Monday, October 30, 2017

Terence - The Girl From Andros



Whatever a man sets his mind upon, Charinus, the firmness of his intentions will shape other people's opinion of him.

A Brief Sketch of What We Know About Terence: 

There is much lore when it comes to fabricating the life of Terence. His life is shrouded in mystery. Even the little we do know is all somewhat spurious and many have wondered if he even really existed. Suetonius begins his short biographical sketch saying that Publius Terentius Afer was born in Carthage and was the slave of the Roman senator Terentius Lucanus. (Lucanus has no other existence outside of this obscure reference so that is not super helpful.) Allegedly Lucanus was so blown away by the natural charm and good looks of his slave that he not only gave him a liberal education but also his freedom. 

This seems pretty straightforward, but then Suetonius goes on to say: 

“Some people believe he was a prisoner of war, but Fenstella shows this was quite impossible, since the dates of his birth and death both fall between the end of the Second Punic War and the beginning of the Third. Again, had he been captured by the Numidians or Gaetulians, he could not have come into the possession of a Roman master, as there was no trade between Italy and Africa until after the destruction of Carthage. He lived on intimate terms with many of the nobility, in particular with Scipio Africanus (minor) and Gais Laelius, who it is thought, were even attracted by his personal beauty; but Fenstella disproves this too, arguing that Terence was older than either of them.” 

I would think that the biggest impediment to this bromance wouldn’t have been disparate ages but that fact that Scipio’s family had produced some of the most brilliant men of war that had made it their personal project to destroy Carthage. Scipio Africanus Major (Scipio’s adopted grandfather/uncle) was the legendary commander who had won the decisive battle of the Second Punic War against Hannibal.  In 146 BC, almost 20 years after the death/disappearance of Terence, Scipio’s father, Lucius Aemilius Paulus Macedonicus would lead the Romans to victory in the last battle of the Third Macedonian War.

Recap: a Carthaginian slave becomes besties with Scipio after earning his freedom by his good looks and legendary brilliance. 

What we do know is that Scipio was a “cultivated patron and admirer of liberal studies and of every form of learning.”1  According to Gellius, Scipio had the purest diction of any man of his time. 2 We know that Scipio was a writer and philhellene and had a literary band called the Scipionic Circle that included Lucius Furius Philus, and Gaius Lucilius (the muse/man crush/nemesis of Horace)

Terence is credited with writing 6 plays, one of which, The Eunuch was so successful that according to Suetonius it was performed twice in one day and won 8,000 sesterces, which was the highest fee ever won by a comedy. Four of Terence's plays are rough translations of a combination of plays by the Greek playwright Menander, two are based on the works of Apollodorus of Carystus. But rather than word for word translation into Latin, Terence is accused of contaminating the translations by mixing and blending pieces from a sampling of different works. He was also accused of plagiarizing his Latin contemporaries, which in the prologue to The Eunuch he emphatically denies. 

Terence offers us a glimpse of who he was in each prologue of his six plays. We learn in the prologue of his first play The Girl from Andros that he was already being attacked and slandered by an “old playwright” and defends himself by saying that while yes he has used elements from both Menander’s The Girl from Andros and The Girl from Perinthos, he has taken the best and most suitable pieces and transformed them into a better and more cohesive whole. 

Recap: So a Carthaginian learns Latin and then proceeds to translate Greek into “the most lucid and elegantly simple Latin which had yet been written.” 3

After his sixth play was written, and at the height of a burgeoning career, Terence allegedly goes in search of more Greek plays to translate/plagiarize and is never seen or heard from again. 

It’s hard not to join the conspiracy theorist on this one and just assume Scipio and his band of merry men were writing plays and submitting them under the nom de plume of Terence. At the end of the day, who Terence was is a debate of little value; what’s a more interesting and profitable discussion is how Terence has influenced European drama. 


The Girls from Andros:

As the first line is spoken in Terence’s first play, The Girl from Andros, it would have been evident that the Romans were witnessing something new. Terence had scrapped the formal prologue, a staple up until this point, and instead offers a dialogue between Simo, a wealthy Athenian and his freedman Sosia to get the viewing audience up to speed. 

Simo has discovered something very distressing about his son Pamphilus: he is in love with the neighborhood courtesan’s sister Glycerium. At first Simo thought Pamphilus was simply sewing his wild oats with the courtesan Chrysis, nothing harmless, kids will be kids. But then Chrysis unexpectedly died and at her funeral Pamphilus openly wept, clasped in the arms of Glycerium. There was something suspicious about that “clasp”…a little too intimate…and then a prickling sensation of an idea began to plant itself into the soil of Simo’s brain: his son is in love. 

The day before, the next door neighbor Chremes, having noticed the previous good character of Pamphilus, had offered his daughter (with a substantial dowry) for marriage. But now, after the emotional outburst of the funeral some rumors have been spreading that Pamphilus not only loves this woman but regards this impoverished foreigner as his wife! While it was no longer illegal for patricians and plebeians to marry, (lex Canuleia had put an end to that discriminatory practice in 445 BC) marriage was still the exclusive right of the paterfamilias. So for Pamphilus to disregard his father’s authority in such a blatant manner and with a foreigner no less, was an insult to Simo in the most cutting and distressing way.

Simo comes up with a plan that will hopefully force Pamphilus to lay all his cards on the table and admit that he has fallen in love and considers himself married. So he decides to pretend that the wedding to Chreme’s daughter is happening as planned and today is the lucky day, Pamphilus will then admit to his father all his wrong doings and beg his forgiveness. 

Simo calls Davos, the slave of Pamphilus and tells him he needs to prepare his son for a marriage that will take place that evening and warns that if he catches Davos up to any of his old tricks he will be beaten senseless. 

Davos assures his master that’s he’s no Oedipus, he’s no good at riddles and will not act the part of the standard trope of the trickster slave. 

Terence again has deviated from the expected. He has exchanged the controlling clever slave of Plautus, or the bumbling dimwitted one dimensional stock character for a multidimensional human with personhood, devoted to realism and method acting. Not only this, but in Plautine drama the action would have hinged on the slave, either cleverly saving his incompetent master  or maliciously making a mess of his plans. Davos, rather than the generator of all the complexity, is merely caught up in the maelstrom of miscommunication; trying to survive as best he can alongside everyone else.

This is significant. In his Politics Aristotle describes slaves as being subhuman. At birth they are destined to either rule or be ruled and “if this is true of the body, how much more just that a similar distinction should exist in the soul?” [Book 1: 1254 a5] By giving Davos the same voice, the same latin as his superiors instead of a more urban vernacular, Terence challenges this Aristotelian conception of personhood. Slave and master become almost arbitrary constructs with everyone trying to find their place and a way to survive. 

After his brief dialogue with Simo, Davos turns to the audience with a monologue that brings everyone further up to speed: 

“This girl from Andros, whether she’s wife or mistress, is having a baby and Pamphilus is the father. You ought to hear their crazy plans - they act more like lunatics than lovers. They’re determined to acknowledge the child, boy or girl, and now they’re concocting a silly story that the mother is Athenian born. There was a man once, they say, a merchant, who was shipwrecked off Andros and lost his life. His child was washed ashore and Chrysis’ father took the poor little orphan in…”

While Davos thinks the narrative lacks credibility and realism, he advises Pamphilus to calmly agree to everything right away, hoping this will force his father to admit there is no wedding and that the whole thing was a farce, or at least be so put off guard that it buys them time to come up with a better scenario.

Pamphilus goes along with the plan and when his father approaches him and says “Today, as I told you before, is the day on which I wish you to take a wife” Pamphilus sweetly responds: “Neither in this nor in anything else will you meet with an opposition from me, father.” 

Pamphilus lays it on a bit thick, but momentarily his plan seems to work. His father is shocked by the quiet acquiescence of his son…and then Davos over sells the ruse by saying:

“It was an affair of the youth, sir, which he only carried on as long as he could, and what’s more, he kept it dark and took care his reputation shouldn’t suffer, as a decent man should. Now it’s time he took a wife, and it’s a wife he’s got in mind.”

Before Simo can come up with the appropriate reaction, midwives start running back and forth grabbing supplies for Glycerium who is about to give birth next-door and Simo, pathologically egocentric, assumes this is for his benefit. The women have obviously come up with a plan to deceive him and frighten off Chremes. As Glycerium screams out in the throes of labor, Simo stands in front of her house looking unimpressed. 

Simo [whistling in surprise]: As quick as that? It’s absurd. She must have decided to speed up when she heard I was outside the door. There’s something wrong with your timing Davos. 

Davos decides to admit this has all been a part of the plan. (Again, the action is being generated outside of his control and without his consent.) Davos agrees that the birth was just a device concocted by the women to scare off Chremes, but he’s seen right through it as usual, now there is nothing standing in the way of the marriage. Davos, as usual, oversells the ruse and instead of halting things in their place convinces Simo he’s seen through the ruse and there is nothing stopping him from marrying off his son. Simo convinced, pleads with Chremes, arguing that his son is still an upright young man that has been entrapped by an evil vixen, really they are both obligated to marry their children as a form of public service. 

Chremes agrees! The wedding is back on, now almost entirely due to the poorly calculated enterprises of Davos. 

Davos: And that’s the end of me. Nothing now to stop me from going straight from here to the mill - no chance of begging for mercy. I’ve messed up everything, deceived my master, pushed his son into marriage, fixed up a wedding for today - which the old man never expected nor Pamphilus wanted. Clever aren’t I? If I’d kept quiet there’d have been none of this trouble. Now here he is. I’m done for. I wish I’d something to fall on [with a gesture of stabbing himself as Pamphilus bursts out of Simo’s house]. 

Davos, for all his attempts to craft the least damaging plan, has instead done the opposite and his master is apoplectic. When Pamphilus asks Davos what he should do to him as punishment for destroying his hopes and dreams Davos says he should probably be crucified, but give him a second to figure one last little detail out.

Out of Menander’s 108 plays, only one of them has survived in it’s entirety. Terence says in his prologue that he is using Menander’s Andria and Perinthos as a jumping off place but we have almost nothing left of the Andria except what Donatus can tell us and only a few lines from the Perinthos.

Menander’s version is much more intense. When the slave Daos has been unable to make everything go according to plan his master, Laches, calls for burning faggots:

Laches: Now, Daos give us a demonstration 
Of your knavish tricks; think up a scheme 
To wiggle out of this. 

Daos ends up offering no scheme and only fouling himself as the torches of fire are presumably heaped around him. This is where the fragment ends so we don’t know what happens next, but the interaction is far darker than Terence writes. 

Fortunately for Davos he is only tied hands to feet for a short time as scheme after scheme seems to fail. 

A further level of complexity, is that Pamphilus isn’t the only patrician expecting Davos to help out his matrimonial affairs. Every time there is a lull, Charinus, a friend of Pamphilus skulks onto the set and tries to get his foot into the door of the fake wedding. Charinus actually wants to marry Chreme’s daughter, and has been in love with her secretly this whole time. So each time the plot gets closer and closer to a marriage between the daughter and Pamphilus, Charinus rushes onto the set and provides a histrionic counterpart to Pamphilus’ measured resolve. 

And here we come to the last contribution that Terence brings to Roman comedy that will influence European drama in a profound way: the double plot.  The double plot structure allowed a mirroring plot line to comment or reinterpret events and characters. According to Betty Radice (1976), the double plot enabled Terence to “enlarge on his major interest, the effect of plot on character, and the same contrasted reactions of different types of character to the same situation. He could then draw carefully diversified portraits of closely connected persons.” (Shakespeare would glean many lessons from Terence and would include double plots in both Hamlet and King Lear.)

While Pamphilus is in love and has pursued Glycerium, considering himself married without approval from his father, Charinus represents the appropriate way of wooing a girl in the Roman Republic. He says nothing to the girl and hopes to persuade her father at some point that he is a suitable match. Mostly this involves him swooning a lot and being one second away from a nervous breakdown, as he watches his friend get betrothed unwillingly to the girl he secretly desires to marry. 

At the end, a visitor from Andros shows up looking for Glycerium. He is the cousin of Chrysis (the courtesan) and tells everyone that Glycerium is actually not the sister of Chrysis, but a child refugee that was rescued after a shipwreck…and as luck would have it, she’s the long lost daughter of Chremes! Chremes immediately settles on her a dowry of sixty thousand drachmas, the inheritance of a firstborn daughter, and allows her to marry Pamphilus. Charinus asks Pamphilus if he will remember him also in his moment of happiness and Pamphilus pats his friend on the back and they walk into the house with an over the shoulder farewell to the audience:

“You needn’t wait for them to come out again; the other betrothal and any other business will take place in there. Now give us your applause.”

The alternative ending has Charinus racing around the stage in one last histrionic eruption. All is lost! All is over! His life, his love! Davos tells him to hush, and to wait a second and then brings Chremes over for the marriage discussion appropriate to the paterfamilias. 

Chremes tells Charinus essentially that since marriage is about citizenship and ties to the most important family, he wanted his daughter to be married into Simo’s family. But now, since he has found himself another daughter, there’s no reason why this one can’t be married to a less advantageous match, so he gives his blessing and offers his daughter for a dowry of thirty-six thousand drachmas. 

Everyone wins, both the schemers and the law abiders. And what matters in the end isn’t the actions you take or don’t take but the character of one’s soul. To Terence, we are all humans deserving of dignity, thrown together into the chaos of fate, all exhibiting moments of sanity and common sense mixed in with the propensity for cruelty and unkindness. Terence breathes dimension into his characters, moving away from the tropes and pantomimes to a world of depth and complexity, that values human contribution no matter how small or insignificant. 


2. Delphi Complete Works of Aulus Gullies, ‘The Attic Nights’
3. Terence, The Comedies, trans. Betty Radice, Penguin Classics, 1976.

A Companion to Terence

Monday, September 18, 2017

Horace & Ashbery: From Rome to Brindisi, with Stops

“From Rome to Brindisi, with Stops” is a perfect example of why reading Horace and gleaning any sense of meaning or intention is virtually impossible. There is such a complexity of interwoven themes; references to literary tropes and inside jokes, that I’ve spent more time reading this five page satire than I have reading some six hundred page books. My research has led me to podcasts on the fall of the Roman Republic, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives for a closer examination of Brutus, and Machiavelli’s Prince. 

A couple of weeks ago the poet John Ashbery passed away, I decided to take a break from Horace and read through “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, which was published in 1975 and won Ashbery a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

And here, in his title poem, written two-thousand years after Horace penned the first book of his satires, I saw a glimmer of recognition. Ashbery is wrestling with finding meaning in a piece of art, a self-portrait by Parmigianino. But meaning is so complex. Narrative is misleading and ultimately Ashbery explores the extent to which understanding the intent of another is illusory. 

In an attempt to describe the self portrait of Parmigianino, Ashbery writes what is essentially a self-portrait about the complexity of communication and authenticity in a world of invading semiotics. 

And just as there are no words for the surface, that is, 
No words to say what it really is, that it is not,
Superficial but a visible core, then there is 
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. Experience. 
You will stay on, restive, serene in 
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything. 
(92-99)

Parmigianino paints his self-portrait from a mirror fixed to a globe. The image is distorted, his hand is so large it’s almost a shield wall. There are virtually no details we can glean from the background; muted colors, the corner of a window sill. One eye is almost glazed over, as if myopic. His expression is serene? Ambivalent? Or is that one eye, with it’s direct gaze, defying the observer to see beyond all that is distorted and look beyond the context into his soul? 


And what would Parmigianino have us see? What background could he have painted that would have clued us in to the Florentine climate of 1524? How do you describe the rumblings of a discontented populace suffering the collapse of the Florentine Republic? Or the increasing suspicion of the Medici hegemony? By 1524 the Medici’s were the most powerful family in Florence and with Pope Leo X (a Medici scion) the family had solidified rule in both church and state. 

Florentine artists respond to this hostile environment with visual satire. They distort perspectives and exaggerate features in unnatural ways. Their movement becomes known as Mannerism. 

So, “there are no words for the surface, that is/ no words to say what it really is.” (92) Parmigianino takes his place along his compatriots of the art world and they distort the surface as a clarion call for closer investigation into the complexity of the world around them. The unnaturalness of their work reflects the unnaturalness of oppression in a political climate that is increasingly tyrannical. 

“Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning/ But holds something of both in pure/ Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.” (96-99) Their gaze looks on, disillusioned with man’s propensity to relive history without learning from her lessons. 

Parmigianino hides behind a distorted hand and offers, with his one directly gazing eye, a dialogue about authenticity in an atmosphere of repression. Horace hides behind his writing and we are left guessing at the intention of his distortions. 

Fifteen hundred years prior, when Horace was a young, jaded 30 year old; having lived through the collapse of the Roman Republic; having thrown his lot in with the wrong faction and narrowly escaped; having somehow procured a good administrative post in the treasury department of Octavian; having been driven to writing by his poverty: Horace publishes his first book of Satires and they are as impenetrable and inaccessible as the work of the Mannerist. There are no words to say what it really is. 

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. 
(1-4)

The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface 
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases 
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept 
In suspension, unable to advance much farther 
Than you look as it intercepts the picture.
(24-31)

This could be a perfect description of Horace, forever trapped behind an obfuscating hand that renders the contextual meaning indecipherable. All we have are his eyes, his witness to the history taking place around him, but like Francesco Parmigianino, rendering cloudy and myopic eyes, what Horace chooses to write is filled with the complexity and contradiction of satire. 

Satire V, “From Rome to Brindisi with Stops,” is presented as a travelogue where the journeymen are forever waylaid on their circuitous route to nowhere in particular, and that is abruptly ended when Horace runs out of paper. 

So many things are happening at once. Perhaps the most obvious is the thinly veiled chronology of the Odyssey. “The first lines parody Odysseus’ opening words to the Phaeacians, and the journey unfolds in the shadow of this original traveller: a lucky escape, a siege, a Cyclops pitted against a puny stranger, a fire, Diomedes, the city of the Laestrygonians (Formiae), epic periphrases for night, invocation of a muse, and hints of a final nostos. But a deceitful girl replaces faithful Penelope, a kitchen fire the fires of Troy, Formiae now belongs to Matura’s family, and siege is laid to H.’s own stomach after a bought of diarrhea.” 1

Rather than an illustrious hero, we have Horace. His journey makes a counterpoint to the heroic at every point. He is not the protagonist of this epic but merely a tired journeyman. He needs a patron to survive the hostile climate of Octavian and has found one in Maecenas, but as such risks becoming a censored captive,  taking his place in the entourage of the most powerful Emperor in the known world. He’s treated humanely, but kept in suspension: 

That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept 
In suspension, unable to advance much farther 
(29-30)

The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The siting of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind, 
longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move 
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.
(34-39) 

Maybe I’m reading into Horace an atmosphere of oppression and dissatisfaction that isn’t there…after all in three years Maecenas would give Horace a Sabine Farm and he would be free from the stress of poverty for the rest of his life. He would have recognition and support of an influential patron and the ability to hide in the country and devote himself to studious solitude. Sounds pretty good. 

But he left his studies in Athens and threw his lot into the campaign of Brutus. And according to Plutarch, Brutus was a mensch. The full package; ideals, virtue, heroism, the love of the populace, an adoring wife. I have a hard time believing that after the battle of Philippi, when Horace abandoned the republicans as a lost cause and returned “home” to an estate that had been confiscated by the victorious Caesarians, that it was as easy to walk away from his ideals. 

How many people came and stayed a certain time, 
Uttered light or dark speech that became a part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you. Those voices in the dusk
Have told you all and still the tale goes on 
In the form of memories deposited in irregular 
Clumps of crystals. Whose curved hand controls,
Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts
That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds
Like the last stubborn leaves ripped
From wet branches? I see in this only the chaos
Of your round mirror which organizes everything
Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty, 
Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
(108-123)

One of the complexities of reading Horace is that there are no outside sources that can give us a glimpse into his life. He is an amalgam of his context, embodying the “light or dark” speech of those around him. He espouses Epicureanism, but is that part of his satirical persona?  He only gives us shards of a broken mirror, distributed throughout his writings and when we have reassembled the mirror we’re not sure he’s been a reliable narrator. There are contradictions between the little he says about himself and the little historical facts we know. For example, how could the now impoverished son of a freeman procure a “good administrative post in the treasury department”? 

All we have are his words, and his words are complex and misleading, but simultaneously saturated with inferences that leave a breadcrumb trail for the diligent reader. For example, his verbs throughout Satire V are slow and dense: lazy, worming, crawling. He spends more time discussing preparations to leave than the actual travel. While Caesar has quickly and decisively made war on the known world and has solidified for the next five hundred years the supremacy of Rome, his scribe drags his feet, taking note of everything except missions of state. 

Horace refuses to acknowledge the campaign of his patron, our best guess is that Octavian was making his way to Tarentum for the signing of a treaty with Anthony and Lepidus in 37 BC, which would cede control of the western world to Octavian.  Despite this omission his language drips with militaristic references, he declares “war” on his stomach, and watches the heavens prepare a siege on the day.

Now the night was preparing to spread 
Her darkness on earth, to station her stars in the heavens.
[SI. V. 9]

Whatever Horace’s intention was, it was not to talk about Octavian. Perhaps this satire is less about describing an actual journey and more of a commentary about travelogues, and the limitations of satire.

Never take a night boat, reader. You spend the first hour
Paying fares and hitching up the mule. Then fearless mosquitos 
And resonant swamp frogs keep sleep safely at bay. 
A sailor and passenger, soused with cheap wine, compete
In songs to their absent girl friends. The mule driver finally 
Drops off to sleep: the lazy drive lets the mule browse, 
Fasten the rope to a rock, stretches out and snores. 
Dawn was already at hand before we observed 
That the boat hadn’t budged an inch. 
[SI. V. 13-19]

At this point, all the travelers are so frustrated and burnt out by not actually traveling that a fellow passenger jumps out of the boat, grabs a switch from a nearby willow and starts beating the mule and the driver “Drumming their domes and their bones” [SI. V. 20] Is this passenger’s inability to wait patiently, and his outburst of hot headed frustration a reference to anti-epicureanism? The beating also has a thinly veiled sexual component. Some translators interpret “loins” for bones, and this is a sharp contrast to the action the drunken sailor and passenger are singing about in the proceeding lines.

Even so, it was ten when we finally got through the canal 
And washed our faces and hands in your sacred spring,
Feronia, goddess of groves.
[SI. V. 23-24]

They proceed with their journey and wash themselves in the sacred spring of Feronia, the Italian Juno, patron goddess of freedmen and a shadowy reference to the enslaved. Next they “worm” their way to the limestone cliffs of Anxur, where they would have been met with the formidable temple of Jupiter, the god of War. But Jupiter is not mentioned. Horace has given precedence to the goddess of the enslaved. Instead the god of war that is mentioned is only obliquely referenced, for this is the rendezvous point where he meets up with Maecenas and Nerva on a “mission of state”.

Here was the rendezvous 
With noble Maecenas and Nerva, on a mission of state,
Men deft at settling the quarrels of sensitive allies.
[S1. 5.26-28]

At this moment Horace chooses to cover his eyes with black salve. Emily Gowers, in her incredible annotated study of book one of the satires says: “Horace ignores his patron’s arrival and concentrates on smearing black ointment onto his sore eyes (30-1): ‘History’s witness has sealed his eyes shut.’” 2

It seems like the most honest bread crumb trail is the one left by omission. The shapes in the background left unpainted, the illustrious campaigns left un-described. 

Next they make their way to Formiae, in the Odyssey, this is where the cannibalistic giants, the Laestrygones dwell, and where Odysseus suffers his greatest disaster and loses a horrific amount of casualties. Tens of thousands of flesh eating giants destroy eleven of his ships, and it is here that Odysseus’ prudence as a leader is questioned. 

But rather than disaster, Horace meets up with his friends Vergil, Plotius and Varius:

These men are surely the finest the world has to offer, 
And no one is more indebted to them than am I. 
[S1. 5.41]

We know that Horace was introduced into the privileged circle of Maecenas by Varius and Vergil. But is the world in which he finds himself his metaphorical Formiae? He was a republican that now finds himself in the courts of Octavian, the future Caesar Augustus. Beneath the veneer of a carefree joyride has he found himself in the land of ten thousand flesh eating giants, caught in a kafkaesque struggle to get to the next backwater village, with bad food, undrinkable water and frustrated dreams?

The narrative is interspersed with Epicurean non sequiturs; slogans on friendship and patience, that almost seem like propaganda. The adoration for his friends seems like a distorted hand in the foreground, and leaves the suspicion that there is context somewhere, waiting imperceptibly in the background that I’m missing. 

Our cyclops battle is between a slave and a Oscan suffering from venereal scars across his forehead. The slave, Sarmentus, tell the Oscan, Messius, that he could play the part of the cyclops without additional accouterments, and Messius replies by referencing the cyclops:

“You’re a white-collar worker, 
Of course, but your owner has property rights, you know. 
And why run away in the first place? A thin little thing
Like you could live nicely on one pound of flour.”
[S1. 5.66-69]

One pound of flour was the daily minimum for imprisoned debtors. Messius makes fun of both the social status of a slave and his poverty and indebtedness to his master, while ultimately casting the slave in the role of Odysseus. Horace’s father was a freedman, his paternity is far from glorious and his writing is the one thing that keeps him from his own bag of flour. 

The satire ends with this indecipherable little gem: 

They want you to think that the incense flares on the alters
Without any flame. Let Apella the Jew believe it- 
I won’t. I’ve been taught that the gods live a carefree life;
That is nature produces a miracle, it is not the gods
In their anger who send it on down from high heaven.

Marked the long journey’s end, and at this point I ran out of paper.
[S1. 5.99-104}

Whatever the reason Horace has made a preemptive escape and allowed the reader to suffer for one last time the frustrations of unfulfilled expectations. As he recites his Epicurean credo, the satire has followed the trajectory of his maturation. He has pupated from a hopeful, naive, and sexually gullible young man to a skeptic. He exists in a world filled with cyclops and “eunuch horns”, where the spoils belong to the rich and powerful, and the god of war controls the destiny and fate of the masses. He offers science or nature as a rejection to the gods, but the science he offers is rudimentary, and all that is left is chaos. 

And this brings us back to Ashbery:

I see in this only the chaos
Of your round mirror which organizes everything
Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty, 
Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
(120-123)

The only thing that we can with certainty take from Satire V is chaos. A five-hundred year old republic has collapsed, and as the minutia of everyday life continues, the future is opaque.




1.   Gowers, E. 2012. Horace Satires: Book 1. Cambridge University Press. pp.184
2.   Ibid. pp.187 (Oliensis, E. 1998. Horace and the rhetoric of authority. Cambridge)

Machiavelli's Virtue
Homer on the Gods and Human Virtue
Interpreting InterpretationTextual Hermeneutics as an Ascetic Discipline

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Satires of Horace: Part 1

In Smith Palmer Bovie’s translation of the Satires and Epistles of Horace there is this wonderful gem in the introduction: 

“Horace’s first satire dwells on the folly of excess, on the spectacle, played over day after day, of men carried beyond themselves by the acquisition instinct. It leads into the main doctrine with some crisp words on the “Concept of Interchangeability” (as Thomas Mann ironically labels it in his comic novel on a similar theme, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man). How is it, Horace asks Maecenas, that no one can see his way through the delusion but keeps hankering to be otherwise? Because, he explains, everyone who illustrates this delusion passes beyond the point of no return in the use of his moral energies and beyond the boundary lines of his material needs. Men can drive themselves, or be driven, beyond their limits and Horace makes the point with his cases of inconsistency and greed.” (1)

Fifteen pages into Horace’s satires, I put the book down and went and found The Confessions of Thomas Krull, Confidence Man, welcoming any delay in the actual reading of Horace, which seemed like an insurmountable task. 

Reading Thomas Mann may or may not have helped. Then I found the Cambridge Greek and Latin Companion to the First Book of Satires edited by Emily Gowers and I found this:

“Christopher Wieland (1804: 14) once wrote that reading Horace’s satires was like going for a walk with him: always stopping for little detours and arriving exactly where you want to be or else right back where you started. My own extended stroll has been as zigzagging and stop-start as any Horatian ramble, spanning two continents, three departments and fifteen years, while the card index gave way to the memory stick and the son who was an infant when the books as commissioned reached adulthood. I find it as hard to know where Horace is going now as when I first encountered him (which is nothing but a compliment.)” (2)

I find the above to be extremely comforting. If Emily Gowers can devote fifteen years of her life to the study and still find him bewildering, I think it’s reasonable to set the bar very low for myself. So with that disclaimer in place let’s proceed. 

Like Horace, Felix Krull was nothing short of loquacious. His words tumbled out of him, tripping over themselves to escape the recesses of his mind. When he learns he will be forced to conscript into military service he stops at a bookshop and picks up a book about nervous disorders; slowly and carefully constructing his escape. 

The next chapter begins and Felix is a different character. As he waits in line for his physical exam at the hospital he has calculated observations about his peers. When his time finally comes to stand before the panel of health commissioners it is his cue to begin. The curtains seem to raise and he steps into the circle of light, Felix playing the part of a young man with a nervous disorder and stress induced epileptic seizures. He is aching to join the military as a chance to explore the world, learn better posture and hopefully have a curative effect on the weakness of his mind. For effect he throws in a seizure and a smattering of situational dementia. 

His plan is flawless. He is met with looks of shock and disgust and shooed out the door into a life of freedom and irresponsibility. 

Reading Horace is like being on the board of health commissioners, trying to determine whether or not the recruit in front of us is insane or brilliant without the backstory. He is chatty and familiar but to the point of mania. In Satire I:1 although he is talking to Maecenas, not once does he pause long enough for a response. It is not a discussion but rather a monologue on the benefits of Epicurean moderation. Or at least that’s what it seems at first glance. 

Horace provides anecdotes of miserable men driven to madness because of their unfettered desire. He argues that through careful study and moderation one can learn to train oneself to desire only those things that are necessary. The result of this training would be a life of ‘pure joy of being’ having fully comprehended how pleasurable it is just to exist. (3)

 As a study in contrast, in Satire II:5 he offers Ulysses reimagined as an avaricious miser:

Ulysses: Tell me one thing more, Tiresias, in addition to all you’ve told me about: what tricks and what means should I use to recoup my losses? Why laugh? 

Tiresias: Isn’t it enough for the man of many wiles to be borne back safe to Ithaca and see his house and his home and his household gods? 

Ulysses: Oh, you, who have never lied to a soul, don’t you see me returning home nude as a number, resourceless, as you foretold? And at home, my cellar and herd raided and stripped by the suitors? Upper-class birth and good character are worth even less than seaweed if there’s no real money to draw on. 

Tiresias ponders what his friend should do and comes up with a solution: why not befriend an old man without an heir? The older and sicker the better- then firmly established as the old man’s friend and benefactor, Ulysses will be the sole proprietor? Granted, he may have to go through this process a few times before he is the proud owner of substantial wealth, and he may have to fend off the occasional relative, but it’s essentially a foolproof scheme. 

Tiresias: …But what prevails first and foremost is to storm the fortress itself Will the poor fool insist on writing bad verse? Praise them! Will he go in for women? Don’t let him even have to ask you: hand over your wife, give Penelope to lover number one. Be obliging! 

Rather than shock and horror at the mere suggestion of offering the classic example of heroine fidelity, Ulysses ponders this. He wonders if he could really convince her to be led astray after all she put up with at the hands of the suitors. Tiresias is not dissuaded. Sure she was virtuous, but once she “tastes the gain that is to be made from an oldster” in partnership with Ulysses, she’ll be “no more kept from it than a dog can be frightened away from a piece of skin that has pieces of fat still on it.”

Horace doesn’t just praise the benefits of moderation though, rather he offers a philosophical medley from all different perspectives. It’s not Epicureanism vs Stoicism but rather ‘all for one and one for all’.

I came across a description of Horace as the Jerry Seinfeld of the classic satirists. I think that helps. To use the “going for a walk” analogy once more: Reading Horace is like going for a walk when all of a sudden you are accosted by a man wearing a sweater vest, who immediately begins a discussion with you mid sentence. He is a self-deprecating, everyman’s man who offers tidbits of wisdom, unprompted and seemingly without end. The first book of Satires begins with the following: 

“Why is it, Maecenas, that no one is ever quite happy
With the life he has chosen or stumbled upon, and never
Abides by it happily, but loves to praise instead 
All who do something else?”

[Satire I: 1-4]

But beneath the everyman’s sweater vest is a different story. Horace is strolling alongside Maecenas, the millionaire patron of the arts and the ad hoc deputy of Octavian. It is 35 B.C. and just ten years ago life was very different for our hero. Horace had thrown his lot in with the wrong faction and had backed the conspiracy of Brutus. Horace, along with many other young angry Romans enthusiastically threw in their lot with the assassin and made their way to Philippi where they “shared in the final rout of the republican army by the forces of Antony and Octavian at the second battle. (4)

After Philippi, Horace abandons the cause of the republicans and makes his way back to Rome, where he is granted a pardon for his indiscretions. He has shape shifted from student to soldier, rebel to patriot and managed to survive unscathed (a fate Cicero’s son did not share). His father’s estate was confiscated by the Caesarians, but somehow he still has enough money to purchase a good administrative post where he quietly bides his time and begins to write. By age twenty-six he as survived the wiles of youthful passion and has secured himself the position of an official scribe. 

In a letter to Julius Florus, Horace sums up the trajectory of his life by saying that “poverty drove him to literature.” Whether or not we can clearly ascertain what he meant by this, poverty and literature both drove him into the arms of Maecenas. Maecenas already had a reputation as the father of the arts, and after an introduction from Virgil, Horace was assured for the rest of his life “of the recognition and support of an influential patron.” (5) 

After his fist book of satires was published Maecenas gave Horace a Sabine farm as a gift and he was able to make the full circle back to the countryside where he could sit quietly and write in peace. The political climate was settling after years of turmoil, and backed by the right patron, Horace seamlessly maneuvered from one emperor to the next and took his place as the poet laureate of the Augustinian Age. 

So reading between the lines, in the first Satire we can see a loose trajectory of the artists life. 

“Suppose some god were to say:
“I shall grant whatever you wish. You, now a soldier-
Be a businessman. You, now a lawyer, are free to become
The rural type. You’ve changed your roles: you can go now,
And you two, too. Well! What are you waiting for?”
Naturally, 
When they could be happy, they wouldn’t take the chance.”
[Satire I:1]

While it seems like Horace is preaching moderation, the real evil is not in being unsatisfied with what you have, but in being too afraid to change.

This is where we circle back to Felix Krull and the concept of interchangeability, which loosely states that people behave differently according to the different social context in which they find themselves. Whether you find yourself a neurotic attempting to dodge military service or a rabid military enthusiast that has backed the wrong rebellion, you play your part to the fullest and don’t waste time wondering if you’re disingenuous one minute to the next. As Horace claims, the gods won’t offer a second chance. 

Further on Horace brings up the Aesopian ant, “who works like a giant, drags up whatever he can in his mouth to add to the heap he is busily building, by no means unconscious of or out of touch with the future.” At first it seems like this is the creature we should all aspire to, but later on the ant will be the gateway drug into a discussion on miserliness. The ant rather than being industrious is a hoarder, stopping at nothing to creep out and bring back one unnecessary supply after another. 

“But nothing will stand in your way, 
Not blistering summer, not winter, not fire, flood, or sword, 
So long as someone remains even richer than you.”


“Mankind for the most part, fooled by it’s own false desires,
Says, “There’s no such thing as enough. You are worth 
Only as much as you have.”
[Satire I:1]

So mankind is trapped in a whirlpool of desire to conspicuously consume, engendered by the fear of poverty. Or perhaps the fear of being powerless, the social equivalent of flotsam riding the inexorable tidal waves of fate. 

“Wealth has become the deciding factor determining one’s identity, but this factor is based on ‘pure chance’  and can easily change.” (6) If wealth and identity become interchangeable what follows is a superficial notion of identity. Felix Krull looks around him at the hotel and observes a culture that esteems wealth above all else, willing to take a costume at face value. When he dons the attire of a bellhop, he becomes one with little questioning and no resistance. When the bellhop costume is exchanged for that of the leisure classes again he is embraced with little opposition. With the right costume a person’s identity can become chimerical, in flux based on the social constructs it finds itself a part of. 


Meanwhile, Horace is strolling through the palatial gardens arm in arm with a renowned millionaire lamenting conspicuous consumption. Instead of Juvenal misanthropically shouting a tirade against all that is evil, Horace has worked his way inside and delicately balances between a myriad of inconsistencies. At the end what we are left with is “an individual view of one man’s formation and emergence on the cusp between republic and empire,” (7) and I am left with the sinking realization that I must do a lot more research. 


1: Bovie, Smith Palmer. Satires and Epistles of Horace. 1959, pg. 15
2: Gowers, Emily. Horace Satire: Book 1, Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. 2012, pg. vii
4: Bovie, Smith Palmer. Satires and Epistles of Horace. 1959, pg. 4
5: Ibid. pg.5 
7: 2: Gowers, Emily. Horace Satire: Book 1, Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. 2012, pg. 1

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