Horace, with Virgil, is one of the twin giants of poetry in the time of Augustus. While Virgil was taking the Greek tradition of epic poetry and giving it a new set of completely Roman clothes with the Aeneid, Horace was taking the Greek tradition of lyric poetry that was the established stock-in-trade for much non-epic Roman poetry, and giving it a new and distinctly Roman character.
Also like Virgil in his separate style, Horace used his talent to reference and support the programme of political and social renewal and change that Augustus pursued throughout his long period of supremacy.
Horace was born in Venusia in Apulia, in the South of Italy, in 65 BCE. His father was a freedman, so the family had been slaves in the not too distant past: now he was a free man, making enough money as an auctioneer to give Horace an education including university at Athens. (Social mobility of this kind is an interesting feature of Roman society.) That was where Horace became involved with the losing side, led by Brutus and Cassius, before the battle of Philippi, where he escaped with his life in 42 BCE.
In the aftermath, he is said to have managed to find a civil service job back in Italy to keep the wolf from the door until he was introduced around 39 BCE to Maecenas, whom we have already met as the great literary patron of the age and senior aide to Octavian. That seems to have led to an intimacy which lasted until both died in 8 BCE. The poems are full of grateful and affectionate references to Horace’s friend: gratitude for the “Sabine Farm” which Maecenas gave to Horace is a recurring theme.
Horace’s reputation chiefly rests on his four collections of Odes, or lyric poems, the first three of which appeared between 30 and about 23 BCE and the fourth after a long interval in about 13 BCE. His other work is of high, but not comparable, quality and interest. Some find his self-regard, submission to the prevailing political régime and technical formalism off-putting. They have a point, but his range, musicality and ability to put his finger on a point with perfect economy and great emotional power are strong compensations. At his best – and he often is at his best – he is one of the great poets of any age.
No contemporary copies of these Latin poets’ work survive, so we are lucky to have them. Find out more here.