Horace’s Satiric Style

Horace’s Satiric Style

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Horace’s satiric style is informal and conversational—so much so that he called his works not satūrae but sermōnēs, “conversations, chats.” There are often snippets of dialogue and quick changes of topic and tone. The vocabulary ranges widely and urbanely between high (epic, grand) and low (colloquial, humble, obscene). Horace is somewhat confrontational, frequently addressing and challenging the reader or another imaginary or named person, but never in a hostile or angry way. He is fond of quoting proverbial wisdom and recalling well-known stories. He invokes principles of philosophy, but is never dogmatic or hair-splitting. He uses some rhetorical techniques, but his imagined audience seems to be one of friends—people in the know, rather than the general public.

Here are some of the more noticeable stylistic features, with examples taken from the first two satires of Book 1. This does not include aspects of Latin metrics or Latin grammar and usage.[1]

Snippets of Dialogue (brusque questions and snappy interruptions) ‘nil fuerit mi’ inquit ‘cum uxoribus umquam alienis.’ / verum est cum mimis, est cum meretricibus “’I would never,’ he says ‘have anything to do with other men’s wives.’ But you do have to do with mime actresses, with courtesans.”1.2.57-58

Challenging questions: quid iuvat immensum te argenti pondus et auri / furtim defossa timidum deponere terra? “What pleasure does it give you to fearfully place a massive weight of silver and gold in secret under the excavated earth?” (1.1.41-2) quid inter / est in matrona, ancilla peccesne togata? “What’s the difference if you do wrong with a matrona or with a toga wearing slave-woman (prostitute)?” (1.2.62-3).

Direct address to the audience: hiscine versiculis speras tibi posse dolores / atque aestus curasque graves e pectore pelli? “Are you hoping that these little verses can banish the woes, passions, and grievous anxieties from your heart?” (1.2.109-110).

Generalizing direct address: num, tibi cum faucis urit sitis, aurea quaeris / pocula? “When thirst burns in your throat, you don’t look for a golden cup, do you?” (1.2.114-115)

Direct address to the satirized person: cum tu argento post omnia ponas “Since you put money before everything else” (1.1.86)

Lists: multae tibi tum officient res, / custodes, lectica, ciniflones, parasitae “Many things get in your way: chaperones, litter, sedan-chair, coiffeuses, entourage” (1.2.97-98).

Proper names: deprendi miserum est: Fabio vel iudice vincam. “Getting caught (in adultery) is awful. I could prove that in court that even if Fabius were the judge.” (1.2.134)

Fringe vocabulary: Ambubaiarum collegia, pharmacopolae, / mendici, mimae, balatrones, hoc genus omne “The guild of go-go girls, quacks, beggars, mime-actresses, buffoons, all those type of people.” (1.2.1–2).

Colloquial language: Fufidius vappae famam timet ac nebulonis. “Fufius is afraid of getting a reputation as a low-life spendthrift” (1.2.12).

Obscenity mixed with formality: ‘nolim laudarier’ inquit / ‘sic me’ mirator cunni Cupiennius albi. “’I should not like to be praised in this way,’ says Cupiennius, the connoisseur of aristocratic [coarse word for female genitalia]” (1.2.35–36).

Oxymoron/paradox: semper ego optarim pauperrimus esse bonorum, “when it comes to these riches, I hope I am always very poor” (1.1.79). transvolat in medio posita et fugientia captat, “he flies past what is freely available and chases that which flees” (1.2.108)

Wordplay: dum vitant stulti vitia, in contraria currunt. “The fools, while they avoid one fault, they run to the opposite (fault)” (1.2.24).

Metaphor: interdicta petes, vallo circumdata “you seek the forbidden, (a woman) hedged around by a palisaded rampart” (1.2.96). metiri possis oculo latus “you can get the measure of her flank with your eyes” (1.2.103). plenior ut siquos delectet copia iusto, / cum ripa simul avolsos ferat Aufidus acer. / at qui tantuli eget quanto est opus, is neque limo / turbatam haurit aquam neque vitam amittit in undis. “He who takes delight in a supply that is more than just, the swift river Aufidus carries him off along with the bank that has been ripped away. But he who needs only what is essential, he drinks water untainted by mud, and does not lose his life in the waves.” (1.1.57-60)

Well-known examples: ut quondam Marsaeus, amator Originis ille, / qui patrium mimae donat fundumque laremque “Like Marsaeus, the famous lover of Origo, who once made his ancestral farm and home a present to a mime actress.” 1.2.55-56.

Proverbial sayings: in silvam ligna feras “you would be taking wood to the forest” [i.e. doing something totally useless] (1.10.34).

Allusions to fables or plays: ita ut pater ille, Terenti / fabula quem miserum gnato vixisse fugato / inducit. “Like that well-known father in Terence’s play, who lived a wretched life after his son ran away.” (1.2.20–22)

Parataxis (“setting beside,” i.e. the omission of conjunctions): milia frumenti tua triverit area centum: / non tuus hoc capiet venter plus ac meus “Your threshing floor may grind down a hundred thousand bushels of grain a year. [But] Your belly holds no more than mine.” (1.1.45–46)


1. For details on those topics, see Emily Gowers, Horace: Satires Book I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 22–25 (“Style and Metre”), and J. C. Rolfe, Q. Horati Flacci Sermones et Epistulae (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1901), pp. xxvii–xxxviii (“The Language and Style of the Satires.”).

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