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Horace, as imagined by Anton von Werner

Quintus Horatius Flaccus, (December 8, 65 B.C.E. - November 27, 8 B.C.E.), known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman poet during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Horace was known in his own time primarily for his Odes, a series of poems written in imitation of ancient Greek classics. The Odes display Horace's mastery of ancient verse-forms, and in particular showcase his unique ability to create beautiful poetry in Latin, using difficult forms that were designed for the language of the ancient Greeks. Horace's Odes are considered some of the most beautiful works ever written in Latin, and his mastery of the language and the almost musical beauty of his lines has made him one of the most frequently studied and imitated Latin writers of all time.

Unfortunately, however, the lyrical beauty and technical mastery of Horace's Odes have proven incredibly difficult to translate and, following the decline of Latin as a scholarly language, the Odes have fallen further and further into desuetude (no longer used). Today, Horace is primarily known for his instructional poetry, particularly the Epistles, which contain what is probably his most influential work, a verse-essay on the art of poetry entitled Ars Poetica. In this work he stresses, among other things, his belief that poetry must be "wholesome"— that is, educational—in addition to being beautiful, arguing that a thorough understanding of the technical aspects of poetry is necessary in order to be a truly successful poet. The Classicist movement that would emerge in the [[Renaissance[[ through Petrarch and Dante and, later, re-emerge in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe would esteem Horace as the greatest poet of all of ancient Rome next to Virgil. Generations of later poets would be inspired by Horace's rectitude, his devotion to tradition and to form, and his overwhelming concern with the importance of moral instruction in poetry. Horace is, undoubtedly, one of the more difficult poets of the ancient world for the modern-day reader to tackle; but, given the effort, he is easily one of the most rewarding poets of his era.


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 former slave, but he was born free. His father worked as a coactor, a kind of middleman at auctions who would pay the purchase price to the seller and collect it later from the buyer and receive one percent of the purchase price from each of them for his services. Although Horace portrays him as a poor, honest farmer ("macro pauper agello," Satires 1.6.71), his father's business was actually one of the ways for former slaves to amass wealth. Not surprisingly, 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 touching tribute to his father. In his own words:

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 the battlefield. When an amnesty was declared for those who had fought against the victorious Octavian (later known as Augustus), Horace returned to Italy, only to find his estate confiscated and his father dead. Horace claims that he was reduced to poverty. He nevertheless had the means to purchase a profitable life-time appointment as 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; they 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. 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 remains a place of pilgrimage for literary-minded tourists.


Horace is considered by classicists to be, along with Virgil, among the greatest of the Latin poets.

He coined many wise and pithy sayings that remain in use (in Latin or in translation) to this day, including:

  • carpe diem "seize the day";
  • Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country"
  • aurea mediocritas the "golden mean"
  • "Let him who has enough wish for nothing more."
  • "It is your concern when the wall next door is on fire."
  • "One has half the deed done who has made a beginning."

His works (like those of all but the earliest Latin poets) are written in Greek meters, from the hexameter, which was relatively easy to adapt to Latin, to the more complex measures used in the Odes, like Alcaic verses and Sapphic stanzas, which were sometimes a difficult fit for Latin grammatical structure and syntax. Horace, more than any other Latin poet, managed to merge Greek forms with Latin syntax, producing poems that are both steeped in the ancient tradition and yet eminently readable and beautiful. Here, for instance, in Ode 1.9, Horace adapts the ancient Greek Sapphic stanza-form—a tremendously difficult form to adapt to Latin—and renders a beautiful, tender scene of "winter without, wine within":

Vides ut alta stet niue candidum
Soracte, nec iam sustineant onus
siluae laborantes, geluque
flumina constiterint acuto.
Dissolue frigus ligna super foco
large reponens, atque benignius
deprome quadrimum Sabina,
o Thaliarche, merum diota.
Permitte diuis cetera; qui simul
strauere uentos aequore feruido
deproeliantis, nec cupressi
nec ueteres agitantur orni.
Quid sit futurum cras fuge quaerere, et
quem fors dierum cumque dabit lucro
adpone, nec dulcis amores
sperne puer neque tu choreas,
donec uirenti canities abest
morosa. nunc et campus et areae
lenesque sub noctem susurri
composita repetantur hora;
nunc et latentis proditor intimo
gratus puellae risus ab angulo
pignusque dereptum lacertis
aut digito male pertinaci.
One dazzling mass of solid snow
Soracte stands; the bent woods fret
Beneath their load; and, sharpest-set
With frost, the streams have ceased to flow.
Pile on great faggots and break up
The ice: let influence more benign
Enter with four-years-treasured wine,
Fetched in the ponderous Sabine cup:
Leave to the Gods all else. When they
Have once bid rest the winds that war
Over the passionate seas, no more
Grey ash and cypress rock and sway.
Ask not what future suns shall bring,
Count to-day gain, whate'er it chance
To be: nor, young man, scorn the dance,
Nor deem sweet Love an idle thing,
Ere Time thy April youth hath changed
To sourness. Park and public walk
Attract thee now, and whispered talk
At twilight meetings pre-arranged;
Hear now the pretty laugh that tells
In what dim corner lurks thy love;
And snatch a bracelet or a glove
From wrist or hand that scarce rebels. [1]

Major works

  • Sermonum liber primus or Satirae I [1] (35 B.C.E.)
  • Epodes [2] (30 B.C.E.)
  • Sermonum liber secundus or Satirae II [3] (30 B.C.E.)
  • Carminum liber primus or Odes I (Carmina consists of 103 poems) [4]. (23 B.C.E.)
  • Carminum liber secundus or Odes II [5]. (23 B.C.E.)
  • Carminum liber tertius or Odes III [6]. (23 B.C.E.)
  • Epistularum liber primus [7]. (20 B.C.E.)
  • Ars Poetica or The Epistle to the Pisones [8] (18 B.C.E.)
  • Carmen Saeculare or Song of the Ages [9]. (17 B.C.E.)
  • Epistularum liber secundus [10]. (14 B.C.E.)
  • Carminum liber quartus or Odes IV [11]. (13 B.C.E.)

English translators

  • Perhaps the finest English translator of Horace was John Dryden (1631-1700), who successfully adapted most of the Odes into verse for contemporary readers at his time. These translations are favored by many scholars despite some textual variations. Others favor unrhymed translations.
  • John Conington, professor of Latin at Oxford University, who mentioned how quotable Horace was, saying "He condenses a general truth in a few words, and thus makes his wisdom portable."
  • Ars Poetica was first translated into English by no less than Queen Elizabeth I.


  1. Translation by Charles Stuary Calverley, from Verse and Translations c. 1862.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Glover, T. R. Horace, a Return to Allegiance. The University press, 1932. ASIN 0006AM36I
  • Sellar, W.Y. Roman Poets of the Augustan Age: Horace and the Elegaic Poets. With a Memoir of the Author by Andrew Lang. (original 1899) Oxford: 1937. ASIN B000S6YUS4

External links

All links retrieved January 13, 2018.


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