Academic journal article Akroterion

Horace, the Liar Persona and the Poetry of Dissimulatio: The Case of Epistles 1

Academic journal article Akroterion

Horace, the Liar Persona and the Poetry of Dissimulatio: The Case of Epistles 1

Article excerpt


Book 1 of the Epistles consists of 20 poems in the guise of letters in which Horace professes a desire to abandon his public role to recover his spiritual, physical and moral health and, most importantly, his freedom. The Epistles were written after the publication of Sermones (1, 2) and Odes (1-3), most likely in 20 or 19 BC, by which time Horace had been amicus of Maecenas for some fifteen years and in possession of his famous Sabine farm for about ten. (1) Epistles 1 are often seen as related to Sermones in that they both use the same metre (dactylic hexameter) to present similar personal, social and philosophical concerns while differing in the way they handle the sensitive issue of the nature of Horace's relationship with his patron Maecenas. In Epistles 1, Horace expresses his yearning to restore himself to freedom, to loosen the ties of patronage that bind him to his patron, but in striking such a pose Horace demolishes the credibility of the self-portrayal in his earlier poetry, most notably in the Sermones. The 'Horace' of Sermones insisted that his relationship with his patrons was 'free' and 'true' amicitia, a close egalitarian friendship, based on sentiment and moral equality rather than on gifts and favours. (2)

On the other hand, in the opening lines of Epistle 1, Horace addresses Maecenas and refers to his clientage by utilising a metaphor drawn from the career of a slave, a gladiator (1.1-4) (3):

   Prima dicte mihi, summa dicende Camena,
   spectatum satis et donatum iam rude quaeris,
   Maecenas, iterum antiquo me includere ludo?
   non eadem est aetas, non mens.

   You of whom my earliest Muse has told, of whom my last shall tell,
   you Maecenas, seek to shut me up again in my old gladiatorial
   school, though well tested in the fray, and already presented with
   the wooden sword.

The gladiator: 'crude, loathsome, doomed, lost (importunus, obscaenus, damnatus, perditus), was throughout Roman tradition a man utterly debased by fortune, a slave, a man altogether without worth and dignity (dignitas), almost without humanity'. (4) By utilising such an image, Horace clearly casts his relationship with Maecenas in an entirely different mould from that found in Sermones. By claiming to have sufficiently compensated his master, having earned his 'wooden sword' (rude)--the sign of a job well done and the guarantor of freedom--Horace 'exposes' his relationship with Maecenas as one of the most despised, a relationship based on utilitas rather than on virtus. (5) Immediately below, in line 8, Horace reinforces the image of the gladiator with that of an overworked animal and compares himself to an old horse (senescentem ... equum, 8). In the lines that follow, the metaphor continues, albeit in somewhat modified form: Horace alludes to a cheated lover, a boy under the care of his mother, and a labourer (20-23). All of them are dependants, subject to others, and slavery still looms large. The cheated lover recalls the theme of the 'slavery to love' (servitium amoris) often encountered in the elegists of the Augustan period, (6) and several sources speak of the labourer's existence as slavish, in that the labourer is merely a tool in someone else's hands. (7)

Of course, the problems of gauging Horace's tone and the levels of irony in the Epistles are numerous and the text itself rarely provides reliable clues on which to base our decisions regarding which of Horace's personae to trust, if any, and when. Such decisions are usually based on preconceived notions of Horace and his position in society. For example, earlier generations of critics considered Horace's self-portrayal in Sermones as quite trustworthy and therefore as sufficient proof that the historical Horace maintained his freedom in the face of power. (8) Thus these critics were more likely to regard the 'admission' of Epistles as an ironic metaphor. Nowadays, scholars are more likely to question Sermones' persona's claims and assert that the Horace of Sermones is a product of the author's 'image management' program. …

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