Horace is rarely compared to Stephen King. In fact, he is never compared to Stephen King. I am the first to make the comparison. And I don’t read Stephen King, because his books give me nightmares.
Although my “Truth in Wine” series of posts depicted Horace as an adorable oenophile who conversed with a wine jar, there are serious, even stern, facets to his character. The six poems known as the Roman Odes (the first six odes of Book III) are very disturbing. His descriptions of the wrath of Juppiter, Juno, and other gods are as blood-curdling as any passage in Stephen King. Yes, we are patriotic, but I am always disturbed by Horace’s famous line, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” (Carmina III.2). It gave me flashbacks to writers’ conferences where the war veterans submitted disturbingly violent short stories in which the teachers had to find positive elements to praise in order to support the men psychologically. And of course Wilfred Owen, the World War I poet, wrote his own response to Horace in the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Life was one long war in the first century B.C. in Rome. Horace had fought (on the wrong side) of the civil war between Octavian (later called Augustus) and Antony. In his poetry, Horace alludes to the peace established by Augustus, who became a benign emperor, though never called that, in the wake of three civil wars. Horace praises the cardinal virtues, the morals, and the old Roman religion: Augustus wanted to reform the decadent society. Some consider Horace’s Roman odes propaganda, but others point out the ambiguities that sometimes undercut the surface.
In Book III, Ode 6, the dulce et decorum sentence is the crux of the fourth stanza, which falls in the middle of Horace’s eight-stanza poem. And the placement of the stanza emphasizes Horace’s view of war and death. Here is the entire stanza (the Latin below the English):
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit imbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo. 15
It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.
Death chases even the man who flees
and does not spare the peace-loving youth:
it gets him in the back or the knees.
* “peace-loving” is often translated “cowardly”
Horace says that no one can escape war or death. They’ll get your back or knees if you turn away. And does this knowledge of the inevitability of death make it easier for the survivors of war and the parents of the dead? I am not a member of a military family. I have never faced this situation. Would the Romans have found comfort in this philosophy?