An ancient poetís guide for and age of excess


Trans and intro by Stephen Harrison

ISBN 978-0-691-18252-0  Princeton  £13.99

reviewed by Alan Dent


Horace wrote for a period of thirty years. His works are well-known: Satires, Odes, Epistles, Carmen Saeculare and Ars Poetica. He described the aim of the Satires as ridentem dicere verum, to speak truth with laughter. Stephen Harrison is an expert guide to Horaceís life and work, and to the background. Many readers will probably find the Latin a challenge, but Harrison is very good at making the difficult accessible. His selection is based on a thorough knowledge of the corpus and his ability to link Horaceís poetry to contemporary reality shrinks the daunting distance between his culture and ours. 

Harrison provides a useful introduction and four chapters: The Search for the Good Life; The Importance of Friendship; Love Ė the Problem of Passion and Death Ė the Final Frontier. This neat organisation is a helpful means of orientation: for the reader unfamiliar with Horace it provides handy signposts and permits a sense of familiarity with the writer to grow on the basis of encounter with a small selection of his work.  

Horace liked to propose acceptance of oneís lot. He is a critic of what the Greeks called mempsimoiria, discontent with oneís condition. Including himself amongst the discontented is a way of deflecting the accusation of adopting a superior pose. Donít worry about tomorrow, he advises. Let today be sufficient unto itself. Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero is his famous formulation (Make the best of today, trust minimally in what is to come). Of course, we mustnít forget that Horace lived well. He was lowly born but he rose to significance and he was awarded a fine Sabine estate. This raises the question of the degree of sententiousness in his work. If we are meant to live in accordance with nature, he writes, before praising the countryside over the city. Yet the simple bucolic life is the contrary to the ambition, pursuit of power and wealth which were characteristic of his time. In a way, heís able to take the wise, golden pathway between extremes, because his views are a counterbalance to the prevailing follies of the Roman Empire.  

He sets great store by friendship and advises choice of friends based on qualities of character rather than success or material wealth; one should be tolerant of a friendís foibles as one should support a friend in need while helping them keep sadness within limits. He believes in a hierarchy of virtue to which he and his friend Maecenas belong. This view of friendship is edifying, but like the rest of his wisdom leaves the sense of a discrepancy between the ideal and how people actually behave. We live in a culture in which people are divided by property. Few people from the bottom end become close friends with millionaires. Horaceís advice is humane, gentle, reasonable, tolerant but in his time as in ours, hard for most people to follow.  

With passion as with death, Horace takes the middle way: avoid excess, choose carefully, accept what must be with a good grace. Passion is for the young, age brings moderation and wisdom. Death is the great leveller.  

Harrison has provided an excellent introduction and Horace is fine company. The translations read fluently and the balanced, thoughtful philosophy has much to offer our frazzled age. The question does arise, however, as to how to bridge the gap between the wise acceptance of life, the avoidance of extremes, the cultivation of the gentle, tolerant emotions and the demands of a culture which makes Horaceís wisdom appear available only to those who have withdrawn from the fray to live in bucolic retreat.