« PreviousContinue »
fore he left Rome for Athens, to complete his education in the Greek literature and philosophy, under native teachers. This he did some time between the age of seventeen and twenty. At Athens he found many young men of the leading Roman families, engaged in the same pursuits with himself. He was no careless student of the classics of Grecian literature, and, with a natural enthusiasm, he made his first poetical essays in their flexible and noble language. His usual good sense, however, soon caused him to abandon the hopeless task of emulating the Greek writers on their own ground, and he directed his efforts to transfusing into his own language some of the grace and melody of these masters of song. In the political lull between the battle of Pharsalia, A. U. C. 706 (B. C. 48), and the death of Julius Caesar, A. U. C. 710 (B. C. 44), Horace was enabled to devote himself without interruption to the tranquil pursuits of the scholar. But when, after the latter event, Brutus came to Athens, and the patrician youth of Rome, fired with zeal for the cause of republican liberty, joined his standard, Horace, infected by the general enthusiasm, accepted a military command in the army which was destined to encounter the legions of Antony and Octavius. His rank was that of tribune, and his appointment excited jealousy among his brother officers, who considered that the command of a Roman legion should have been reserved for men of nobler blood. Here probably he first came into direct collision with the aristocratic prejudices which the training of his father had taught him to defy, and which, later in his life, grudged to the freedman's son the friendship of the emperor and of Maecenas. At the same time he had manifestly a strong party of friends, who had learned to appreciate his genius and attractive qualities. It is certain that he secured the esteem of his commanders, and bore an active part in the perils and difficulties of the campaign, which terminated in the total defeat of the republican party at Philippi, A. U. C. 712 (B. C. 42). A playful allusion by himself to the events of that disastrous field (C. II. 7. 9 foll.) has been turned by many of his commentators into an admission of his own cowardice. This is absurd. Such a confession is the very last which any man, least of all a Roman, would make. The allusion could only have been dropped by one who felt that he had done his duty, and that it was known he had done it. It was no discredit to Horace to have despaired of a cause which its leaders had given up. After the suicide of Brutus and Cassius, the continuance of the contest was hopeless; and Horace may in his short military career have seen, in the jealousy and selfish ambition of many of his party, enough to make him suspicious of success, even if that had been attainable. Republicans who sneered at the freedman's son were not likely to found any system of liberty worthy of the name.
Horace reached home, only to find his paternal acres confiscated. His life was spared, but nothing was left him to sustain it but his pen and his good spirits. He had to write for bread (E. II. 2. 50 foll.), and in so doing he appeared to have acquired not only considerable repute, but also sufficient means to purchase the place of scribe in the Quaestor's office, a sort of sinecure clerkship of the Treasury, which he continued to hold for many years, if not, indeed, to the close of his life. It was upon his return to Rome that he made the acquaintance of Virgil and Varius, who were already famous, and to them he was indebted for his introduction to Maecenas. The particulars of his first interview with his patron he has himself recorded (S. I. 6. 55 foll.). The acquaintance rapidly ripened into mutual esteem. It se cured the position of the poet in society, and the generosity of the statesman placed him above the anxieties of a literary life. Throughout the intimate intercourse of thirty years which ensued there was no trace of condescension on the one hand, nor of servility on the other. Maecenas gave the poet a place next his heart. He must have respected the man who never used his influence to obtain those favors which were at the disposal of the emperor's minister, who cherished an honest pride in his own station, and who could be grateful without being obsequious. Horace is never weary of acknowledg ing how much he owes to his friend. When he praises him, it is without flattery. When he soothes his anxieties or calms his fears, his words breathe an unmistakable sincerity. When he resists his patron's wishes, he is firm without being ungracious. When he sports with his foibles, he is familiar without the slightest shade of imperti
By Maecenas Horace was introduced to Octavius, probably soon after the period just referred to. In A. U. C. 717, a year after Horace had been admitted into the circle of his friends, Maecenas went to Brundisium, charged by Octavius to negotiate a treaty with Marcus Antonius. On this journey he was accompanied by Horace, who has left a graphic record of its incidents (S. I. 5). It is probable that on this occasion, or about this time, the poet was brought to the notice of the future emperor. Between the time of this journey and A. U. C. 722, Horace, who had in the mean time given to the world many of his poems, including the ten Satires of the first book, received from Maecenas the gift of the Sabine farm, which at once afforded him a competence, and all the pleasures of a country life. The gift was a slight one for Maecenas to bestow, but he no doubt made it as the fittest and most welcome which he could offer to his friend. The farm was situated in the valley of Ustica, about twelve miles from Tibur (Tivoli), and, among its other charms, possessed the valuable attraction for Horace, that it was within an easy distance of Rome., Here
he spent a considerable part of every year. Here he could entertain a stray friend from town, his patron Maecenas, upon occasion,and the delights of this agreeable retreat were doubtless more than a compensation for the plain fare, or the thin home-grown wine with which its resources alone enabled him to regale them.
The life of Horace from the time of his intimacy with Maecenas appears to have been one of comparative ease and of great social enjoyment. He was soon admitted to the friendship of Augustus, and to the close of his life his favor at court continued without a cloud. Augustus not only liked the man, but entertained a profound admiration for the poet. That Horace had fought with Brutus against him, did not operate to his prejudice. The poet was not ashamed of the past, and Maecenas and Augustus were just the men to respect his independence, and to like him the better for it. Their favor did not spoil him. He was ever the same kindly, urbane, and simple man of letters he had originally been, never presuming upon his position, nor looking superciliously on others less favored than himself. At all times generous and genial, years only mellowed his wisdom and gave a finer polish to his verse. The unaffected sincerity of his nature and the rich vein of his genius made him courted by the rich and noble (C. II. 18. 9 foll.). He mixed on easy terms with the choicest society of Rome; and what must that society have been which included Virgil, Varius, Plotius, Tibullus, Pollio, and a host of others who were not only ripe scholars, but had borne and were bearing a leading part in the great actions and events of that memorable epoch?
The health of Horace, never very vigorous, appears to have declined for some years before his death. He was doomed to see some of his dearest friends drop into the grave before him. This to him, who gave to friendship the ardor which other men give to love, was the severest wound that time could bring. "The shocks of Chance, the blows of Death" smote him heavily; and the failure of youth, and spirits, and health, in the inevitable decay of nature, saddened the thoughtful poet in his solitude, and tinged the gayest society with melancholy. Maecenas's health was a source of deep anxiety to him; and one of the most exquisite Odes (C. II. 17) addressed to that valued friend, in answer to some outburst of despondency, while it expresses the depth of the poet's regard, bears in it the tone of a man somewhat weary of the world. He declares that, if untimely fate shall snatch away his patron, he will not survive him; and the prophecy was fulfilled almost to the very letter. The same year (A. U. C. 746, B. C. 8) witnessed the death of both Horace and Maecenas. The latter died about the middle of the year, committing his friend, in almost his last words, to the care of Augustus : Horatii Flacci, ut mei, esto memor. On the 27th of November,
when he was on the eve of completing his fifty-seventh year, Horace himself died, of an illness so short and sudden that he was unable to make his will in writing. He declared it verbally before witnesses, leaving to Augustus the little which he possessed. He was buried on the Esquiline Hill, near his patron and friend Maecenas,
There are no authentic busts or medallions of Horace, and his descriptions of himself are vague. He was short in stature; his eyes and hair were dark, but the latter was early silvered with gray, He suffered at one time with an affection of the eyes, and seems to have been by no means robust in constitution. His habits were temperate and frugal, as a rule, although he was far from insensible to the charms of a good table and good wine, heightening and heightened by the zest of good company. But he seems to have had neither the stomach nor the taste for habitual indulgence in the pleasures of the table. Latterly he became corpulent and sensitive to the severity of the seasons, and sought at Baiae and Tibur the refreshment or shelter which his mountain retreat had ceased to yield to his delicate frame.
Of all his writings, Horace himself appears to have ascribed the greatest value to the Odes, and to have rested upon them his claims to posthumous fame. They were the result of great labor, as he himself indicates (C. IV. 2. 27 foll.); and yet they bear pre-eminently the charm of simplicity and ease. He was the first to mould the Latin tongue to the Greek lyric measures; and his success in this difficult task may be estimated from the fact that, as he was the first, so was he the greatest, of the Roman lyrists. Quinctilian's criticism upon the Odes can scarcely be improved: Lyricorum Horatius fere solus legi dignus. Nam et insurgit aliquando, et plenus est jucunditatis et gratiae, et variis figuris, et verbis felicissime audax. In this airy and playful grace, in happy epithets, in variety of imagery, and exquisite felicity of expression, the Odes are still unsurpassed among the writings of any period or language. It is these qualities and a prevailing vein of genial and sober wisdom, which imbue them with a charm quite peculiar, and have given them a hold upon the minds of educated men which no change of taste has shaken.
Horace was not and could not have been a national poet. He wrote only for cultivated men, and under the shadow of a court. Beyond a very narrow circle his poems could not have been read. The very language in which he wrote must have been unintelligible to the people, and he had none of those popular sympathies which inspire the lyrics of Burns or Béranger. The Roman populace of his time was perhaps as little likely to command his respect as any which the world has ever seen; and there was no people, in the sense in which we understand the word, to appeal to. And yet Horace has many
points in common with Burns. "A man's a man for a' that," in the whole vein of its sentiment is thoroughly Horatian. In their large and genial views of life they are closely akin; but the fiery glow of the peasant poet is subdued to a temperate heat in the gentler and physically less energetic nature of Horace.
In his amatory verses the same distinction is visible. Horace writes much about love, but he is never thoroughly in love. He seems to have known by experience just enough of the tender passion to write pretty verses about it, and to rally, not unsympathetically, such of his friends as had not escaped so lightly from its flame. The attempt to make out the Lydias and Lalages, the Lyces and Phrynes of his Odes as real objects of attachment is one of the many follies in which his commentators have wasted much dreary labor.
Horace's Satires and Epistles are less read, yet they are perhaps intrinsically more valuable than his lyric poetry. As reflecting "the age and body of the time,” they possess the highest historical value. Through them the modern scholar is able to form a clearer idea in all probability of the state of society in Rome in the Augustan age, than of any other phase of social development in the history of nations, Horace's observation of character is subtle and exact, his knowledge of the heart is profound, his power of graphic delineation great. A genial humor plays over his verses, and a kindly wisdom dignifies them. As a living and brilliant commentary on life, as a storehouse of maxims of practical wisdom, couched in language the most apt and concise, as a picture of men and manners, which will be always fresh and always true, because it was true once, and because human nature will always reproduce itself under analogous circumstances, his Satires, and still more his Epistles, will have a permanent value for mankind. In these, as in his Odes, he inculcates what is fitting and decorous, and tends most to tranquillity of mind and body, rather than the severe virtues of a high standard of moral purity, To live at peace with the world, to shun the extremes of avarice, luxury, and ambition, to outrage none of the laws of nature, to enjoy life wisely, and not to load it with the cares which the lapse of a few brief years will demonstrate to be foolishness, is very nearly the sum of his philosophy. Of religion, as we understand it, he had little. Although himself little of a practical worshipper (C. I. 34. 1), he respected the sincerity of others in their belief in the old gods. But, in common with the more vigorous intellects of the time, he had outgrown the effete creed of his countrymen. He was content to use it for poetical purposes, but he could not accept as matter of belief the mythology about which the forms of the contemporary worship still clustered.