Classics scholar John Davie finds solace in Horace
The Roman poet Horace offered a much needed voice of sanity and friendly advice in unfamiliar circumstances, as 500 years of republican government gave way to the rule of one man, Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. His Satires, or ‘Chats’, as he modestly called them, set out to present moral ‘lessons’ in a relaxed manner full of self-mockery and good humour that disarms the reader and neatly avoids the trap of pious sermonising. Unlike much satire, ancient and modern, Horace prefers wit to malice. He sets out his stall early with the question, ‘What’s the harm in telling the truth with a smile on my face?’ It is his credo and he sticks to it pretty well.
We worry too much, he says, and have a disagreeable tendency to be soft on ourselves but hard on others. Unlike the savage satire of the later writer, Juvenal, a natural employee of Private Eye, Horace turns a gentle light on human folly rather than a blowtorch on vice. Greed, snobbery, judgmentalism and social-climbing irritate him but the treatment is always civilised, based on rational enquiry. As in Plato’s dialogues, the guilty party is shown to be self-harming through self-delusion. He has Socrates’ optimistic view of human nature: ‘No one goes wrong deliberately’.
There are two main players in Horace’s philosophical circus, Epicureanism and Stoicism. He would have studied both when he was a university student in Athens and rubbed shoulders with Cicero’s son, who kept bunking lectures. Stoic morality was stern-minded, and Horace liked to poke fun at its more extreme beliefs, (‘all crimes are equal’/ ‘everyone except the wise man is a slave’). He knew that Stoicism in its adapted form was admirable and had underpinned the Republic with its ideals of endurance, restraining of emotion and public service but he disliked its capacity for descending into a stiff-necked Puritanism.
As a natural lover of ‘cakes and ale’ Horace regularly shows Epicurean sympathies, describing himself once as ‘a sleek porker from the sty of Epicurus’. Their central belief in the importance of pleasure and friendship in life attracted someone who so much enjoyed good wine and good company, male and female. This, together with his insistence that we enjoy the moment, inspired some of his finest poetry, for example this passage from the Odes, written in middle age:
Life asks so little. Smooth-faced youth
and beauty run away behind us.
When our hair is dry and grey, that puts an end
to love’s pleasures and easy sleep.
The glory of spring flowers is not for ever constant.
The blushing moon does not always shine
with the same face. Why weary your little mind
with eternal thoughts?
Why do we not lie down under a tall plane tree,
or here without more ado under this pine,
and drink, while we may, our grey heads
perfumed with roses and anointed
with Assyrian nard? Bacchus dispels
all gnawing care.
(translated by David West)
There is so much that is likeable about Horace: his refusal to judge people, his self-deprecation, his unashamed appreciation of the good things in life. He would have made an excellent friend and a thoroughly interesting guest. The son of an auctioneer who had himself once been a slave, he shows how talent could raise someone from humble circumstances to high position, from an obscure village in modern Puglia to the city of Rome, the office of poet laureate and close friendship with the emperor himself.
He gives us a personal portrait when he addresses his first book of Epistles, newly completed and destined for the bookstalls in Rome:
When the sun’s less fiery heat attracts a greater audience to you, be sure to say that I was a freedman’s son and, in humble circumstances, spread wings too large for my nest, so adding to my virtues whatever you subtract from my birth; say that I found favour with the foremost men of Rome in war and peace and was a fellow of small stature, grey before my time, fond of the sun’s rays, quick to anger but not hard to win round again.
(translated by John Davie, Horace, Satires and Epistles)
John Davie taught Classics at Harrow, St Paul’s and Trinity College, Oxford. He has translated Euripides for Penguin Classics, and Horace, Cicero and Seneca for Oxford World’s Classics.