Academic journal article Akroterion

Celebrating the Past: Horace's Odes as Aide Memoire

Academic journal article Akroterion

Celebrating the Past: Horace's Odes as Aide Memoire

Article excerpt

In Travels with Herodotus Ryszard Kapuscinski writes:

   Herodotus admits that he was obsessed with memory, fearful on its
   behalf. He felt that memory is something defective, fragile,
   impermanent--illusory, even. That whatever it contains, whatever
   it is storing, can evaporate, simply vanish without a trace. His
   whole generation, everyone living on earth at that time, was
   possessed by that same fear. Without memory one cannot live, for
   it is what elevates man above beasts, determines the contours of
   the human soul; and yet it is at the same time so unreliable,
   elusive, treacherous. It is precisely what makes man so
   unsure of himself ... In the world of Herodotus, the only real
   repository of memory is the individual (2008:75-76).

In this discussion of memory, Kapuscinski does not ask what memory is. He simply assumes a very basic definition namely that memory's primary function is to preserve what has gone before.1 However, Kapuscinki's reflection on why an "unsuccessful process" such as memory is so fundamental, is more interesting. Memory provides a starting point. One cannot step into the same river twice, but at least the river of memory is there. Without memory no progress of any kind would be possible. Memory establishes what the past contained so that the present can move forward. This is the very basis for all human development. The fact is, as individuals and collectively, we cannot and do not have to start over all the time. Because it already contains the past ... even though a fragmented past ... memory provides us with a springboard into the future.

Taking the importance of memory as a given, I would like to consider briefly why Horace would engage with and celebrate the past so consistently. Subsequently I would like to consider more carefully how this celebration of the past functions as an aide-memoire for his audience.

One of the most pervasive of ancient topoi is the belief that immortality is dependent on memory, for if a person's deeds or works are not remembered such a person's existence is eventually wiped out as if it had never happened. Pindar's claim to fame is not only that he writes memorable poetry. (2) His poetry, because it is memorable, will grant immortality to whatever object or person he chooses to mention "for great deeds of valour / remain in deep darkness when they lack hymns" (Pindar Nemean 7.14). (3) Catullus can threaten permanent damnation in his poetry, because just like the gods, his poetry remembers (di meminerunt, meminit Fides, 30.11). (4) Augustus may list his achievements in the Res Gestae, but he needs a Virgil to remind the Roman people of their pre-history in poetry. Virgil's poetry ... because it will be remembered ... will also immortalise the new empire where Augustus Caesar, Divi genus is at its helm (Aeneid 6.792). (5)

As most ancients Horace sees being remembered as proof of immortality. He picks up on this essential aspect of poetry in much the same way as Pindar does. (6) In Odes 4.9 Horace points out that:

   many brave men lived before Agamemnon,
   but they [are] all bogged-down in never-ending night,
   un-mourned, unheard of ...

because they had no special poet, no Homer, to immortalise and proclaim their deeds. (7) Horace goes on to emphasize that there is no difference between a life of glory and one of insignificance when both are followed by an "unremembered" death--that is a death not remembered in literature. (8) Memory then--or to be remembered--is essential for immortality, and poetry in all its facets, is a fundamental aide for memory.

The first point Horace aims to establish in his Odes is the "unceasing memory" or the immortality of his work. He opens his book of Odes, his magnum opus, with a reminder to his audience that evergreen ivy--a symbol of immortality ... will link him as a poet to the immortals. He has no doubts about the quality of the work that will justify this immortality. …

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