I wasn't impressed when I read the Roman poet at 21. But now I see his works in a new lightby Charlotte Higgins / September 1, 2020 / Leave a comment
The writer Harry Eyres begins his 2013 book Horace and Me with a vignette of himself at an airport, putting his possessions through security. Among them is a battered red clothbound hardback containing Latin poems that have, miraculously, survived 2,000 years into the era of jet planes and electronic passport control—all the more remarkable, in some ways, because their author predicted that they would.
“Non omnis moriar,” Horace famously wrote in the mid-20s BC: “I will not altogether die.” “Exegi monumentum aere perennius”—“I have built a monument more lasting than bronze.” Poetry, he outrageously claimed, was more durable than the grandest statue. “Non omnis moriar” is so durable a phrase that it’s become a tattoo—ironic, perhaps, given the eventual decay of the human body (though, come to think of it, I’ve seen fragments of tattooed Scythian skin in the British Museum that were older, even, than Horace’s poems).
I’ve taken that exact volume—the same edition, the cheat’s version with Latin and the English translation on facing pages—through airport security. I was 21 and traveling to Italy on a scholarship. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the ruins of the Roman Forum reading the little clothbound book. It wasn’t so much a desire to imbibe the lines themselves that led to this romantic scene so much as a sudden panic about the looming threat of finals.
The truth is that back then, I wasn’t wildly into Horace. The son of a freed slave who’d fought on the “wrong” side in the civil wars that followed Julius Caesar’s assassination, Horace’s accommodation with the winner—Augustus’s autocratic regime—seemed far too cosy to me, then. It was one thing that his patron, like Virgil’s, was Maecenas, Augustus’ right-hand man. But to actually accept as he did, a commission from the emperor himself to write the “Carmen Saeculare”—a celebratory hymn that queasily identifies Augustus with the god Apollo—seemed to me too much.
More than that, the emotions he expressed in his lyric poems seemed second-hand, somewhat coolly distanced. I was much more inclined towards the fierce, white-hot passions of Catullus, Horace’s elder by two decades: “Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred.”
I hate to say it but now that I’m older, I feel closer to Horace’s poems. Eyres puts this beautifully: they are written from “the privileged…