I love Horace. His elegant odes about love, wine, and nature are syntactically complicated but charming. Readers of his most widely anthologized odes may have the impression that the author of the phrase carpe diem (“Seize the day, “Ode I.11 ) was mellow, jolly, and thoroughly congenial.
But Horace, a veteran of the civil war in 42 B.C., is often very dark. Critics underplay his uniquely Roman attitudes in their introductions to translations for non-Latin readers. The classicist David West wrote, “Those who know Horace well find that of all dead writers there is none who is a closer friend, who speaks more usefully in easy and in difficult times, and none whom they would more happily sit down to drink with.”
Much as I love Horace, I never regard him exactly as a friend. I feel closer to Catullus and Ovid, because they are very, very funny, lighter in tone, and less respectful of authority. Horace’s experience is terrifying, and his philosophy is often harsh. Although he describes the drowsy peace on his Sabine farm, given him by his patron, Maecenas, there is always a sense that he is still fleeing the terror and trauma of the war. Having fought on the wrong side of the war, he knows how to keep his head down. And he knows it was necessary to pay constant homage to Augustus in his poems. In his odes, he praises Augustus unctuously (as did Virgil and Ovid, though Ovid got banished anyway).
It is better to be in the middle, Horace writes, than to be too rich or too poor. In Ode III.XVI, he personifies Cura (“Care”) and Fames (Greed) as figures who hunt down the rich. He writes, “Care and Greed pursue increasing wealth. For that reason I have shaken with horror at the thought of raising my head too conspicuously high… As a poor man, I seek the camp of those desiring nothing and want as a deserter to leave the party of the rich.” In his description of his flight from Cura (“Care”), he uses military language: “camp” (castra, a military camp) and “deserter” (profuga, often used to describe fleeing soldiers or deserters).
In the first of six gloomy harsh Roman Odes in Book III, Horace personifies Fear, Threats, and Care as forces that pursue the rich as well as the poor. “But Fear and Threats climb to the same place as the master, nor does Black Care (or Anxiety) leave the bronze-plated trireme, and it sits behind the horseman.”
We must translate not only the elegant Latin poetry (untranslatable: the Latin rhythms and figures of speech and word order cannot be approximated) but ourselves to a place blitzed by decades of civil war, now ruled by a dictator with a soft hand but absolute power. The times we live in are harsh, and I finally understand Horace’s harsh descriptions of Black Care and Fear. In the 21st century, as Black Care pursues so many, we, too, drink our cheap wine, live simply, and quake at the thought of raising our heads too high.