One of the pleasantest pictures in the world of letters- where jealousy is only less rife than in love- is Virgil introducing Horace to Maecenas. The two poets had met in 40 B.C., when Virgil was thirty and Horace twenty-five. Virgil opened the doors of Maecenas to him a year later, and all three remained fast friends till death. In 1935 Italy celebrated the two thousandth birthday of Quintus Horatius Flaccus. He was born in the little town of Venusia, in Apulia. His father was an ex-slave who had risen to the dignity of a tax collector- or, some said, a fishmonger. Flaccus meant flap-eared; Horatius was probably the name of the master whom the father had served. Somehow the freedman prospered, sent Quintus to Rome for rhetoric, and to Athens for philosophy. There the youth joined the army of Brutus, and received command of a legion. It was dulce et decorum pro patria mori – “sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”; but Horace, who often imitated Archilochus, dropped his shield in the midst of battle and took to his heels. After the war was over he found himself shorn of all property and patrimony, and “barefaced poverty drove me to writing verses.” Actually, however, he buttered his bread by being a quaestor’s clerk. He was short and stout, proud and shy, disliking the common crowd and yet not having the garb or means to move in circles whose education might equal his own. Too cautious to marry, he contented himself with courtesans who may have been real or may have been forms of poetic license invented to demonstrate maturity. He wrote of prostitutes with scholarly restraint and intricate prosody, and thought he deserved much for not seducing married women. Too poor to ruin himself sexually, he took to books and composed Greek and Latin lyrics in the most recondite of Greek meters. Virgil saw one of these poems and praised it to Maecenas. The kindly epicure was complimented by Horace’s stammering timidity and found a sly relish in his sophisticated thought. In 37 Maecenas took Virgil, Horace, and some others on a jaunt by canal boat, stagecoach, litter, and foot across Italy to Brundisium. Shortly afterward he introduced Horace to Octavian, who proposed that Horace should become his secretary. The poet excused himself, having no passion for work. In 34 Maecenas gave him a house and income-producing farm in the Sabine valley of Ustica, some forty-five miles from Rome. Horace was now free to live in the city or the country, and to write as authors dream of writing- with lazy leisure and laborious care.
For a while he stayed in Rome, enjoying the life of an amused spectator of the hurrying world. He mingled with all ranks, studying the types that made up Rome, contemplating with clinical pleasure the follies and vices of the capital. He pictured some of these types in two books of Satires (34 and 30 B.C.) modeled at first on Lucilius and later in a milder and more tolerant strain. He called these poems sermones – not by any means sermons, but informal conversations, sometimes intimate dialogues, in almost colloquial hexameters; he confessed that they were prose in everything but meter, “for you would not call one a poet who writes, as I do, lines more akin to prose.” In these racy verses we meet the living men and women of Rome and hear them talking as Romans talked: not the shepherds, peasants, and heroes of Virgil, nor the legendary lechers and heroines of Ovid, but the saucy slave, the vain poet, the pompous lecturer, the greedy philosopher, the gabbing bore, the eager Semite, the businessman, the statesman, the streetwalker: this at last, we feel, is Rome. With homicidal playfulness Horace lays down for the hunter of legacies the rules for success in that ghoulish game. He laughs at the gourmets who feast on delicacies and limp with gout. He reminds the laudator temporis acti – the “praiser of times past”- that “if some god were for taking you back to those days you would refuse every time”; the chief charm of the past is that we know we need not live it again. He wonders, like Lucretius, at the restless souls who in the city long for the country, and there long for the city; who can never enjoy what they have because there is someone who has more; who, not content with their wives, hanker with too great and yet too little imagination for the charms of other women who have in turn become prose to other men. Money-madness, he concludes, is the basic disease of Rome. He asks the itching gold-seeker, “Why do you laugh at Tantalus, from whose thirsty lips the water always moves away? Change the name, and the story is about you”: mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur. He satirizes himself, too: he represents his slave telling him to his face that he, the moralist, is hot-tempered, never knows his own mind or purpose, and is the menial of his passions like anybody else.
It is doubtless to himself, as well as to others, that he recommends the golden mean, aurea mediocritas; est modus in rebus, he says- “there’s a limit, a measure in things,” which the intelligent man will neither fall short of nor exceed. In opening his second series of Satires he complains to a friend that the first group were criticized as too savage and too weak. He asks advice and is told, “Take a rest.” “What?” the poet objects, “not write verses at all?” “Yes.” “But I can’t sleep.” He would have done well to take the advice for a time. His next publication, the Epodes, or “Refrains” (29 B.C.), is the least worthy of his works: harsh and coarse, ungenerous, tastelessly and bisexually obscene, forgivable only as an experiment in the iambic meters of Archilochus. Perhaps his disgust with the “smoke and wealth and noise of Rome” had mounted to bitterness; he could not bear the pressure of the “ignorant and evil-thinking crowd.” He pictures himself jostled and jostling in the human flotsam of the capital, and cries out: “O rural home! when shall I behold you? When shall I be able, now with the books of the ancients, now with sleep and idle hours, to quaff sweet forgetfulness of life’s cares? When will beans, the very brethren of Pythagoras, be served to me, and greens well larded with fat bacon? O nights and feasts divine!” His stays in Rome became shorter; he spent so much time in his Sabine villa that his friends, even Maecenas, complained that he had cut them out of his life. After the heat and dust of the city he found the pure air, the peaceful routine, and the simple workmen on his farm a cleansing delight. His health was poor, and like Augustus he lived for the most part on a vegetarian diet. “My stream of pure water, my few acres of woodland, my sure trust in a crop of corn, bring me more blessing than the lot of the dazzling lord of fertile Africa.” In him, as in the other Augustan poets, the love of country life finds a warm expression rare in the literature of Greece. Beatus ille qui procul negotiis –