BMCR 2020.01.44

Horace’s Sermones Book 1: Credentials for Maecenas

Leendert ​Weeda, Horace's Sermones Book 1: Credentials for Maecenas. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. vii, 296. ISBN 9783110642629 €99,95.

How we, as readers of ancient texts in the 21st century, understand and interpret the complex relationship between poets and power, inner friendship and financial dependence, liberty and criticism, or panegyric and propaganda, is a very controversial question. Augustan poetry offers a very fertile ground, since the tension of land confiscations, military clashes and the rigorous construction of a new political order found multifaceted ways of expression in all kinds of poetry, including lyric, elegy, and ‘philosophizing’ poetry. Leendert Weeda’s book focuses on one precise aspect in an important collection by Horace, the first book of the Sermones (hereafter S.1): Horace’s literary strategy for being considered suitable by Maecenas to join the main intellectual circle of his time is to thematize contemporary political issues.

The relevance of political issues in ancient poetry has gained academic recognition in recent decades, especially in the genre of satire, but also in epic and bucolic poetry. Since 2010, Weeda’s work has focused on the manifestation of the relationships between Octavian and Maecenas and the poets of their circle, in particular Virgil, Horace, and Propertius. The present book is a (chronological) midpoint between his earlier analysis of “Virgil’s political commentary in the Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid ” (De Gruyter Open: 2015)1 and his forthcoming publication on Horace’s Sermones Book 2 and Epodi.

In the present book, as the subtitle indicates, Weeda reads all ten pieces of S.1. as a collection of “Credentials for Maecenas”. That is, he treats them as literary samples, so to speak, in which Horace demonstrates to Maecenas that he is worthy of being included in his intellectual group despite having been on Brutus’ side. In order to do so, Horace addresses and comments on contemporary political events in such a way as to present himself as sharing Maecenas’ (and Octavian’s) ideas. The goal of Horace’s efforts would be to become what Weeda calls “an observer of and a commentator on contemporary political issues” (p. 2).

The book is divided into three main sections: 1) A relatively brief introductory chapter on the literary frame within which Weeda aims to work, including Horace’s biography and his personal relationship with Maecenas. 2) An extensive chapter (the main one), where Weeda offers a comprehensive analysis of each sermo (in pairs: S.1.1–2; S.1.3–4; S.1.5–6; S.1.7–8; S.1.9–10). 3) A concluding chapter containing a summary of his analysis, an overview into the second Book of the Sermones, the Epodi and some Carmina, and, finally, a short comparison between Virgil’s Eclogae and Horace’s S.1. A scheme in tabular form of the Iter Brundisinum serves as a small appendix.

Weeda makes it clear from the very beginning that he decided not to read Horace’s poetry from a literary point of view, but from what he calls (adapting the name freely from Richard Thomas’ article on the Virgilian ‘Art of Reference’2) a “functional frame.” His focus is on the allusions or rather references the author, Horace, makes in S.1 to specific political circumstances, events, objects or individuals. That is, he interprets most of the sermones as Horace’s demonstrations to Maecenas of their shared political and social perspectives, such as condemnation of the nouveaux riches, provincial attitudes, the (Republican) Stoics, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, etc. To demonstrate his hypothesis, Weeda focuses on historical circumstances which he believes can be inferred from Horace’s verses.

Weeda’s method has the advantage of providing an innovative approach to the Horatian text (and context). Nevertheless, the exclusion of a good many of the literary/poetological questions and the limited engagement with the secondary literature weakens his general argument. I give three examples.

Weeda believes that S.1.5 (the so called Iter Brundisinum) was not written in a Lucilian tradition, i.e. Horace is not emulating Lucilius’ Iter Siculum at all: Porphyrio is not to be trusted. Hence, Weeda rejects a generally accepted poetological goal of this poem, but he also excludes any description of a real journey: the cursory topographical descriptions from Rubi to Brundisium (vv. 94-104) show clearly, according to Weeda, that Horace did not follow that route; further, the fact that Horace does not mention any detail about the meeting between Maecenas and Mark Antony reveals that he was actually not a member of the mission. Weeda’s Horace only wants to show Maecenas that he agrees with his opinions about the vulgarity of provincials and that he has become equally sophisticated. I agree that Horace treats Maecenas as if they share similar feelings, but the denial of a Lucilian intertext (which could explain the structure of the Horatian poem) is less convincing. Weeda considers neither the excessive length the satire would have with a full account of the geographical details (the Calabrian/Apulian territory was not really densely populated since it was a mountainous and infertile region), nor the fact that Horace had already been to Greece, which was reached from Italy precisely from the harbor town of Brundisium; i.e., he surely knew the route well enough (although I agree that the historic or biographical element is not relevant for poetic fiction). Most of all, Weeda discounts the fact that Horace may have actually deliberately concealed “any political involvement”, as indeed Nisbet noted.3 Horace himself recommends doing so in delicate situations in a famous passage in Epist. 1.18.37–38.

About social mobility, which seems to be the main subject of S. 1.6, Weeda correctly sees that Horace presents himself as an equal to Maecenas, but he does not attribute this exclusively to the inner feelings and intellectual similarity of both men, but rather to their social origin. Both of them would be considered “upstarts” (p. 142; 242), the only difference being that Maecenas had far more political responsibility than Horace. Of course, Maecenas was not a member of the old Roman aristocracy, but I cannot see Horace either here or anywhere else comparing his own social origin and status with the wealth and prestige of the Etruscan Cilnii (which Livy already defines as genus praepotens and emphasizes their monetary wealth at the end of the 3rd century BC [10.3.2]): suffice it to mention Carm. 1.1.1. In my opinion, it is explicitly (and only) the intellectual similarity and the inner sentiments shared by both men which puts them on par with each other (cf. concepts like vita and pectus in S.1.6.63–64; so too in S.1.9, or even Carm. 2.18.10–11).

An amusing condemnation of witchcraft and superstition, as well as a complimentary remark on Maecenas’ reclamation program on the Esquiline, is the main subject in S.1.8. The wooden Priapus has been considered as a stand-in for Horace, and Weeda argues persuasively for this interpretation. At the same time though, he is convinced that the Roman readership immediately identified Priapus with Mark Antony and Cleopatra. That is, Priapus as the son of Dionysus and Venus would have been considered a clear reference to the union of Octavian’s enemies, who identified themselves with Dionysus and Venus respectively. That is the reason why Horace ridiculed Priapus in this poem; he wanted to show Maecenas that he shared Octavian’s opinion about the necessity of removing Mark Antony. To support the immediate identification of Priapus with Venus, and therefore with Cleopatra (and therefore with Antony), Weeda appeals to Christoph Schäfer, who in his book on Cleopatra4 discusses a famous sculpture from Pompeii (today in Naples), the so called ‘Venus in bikini’: A sensual and scantily clad Venus leans on a Priapus who possessed a (now missing) gilded phallus–although in the context of the description of Cleopatra arriving at Tarsus in 41 BC (Plut. Ant. 26.1 ss.), Schäfer only emphasized the parallel between the luxurious (and provocative) clothing of the Egyptian queen and the gold-painted bikini of the splendid (and provocative) sculpture of the goddess of love (Schäfer 2006: 125–129). My opinion is that the Roman public surely associated Cleopatra with Venus, since in fact even the statue of Venus Genetrix in Caesar’s Forum was probably a depiction of the Egyptian queen (cf. Susan Walker’s article on a Republican fresco in Pompeii of Venus Genetrix and Eros that, according to her, is a representation of the statue in Rome that portrayed Cleopatra and Caesarion as those Graeco-Roman gods5). Venus, however, was at the same time used for the plastic representation, for example, of Octavia Minor, the daughter of Antony and Octavia, and later even of Livia Drusilla (Walker 2008: 43)–the goddess was, after all, the founder of the gens Julia. I cannot imagine any reason why Horace would want to make such a reference–or why the Roman readership would have understood it straightaway.

A broader engagement with the scholarly literature could have resulted in a deeper examination of the arguments about politics as a motif in Horatian poetry; that is, its relation to political power in particular, or the link between Horace’s Sermones and Epodi, and Vergil’s Eclogae, or even about Roman amicitia in general (and especially the amicitia between Horace and Maecenas)6. Despite this, I am convinced that Weeda’s view about the crucial importance of the references to contemporary political and social events is very useful for an understanding of Horace’s work and his engagement with Maecenas and his circle–and with literature in general. It invites the readers to extend their first, literary reading and to consider the cultural horizon the contemporary audience would have had as a further key to the understanding of Augustan poetry and beyond.

The book is well produced with few if any typos.7 I am sure that Weeda’s future contributions will be well received.


1. De Gruyter Open.

2. R. F. Thomas, “Virgil’s Georgics and the Art of Reference”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 90 (1986), 171–198.

3. R.G.M. Nisbet, “Orientations: Horace: Life and Chronology”, in S.J. Harrison (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Horace, Cambridge 2007, 7-21 (quotation: p. 10). Weeda is not quite convinced about this: p. 137 f.

4. Reviewed here: BMCR 2007.05.38.

5. S. Walker, “Cleopatra in Pompeii?”, Papers of the British School at Rome 76 (2008), 35–46, 345–348.

6. Weeda argues intensely with selected literature written in English (although some important titles are surprisingly missing). Works in other languages are scarcely regarded.

7. The only lapse worth mentioning is that the whole Index locorum (pp. 290-294) is unfortunately printed in the middle of the general Index (pp. 286-296). ​