Horace’s Satiric Style

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.”).

Favorite Commentaries: Jonathan Rockey

What is your favorite classical commentary?  What place did it have in your intellectual development? Recently I asked the members of the DCC editorial board to write for the blog about these questions. Here is the response of Jonathan Rockey, who teaches Latin at North Penn High School in Lansdale, PA.

head shot of Jonathan Rockey smiling, wearing a dress shirt and tie.

Jonathan Rockey

I’ve learned over the years not to assume that my students—even the dedicated ones—will greet a commentary with the same enthusiastic appreciation that I may have for it. In fact, the format of the commentary genre can be off-putting to students: it all looks so fragmentary, so technical; it feels at first like harder work to extract the “help” from the commentary than to just use a dictionary (and a pony) to trot out what you can, hoping for the best. In fact I find my students much better served—as with much in the profession—when they are shown (and not just told) how to benefit from a good commentary. So in my (junior) Latin Lyric poetry course, I begin with healthy doses of Catullus aided by Garrison and occasional support from Quinn. A few of the students will have already met Vergil, and hence R. D. Williams.

In fact, my first thought when asked about a favorite commentary was the R.D. Williams’ two-volume opus on the Aeneid, which was my guide through a one-on-one tutorial on Vergil in my first real Latin literature course in college. I was prepared to expatiate fondly on Williams’ clarity, sensitivity and restrained thoroughness. And what’s not to like about a classicist with the scope, depth, and hairdo of R.D. Williams? Alas James Morwood scooped me on that, so I turn instead to the commentary on Horace, Odes Book I by Margaret Hubbart and the late R.G.M. Nisbet, published by Oxford University Press in 1970.

By the time we get to Horace in the third quarter, my students have been trained in the art of balancing two books at a time; referring back and forth from main text to commentary; finding the bits and pieces of lines in the main text to be illuminated by the commentary; browsing the text and deciding what they need to know and what they could know better and what just catches their interest; balancing that all against whatever too short amount of time they have to give to it all in the first place. But with that initial use of more school-friendly commentaries under their belt they are then ready for a taste of Nisbet and Hubbard. The expectation is not really that the students will absorb all N. and H. have to offer. I don’t think I’ve ever accomplished that for myself, except for a very few, very often reread poems. It’s really more an exercise in giving the students the gift of being in the same room for a while with true scholarly greatness, linguistic mastery, and literary insight of the first magnitude. For this I especially like N. and H.’s treatment of the Cleopatra ode (I.37, nunc est bibendum). In what amounts to an article-length (14 pages to the poem’s 32 lines) disquisition on a poem celebrating the suicide of one of Rome’s foes, we are treated first to a six-line English précis of the poem followed by four pages of historical and literary background. Then we get to the line-by-line analysis and commentary proper, replete with parallel citations, Greek antecedents, and later echoes and imitations. Students who might have been intimidated with N. and H. as their first commentary experience instead find them informative, authoritative, inspiring even. The occasional scholar will even ask for more.

One other particular delight of N. and H. is their rare and essentially British talent for barbed wit, especially in the understatement department. Some examples:

On an emendation by Zielinski from deo to deae at 1.5.16: “deae has been rejected by editors with the not altogether reassuring exception of A.Y. Campbell.”

In the general introduction to l.8 (Lydia dic): “But these inconsistencies do not matter; a charming blend of the Greek and the Roman, the fanciful and the actual, is a characteristic feature of Horace’s Odes. Hellenistic sentimentality and Augustan militarism might seem not to mix, but in this poem Horace does not take either of them too seriously.”

On divine kingship themes in 1.12 (Quem virum): “The description of Augustus as Jupiter’s vicegerent jars with the republican tone of the previous section, where the Princeps is simply the greatest Roman. This is not so restrained a poem as is sometimes imagined; for a ruler to claim that he is God’s vicegerent is not really a sign of modesty.”

Or in their ability to portray an entire literary tradition with a few quick strokes, as on 1.13 (Cum tu, Ludia, Telephi): “For much of its length the poem moves in the epigrammatists’ world of furtive tears and smouldering marrows, bruised shoulders and nectareous kisses. Telephus indeed belongs completely to this milieu, to which he owes his name, his pink and white complexion, and his violent habits.”

Nor are N. and H. mere Horatiolaters: when a poem is outstandingly good, they will say so; but neither do they spare critical assessment just because the subject is Horace. Consider this on 1.26 (Musis amicus): “Yet it remains true that Horace is not celebrating his friend so much as his own power to celebrate his friend … As a result the ode lacks content, in spite of all its elegance. Poetry is not the best subject for poetry, and Horace’s greatest odes are not written simply about themselves.”

And historical insight, as on 1.37 (Nunc est bibendum): “The tale of Cleopatra’s barbaric death was a godsend to Octavian’s propaganda; it provided the perfect confirmation of his own assessment … The story was almost too good to be true. Perhaps it was not true.”

And on Cleopatra’s seemingly magical charm (likewise 1.37): “Cleopatra was 39 when she died, and an ugly and vindictive woman; but she did not captivate two great men simply by strategic resources and political acumen.”