excellent note on faenerator, which offers a good starting point on the subject of moneylending in the Roman world.

p. 123 W. plausibly connects Alfius’ name with the Greek ἀλφαίνω. Throughout the commentary, W. is alert to the etymological possibilities of names and to etymological play in general.

Epode 3

p. 129 n. 26 W. has the interesting idea that by harping on his symptoms Horace is ironically playing the hypochondriac and gently sending up Maecenas. A reference to West’s article on Odes 2.17 would have been useful here.3

p. 144 W. well observes the irony that cubet can also refer to sexual congress.

Epode 4

pp. 146-50 are an excellent essay on the type of the parvenu.

pp. 152 W. (reasonably) claims that Horace is deliberately courting the charge of hypocrisy, self-deflation being typical of archaic and Roman iambus.

pp. 165-7 contain a very thorough exploration of why the parvenu’s sitting in the first fourteen rows of the theatre is so offensive, even if technically permissible.

p.168 suggests that the concluding lines might be a muted criticism of Octavian for making such low-lifes into military officers. I would rather see these lines as a concluding gesture of frustration at the topsy-turvydom of Rome’s social structures in the turmoil of the 30s. Moreover, on p. 171, W. himself accepts that the one-sided portrait of Sextus and his forces in line 19 is pretty much straight pro-Octavian propaganda.

Epode 5

pp. 176-9 are superb on the historical background and the legislation against witchcraft in first-century Rome. W. makes extensive use of the Magical Papyri to provide real-life analogues to the procedures outlined in Horace’s poem, concluding that “underlying Epode 5 is a notable substratum of fact” (p. 178).

p. 179 highlights the propaganda value to the Caesarian cause of smearing opponents with charges of witchcraft.

p. 198 W. is surprisingly open-minded about the possible symbolic value of Canidia signifying the moral senescence of the collapsing Republic. Other than the dubious Canidia – canities association, on what is this based?

p. 201 in lines 19-20 W. is right to take ova with strigis rather than ranae, as it provides a more balanced expression.

p. 205 in line 22 ferax with the genitive is a Graecism, but W. omits to mention this (or the other Horatian parallels at CS 19f., Odes 4.4.58).

p. 227 W. shrewdly observes that senem … nardo perunctum (57ff.) may be “a sly allusion to the anointing of corpses with perfume”.

p. 237 in line 71 could not solutus juxtaposed with ambulat humorously suggest that Varus is drunk and on the prowl in the Subura? (Of course this interpretation itself dissolves once we read on a line to carmine). W.’s note on the binding effects of magic here and his observations on the magical carmine (72) might more helpfully have been expanded and placed in the introduction.

Epode 7

pp. 269-70 effectively demolish Kraggerud’s dating of the poem to 32 B.C.

p. 285 on the secondary literature on Romulus and Remus W. has overlooked Cynthia Bannon’s recent work.4

Epode 8

pp. 289ff. W. objects to the view that the poem has to do with impotence, since Horace is not saying that he is unable to become sexually aroused at all but simply that his revulsion at the aged hag precludes arousal. Further, W. points out the fact that Horace is embroiled with such an aged female as richer potential for embarrassment than the impotence theme. It is difficult, however, to see why one should not find both of these aspects ridiculous: whatever the reason, the iambist’s flag is at half mast in this poem, and this adds to the humour of the situation.

pp. 296f. on aridas natis (line 5) there is an excellent note on the cult of the full buttock in antiquity (one thinks of Jennifer Lopez and her imitators!)

Epode 9

The introduction is good on the way the poem reflects contemporary Caesarian propaganda before and after Actium.

pp. 317f. some comment is needed on the ritual connotations of dapes (line 1).

Epode 10

pp. 355-7 W. identifies the frater of Domitius Marsus fr. 1 with the Maevius of Eclogue 3 and Epode 10, which adds to the case that Maevius is being attacked in Epode 10 for scandalous sexual activities.

Epode 11

p. 365 Axelson’s explanation that expetit = cupit with urere as prolative infinitive is easily paralleled and more convincing than W.’s assertion that urere is an infinitive used finally.

pp. 365f. W. could spell out more clearly that mollis (line 4) denotes sexual passivity in males.

p. 376 W. fails to record or discuss Heyworth’s observation that incerto pede (line 20) may have a metrical connotation here.5

Epode 12

pp. 384-5 W. sticks to the revulsion not impotence line set out in his introduction to Epode 8.

pp. 391ff. W. has a lengthy note on nigris dignissima barris (line 1), including the information that the penis of an elephant weighs over 60 lb.! Although W. does not note the possibility, given the rarity of barrus (this is its first appearance in extant Latin), I wonder whether it is possible to take it adjectivally here, giving the sense “most suitable for black men hung like elephants (!)” For the Roman stereotyping in the Augustan era of the putatively priapic qualities and hypersexuality of black males see Clarke.6 This would also make more sense of naris obesae, as it would partly be a racial reference to the noses of African males.7

p. 408 W. intelligently connects Inachia to Io, giving ironic point to the sexual metaphor contained in taurum.

pp. 415f. W. omits a reference to Odes 1.33.7-9, an obvious parallel to line 26 (and noted by Mankin!)

Epode 13

pp. 417-9 W. sensibly concludes that there is insufficient information to anchor the poem to a specific occasion.

pp. 425-6 W., following Delz, rightly reads amici (line 3) as vocative plural.

pp. 433f. W. reads pravi (line 13), which is a small step from parvi of the MSS and gives better sense.

Epode 14

p. 441 on inertia (line 1) W. misses the point that here inertia = lack of ars = lack of virtus ( ars is often punned with ἀρετή).8

pp. 455-7 are an excellent appendix on the “Neoteric” aspects of the poem.

Epode 15

pp. 464-6 W. plausibly draws out the epithalamic topoi. In his note on lines 1-2, he cites Ode 1.12.46-8 but fails to highlight the fact that these lines also have an epithalamial context, referring to Marcellus and Iulia’s marriage.

pp. 470f. following Housman, W. takes lines 7-8 as a zeugma.

p. 472 W. ever keen to clear Horace of charges of impotence, claims that Flaccus does not mean “Mr Floppy” in a sexual sense in spite of Mart. 11.27.1-2, which seems decisively to support a sexual connotation here also.

Epode 16

pp. 486-7 rightly stress the difficulty of determining the priority between Epode 16 and Eclogue 6. W. dates Epode 16 with Epode 7 to 39-38 B.C.

pp. 506f. W. claims that monstra (line 30) is internal accusative rather than predicative, as it is usually taken. Contra W., however, monstra iungere is not analogous to iungere conubia, nuptias etc.

p. 530 on vates (line 66) the references ought to have included more recent items.9

pp. 530-33 have a very full appendix on the vexed interpretation of lines 15-16.

Epode 17

pp. 537-9 W. lists a series of defixiones with parallels to Horace’s symptoms in Epode 17 to support his argument that Horace’s symptoms are not those of a lover. For once, W.’s overall reading of the poem causes him to skew and suppress counter-arguments in the commentary itself e.g. on p. 558 on ardeo (line 30) he writes “not with love” and fails to offer parallels which show ardeo in an erotic sense, while on p. 571 on lines 54-5 he quotes Odes 3.7.21-2 as a parallel but fails to point out the erotic context.

In the preface, W. refers, jokingly, to his “obsession” with the Epodes and, more seriously, to his struggles in completing the commentary. That he has seen the project through is to his eternal credit: as a display of classical scholarship the work is formidable and it will remain the point of departure for all serious work on the Epodes for decades to come.


1. DuQuesnay, I. M. Le M. (2002), ” Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur“, in Woodman, T., Feeney, D. edd. (2002), Traditions and Contexts in the Poetry of Horace, (Cambridge), 17-37.

2. Cipriani, G. (1980), Letteratura georgica e investimento fondiario alla fine del 1? sec. a. C. Orazio, Epod. 2 (Bari).

3. West, D. (1991), ” Cur me querelis (Horace, Odes 2.17)”, AJPh 112, 45-52.

4. Bannon, C. (1997), The Brothers of Romulus, (Princeton), 158-173.

5. Heyworth, S.J. (1993), “Horace’s Ibis : on the Titles, Unity and Contents of the Epodes“, PLLS 7, 85-96, 88.

6. Clarke, J.R. (1998), Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, (Berkeley), 120-42.

7. Cf. Martial 6.39.8f. at ille sima nare, turgidis labris / ipsa est imago Pannychi palaestritae.

8. Cf. Odes 4.9.29f. paulum sepultae distat inertiae / celata virtus and see Maltby s.v.

9. For more recent bibliography on the use of vates see Jocelyn, H. D. (1995), ” Poeta and vates : Concerning the Nomenclature of the Composer of Verses in Republican and Early Imperial Rome”, in Belloni, L., Milanesi, G., Porro, A., edd. (1995), Studia classica Iohanni Tarditi oblata, vol. 1 (Milan), 19-50, 23 nn. 18, 19.