BMCR 2017.10.31

Horace: Odes, Book II. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics

, Horace: Odes, Book II. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. ix, 267. ISBN 9781107600904. $34.99.


This text and commentary from one of the most prolific and erudite scholars of Horace is a most welcome addition to the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series, where it joins recent volumes on the Odes by Mayer and Thomas.1

The commentary fills two especially important needs. First, it builds upon the monumental 1978 commentary by Nisbet and Hubbard, which, though it remains an indispensible resource for anyone working on Horace, is now beginning to show its age.2 Harrison accordingly focuses on and incorporates major contributions to the scholarship published since Nisbet and Hubbard, crafting a volume that complements rather than supplants its predecessor. Second, he conforms to a Horatian “golden mean” of sorts, standing between the extremes of Garrison, on the one hand, and Nisbet and Hubbard, on the other.3 While Garrison’s volume remains ideal for undergraduate students encountering Horace for the first time, its commentary is too sparse for the more advanced classroom, particularly on the graduate level. Nisbet and Hubbard, on the other hand, aims for the needs of the researcher rather than the student. Harrison’s volume nicely balances these two audiences, giving explanations on grammar and translation alongside deeper interpretation and analysis.

After the Preface and a References/Abbreviations page, one finds a focused, informative Introduction. Harrison’s discussion of Horace’s literary career draws interesting connections between his changing poetic genres and his poeticized autobiography, each of which is “marked by a rhetoric of literary and socio-political ascent.” Odes 2 belongs firmly in the middle phase of Horace’s “long and carefully-modulated poetic career.” The notion of the “middle way” in fact guides Harrison’s Introduction. His discussion of Book 2’s poetic arrangement, for example, avoids overly elaborate schematizations of the poems while pointing out their most important themes, images, ideas, and structures. Perhaps the most intriguing section of the Introduction is his consideration of Odes 2 as “the book of moderation.” When compared to the other books, it contains a more restrained number of poems, less variation in length, and less variety of meter. The recurrent ethical focus is moderation, while the addressees tend to be men of middle rank.

The Introduction also includes sections on intertextuality (on which more below), the poems’ “internal architecture” (with a focus on ring composition, central pivots, and closural devices), and style (with an overview of Horace’s favorite devices and a helpful stylistic reading of Odes 2.14). The final section offers an excellent overview of the meters of Book 2.

The text of the poems follows the Introduction. Harrison chooses not to leave a space between the stanzas, “since this is how they appear in our earliest Greek papyri,” a choice that sets him apart from Mayer and Thomas. He does not give a full critical text, although he does provide a highly selective apparatus criticus and contributes some new conjectures, making use of a resource unavailable to previous commentators of Book 2: the Oslo database, a free online repository of conjectures on Horace’s poetry.

The commentary for each poem follows the same pattern. Harrison summarizes the poem, identifies the meter, offers an interpretive essay, provides a select bibliography, and gives a line-by-line analysis. The interpretive essays provide excellent entry-points into the poems, introducing us to their addressees (if any), major thematic concerns, internal generic play, structure, and key literary intertexts. These essays invariably orient the reader who may be approaching the poems for the first time, providing the necessary foundation so that the notes can delve deeply and take up potentially thorny issues of translation, textual problems, style, etc. Noteworthy here is the facility with which Harrison moves around not only the Horatian corpus but also those of other Latin poets, drawing an array of parallels and evidence to support his readings and interpretations. His command of the pertinent bibliography is similarly exemplary.

The vast majority of Harrison’s notes in the commentary hit the mark, and many clear up longstanding ambiguities. The scortum Lyde in 2.11, to name just one small example, is devium not because she is a “tart out of the normal run” but because she is “wandering from [her] normal path” in the city to attend Horace’s rustic dinner party. Harrison’s incorporation of his own work on “lyric middles” is also instructive, particularly in his discussion of the false closure at the midpoint of 2.13. His analysis in this instance rests upon Horace’s debt to epigram, an understudied influence that Harrison carefully illuminates across the book.

Harrison’s discussions of Horace’s literary intertexts (in both the Introduction and the commentary) especially hit the right note, offering the most pertinent parallels while avoiding the pitfalls of unadulterated Quellenforschung. One literary influence that he effectively illustrates throughout is Vergil’s Georgics, whose publication in 29 BCE appears to have made a particular impression on Odes 2. Most markedly, the story of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld in Georgics 4 shows up in the repeated underworld motifs running through these poems.

Yet there are invariably some quibbles and disagreements. I am not convinced, for example, that prime sodalium at 2.7.5 means “earliest” of my companions rather than, as Nisbet and Hubbard suggest, “dearest.” Why can it not cover both ideas at once? Dente at 2.8.3 to my mind works better as a true singular rather than a collective singular; the suggestion is that Barine suffers not even minimal punishment for perjury. Harrison does not do enough with Sutherland’s suggestions that Lyde and Licimnia in 2.11 and 2.12 are metapoetic embodiments of Horatian lyric.4 I do not understand why, in 2.15.14-15, privatis needs to be a dative, “for private citizens” rather than (as Rudd takes it in his Loeb translation) as an ablative modifying decempedis, “by private ten-foot rods,” which expresses the same idea more subtly. I do not see why the transmitted horribilique mala at 2.19.24 cannot simply stand as an a second ablative of means, “with the horrible jaw [of a lion].” I wish he had noted that aequa tellus at 2.18.32 suggests “an equal amount” of earth as well as the “impartial” earth; we all enjoy equivalent real estate in the grave.

Some disagreements call for longer comment:

1) 2.4.15-16: Harrison renders et penatis / maeret iniquos as “and she laments a home which is beneath her.” Though he provides parallels for Penates as “home” and iniquos as “inadequate,” this seems to blunt the line’s force. Horace alludes to the Trojan War repeatedly through the poem (as Harrison notes), and the Penates would no doubt suggest the story of Aeneas fleeing Troy, which of course would feature in Aeneid 2. Whereas Aeneas’s household gods are propitious, Phyllis’s are “harsh” ( OLD s.v. 4) or even “treacherous” ( OLD s.v. 6d) since they could not prevent her from being taken away as a captive slave. These Penates are her own, not those of Xanthias. The involvement of the Penates adds further texture to the epic background Horace invents for Phyllis.

2) 2.5.13-14: One conjecture Harrison makes (in the commentary if not in the text) is that ferox here ( currit enim ferox / aetas) should be read as the proper name Ferox, which he argues would a) give the poem a needed addressee whose name implies that he is “being too fierce in pursuit while the girl is too young” and b) alleviate the potential awkwardness with the accounting metaphors in the next lines. I am not sure, however, that ferox is problematic enough to warrant the conjecture; in fact some of the poem’s force is lost without it. The adjective, as Nisbet and Hubbard as well as Harrison himself note, is used of spirited animals (see OLD s.v. 3b), a metaphor that Horace applies elsewhere in the poem to Lalage. A central idea in this stanza is that situations will reverse, and the word ferox underscores one important reversal: Lalage will go from untamed, animalistic heifer to implicit victim of untamed, animalistic time. When Lalage comes of age, she will no longer be desirable to the addressee. The only ungovernable force in the poem is time itself, and the poem’s closing catalog makes it clear that the addressee’s affections are serially enflamed and cut short under its influence.

3) 2.13.30-32: Harrison twice (p. 12 and p. 164) suggests that Horace endorses the preference of the vulgus for Alcaeus over Sappho: “That both poets are heard with silence suggests that both have something significant to say despite Horace’s implied higher rating of Alcaeus.” Horace, however, never really suggests that he rates Alcaeus’s poetry higher; he simply states that the vulgus does. As Ancona has already argued, “the preference by the vulgus for Alcaeus should not be read as a resounding endorsement of him.”5 Odes 3.1, for example, famously opens Odi profanum vulgus et arceo.

4) 2.20.13: Harrison is unconvinced that Icarus’s presence in the poem poses a serious problem: “Interpreters worry about notior …since the comparative might naturally mean ‘more notorious’ and the doomed Icarus is not an example of successful flight.” He suggests that notior can simply mean “more famous” and that Horace “will be more celebrated in verse (his own) than Icarus (the subject of literary treatments before Horace).” I am not sure that this sufficiently neutralizes the negative potential of Icarus here, particularly since Horace places the participle gementis (“lamenting”) just beneath Daedalus’s name in these lines, a stark reminder of the fate that befell Icarus. Horace’s comparison of himself to Icarus may hint that his profession of immortality comes too soon; he still has another book to go. As Harrison himself points out, “in every case in the Odes where Horace makes grand claims for himself and his poetry, those claims are offset and undermined by elements of humour and self-deprecation.” This seems a good example of such self-deprecation.

The book ends with a lengthy (almost 17-page) Works Cited list, an Index Verborum, and a General Index. The last item could stand to be a bit fuller: where for example is “Icarus” and why are the Geloni listed on p. 127 and not p. 242?

Although I have enumerated some disagreements here in keeping with the needs of a review, the exegesis in the book is on the whole excellent. I have already begun to benefit enormously from it. It is a boon to all students of Horace.

On a final note, the errors and omissions in the book are remarkably few, but there are two worth mentioning. 1) In footnote 35 in the Introduction Harrison directs us to Harrison 2013, which is missing in the bibliography.6 2) On p. 199 Harrison twice mentions 2.19 when in fact he means 2.17.


1. Mayer, Roland. Horace: Odes Book I. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Richard F. Thomas. Horace: Odes Book IV and Carmen Saeculare. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

2. R.G.M. Nisbet and Margaret Hubbard. A Commentary on Horace: Odes Book II. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

3. Daniel H. Garrison. Horace: Epodes and Odes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

4. Elizabeth Sutherland. “Literary Women in Horace’s Odes 2.11 and 2.12.” In Defining Genre and Gender in Latin Literature, edited by Batstone and Tissol, 193-210. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.

5. Ronnie Ancona. “The Untouched Self: Sapphic and Catullan Muses in Horace, Odes I.22.” In Cultivating the Muse, edited by Spentzou and Fowler, 161-86. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

6. Stephen Harrison. “Didactic and Lyric in Horace Odes 2: Lucretius and Vergil.” In Generic Interfaces in Latin Literature, edited by Papanghelis, Harrison, and Frangoulidis, 367-86. Berlin: DeGruyter, 2013.