Who is Horace?

Posted: July 24, 2007 in Biography of Author, Poet

Horace was born at Venosa or Venusia, as it was called in his day, a small town in the border region between Apulia and Lucania, Horace was the son of a freedman, but he himself was born free. His father owned a small farm at Venusia, and later moved to Rome and worked as a coactor, that is, a kind of middleman at auctions who would pay the purchase price to the seller and collect it later from the buyer and receive 1% of the purchase price from each of them for his services. The elder Horace was able to spend considerable money on his son’s education, accompanying him first to Rome for his primary education, and then sending him to Athens to study Greek and philosophy. The poet later expressed his gratitude in a tribute to his father. In his own words (note that some of the beauty is lost in translation):

If my character is flawed by a few minor faults, but is otherwise decent and moral, if you can point out only a few scattered blemishes on an otherwise immaculate surface, if no one can accuse me of greed, or of prurience, or of profligacy, if I live a virtuous life, free of defilement (pardon, for a moment, my self-praise), and if I am to my friends a good friend, my father deserves all the credit… As it is now, he deserves from me unstinting gratitude and praise. I could never be ashamed of such a father, nor do I feel any need, as many people do, to apologize for being a freedman’s son. Satires 1.6.65-92

After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Horace joined the army, serving under the generalship of Brutus. He fought as a staff officer (tribunus militum) in the Battle of Philippi. Alluding to famous literary models, he later claimed that he saved himself by throwing away his shield and fleeing. When an amnesty was declared for those who had fought against the victorious Octavian (later Augustus), Horace returned to Italy, only to find his estate confiscated; his father had probably died by then. Horace claims that he was reduced to poverty. Nevertheless, he had the means to purchase a profitable life-time appointment as a scriba quaestorius, an official of the Treasury, which allowed him to get by comfortably and practice his poetic art.

Horace was a member of a literary circle that included Virgil and Lucius Varius Rufus, who introduced him to Maecenas, friend and confidant of Augustus. Maecenas became his patron and close friend, and presented Horace with an estate near Tibur in the Sabine Hills, contemporary Tivoli. He died in Rome a few months after the death of Maecenas, in 8 BC. Upon his death bed, having no heirs, Horace relinquished his farm to his friend and Emperor Augustus, to be used for Imperial needs. His farm is there today and is a spot of pilgrimage for the literary elite.

Works

Horace is generally considered by classicists to be one of the greatest Latin poets.

He wrote many Latin phrases that remain in use (in Latin or in translation) including carpe diem, “seize the day”; Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori; and aurea mediocritas, the “golden mean.”

His works (like those of all but the earliest Latin poets) are written in Greek metres, from the hexameter, which was relatively easy to adapt to Latin, to the more complex measures used in the Odes, like alcaics and sapphics, which were sometimes a difficult fit for Latin structure and syntax. Chronologically, they are:

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