BMCR 2021.08.25

Horace’s “Odes”

, Horace's "Odes". Oxford approaches to classical literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xxii, 239. ISBN 9780195156751 $99.00.


This is a superb introduction to Horace’s Odes. I was keen to read this book in no small part because in 2020 I made multiple separate attempts at introductory lectures on the Odes for different groups. These brought home the considerable challenge of introducing these poems to new readers: of neatly establishing their literary, philosophical and historical traditions and contexts; of elaborating the role of the individual poem and its relationship to the collection; of enthusing readers and setting them on their own journeys into the Odes’ rich ironies and complexities. Richard Tarrant is clearly sensitive to this challenge. He positions his introduction as responding to David Armstrong’s observation that “in Horace even the simplest lines have so much going on” (p. xiii). Equally resonant for me is Gregory Hutchinson’s summation of books 1–3 as “an assemblage . . . so complicated that the mind can hardly take it in.”[1] Clear, expert orientation for newcomers and their guides is thus a valuable commodity, and Tarrant provides it in generous supply. There is good coverage: 66 of the 88 poems in Odes 1–3 and all the poems of book 4 receive some comment or discussion. Throughout the book there is an easy control of this disparate material, frequent, illuminating comparisons within and beyond the poems themselves, and a wealth of observations pointing to a deep familiarity with these poems.

One minor reservation I have about the structure of the book is that it begins with a biography of Horace (chapter 1) and surveys all of his oeuvre in separate discussions,[2] a choice that runs contrary to the custom of the series, which eschews biography and prefers instead to concentrate on a single work (pp. ix–x). The coverage of these other works is concise and informative, and they are used to contextualise the Odes (Tarrant is clearly aware of the danger of these discussions appearing to be digressive: on e.g. p. 6, 143, 185 we are reminded that they will be brought to bear on the Odes) but some (naturally) offer more context than others; for example, the Satires and Epodes are invoked in the chapters on the Odes to make points about e.g. the odd number of poems in Odes 1, the decorum of language in the Odes, the sexuality of the first-person subject and the political engagement of the collection. The relevance of the Epistles is less direct: book one is “a next step for Horace after Odes 1–3” (p. 143) and contextualises some aspects of the Odes by contrast (addressees, love, poetics). The literary Epistles are made to comment upon Horatian practice via their general statements about poetry (p. 185). I think the decision to take in all the works separately is ultimately justified, but I wonder if a different structure might have brought the reader to the Odes with more immediate and concentrated effect.

The Odes themselves are treated in chapters 3–8 and 10. Chapter 3 sets the reader’s expectations regarding genre, performance, meter and Horace’s reception of lyric norms: decorum, language, flexibility of subject matter, panegyric (to which Tarrant suggests Horace was relatively averse in Odes 1–3), an absence of explicit literary polemics, and an authorial stance of confidence (no pretence at incapacity, no expressed desire to write in other genres). Chapter 4 treats the arrangement of individual poems within the collection: it offers a wealth of models, patterns and symmetries across groups, within individual books and across books 1–3. I thought the final section tracing developments across Odes 1–3 (on poetic ambitions, civil war and Maecenas) was especially effective. In this chapter, the collective publication of books 1–3 in 23 BCE is defended against Hutchinson’s hypothesis of separate publication on the grounds of (i) Sestius’ fleeting prominence in 23; (ii) Propertius’ response to Odes 1–3 in his own book 3 with no prior response to separate books of Odes in his own book 2; (iii) structural principles of the first three books; and (iv) the notion that Odes 1 as a single book of lyric would be insufficient to place Horace in the canon of lyric poets. I find last two grounds less persuasive than the first two, but I agree that a unified, collective publication of the first three books seems “the most economical hypothesis” (p. 36). Later in the chapter, the odd number of poems in book one is discussed without reference to Hutchinson’s hypothesis (pp. 38–39),[3] instead Tarrant suggests Horace was aiming for an abundance of material.

Chapter 5 gives close readings of three Odes: 1.11, 2.7 and 2.13—chosen because “they contain the quintessential Horatian themes: friendship, politics, nature, love, death and poetry” (p. 47)—in order to illustrate strategies of interpreting the Odes. In each case, we are offered a suggestive and transferrable model of how to spot the structure, apply the details and think through the context of each poem. Quibbles are very few here: “gnome” (p. 62) could be defined for the reader; the implications of the uulgus and their preference for Alcaeus at 2.13.32 could be spelled out more clearly (pp. 63–64). On p. xiv Tarrant recommends this chapter for readers who want an immediate sense of the Odes, and it would serve this purpose extremely well, particularly in combination with his remarks in the introduction (“Reading Horace Today,” pp. xvii–xxii).

Chapter 6 treats friendship and advice by discussing eight poems. The discussion is balanced in favour of the kinds of advice Horace typically offers to friends rather than the nature of friendship itself in the Odes: we get a glimpse at this in chapter 7 on Epicurean friendship (p. 112). On p. 67 and 68, “none” can’t answer the rhetorical question “how”?: the difference between Horace’s Latin at 1.24.1 (quis . . . pudor aut modus . . . ?) and Clancy’s English (‘How shall we keep in or limit . . .?’) needs to be shown to the reader.

Chapter 7 defends the reputation of Horace’s amatory poems, largely by freeing them from the expectation that they treat love in the manner of Catullus and the elegists. Examples of amatory poems are discussed to show how they variously evoke elegy in order to swerve away from that genre’s norms, or to expose its incongruities when applied to a more experienced lover or when treated in a lyric context. In the final section of the chapter Horace’s erotic detachment is considered against Epicurean doctrine and his preoccupation with temporality. Tarrant further suggests that this detachment is a form of self-protection offered by a persona that is highly susceptible to the emotions. Neophyte readers may gain the impression on pp. 104–105 that Catullus and Sappho were elegists (“explored in elegy”) and p. 108, when 1.13 and 1.22 are compared with the lyric poems Sappho 31 Voigt and Catullus 51.

Chapter 8 treats political poems in three groups: those treating civil war themes, those reflecting Roman society and morals, and those relating to Rome and Augustus. The complexities of Horace taking a political position are well outlined by a contrastive reading of 1.37 and 2.1. Poems of public moralizing are represented by the Roman Odes; here Tarrant places novel emphasis on the final lines of 3.1 and 3.6 to good effect (p. 127, 134). Ode 3.14, with its permeable boundaries between public and private, is made the point of focus for Horace’s relationship to Augustus; here the reader is shown how to think through the various interpretative options on a detail such as the description of Livia as unico gaudens mulier marito (3.14.5).

Chapter 10 treats the Carmen Saeculare and book 4. Odes 4 is introduced as equal to the quality of Odes 1–3, but Tarrant is nevertheless clear on the different emphases to be found in book 4, and he provides clear help on the various framing motifs in the book. The main body of his discussion focusses on eros, a comparison of 4.7 to 1.4, and the panegyrics to Drusus and Augustus in 4.4 and 4.15 respectively. The reader gets a good sense of the poignancy and nostalgia of the collection’s private voice, and Tarrant demonstrates several frameworks for considering the political poems, their ambiguities and their divisive critical reception.

Chapter 12 surveys the reception of the Odes from Propertius to Seamus Heaney: a fascinating whistle-stop tour that gives a neat sense both of Horace’s enduring influence and of how reception has shaped our understanding of him. In the survey of ancient material, I was especially pleased to see consideration given to later Roman poets. Regarding Propertius 3.1.1–2 as an appropriation of Horatian themes, it may be safer to note for the reader that the grove, the “poet-as-priest” conceit, and the interplay of Italian and Greek elements were not unique to Horace.[4]

The volume finishes with suggestions for further reading, a list of works cited and two indices (general and passages cited); these offer next steps and make an already accessible book easier to use and reuse. There are very few typos or production errors, and they are unobtrusive.[5] Tarrant declares his primary audience to be “readers of poetry who are encountering Horace for the first time” (p. xiv). His lucid and insightful book can be warmly recommended to this audience and to readers more familiar with the Odes as one of the best introductions now available.


[1] G. O. Hutchinson, ‘The Publication and Individuality of Horace’s Odes Books 1-3’, Classical Quarterly 52 (2002) 517-37 at p. 517.

[2] Chapter 2 treats Satires 1 and 2, and Epodes; chapter 9 discusses Epistles 1; chapter 11 is devoted to the literary Epistles.

[3] Cf. Hutchinson (note 1), 520.

[4] See e.g. R. Hunter, The Shadow of Callimachus: Studies in the Reception of Hellenistic Poetry at Rome (Cambridge 2006) 7-41; R. G. M. Nisbet and M. Hubbard, A Commentary on Horace: Odes, Book I (Oxford 1970) on 1.1.30; S. J. Heyworth and J. Morwood, A Commentary on Propertius, Book 3 (Oxford 2011) on 3.1.1-2, 3-4.

[5] Some cross references still appear as “see 00”, but the majority are complete; similarly, the cross-reference “(2)” should be (“102”) on p. 191. On p. 151 ‘of’ has slipped out of the phrase ‘recording [of] significant occasions’.