BMCR 2006.05.11

Satire and the Threat of Speech: Horace’s Satires Book I. Wisconsin Studies in Classics

, Satire and the Threat of Speech: Horace's Satires Book I. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. viii, 186. $35.00.

Readers of Schlegel’s articles on generic fashioning in the individual poems of Satires I1 have no doubt been looking forward to seeing a book-length study in the same vein. Satire and the threat of speech integrates those shorter pieces into an analysis of Horace’s book, making a unique contribution that also echoes ideas from recent Horatian scholarship. Like Henderson, Freudenburg, and Cucchiarelli,2 Schlegel (S.) is not content with the traditional view of the poet as simply the discreet and self-deprecating foil of Lucilius. But her reading of Satires I does illuminate how Horace promotes that image of himself by creating indirect glimpses and experiences of more threatening satiric modes for his readers. S.’s Horace, like the Horace of other recent work, manages to have it both ways, and the ambiguity has a purpose. S. maintains that although Horace declines to assume the role of invective poet, he takes on a more instructive role that allows him to expose the workings of hostile and mocking speech, and even to lead his readers to practice invective in his place. The book of poems, rather than exemplifying satire itself, is a kind of hands-on course in the risks and pleasures involved in the practice, in which the poet himself manages to shed satire’s most troubling associations at almost every turn. Even when Horace exposes his own difficulty maintaining the standards he has set, he is carefully and deliberately orchestrating his audience’s experience.

In the book’s opening paragraphs, S. suggests that Horace’s unease about aggressive words derives from the prevalence of real violence as an instrument of political problem-solving during the last century of the Republic. Horace’s social community, his readers, and his entire generation were still directly or indirectly feeling the consequences of that public, political violence. This opening is not meant to advertise a socio-historical angle in the book, which is better described as a generic analysis highlighting Horace’s treatment of speech acts, but to make the reader aware of the associations that aggressive speech — verbal “assault” — would have had for Horace’s original audience. More important for S.’s argument throughout are the potential social consequences of verbal attack. Horace understands that he risks alienating his own readers, either because they might feel attacked themselves, or simply because they will be all too aware that this poetry is a false sermo, in which they do not have the option of talking back (as they might be able to do even to a performing diatribist, a type usually viewed as an obnoxious foil for our genial poet). In the introductory chapter, S. proposes that the satirist is a “reversed version of the choral poet” by virtue of his method of engaging the community and his own public image (5). For all the threats that the audience of satire feels, the author faces more negative consequences: he is inevitably exposed as the aggressive blamer who will not tolerate real exchange. To circumvent the inherent risks of his inflammatory genre, Horace uses his satire not to lecture aggressively on vices, but to construct and illustrate a set of ethical standards that he wants to be seen as practicing in his work. Satires I “presents” the problems of satire without exemplifying them, or at least it comes close to doing so; in the last few poems of the book, S. sees tensions and contradictions building and exposing the paradox of ideal, un-satiric satire.

The building blocks of S.’s approach will be familiar to contemporary students of Latin literature. S. treats the book as a structural unit and its sequence of poems as an unfolding story, she interprets many images throughout the book as having programmatic value, and she understands the poet to be enlisting and manipulating the reader in the projects of defining and practicing his genre. But the combination of these ideas in S.’s study creates a new picture of the Satires, the most interesting part of it being, to my mind, the way that the reader’s role evolves throughout the book. The idea of the reader as part of a Horatian experiment, a subject who might easily delude himself into thinking he is just a safe observer, adds a whole new dimension to the now familiar analogy between satiric performance and drama. Also noteworthy are S.’s occasional consideration of the critical reception of the Satires, aspects of which lend support to her argument, and the book’s premise, more implied than articulated, that the Satires take basic ethical questions seriously.

At the beginning of his book, Horace is all idealism and pre-emption. In S.’s account of I.1-3 (chapter 1), Horace is not engaging in invective in these “diatribe satires” but building up a set of ethical standards that apply as much to himself as poet as to the misers, merchants, adulterers, libertines, and critics who have always been viewed as the poems’ targets. Horace’s theme is the need for limits, and following Epicurean principles he derives his definition of what is satis (a generically significant term) from the body’s basic needs, particularly with respect to food and sex. The special role of the third Satire is to introduce the reality of social interaction and the observation of limits that it requires; in the realistic ethical world that Horace is constructing, it is crucial to identify with others as “selves” instead of trying to attack and diminish them. In this poem Horace highlights friendship as a key context for ethical behavior, one that is ideally modeled on close familial relationships where small faults are overlooked. Friendship is also as important as blood ties in the authorial self-portrait that Horace is developing. In I.3 the practitioner of invective with whom Horace implicitly contrasts himself is the Stoic sage: although the latter sees himself as a wise judge, the fact that he lives alone is proof that his rigid standards have failed.

The next three poems in the book form another triad of sorts, but they are treated in two parts. S. first integrates her 2000 article on 1.4 and 1.6 (here chapter 2) into the interpretation of Satires I as an account of Horatian theory and practice. In these two poems, S. argues, Horace constructs Lucilius and Maecenas as literary and socio-historical father figures, whom he compares unfavorably with his “real” father, also a character in both poems. Horace manages to situate his work in literary history and himself in an unequal patronage relationship while deflecting the negative associations of both contexts. Lucilius sets the unappealing precedent of unbounded invective, and Maecenas engages in public life as his background demands. Horace’s satire is a product of both men’s influence, but thanks to his father he has avoided both aggressive speech and the envy and other risks that come with high status. The two surrogate father figures have a special function: they absorb the feelings of “competition and tyranny” associated with the typical Roman father-son relationship (58), leaving the poet’s textual relationship with real father cleansed of such anxieties. At the close of I.6 Horace can more confidently proclaim his identity as a private, humble, and non-invective poet. But this is the last time in the book that the picture will be so neat.

Positioned between the two poems about Horace’s lineage(s), the account of the journey to Brindisium illustrates the poet’s preference for friendship, discretion, and even self-mockery over Lucilian attacks on the powerful. In I.5 (chapter 3) Horace lives up to the assertion, made in I.4, that he would not attack absent friends. He avoids the potentially rich satiric subject of Octavian and Antony in favor of several alternative modes. When he half-blinds himself with ointment, he becomes a version of Homer and practices mock-epic. When he focuses on his bodily needs, he both volunteers himself as a comic target and shows his dedication to the “realistic” lifestyle that he preaches in the preceding poems. Finally, he prioritizes friendship and its demands for discretion over the meatier political subject connected to the journey. Of course, that this poem is conspicuously not about turbulent relations between powerful men means that, obliquely, it is about that very subject, and according to S. we readers are subtly encouraged to view those absent figures as illustrations of the outsized desires that Horace has been criticizing. Even the focus on Horace’s body only seems light-hearted on the surface: we may read the poet’s body, which suffers repeatedly during the journey, as a stand-in for Rome, the real victim of the political power struggle taking place. This is a corollary of the powerful idea, operative in Freudenburg’s 2001 book (see Note 2), of the satirist figure as both spokesman and symbol of his society; even when he is not performing libertas, indeed because he is not, the satirist can be illuminating what is wrong with Rome. Horace’s traveling body also has poetic significance according to Cucchiarelli, whose book is cited in S.’s bibliography but is not a visible influence in chapter 3.

Although S.’s picture of Horatian decorum in the first half of the book is compelling, it is hard not to find the account of Horace’s increasing ambivalence in the second half more interesting. The last four poems show cracks in Horace’s carefully constructed picture of ethical, limited, realistic substitute-satire. S.’s chapter 4 argues that Horace uses the verbal battle of Persius and Rex (I.7) to allow his readers a taste of the dangers and pleasures of hostile speech (and a sense of how interwoven said dangers and pleasures are; cf. chapter 5). The poem picks up on the criticism of Lucilian satire in I.4; other scholars have discerned as much, but S. goes further to unveil a dynamic process in the escalation of invective. As Horace describes it, the litigants’ exchange closely resembles physical violence, and culminates in the arresting pun on regicide that is “the verbal equivalent of a deathblow” (88). This ending reminds the audience again of the consequences of outsized ambitions, including Brutus’ impulse toward heroic action (“heroism” being a kind of excess according to Epicurean principles). That the final pun also invites laughter demonstrates that pain and comedy are more closely intertwined than many would like to think.

Aspects of satire that Horace has disavowed also creep into the next poem, I.8, as chapter 5 shows. The narrating Priapus statue is very different from the reasonable talking penis in Satire I.2; he is not exactly the aggressive figure of Priapic poetry, either, but that genre is present in the background of I.8. Likewise, the Esquiline garden is haunted by its chaotic and sad past as a paupers’ cemetery, as Priapus can just sense. The witches, for their part, may be read as a pernicious assembly of “real” satiric ingredients (101), and their manipulation of the dead parallels the satiric poet’s manipulation of his audience. Horace, the only speaker in misleadingly named sermo, has this kind of power over our thoughts and feelings. We might easily forget this in I.8, where the poem’s “speaker” cannot even speak and responds to the witches’ invasion with the wordless “breath” of a fart. Through Priapus’ failure, the poem conveys the breakdown of logos that accompanies violence and vengeance. Nevertheless, the climax also gives the god back his narrative authority, for the final line tells us exactly how to feel: cum magno risuque iocoque videres (50).

In I.8, Priapus acts as our surrogate at a scene of conflict, seeming to put himself at risk so that we don’t have to but also manipulating our response to the story he relates. In I.9, Horace embeds himself and manipulates us even more ingeniously. This poem enjoys a special status among modern students as a stand-alone entertainment piece and an example of satire that is virtually victimless because the “Pest” is so annoying. In the extremely engaging chapter 6, S. argues that the poet has carefully engineered this reception of I.9. While the almost silent Horace lets his unwanted companion babble on, we readers instinctively take the poet’s side, wanting to accept his vix credibile story about Maecenas’ coterie as true, wanting to reject this tactless, garrulous Jack-of-all-trades. Anyone who has taught the poem knows what happens as the class settles in to enjoy it. We take on the task of invective that Horace would rather avoid, becoming his advocates ( adiutores). Unaware that we are being flattered, we readily judge the anonymous hanger-on to be a Pest who just doesn’t understand our poet and his friends. Thus we readers have graduated to a more active role in the field of satire, but one that — as we should have known by now — is not a desirable or safe one. Our loyalty to Horace and our desire to be insiders has made us align ourselves with “the murderers and proscribers of the Roman world” (117).

In I.10, the satirist cannot continue to protect himself with silence; as he wraps up the book, he must engage in a kind of authorial self-definition that necessitates invective against critics and competitors. Chapter 6 shows that Horace’s carefully defined limits turn out to have their limits. In an appealing inversion of the more usual reception of I.10, with its literary criticism and grand lists of names, S. sees a “messy anxiety” in this poem that contrasts with the “poised control” of the previous one (141). In I.9, the poet manages to avoid both practicing and incurring blame. In I.10, he is vulnerable, both in that he becomes a critic of Lucilius and his own contemporaries, and in that his own book will soon be subject to critical scrutiny. Horace acts out his anxiety in an especially visible way in the final gestures of the poem: the “epic catalog” of friends and readers, and the final angry retort to his critics, which both break the rules of Horatian “satire.”

S.’s study is very focused, rarely straying from the territory of Satires I and including only vital interrogation of other scholarship and trends in the critical tradition in the text. Nor does the book try to push a single theoretical model, although works that arose from or have long been integrated into the study of classical literature figure in some discussions (e.g. Nagy on blame speech, Elliott on magic and satire, Girard on violence). Readers outside of classics will find the book very accessible. The translations of Latin are vivid and original, the text is clean with scarce typos, and the prose is elegant. An index locorum would have been a welcome addition, but considering that the book is structured after the Horatian book itself, its absence is understandable.

S.’s particular talents lie in presenting a fresh and direct look at Horace’s engaging text and making us think about our responses to it. Many studies of satire acknowledge the potential roles and responses of the reader in defining and fulfilling the genre’s function, but in this practice there is always a risk of appearing too superficial, too circular, or too adventurous for the analysis to be credible. S., in contrast, is both persistent and convincing when she pursues this course. Instead of simply hypothesizing the reactions of a Roman audience in order to support its analysis of the text, this study shows that we modern readers continue to participate in Horace’s construction of satire.


1. “Horace Satires 1.7: Satire as Conflict Irresolution,” Arethusa 32 (1999): 337-352, and “Horace and His Fathers: Satires 1.4 and 1.6,” AJP 121 (2000): 93-119.

2. J. Henderson, Writing down Rome: satire, comedy, and other offences in Latin poetry (Oxford, 1999); K. Freudenburg, Satires of Rome: threatening poses from Lucilius to Juvenal (Cambridge, 2001); A. Cucchiarelli, La satira e il poeta: Orazio tra Epodi e Sermones (Pisa, 2001).