The Complete Odes and Epodes

By Horace; David West | Go to book overview
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(believed to be an abbreviation of a Life by Suetonius)

Until his dismissal in 122 AD Suetonius was secretary to the Emperor Hadrian and had access to the papers of Augustus. The value of this short life is in the words of Augustus and Maecenas which it cites. These men were clearly on easy, affectionate, bantering terms with each other and with Horace. For instance, the beginning of the second paragraph shows that Augustus and Maecenas are patrons and benefactors, while Horace is client and recipient, but all three are friends, and Augustus can joke about their relationship. A parasite in Greek is one who eats at a great man's table and in Latin the great man is called a king, rex.

Some details have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The great mystery in Horace's life is his meteoric rise from being the son of a freedman in a remote town in Apulia to sitting at lectures with the wealthiest and most aristocratic young Romans at university in Athens, and then finding himself at the age of 23 in command of a Roman legion at the battle of Philippi. This is discussed on page x of the Introduction, where it is argued that the notion that Horace's father was a freedman (that is a slave who had been freed) is a calumny which Horace reproduced as part of a strategy of self-vindication. It is more likely that he had been a prisoner of war in the Social Wars of 90-89 BC. Soon afterwards he would have been pardoned, resumed his status as a Roman citizen, and prospered, with a town house, a farm ( Epistle II. ii. 50), and financial interests. Nor need we believe that Horace's father ever sold salt fish. Ancient biography thrived on lies about the parents of the great and Fraenkel ( Horace, 6-7) beautifully traces the origin of this one. Even then pornography was a canonical element in the biographer's trade. We do not need to believe in the bedroom of mirrors.

QUINTUS HORATIUS FLACCUS had a freedman father, as Horace himself records, who was an auctioneer's agent, and was believed to have been a seller of salt fish--someone once said to Horace in an argument, 'How often have I seen your father wiping his nose on his arm.' In the war which ended with the battle of Philippi, he was recruited by the general Marcus Brutus and served as a military tribune. After his side was defeated, he


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