BMCR 2005.07.82


, Horace. Ancients in action. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2005. 160 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 1853996742 £10.99.

Horace is Eton College schoolmaster Philip Hills’ contribution to the Ancients in Action series, which hopes to introduce “major figures of the ancient world to the modern general reader.” Throughout Hills’ attempt to present the whole of Horace — his life, works, and significance — in some 150 pages, one senses Hills’ love of the Horatian corpus. One even glimpses the more comprehensive book Hills might one day write, but too often one senses the editorial constraints of this kind of volume and the practical impossibilities of at once introducing Horace to the Latinless reader, initiating the advanced student into ancient and modern debates, and providing the teacher with interpretative insights into philological questions. Where Hills shines, however, is in his treatment of individual odes and in elucidating the historical and political backgrounds of the poems.

The book includes a brief preface, seven chapters, and a lightly annotated bibliographic section, “Further Reading,” where Hills notes his Horace differs from David Armstrong’s “republican” Horace. In his preface, Hills indicates that his “little book’s” goal is to outline Horace’s “literary and historical contexts” and help ease “the reader into a rich and complex poetic world in which reflections on civil war and the nature of political affairs sit side by side with more intimate, personal concerns” (7). Often, however, Hills’ arguments about Horace’s intentions seem incomplete, unorganized, or contradictory. His depiction of an “imperial”(?) Horace, for example, at first seems meant to save Horace from being dismissed as merely another canonical, oppressive dead-white-male. In the first chapter, “Life and Times,” Hills creates sympathy for this son of a freedman who found himself at school with Cicero’s son and whose merits drew the attention of Brutus, who cast a “spell” on Horace, recruiting him into “the futile attempt to restore the republic” (12). Living in a turbulent time of wars, civil wars, and rebellions, Horace is portrayed as keenly observant of his poor place in the world and of the uncertainties of politics and patronage. He used poetry as “part of a wider social ‘performance,'” but for Hills this “socially embedded” self-fashioning becomes “artificial, self-serving, and tailored to his different audiences” (11). Thus, Hills first portrays Horace as an unpaid, sycophantic ideologue for Augustan moral reforms and an insecure interloper cautiously maneuvering into Maecenas’ circle of influential friends, interested in playing a courtly game of patronage, in not offending anyone with money or power, and in making a name for himself by sucking up to great men.

The second chapter, “Table Talk: Satires,” supplies publishing and metrical data and makes a claim for satire’s Roman origins but quickly moves to characterizing Horace’s motives through brief paraphrases of selected satires. Hills distinguishes Horace’s satires from Lucilius’, who as a high-ranking Roman could go after “prominent targets” without fear. Horace’s choice to “pick[] on smaller, more everyday targets,” Hills argues, was driven by his social insecurity (though he claims Horace shared an “easy friendship with his patron and his circle of creative friends” [16]) and the general political turbulence (14). Hills maintains that Horace wrote cautiously for the edification and delight of his patron Maecenas and his elite friends, hoping not to offend them, using the doctrine of the “Golden Mean” to make rational, Aristotelian attacks on “common stock” follies (greed, sex, and dogmatism), pointing out the potentials of self-delusion and the righteousness of moderation, satirizing but naming no names (14-15). Horace’s charm offensive engaged his readers, not merely by avoiding being “dry and dusty” and piously sermonizing, but by gently disarming with humor and oblique indirections that “highlight his own weaknesses” (15). Emphasizing the “laborious” care Horace takes to dispel suspicion of “malevolent intent,” Hills portrays Horace “correcting” Lucilius’ aggressive stratagems while hiding behind a cloak of “generalized moralizing,” flattering Maecenas’ for his good judgment. Everywhere, it seems, Horace seeks to ingratiate himself into the world of movers and shakers. Hills’ treatment of the two “Stoic” satires, 2.3 and 2.7, are intriguing, but like his treatment of most of the satires these are left as too brief paraphrases without much (or any) textual evidence to flesh out his perplexing claims.

“Warring Words: Epodes,” the third chapter, points out that Horace referred to his epodes as Iambi, following the Greek poet Archilochus, originator of this vengeful form that specialized in being explicitly scurrilous, scatological, and erotic. While Horace used many of Archilochus’ themes and images, however, Hills wants us to see Horace shied away from Archilochus’ abusive tones, choosing, again, to safely blame forms of bad behavior, not individuals. Yet he also claims Horace “was attracted to the idea of writing iambic poetry because of his position as an outsider immediately after Philippi,” where he fought on the losing side and lost his property, making him wish to “vent his frustrations in stinging iambics,” yet not so stinging as to muddy up “that Horace was a ‘convert’ to the Caesarian cause” or spoil his fawning on Maecenas (26-27). He wishes to present himself as a true, non-materialist friend, happy simply to be received among his betters. Hills does show Horace indulging in the baser aspects of the iambi, however, when old Flaccus defends himself from the suspicion of impotence. Again and again, Hills finds Horace feeble and powerless (or is it a “performance”?).

Hills is at his best in the longest chapter, “The Lyric Ideal: Odes 1-3.” Here, he better outlines his arguments, delineates what it means to be a “Roman” lyric poet, and discusses the possibilities and constraints that come with that social role. He finds Horace “undertaking a task of breathtaking originality and technical difficulty,” but now finds him “conscious of his own audacity,” making a “bid for fame” that will not be posthumous, hoping to see his books on the shelves of Augustus’ Palatine library of Apollo (39, 41). Hills does not, however, indicate how Horace suddenly becomes so bold when everywhere else he has presented him as downright mealy-mouthed. Now, instead of tentatively correcting his precursors while gently advising his social betters, Horace “vaunts his own achievements” as he tries out lyric meters never used in Latin and strives to “re-embody” Sappho, Alcaeus, Catullus, and Pindar (41-42, 49). Hills includes more passages, giving the Latin and translations, illustrating Horace’s metrical accomplishments, pointing out the intricacies of translating and interpreting Horace’s packed phrases, detailing specific historical events and literary allusions — the “window references” (46) — and distinguishing lyric poetry arising from Greek symposium, with its parrhesia and hedonism, from the more restrained, hierarchical Roman convivium. In other words, he more convincingly demonstrates his thesis about Horace’s “social performance.”

This fourth chapter is divided into four sections. While the rationale for this chapter’s organization is nowhere elucidated and while each section sometimes digresses from the odes, the chapter as a whole is quite useful and engaging. “Horace as a vates” discusses how Horace re-appropriates the appellation “vates,” which had meant “a quack,” presenting himself as a “priest of the Muses,” and creating a new kind of simplicity and authority to address all Romans. Instead of Horace seeming a mere lackey, Hills repositions Horace’s relationship to power, showing how Horace can now scold Rome for forgetting its glorious past and abandoning sacred traditions, which resulted in wars, civil wars, and evil portents, signifying perhaps the world’s destruction. Hills also depicts Horace revising his tone with Augustus, stumping for imperial moral and religious reforms, calling for a return to old-fashioned civic and military virtues, yet indirectly advising Caesar to rule as if he truly was appointed by Jupiter to save Rome and the world. In this process, Horace forges a new concept of virtus, which we now consider “classical.”

The section “Horace as love poet” is the most engaging. Hills covers the expected ground nicely, discussing Horace’s conceit of being a soldier in war of love, but he also picks up other details helpful to the teacher or student, explaining, for example, that names in odes often represent lifestyles — that Glycera was “a common ‘working’ name for Roman prostitutes” (67). He nicely demonstrates Horace’s ideas of “decorum,” discussing odes dealing with older women and inexpert lovers who indecorously make a mockery of Venus’ sacred rites, helpfully explains some of the Roman aristocratic conventions of pederastic love (should anyone think there’s anything wrong with that), and discounts the claims of scholars who find an “anti-Augustan subtext” in the erotic poetry: “it is a priori unlikely that an operator as tactful as Horace would have wanted to make an enemy of the most powerful patron of all” (78).

Hills looks into the patron/client relationship in “Horace and Maecenas,” providing useful background on the foppish Maecenas, discussing how Horace was obliged to pay court daily and be part of his entourage, but how with this flattery came an audience for his poems, access to public readings and publication, and an insider’s perspective on power and privilege. What also emerged from this relationship is what Hills describes as Horace’s increasing poetic self-confidence and many characteristically “Horatian” themes: Horace as the friendly philosophical advisor on the follies of political or worldly ambitions, the joy of wine-soaked country leisure and the despair of city business, the simplicities of poverty versus the insecurities of wealth, and the necessity to seize the day

The next three chapters, covering the Epistles, Carmen Saeculare, the fourth book of Odes, and the Ars Poetica, are most useful for their historical insights and for showing how Horace deals with age and increasing prestige, moving from erotic poetry into serious philosophical enquiry. Hills discusses the archeological evidence relating to the Carmen Saeculare, and provides details that distinguish the festival from “the ghoulish hollowness of Nazi breeding programmes” (108). The chapter on the fourth book of Odes, the topic of Hills’ dissertation, is quite detailed, and clearly anyone interested in debates about the later odes will want to study Hills’ arguments, though these probably hold less interest for the non-specialist.

The last chapter, “Afterlife and Influence” charts the rises and falls of Horace’s fortunes and reputation, his importance as satirist, his humanist threat to Christianity, his medieval disappearance except in chaste Latin textbooks, and his Renaissance rediscovery (though there is no mention of Erasmus or Montaigne). Hills runs through the usual suspects of Horace’s heirs — Ben Jonson, Herrick and Marvell, Pope and Dryden, the Romantics, Tennyson, Housman — and he also has a couple of curious pages about Kipling. The three pages of “Further Reading” sketch the merits of available Latin editions and translations (including a plug for the many-hands version edited by J.D. McClatchy, but remaining silent on David Ferry), and perhaps too brief remarks on selected secondary literature.

Hills’ book presents an interesting (and interested) reading of Horace, and it contains illuminating readings of many poems — especially certain odes, but chances are it will be more useful to a reader who has more invested than the “general reader” might. His interpretations clearly take a stand on scholarly disputes, and Hills is scrupulous in pointing out areas “dogged by controversy” or neglected by scholars. However, since Hills’ discussions of critical questions are not footnoted (surely an editorial decision looking out for the “general reader” and not Hills’), the less advanced reader might feel puzzled or condescended to and the more advanced reader might not be sure how to follow up on Hills’ provocations. No single book on Horace can hope to do justice to the poems, but Hills does a fine job of making Horace seem compelling — even “transgressive” at times — to those who might have learned to loathe him after encounters in Latin textbooks, as a supposedly-important-dead-white-male-ancient poet, or from reading other, mind-numbing scholarship. Hills’ book succeeds in introducing a complex Horace despite its editorial constraints and will surely find its place on many teachers’ desks.