Cleveland, OH. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known to us as Horace, lived through the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar’s assassination, and decades of civil war leading to the rise of Octavius Augustus as emperor. Despite the turbulent waves that he swam in, he also lived in the golden age of Latin poetry and is remembered, alongside Virgil and Ovid, as one of the three resplendent Roman poets who could rightly be said to have been a triumvirate of their own. A praise poet and poet of sensual love, Horace, it seems to me, is also the first romantic poet: his poetry decries the horror of war, mourns the burdens of urban civilization, and opines for a return to the idyllic agrarian and rural way of life.
In his great introductory exposition on existentialism, Irrational Man, William Barrett described Romanticism, in part, as the “protest of feeling against reason” and “the protest on behalf of nature against the encroachments of an industrial society.” Entailed throughout Barrett’s description of the romantic antecedents to existential philosophy is the emphasis of the agrarian ideal, of nature, against mass mobilization, industrialism, and the organization of man for the end of war. Insofar as a definitive trait of romanticism is the agrarian ideal, Horace’s poetry almost certainly fits the description of being romantic.
Horace was a hedonist. He was a sensualist who enjoyed the pleasures of wine and the body. As Seutonius reminds us in his Life of Horace, “[Horace] is said to have been exceptionally intemperate in his love affairs, and there is a story that he so disposed his lovers in a mirrored room that whichever way he looked, there was a reflection of sexual intercourse.” It isn’t surprising that much of Horace’s poetry deals with the blurred lines between love and lust, feast and sex, companionship and friendship. Here too, Horace is a forerunner to the romantic poets of England and Germany. Men like John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Novalis, Goethe, and Friedrich Hölderlin were also notorious womanizers, sensualists, and hedonists, along with being the great romantic poets of their generation and the founding fathers of the romantic movement still so influential and important today as it was some 200 years ago.
Yet Seutonius also informs us that Horace spent much of his life in his countryside estate, an estate situated in the rolling hills and pastures of central Italy—the same Italy that the romantics of near two millennia later would travel and, oftentimes, die in. Horace, then, lived in the middle of old Italy. More precisely, he lived in the Italy untouched by the burdensome urbanization of Rome and other cities drowning in a population “not trained to stay on a horse” and “afraid of hunting” (Intactis opulentior, 54-56).
* * *
Horace lived from 65 to 8 B.C., and for the first 30 or so years of his life, there was not a moment without war. This is captured in his lyric poetry, which often talks of war, civil war and strife, and the exploits of Julius Caesar and of Augustus.. The fratricidal bloodshed of Romans slaughtering Romans was something that shook Rome to its core and something that Horace equally derides as impious: “Surely if any man shall wish to put an end / to impious slaughter and the madness of civil strife, / if he shall wish his statues / to be inscribed ‘Father of Cities’, let him have courage / to rein back our wild license” (Intactis opulentior, 25-29).
There is a certain irony when reading Horace. Given his “wild license” in his own life, often bordering on adultery and anything but chastity, it seems odd when he derides some of the very practices and lusts which gripped him. But Horace’s traditionalism makes sense given that his poetry was written in the aftermath of the Augustan settlement, something which he praises thoroughly and repeatedly in his poetry.
After emerging victorious in the battle to control the fate of the world, Augustus embarked on an ambitious traditionalist moral campaign to rejuvenate the decaying Roman establishment, institutions, and people, infusing them with the moral virtue needed to sustain the Roman civilization. After all, Horace rightly says “Laws are useless without virtue” (Intactis opulentior, 35). Augustus and his poets and writers promoted what we can readily identify as traditionalism: duty toward the gods and parents, duty to country, and respect for law and order. It suffices to say that in a world ripped open by chaos Augustus and his intellectuals, from Livy and Virgil to Horace, upheld pietas and embedded its ideals into their works.
But Horace’s romanticism is what is most interesting—for it is in the agrarian ideal that we see a fuller and livelier traditionalism than the mundane pietas to God, father, and fatherland. It is in Nature that Horace finds the source of the divine order that the Augustan poets thought was necessary for a peaceful and joyful life.
“Back to war, Venus, after all / these years? Spare me, spare me, I beg you” (Intermissa, Venus, 1-2). Horace is astute to the bleak realities of war and the lust to dominate. Not only does he beg Venus to spare him from war, he goes on to call her a “Cruel mother” (Ibid., 4). The constancy of war, its horrors and destruction, has destroyed Horace’s life—“As for me, I no longer take pleasure in a woman / or boy, nor in the fond hope that my love might still / be returned, nor in drinking bouts, / not in binding my brow with fresh flowers” (Ibid., 29-32).
As a poet Horace does not comprehend the “mad rush to join…wicked war[s]” (Quo, quo, scelesti ruitis? 1). Though a patriot with no love for Rome’s great enemy, Carthage, Horace nevertheless opines that war must have some explanation beyond the gods’ thirst for blood: “Your swords / were sheathed. Why do you draw them now? Perhaps too little Latin blood has poured upon the plains and into Neptune’s sea, not so that Rome could burn the lofty citadels of Carthage, her great enemy” (Ibid., 1-6). In trying to understand the mad rush to war Horace does stumble upon a deep psychological truth, “Is it blind madness, or some deadlier force? Some ancient guilt? Give answer now” (Ibid., 13-14). Though he poses rhetorical questions about war being the product of insanity or blood guilt, demanding an answer from the gods, the questions he poses strike at the heart of war and man’s depravity—the mad love of disorder, chaos, and the guilt of fratricide.
What war has destroyed is the autumn fields “with fruit so richly crowned” (Beatus ille, 18) that provide the peaceful and joyful life. As Horace aptly sings, “Fortune the man who, free from cares, / like men of old still works / his father’s fields with his own oxen…When Autumn raises in the fields its head / with fruit so richly crowned, / with what delight he plucks the pears he grafted / and grapes that challenge any purple dye” (Ibid., 1-3, 17-20). Thus we see Horace’s image of peace: An idyllic farm. Moreover, it is a family farm, a family farmed owned by several generations where sons plow the land that their father had tilled. A rooted heritage lies at the core of Horace’s idyllic image of peace and joy.
Additionally, the peace and pleasure afforded in the simple agrarian life is precisely what Horace’s deracinated contemporaries have forgotten. Horace sings of the pleasure and joy in the hunt:
But when the thunder of Jove’s winter season
musters the rains and snows,
with all his dogs on every side he drives
wild boar into his ring of nets,
or stretches wide-meshed toils on twigs he’s smoothed
to trap the greedy thrushes,
and hunts the timid hare and crane migrating
to his snare—delicious prey.
Amid these pleasures who would not forget
the miseries brought on by love? (Beatus ille, 29-38)
Horace’s beautiful, if not otherwise romanticized, vision of the good life is shown being superseded by the urban life of aimlessness and antagonism to nature. Horace laments how the old ways are being forgotten, “The free young Roman is not trained to stay on a horse. He is afraid of hunting” (Intactis opulentior, 54-56). Horace’s romanticism, however, has a very real alternative: the destruction of war.
And this pivots Horace to his praise of Augustus. Augustus is the embodiment, real or imagined, of the romantic ideal conceived of by Horace. Augustus is the figure who allows for a return to the past, a return to the farm and villa, a return to peace and therefore pleasure. Augustus comes as a god, a shield, to end the mad wars and civil strife that have plagued Rome and dominated Horace’s life:
I was eager to sing of battles and defeated cities,
But Phoebus struck his lyre and forbade me
To sail my little boat
Across the Tyrrhenian sea. Your Augustan age,
Caesar, has given rich crops back
To our fields, has brought the standards back to our Jupiter,
Tearing them from the proud door posts
Of the Parthians…
While Caesar is guardian of the state, neither civil war
Nor civil madness will drive away our peace,
Nor will anger beat out its swords
And set city against unhappy city. (Phoebus volentem, 1-8, 17-20)
The high water mark of Horace’s praise poetry comes with a string attached. It is the string of romanticism. For Horace’s praise of Augustus Caesar, in nearly all his poems, sings of his bringing of peace which restores the agricultural prosperity permitting song and sumptuous feast: “This holy day will truly drive away / all my black cares: I shall have no fear / of war or violent death while Caesar / is master of the world. Go, boy, and bring me fragrant oils, and garlands, / and a cask of wine” (Herculis ritu, 13-18). We see, then, that it is not Augustus who is the subject of Horace’s praise but that which Augustus allows to manifest—the Edenic ideal with its tranquility, organic fertility, and pleasure.
* * *
That Horace sings praise to Augustus for restoring agricultural prosperity shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, Suetonius said that Horace spent much of his life in his countryside estate. Moreover, the mobilization of the masses for war—civil war worst of all—meant the depletion of the land as well as the disintegration of the family with the many hundreds of thousands of Roman men slaughtered on the fields of battle. War destroyed the agricultural calm that Horace clearly indulged in and enjoyed. Peace provided the restoration of that countryside ideal with wife, mistress, children, dogs, horses, and glowing sun.
Horace’s praise of Augustus, then, is unmistakably reactionary and romantic but is tied to the romance of agrarianism. Augustus is not a bringer of progress and advancement but a force of restoration and return; specifically, the return to a garden. Yet Horace’s poetry also captures the realities of historical cataclysm and supersession, what Hegel would later call aufhebung.
We weep with Horace because he is a man lost in a sea of change. Though Augustus brings peace and a certain restoration of the countryside and rural way of life, that life is vanishing and cannot last. Population migration has depleted the countryside and made Rome, Ravenna, and other cities the new centers of power. The family farm, that ideal image eulogized by Horace as being the foundation of the “fortunate” life, is being abolished by the winds of history. Horace’s life of pleasure, and the life of the hunt—animal and woman—catching fire and dissolving before his very eyes.
That family owned farm of generations was soon replaced by the slave-run Latifundia system that was itself a manifestation of Rome’s imperial war policies. Conquest of land and peoples meant the state needed to do something with these newly conquered lands and masses of people. Those Roman elites fortunate enough to have escaped the sword of war and power politics soon reaped the reward. The small-scale family farm found itself overwhelmed by the Roman equivalent of contemporary large-scale agribusiness, which swallowed up centuries of rooted history. Horace’s lament for a return to the ideal rural way of life and his praise of Augustus for allowing this restoration was short-lived.
Though there is an unmistakable tragic ethos affiliated with the romantic impulse—which I would argue begins with Horace and remains a deep part of the Western psyche and tradition—this impulse is nonetheless awe-inspiring and truly moves the heart of man. The agrarian ideal that Horace opines for, that “enchanted” image of nature that “we shall wonder at” (Altera iam teritur, 53), is something familiar and moving:
So let us seek the Blessed Fields and Wealthy Isles,
where every year the land unploughed gives grain,
and vines unpruned are never out of flower,
and olive shoots unfailing bud, and set their fruit,
and dusky fig ungrafted graces its own tree,
the honey flows from hollow ilex, and from hills
the streamlet lightly leaps with sounding footfall.
There to the milking pails unbidden come the goats,
and friendly flocks their swollen udders bring.
when evening comes no howling bear patrols the pens,
no viper heaves its mound of earth.
Enchanted, we shall wonder at it all. (Altera iam tertitur, 42-53)
One of the major reasons why Horace is an Augustan poet isn’t his praise for Augustus. The Augustans may have offered praise to Augustus, their patron and noble ruler, but the real heart of the Augustan poets is a belief in a divinely instituted order that governs Nature. The heart of the Augustan poets is set on discovering this divinely instituted order, thereby bringing the joy and peace that humans seek. Horace’s romantic poetry captures this Augustan yearning perfectly and beautifully. Against the chaos of war, the rise of the city, and the general drift away from Nature, Horace calls us back to Nature to find our home.
“Enchanted, we shall wonder at it all” indeed. So let us seek the blessed fields where milk and honey flow and humans can relate to creation as God intended. Horace’s romanticism is enduring because the call of return is enduring. Deep within the Western psyche and tradition is this yearning for return. Horace, more than any other of the grandiose poets of antiquity, captured that call, that cry, for return—a yearning for a restored Eden where the peaceful harmony of life in a garden would be our eternal home.Deep within the Western psyche and tradition is this yearning for return. Horace, more than any other of the grandiose poets of antiquity, captured that call, that cry, for return—a yearning for a restored Eden where the peaceful harmony of life in a garden would be our eternal home.“Enchanted, we shall wonder at it all” indeed. So let us seek the blessed fields where milk and honey flow and humans can relate to creation as God intended. Horace’s romanticism is enduring because the call of return is enduring. Deep within the Western psyche and tradition is this yearning for return. Horace, more than any other of the grandiose poets of antiquity, captured that call, that cry, for return—a yearning for a restored Eden where the peaceful harmony of life in a garden would be our eternal home.