Archive | February 2022

On liking the unlikeable

I’ve been trying to find an analogy for my personal response to Horace’s political odes (spoiler: I like them), which has implications also for how I talk about them in the Very Short Introduction I’m writing. Horace’s Odes are all “political” in a broader sense, but here I mean the lyric poems that advance Augustan ideology in an overt fashion.

Contemporary scholarship tends to have a problem with these poems that it doesn’t have with other odes, and I find it odd. Sometimes the idea is that we in the twenty-first century have less sympathy with his political material, to which my response is that one doesn’t have to read his other poetry at all hard to find material or attitudes that are objectionable, and it doesn’t seem to me that poems promoting support for Augustus are much different in that respect. Sometimes the thought is more that Horace’s was too liberal a sensitivity to give real assent to the Augustan poetry he wrote, and just one objection to that is that every lyric poem composed by Horace is a carefully crafted piece of artifice, and not to be confused with any straightforward expression of his inner beliefs.

My feeling is that we can do two things with this poetry that are sometimes treated as incompatible. We can enjoy it, allowing ourselves to empathise enough with the poet and the poet’s circumstances to appreciate how effectively he promotes the cause, and to take pleasure from the reading experience; while at the same time we can achieve the detachment necessary to see accomplished political poetry for what it is, a sophisticated way of rendering people susceptible to a partisan ideology.

An example of what I’m talking about in Horace might be the passage in Odes 3.5, the Regulus Ode, where Horace condemns the miles Crassi, the “soldier of Crassus” taken prisoner by the Parthians in their crushing victory at Carrhae in 53 BC. Their greatest failure, in line with the core concern of this poem with the ethical guidance provided by the Roman past, is that they have forgotten their Romanness and “gone native” (5-12):

milesne Crassi coniuge barbara
turpis maritus uixit et hostium —
pro curia inuersique mores! —
consenuit socerorum in armis

sub rege Medo Marsus et Apulus
anciliorum et nominis et togae
oblitus aeternaeque Vestae,
incolumi Iove et urbe Roma?

“Has the soldier of Crassus lived his life a disgraceful husband to a barbarian wife, and have the Marsian and Apulian—shame on the Senate House and our topsy-turvy values!—grown old bearing arms for their fathers-in-law, their enemies, in the service of the Persian King, forgetful of the sacred shields and their name and the toga and everlasting Vesta while Jupiter and the city of Rome are yet unimpaired?”

It goes without saying, I hope, that I don’t endorse the chauvinistic nationalism of Horace’s “Roman Odes”, and furthermore I’m fascinated as an academic literary critic by the terms in which he expresses it, for instance the items that function as the Roman counterparts of motherhood and apple pie, the staples of a Roman identity that Horace suggests a true Roman could never forget: the sacred figure-of-eight shields borne by the dancing priests of Mars; the peculiar Roman styles of naming and dress; and Vesta, the goddess whose everlasting flame guaranteed Rome’s permanent existence.

Part and parcel of that analysis is seeing how brilliant the poetry is in which Horace’s xenophobic case is made. Just one detail out of many: how he exploits the expansive character of the third line of these alcaic stanzas to give aeternae special emphasis, the description of Vesta, “everlasting/eternal”, which clashes outrageously with oblitus, “forgetful” before it. What kind of people could forget Vesta who is always there, Horace asks us: only Romans who had fallen so far as no longer really to be Romans–and I feel the power of this. At some level I’m allowing myself to be manipulated by the poet, and understanding what he is doing by experiencing it.

Stated thus, it may still seem a paradoxical claim that I can be manipulated and still critique, but here comes my analogy. In the clip below Leonid Kharitonov, a Russian bass-baritone, with the Red Army Choir, performs the Song of the Volga Boatmen at a concert in the Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, in 1965. I see (and who couldn’t, since everyone is in military uniform) the ideological project, and (9 years after Hungary, 3 before Prague) I deplore it. (Current events exert their own influence, no doubt.) Furthermore it interests me intellectually how a folksong, because it talks about working men collaborating for the common good, and doing so along Russia’s greatest river, could be coopted by an outfit like the Red Army Choir to express a Soviet ideal.

That said, though, I find everything about this video frankly thrilling, the power of the singing, by Kharitonov and by the Red Army Choir, the superb arrangement by the Choir’s director, the camera work and the whole mise-en-scène of the film. I think what’s happening here is that I’m achieving an imaginative empathy with the Soviet elite in 1965 which does not preclude, indeed coexists with and positively informs, my critical distance and dispassionate analysis.

And I think I can do that with Horace, too.

Enjoy, in any case (but critically):


I’m not at all sure this justifies a post. But at 100 blogs I disburdened myself of some familial stuff, and this happens to be no. 125.

Our dog Chester had been growing increasingly frail over the last few months. But his death on Tuesday, while related to that frailty, was sudden, unexpected in its manner, and traumatic in ways I shan’t elaborate. But he was a jack russell/chihuahua cross, a jack chi or jackhuahua if you prefer, rising 15, and facing pretty rapid decline.

I do buy the idea that dogs slot into families so naturally because we’ve been cohabiting, our two species, for tens of thousands of years. Having rather dreaded Chester’s arrival twelve or thirteen years ago—how much effort and inconvenience it could be, disruption in an already disrupted household, and a rescue dog to boot—I now feel a huge absence, and it’s not just the thousands of companionable miles, for years now without a lead, that we’ve clocked up in that time strolling round the neighbourhood. My wife understood that a dog would be a force for calm in a household in some need of it when our elder son was nine, and he has been, a shared focus of affection in our family life.

I know, of course, that our reasons for, and pleasure in, those walks were mutually incomprehensible, but that I guess is how symbiosis works. Similarly, I’ve no understanding why every day without fail, immediately after his dinner, Chester would steal one of my socks and “bury” it somewhere around the house.

No understanding at all, but I miss it.

Horace, top dog

As I ponder putting pen to paper for the first time in my Horace: A Very Short Introduction, it’s proving as daunting a challenge as I anticipated. Horace is both technically meticulous and hugely versatile, and trying to capture his essence in 100 pages is not straightforward. But I think Horace at least, the great miniaturist, would approve of the attempt.

In his Odes, poems composed within the tiny structures represented by his lyric stanzas, brevity is the key. Horace has various strategies to achieve it, but one of them is an astonishing precision in word selection. An ancient assessment by the critic Quintilian (10.1.96) identifies Horace’s inventiveness in figures of speech and felicitous boldness in word choice (a paraphrase of uarius figuris et uerbis felicissime audax) as a characteristic quality of his lyric poetry, and what follows is a brief illustration: a moment in the Odes where a word chosen with pin-point precision generates a remarkable richness of imagery from a minimum of text. This is a turn of phrase that I’ve loved for a long time, but I’d missed the full subtlety of it until a recent rereading of the Odes—and my hunch, I should add, found corroboration in Nisbet & Rudd.

Odes 3.29 is often (and, as it happens, rightly) considered Horace’s lyric masterpiece, the penultimate poem of his first collection of lyric poems, an address to his patron Maecenas which restates in powerful and memorable terms some core themes of his lyric.

As he rounds off this glorious poem, Horace explains what to do if Fortune turns against you, offering himself as a model for Maecenas and the rest of us (3.29.53-6):

laudo manentem; si celeris quatit
pinnas, resigno quae dedit et mea
virtute me involvo probamque
pauperiem sine dote quaero.

David West’s translation: I praise [Fortune] while she stays. If she shakes out/ her swift wings, I return what she gave, wrap myself/ in my virtue and look for honest Poverty,/ asking no dowry.

Even this one tiny stanza is fraught with implication. Fortune is as flighty as a winged thing; resigno, which is what Horace does with all Fortune’s gifts, makes of everything he has received from her just a temporary loan that he has always had to pay back; while quaero presents his calm acceptance of poverty as courting a potential wife, but Poverty, while a virtuous lady, will not bring any financial advantage with her.

But it’s the image in the middle I’m concerned with here, et mea/ uirtute me inuoluo, “and I wrap myself in the virtue that is my personal possession” (mea carries a lot of weight here: the virtue is really his, what he got from Fortune merely borrowed). Virtue is transformed by this metaphor into a cloak that protects the poet against the inclement conditions once Fortune has departed—and even left there, it’s a wonderfully rich effect achieved with impressive economy. For me, too, the repetition mea … me and the way the vowel of me blends with the initial vowel of inuoluo give an impression of things tightly wrapped, but I am known to overread.

But let’s press inuoluo itself a bit harder. Who wraps themselves up in cloaks in Greco-Roman antiquity?

An identifying feature of a Cynic, an illustration of the extreme self-denial to which adherents of this philosophical tradition subjected themselves, was the simple kit, the sum of their possessions, that they carried around with them: a staff, a leather pouch, and a rough cloak known as a τρίβων/tribōn (Arrian, Epict. diss. 3.22.10). Antisthenes, often regarded in antiquity as the founder of the school, “was the first, according to Diocles, to wrap his cloak twice around himself (πρῶτος ἐδίπλωσε τὸν τρίβωνα) and be content with that one garment” (Diog. Laert. 6.13); according to others it was Diogenes, the most famous of the Cynics and a rival for the role of founder, who first doubled up his τρίβων (Diog. Laert. 6.22). Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, incidentally, is just the best text: Diogenes was called “the Dog”, Κύων; by the poet Cercidas, the οὐράνιος κύων, the heavenly dog Sirius (Diog. Laert. 77; Cercidas fr. 54 Livrea).* But Antisthenes was “the Absolute Dog”, ʽΑπλοκύων (Diog. Laert. 13).


Dogs aside, the key idea here is that the τρίβων, the rough-and-ready outer garment which was also all in the way of clothing that the Cynics allowed themselves, was a visible expression of their ascetic philosophical principles: Cynics regarded virtue as alone sufficient for a flourishing existence (eudaimonia), and exactly like Horace in this stanza scorned such superficial human comforts as fickle Fortune might bestow.

Our poet, wrapping himself tightly in the virtue that is all that remains to him, but also everything that he needs, assumes the character of a Cynic preacher, the last word in austere self-sufficiency. But what we have to remind ourselves of, and what poses me a problem in my very short introduction, is that if, as we read, we find ourselves thinking of bitingly cold weather, cloaks wrapped tight, and Cynic mendicants, it’s essentially with the single word inuoluo that Horace has conjured up all these associations.

And there are another 70,000 or so meticulously chosen Horatian words where that came from.

Think about it…

*J. L. López Cruces, “A heavenly son of Zeus (Diog. Laert. 6.76 = Cercidas, fr. 54 Livrea)”, CQ 68 (2018), 91-6.