Brief History of Horace

There are many excellent lives of Horace in print, and much good criticism is easily accessible. The sources for the life of Horace are the allusions in his own writings, and the brief biography attributed to Suetonius.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus was born on the 8th of December, B.C. 65 at Venusia, a Roman colony on the confines of Apulia and Lucania. His father was a libertinus, or freedman, by whom emancipated is not known. Horace was technically ingenuus, having been born after his father's emancipation. His mother he never mentions. In the exercise of this profession of coactor, collector of taxes, or perhaps rather of the proceeds of public sales, the father acquired a small estate near Venusia, and a competence that enabled him to give his son the best education that Rome afforded. To this and to his father's personal supervision and shrewd, homely vein of moral admonition the poet refers with affectionate gratitude. At Rome Horace pursued the usual courses in grammar and rhetoric, reading the older Latin poets under the famous teacher L. Orbilius Pupillus, whom he has immortalized by the epithet plagosus. He also read Homer at this time, and apparently pushed his Greek studies so far as to compose Greek verses, which he wisely destroyed, thought he retained throughout life his devotion to Greek models as the one source of literary salvation. About the age of twenty he went to study at Athens, at this time virtually a university town and a finishing school for young Romans of the better class. He probably attended the lectures of Cratippus the Peripatetic, and Theomnestus the Academician, the chief figures in the schools at that time, and acquired a superficial knowledge of their doctrines. In later years, after the publication of the first three books of the Odes, the Greek moral philosophers became his favorite reading.

He was naturally an Epicurean, but the lofty morality and ingenious dialectic of the Stoics attracted him as they did other great Romans, and all his writings abound in allusions to Stoic commonplaces and paradoxes.

At Athens, too, he probably studied for the first time Archilochus, Alcaeus, and the Greek lyric poets who were to be his models in the Odes and Epodes.

Among his fellow-students were Marcus Cicero, son of the orator, M. Valerius Messalla, and many other sons of distinguished houses. His studies were interrupted after the assassination of Caesar, B.C. 44, by the civil war, in which with others of the young Roman nobility he joined the party of Brutus and Cassius against the triumvirs. Plutarch relates that Brutus, in the intervals of preparation for the campaign, attended the lectures of Theomnestus at Athens. He may there have met Horace, to whom, in spite of his youth and humble birth, he gave the position of military tribune. In this capacity Horace probaly accompanied Brutus in his progress through Thessly and Macedonia, and in the next year crossed to Asia with him, there to await the gathering of the forces of Cassius. Returning to Macedonia in the autumn of B.C. 42, he took part in the battle of Philippi, from which he escaped to Italy to find his father dead and his little estate confiscated for the use of the veterans of the triumvirs. Many passages of his works may be referred to these experiences of war and travel.

The next few years were the hardest of Horace's life. He supported himself, according to Suetonius, by means of a clerk ship in the quaestor's office, which he may have bought with borrowed money or obtained through the influence of his father's friends. The period of probation, however, did not last long. His 'dash at the bersemonger's craft,' won him the friendship of Vergil and Varius, the rising poets of the age, who, in B.C. 29, introduced him to Maecenas, the great minister of Augustus.

From this time forth Horace's path was made smooth.

The earliest Ode that can be positively dated is I.37, written in B.C. 30, but several of the light compliments or sketches from the Greek may be contemporary with the Epodes and Satires.

Extracted from Horace Odes and Epodes. Edited, with introduction and notes, by Paul Shorey. Revised by Paul Shorey and Gordon J. Laing. Chicago: Benj. H. Sanborn & Co., 1919, pp. ix-xv, by S. Kaszuba, University of Toronto Library.

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