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. 6.77; Cercidas fr. 54 Livrea).* But Antisthenes was “the Absolute Dog”, ʽΑπλοκύων (Diog. Laert. 6.13).
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.
*J. L. López Cruces, “A heavenly son of Zeus (Diog. Laert. 6.76 = Cercidas, fr. 54 Livrea)”, CQ 68 (2018), 91-6.