It is impossible to conceive of the Augustan age without Horace, nor to imagine a possible Horace without Greece and Greek influence. At the same time Horace is in many ways the prototype of the old-fashioned, cultivated, gifted, idle, sarcastic, middle-class Roman official, making the most of life on a small salary and the friendship of a great personage; praising poverty, but making the most of the good things that fell in his way; extolling pristine austerity of life and yielding with a smile to every agreeable temptation; painting the idyllic life of a small gentleman farmer as the highest state of happiness, but secretly preferring the town; prudently avoiding marriage, but far too human to care for an existence in which woman had no share; more sensible in theory than in practice, and more religious in manner than in heart; full of quaint superstitions, queer odds and ends of knowledge, amusing anecdotes and pictures of personal experience; the whole compound permeated with a sort of indolent sadness at the unfulfilled promises of younger years, in which there had been more of impulse than of ambition, and more of ambition than real strength. The early struggles for Italian unity left many such half-disappointed patriots, and many less fortunate in their subsequent lives than Horace.
Born in the far South, and the son of a freed slave, brought to Rome as a boy and carefully taught, then sent to Athens to study Greek, he was barely twenty years of age when he joined Brutus after Cæsar's death, was with him in Asia, and, in the lack of educated officers perhaps, found himself one day, still a mere boy, tribune of a Legion—or, as we should say, in command of a brigade of six thousand men, fighting for what he believed to be the liberty of Rome, in the disastrous battle of Philippi. Brutus being dead, the dream of glory ended, after the amnesty, in a scribe's office under one of the quæstors, and the would-be liberator of his country became a humble clerk in the Treasury, eking out his meagre salary with the sale of a few verses. Many an old soldier of Garibaldi's early republican dreams has ended in much the same way in our own times under the monarchy.
But Horace was born to other things. Chaucer was a clerk in the Custom House, and found time to be the father of English poetry. Horace's daily work did not hinder him from becoming a poet. His love of Greek, acquired in Athens and Asia Minor, and the natural bent of his mind made him the greatest imitator and adapter of foreign verses that ever lived; and his character, by its eminently Italian combination of prim respectability and elastic morality, gave him a two-sided view of men and things that has left us representations of life in three dimensions instead of the flat, though often violent, pictures which prejudice loves best to paint.
In his admiration of Greek poetry, Horace was not a discoverer; he was rather the highest expression of Rome's artistic want. If Scipio of Africa had never conquered the Carthaginians at Zama, he would be notable still as one of the first and most sincere lovers of Hellenic literature, and as one of the earliest imitators of Athenian manners. The great conqueror is remembered also as the first man in Rome who shaved every day, more than a hundred and fifty years before Horace's time. He was laughed at by some, despised by others and disliked by the majority for his cultivated tastes and his refined manners.
The Romans had most gifts excepting those we call creative. Instead of creating, therefore, Rome took her art whole, and by force, from the most artistic nation the world ever produced. Sculptors, architects, painters and even poets, such as there were, came captive to Rome in gangs, were sold at auction as slaves, and became the property of the rich, to work all their lives at their several arts for their master's pleasure; and the State rifled Greece and Asia, and even the Greek Italy of the south, and brought back the masterpieces of an age to adorn Rome's public places. The Roman was the engineer, the maker of roads, of aqueducts, of fortifications, the layer out of cities, and the planner of harbours. In a word, the Roman made the solid and practical foundation, and then set the Greek slave to beautify it. When he had watched the slave at work for a century or two, he occasionally attempted to imitate him. That was as far as Rome ever went in original art.
But her love of the beautiful, though often indiscriminating and lacking in taste, was profound and sincere. It does not appear that in all her conquests her armies ever wantonly destroyed beautiful things. On the contrary, her generals brought home all they could with uncommon care, and the consequence was that in Horace's day the public places of the city were vast open-air museums, and the great temples picture galleries of which we have not the like now in the whole world. And with those things came all the rest; the manners, the household life, the necessaries and the fancies of a conquering and already decadent nation, the thousands of slaves whose only duty was to amuse their owners and the public; the countless men and women and girls and boys, whose souls and bodies went to feed the corruption of the gorgeous capital, or to minister to its enormous luxuries; the companies of flute-players and dancing-girls, the sharp-tongued jesters, the coarse buffoons, the play-actors and the singers. And then, the endless small commerce of an idle and pleasure-seeking people, easily attracted by bright colours, new fashions and new toys; the drug-sellers and distillers of perfumes, the venders of Eastern silks and linens and lace, the barbers and hairdressers, the jewellers and tailors, the pastry cooks and makers of honey-sweetmeats; and everywhere the poor rabble of failures, like scum in the wake of a great ship; the beggars everywhere, and the pickpockets and the petty thieves. It is no wonder that Horace was fond of strolling in Rome.
In contrast, the great and wonderful things of the Augustan city stand out in high relief, above the varied crowd that fills the streets, with all the dignity that centuries of power can lend. To the tawdry is opposed the splendid, the Roman general in his chiselled corselet and dyed mantle faces the Greek actor in his tinsel; the band of painted, half-clad, bedizened dancing-girls falls back cowering in awestruck silence as the noble Vestal passes by, high-browed, white-robed, untainted, the incarnation of purity in an age of vice. And the old Senator in his white cloak with its broad purple hem, his smooth-faced clients at his elbows, his silent slaves before him and behind, meets the low-chattering knot of Hebrew money-lenders, making the price of short loans for the day, and discussing the assets of a famous spendthrift, as their yellow-turbaned, bearded fathers had talked over the chances of Julius Cæsar when he was as yet but a fashionable young lawyer of doubtful fortune, with an unlimited gift of persuasion and an equally unbounded talent for amusement.
Between the contrasts lived men of such position as Horace occupied, but not many. For the great middle element of society is a growth of later centuries, and even Horace himself, as time went on, became attached to Mæcenas and then, more or less, to the person of the Emperor, by a process of natural attraction, just as his butt, Tigellius, gravitated to the common herd that mourned his death. The 'golden mean' of which Horace wrote was a mere expression, taught him, perhaps, by his father, a part of his stock of maxims. Where there were only great people on the one side, and a rabble on the other, the man of genius necessarily rose to the level of the high, by his own instinct and their liking. What was best of Greek was for them, what was worst was for the populace.
But the Greek was everywhere, with his keen weak face, his sly look and his skilful fingers. Scipio and Paulus Emilius had brought him, and he stayed in Rome till the Goth came, and afterwards. Greek poetry, Greek philosophy, Greek sculpture, Greek painting, Greek music everywhere—to succeed at all in such society, Virgil and Horace and Ovid must needs make Greek of Latin, and bend the stiff syllables to Alcaics and Sapphics and Hexameters. The task looked easy enough, though it was within the powers of so very few. Thousands tried it, no doubt, when the three or four had set the fashion, and failed, as the second-rate fail, with some little brief success in their own day, turned into the total failure of complete disappearance when they had been dead awhile.
Supreme of them all, for his humanity, Horace remains. Epic Virgil, appealing to the traditions of a living race of nobles and to the carefully hidden, sober vanity of the world's absolute monarch, does not appeal to modern man. The twilight of the gods has long deepened into night, and Ovid's tales of them and their goddesses move us by their own beauty rather than by our sympathy for them, though we feel the tender touch of the exiled man whose life was more than half love, in the marvellous Letters of Heroes' Sweethearts—in the complaint of Briseïs to Achilles, in the passionately sad appeal of Hermione to Orestes. Whoever has not read these things does not know the extreme limit of man's understanding of woman. Yet Horace, with little or nothing of such tenderness, has outdone Ovid and Virgil in this later age.
He strolled through life, and all life was a play of which he became the easy-going but unforgetful critic. There was something good-natured even in his occasional outbursts of contempt and hatred for the things and the people he did not like. There was something at once caressing and good-humouredly sceptical in his way of addressing the gods, something charitable in his attacks on all that was ridiculous,—men, manners and fashions.
He strolled wherever he would, alone; in the market, looking at everything and asking the price of what he saw, of vegetables and grain and the like; in the Forum, or the Circus, at evening, when 'society' was dining, and the poor people and slaves thronged the open places for rest and air, and there he used to listen to the fortune-tellers, and among them, no doubt, was that old hag, Canidia, immortalized in the huge joke of his comic resentment. He goes home to sup on lupins and fritters and leeks,—or says so,—though his stomach abhorred garlic; and his three slaves—the fewest a man could have—wait on him as he lies before the clean white marble table, leaning on his elbow. He does not forget the household gods, and pours a few drops upon the cement floor in libation to them, out of the little earthen saucer filled from the slim-necked bottle of Campanian earthenware. Then to sleep, careless of getting up early or late, just as he might feel, to stay at home and read or write, or to wander about the city, or to play the favourite left-handed game of ball in the Campus Marius before his bath and his light midday meal.
With a little change here and there, it is the life of the idle middle-class Italian today, which will always be much the same, let the world wag and change as it will, with all its extravagances, its fashions and its madnesses. Now and then he exclaims that there is no average common sense left in the world, no half-way stopping-place between extremes. One man wears his tunic to his heels, another is girt up as if for a race; Rufillus smells of perfumery, Gargonius of anything but scent; and so on—and he cries out that when a fool tries to avoid a mistake he will run to any length in the opposite direction. And Horace had a most particular dislike for fools and bores, and has left us the most famous description of the latter ever set down by an accomplished observer.
By chance, he says, he was walking one morning along the Sacred Street with one slave behind him, thinking of some trifle and altogether absorbed in it, when a man whom he barely knew by name came up with him in a great hurry and grasped his hand. 'How do you do, sweet friend?' asks the Bore. 'Pretty well, as times go,' answers Horace, stopping politely for a moment; and then beginning to move on, he sees to his horror that the Bore walks by his side. 'Can I do anything for you?' asks the poet, still civil, but hinting that he prefers his own company. The Bore plunges into the important business of praising himself, with a frankness not yet forgotten in his species, and Horace tries to get rid of him, walking very fast, then very slowly, then turning to whisper a word to his slave, and in his anxiety he feels the perspiration breaking out all over him, while his Tormentor chatters on, as they skirt the splendid Julian Basilica, gleaming in the morning sun. Horace looks nervously and eagerly to right and left, hoping to catch sight of a friend and deliverer. Not a friendly face was in sight, and the Bore knew it, and was pitilessly frank. 'Oh, I know you would like to get away from me!' he exclaimed. 'I shall not let you go so easily! Where are you going?' 'Across the Tiber,' answered Horace, inventing a distant visit. 'I am going to see someone who lives far off, in Cæsar's gardens—a man you do not know. He is ill.' 'Very well,' said the other; 'I have nothing to do, and am far from lazy. I will go all the way with you.' Horace hung his head, as a poor little Italian donkey does when a heavy load is piled upon his back, for he was fairly caught, and he thought of the long road before him, and he had moreover the unpleasant consciousness that the Bore was laughing at his imaginary errand, since they were walking in a direction exactly opposite from the Tiber, and would have to go all the way round the Palatine by the Triumphal Road and the Circus Maximus and then cross by the Sublician bridge, instead of turning back towards the Velabrum, the Provision Market and the Bridge of Æmilius, which we have known and crossed as the Ponte Rotto, but of which only one arch is left now, in midstream.
Then, pressing his advantage, the Bore began again. 'If I am any judge of myself,' he observed, 'you will make me one of your most intimate friends. I am sure nobody can write such good verses as fast as I can. As for my singing, I know it for a fact that Hermogenes is decidedly jealous of me!' 'Have you a mother, Sir?' asked Horace, gravely. 'Have you any relations to whom your safety is a matter of importance?' 'No,' answered the other, 'no one. I have buried them all!' 'Lucky people!' said the poet to himself, and he wished he were dead, too, at that moment, and he thought of all the deaths he might have died. It was evidently not written that he should die of poison nor in battle, nor of a cough, nor of the liver, nor even of gout. He was to be slowly talked to death by a bore. By this time they were before the temple of Castor and Pollux, where the great Twin Brethren bathed their horses at Juturna's spring. The temple of Vesta was before them, and the Sacred Street turned at right angles to the left, crossing over between a row of shops on one side and the Julian Rostra on the other, to the Courts of Law. The Bore suddenly remembered that he was to appear in answer to an action on that very morning, and as it was already nine o'clock, he could not possibly walk all the way to Cæsar's gardens and be back before noon, and if he was late, he must forfeit his bail, and the suit would go against him by default. On the other hand, he had succeeded in catching the great poet alone, after a hundred fruitless attempts, and the action was not a very important one, after all. He stopped short. 'If you have the slightest regard for me,' he said, 'you will just go across with me to the Courts for a moment.' Horace looked at him curiously, seeing a chance of escape. 'You know where I am going,' he answered with a smile; 'and as for law, I do not know the first thing about it.' The Bore hesitated, considered what the loss of the suit must cost him, and what he might gain by pushing his acquaintance with the friend of Mæcenas and Augustus. 'I am not sure,' he said doubtfully, 'whether I had better give up your company, or my case,' 'My company, by all means!' cried Horace, with alacrity. 'No!' answered the other, looking at his victim thoughtfully, 'I think not!' And he began to move on again by the Nova Via towards the House of the Vestals. Having made up his mind to sacrifice his money, however, he lost no time before trying to get an equivalent for it. 'How do you stand with Mæcenas?' he asked suddenly, fixing his small eyes on Horace's weary profile, and without waiting for an answer he ran on to praise the great man. 'He is keen and sensible,' he continued, 'and has not many intimate friends. No one knows how to take advantage of luck as he does. You would find me a valuable ally, if you would introduce me. I believe you might drive everybody else out of the field—with my help, of course.' 'You are quite mistaken there!' answered Horace, rather indignantly. 'He is not at all that kind of man! There is not a house in Rome where any sort of intrigue would be more utterly useless!' 'Really, I can hardly believe it!' 'It is a fact, nevertheless,' retorted Horace, stoutly. 'Well,' said the Bore, 'if it is, I am of course all the more anxious to know such a man!' Horace smiled quietly. 'You have only to wish it, my dear Sir,' he answered, with the faintest modulation of polite irony in his tone. 'With such gifts at your command, you will certainly charm him. Why, the very reason of his keeping most people at arm's length is that he knows how easily he yields!' 'In that case, I will show you what I can do,' replied the Bore, delighted. 'I shall bribe the slaves; I will not give it up, if I am not received at first! I will bide my time and catch him in the street, and follow him about. One gets nothing in life without taking trouble!' As the man was chattering on, Horace's quick eyes caught sight of an old friend at last, coming towards him from the corner of the Triumphal Road, for they had already almost passed the Palatine. Aristius, sauntering along and enjoying the morning air, with a couple of slaves at his heels, saw Horace's trouble in a moment, for he knew the Bore well enough, and realized at once that if he delivered his friend, he himself would be the next victim. He was far too clever for that, and with a cold-blooded smile pretended not to understand Horace's signals of distress. 'I forget what it was you wished to speak about with me so particularly, my dear Aristius,' said the poet, in despair. 'It was something very important, was it not?' 'Yes,' answered the other, with another grin, 'I remember very well; but this is an unlucky day, and I shall choose another time. Today is the thirtieth Sabbath,' he continued, inventing a purely imaginary Hebrew feast, 'and you surely would not risk a Jew's curse for a few moments of conversation, would you?' 'I have no religion!' exclaimed Horace, eagerly. 'No superstition! Nothing!' 'But I have,' retorted Aristius, still smiling. 'My health is not good—perhaps you did not know? I will tell you about it some other time.' And he turned on his heel, with a laugh, leaving Horace to his awful fate. Even the sunshine looked black. But salvation came suddenly in the shape of the man who had brought the action against the Bore, and who, on his way to the Court, saw his adversary going off in the opposite direction. 'Coward! Villain!' yelled the man, springing forward and catching the poet's tormentor by his cloak. 'Where are you going now? You are witness, Sir, that I am in my right,' he added, turning to look for Horace. But Horace had disappeared in the crowd that had collected to see the quarrel, and his gods had saved him after all.
A part of the life of the times is in the little story, and anyone may stroll today along the Sacred Street, past the Basilica and the sharp turn that leads to the block of old houses where the Court House stood, between St. Adrian's and San Lorenzo in Miranda. Anyone may see just how it happened, and many know exactly how Horace felt from the moment when the Bore buttonholed him at the corner of the Julian Basilica till his final deliverance near the corner of the Triumphal Road, which is now the Via di San Gregorio.
There was much more resemblance to our modern life than one might think at first sight. Perhaps, after his timely escape, Horace turned back along the Sacred Street, followed by his single slave, and retraced his steps, past the temple of Vesta, the temple of Julius Cæsar, skirting the Roman Forum to the Golden Milestone at the foot of the ascent to the Capitol, from which landmark all the distances in the Roman Empire were reckoned, the very centre of the known world. Thence, perhaps, he turned up towards the Argiletum, with something of that instinct which takes a modern man of letters to his publisher's when he is in the neighbourhood. There the 'Brothers Sosii' had their publishing establishment, among many others of the same nature, and employed a great staff of copyists in preparing volumes for sale. All the year round the skilled scribes sat within in rows, with pen and ink, working at the manufacture of books. The Sosii Brothers were rich, and probably owned their workmen as slaves, both the writers and those who prepared the delicate materials, the wonderful ink, of which we have not the like today, the fine sheets of papyrus,—Pliny tells how they were sometimes too rough, and how they sometimes soaked up the ink like a cloth, as happens with our own paper,—and the carefully cut pens of Egyptian reed on which so much of the neatness in writing depended, though Cicero says somewhere that he could write with any pen he chanced to take up.
It was natural enough that Horace should look in to ask how his latest book was selling, or more probably his first, for he had written but a few Epodes and not many Satires at the time when he met the immortal Bore. Later in his life, his books were published in editions of a thousand, as is the modern custom in Paris, and were sold all over the Empire, like those of other famous authors. The Satires did him little credit, and probably brought him but little money at their first publication. It seems certain that they have come down to us through a single copy. The Greek form of the Odes pleased people better. Moreover, some of the early Satires made distinguished people shy of his acquaintance, and when he told the Bore that Mæcenas was difficult of access he remembered that nine months had elapsed from the time of his own introduction to the great man until he had received the latter's first invitation to dinner. More than once he went almost too far in his attacks on men and things and then tried to remove the disagreeable impression he had produced, and wrote again of the same subject in a different spirit—notably when he attacked the works of the dead poet Lucilius and was afterwards obliged to explain himself.
No doubt he often idled away a whole morning at his publisher's, looking over new books of other authors, and very probably borrowing them to take home with him, because he was poor, and he assuredly must have talked over with the Sosii the impression produced on the public by his latest poems. He was undoubtedly a quæstor's scribe, but it is more than doubtful whether he ever went near the Treasury or did any kind of clerk's work. If he ever did, it is odd that he should never speak of it, nor take anecdotes from such an occupation and from the clerks with whom he must have been thrown, for he certainly used every other sort of social material in the Satires. Among the few allusions to anything of the kind in his works are his ridicule of the over-dressed prætor of the town of Fundi, who had been a government clerk in Rome, and in the same story, his jest at one of Mæcenas' parasites, a freedman, and nominally a Treasury clerk, as Horace had been. In another Satire, the clerks in a body wish him to be present at one of their meetings.
Perhaps what strikes one most in the study of Horace, which means the study of the Augustan age, is the vivid contrast between the man who composed the Carmen Sæculare, the sacred hymn sung on the Tenth anniversary of Augustus' accession to the imperial power, besides many odes that breathe a pristine reverence for the gods, and, on the other hand, the writer of satirical, playfully sceptical verses, who comments on the story of the incense melting without fire at the temple of Egnatia, with the famous and often-quoted 'Credat Judæus'! The original Romans had been a believing people, most careful in all ceremonies and observances, visiting anything like sacrilege with a cool ferocity worthy of the Christian religious wars in later days. Horace, at one time or another, laughs at almost every god and goddess in the heathen calendar, and publishes his jests, in editions of a thousand copies, with perfect indifference and complete immunity from censorship, while apparently bestowing a certain amount of care on household sacrifices and the like.
The fact is that the Romans were a religious people, whereas the Italians were not. It is a singular fact that Rome, when left long to herself, has always shown a tendency to become systematically devout, whereas most of the other Italian states have exhibited an equally strong inclination to a scepticism not unfrequently mixed with the grossest superstition. It must be left to more profound students of humanity to decide whether certain places have a permanent influence in one determined direction upon the successive races that inhabit them; but it is quite undeniably true that the Romans of all ages have tended to religion of some sort in the most marked manner. In Roman history there is a succession of religious epochs not to be found in the annals of any other city. First, the early faith of the Kings, interrupted by the irruption of Greek influences which began approximately with Scipio Africanus; next, the wild Bacchic worship that produced the secret orgies on the Aventine, the discovery of which led to a religious persecution and the execution of thousands of persons on religious grounds; then the worship of the Egyptian deities, brought over to Rome in a new fit of belief, and at the same time, or soon afterwards, the mysterious adoration of the Persian Mithras, a gross and ignorant form of mysticism which, nevertheless, took hold of the people, at a time when other religions were almost reduced to a matter of form.
Then, as all these many faiths lost vitality, Christianity arose, the terribly simple and earnest Christianity of the early centuries, sown first under the Cæsars, in Rome's secure days, developing to a power when Rome was left to herself by the transference of the Empire to the East, culminating for the first time in the crowning of Charlemagne, again in the Crusades, sinking under the revival of mythology and Hellenism during the Renascence, rising again, by slow degrees, to the extreme level of devotion under Pius the Ninth and the French protectorate, sinking suddenly with the movement of Italian unity, and the coming of the Italians in 1870, then rising again, as we see it now, with undying energy, under Leo the Thirteenth, and showing itself in the building of new churches, in the magnificent restoration of old ones, and in the vast second growth of ecclesiastical institutions, which are once more turning Rome into a clerical city, now that she is again at peace with herself, under a constitutional monarchy, but threatened only too plainly by an impending anarchic revolution. It would be hard to find in the history of any other city a parallel to such periodical recurrences of religious domination. Nor, in times when belief has been at its lowest ebb, have outward religious practices anywhere continued to hold so important a place in men's lives as they have always held in Rome. Of all Rome's mad tyrants, Elagabalus alone dared to break into the temple of Vesta and carry out the sacred Palladium. During more than eleven hundred years, six Vestal Virgins guarded the sacred fire and the Holy Things of Rome, in peace and war, through kingdom, republic, revolution and empire. For fifteen hundred years since then, the bones of Saint Peter have been respected by the Emperors, by Goths, by Kings, revolutions and short-lived republics.
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