Urban Hymns: Horace and city life

Horace’s first experience of Rome was as a schoolboy.  His father, a freedman who had risen to be a regional banker in Apulia, did not want him to go to the local school, where sons of the local military learned their twelve times tables, but sent him to the capital to study at Orbilius’s grammar school.

This was followed by university at Athens, but Horace was impetuous and, after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, signed up as a junior officer in Brutus’s army.  After a traumatic escape at the Battle of Philippi, he returned to Rome under amnesty. Stripped of his family estate, he bought a position as a treasury clerk.  

In his spare time he wrote verses.  He moved in the circle of Virgil, and was introduced to Maecenas, an enormously rich Etruscan who had become Octavian’s senior diplomatic adviser and negotiator.  It was Maecenas, as friend and sponsor, who supported Horace and bought him his farm in the Sabine Hills. In his early career, however, Horace was a man of the city.  He would wander around the poorer parts of Rome to pick up the accents and spy on the characters for his satirical verses.  Here was a world of tradesmen and misers, singers and prostitutes, soldiers and seafarers, petitioners and lawyers.

On evenings when he was not engaged in his literary circle, the proceedings could descend from drinking parties with “lamplight and wine” to drunken ribaldry and fighting (I.27).   Otherwise, his social life was taken up with young men and women whose emotional attachments seemed to change with the tides:

        Lycoris with her narrow brow
        Is passionate for Cyrus now,
        But Cyrus turns his thoughts away
        Towards abrasive Pholoe,
        And yet a wild goat sooner might
        With an Apulian wolf unite
Than Pholoe would sin and be
        Found in base adultery.


Sometimes, Horace reveals the life of the city not just by what he says, but by what he does not.  The young people he mentions have Greek or Thracian names.  Insofar as they are real and not imaginary, they are immigrants to the Roman metropolis.  There are no daughters of Roman citizens here.  Those would remain at home, protected, until given away in a suitable marriage.
Maecenas brought Horace into the world of the Augustan elite, the senatorial and equestrian families who had taken over a city despoiled by a succession of civil wars. In Horace’s odes we see glimpses of the city as it begins its renewal:

        Roman, though guiltless, you must now atone
            For your forefathers’ crimes, till you remake
        The shrines and temples that are falling down
            And the images polluted with black smoke.


When Maecenas decided to build a splendid new house, he chose a magnificent compound, high on the Esquiline Hill.  Horace describes it as “a hilltop palace with swanky gates and built in the latest style,” (III.1.45-49).  There was a tower, from which they could look down on the busy streets that were later supplanted by the Colosseum. But even from this vantage point, the poet felt a touch too close to the bustle and stench of the city:

        Give up tiresome prosperity,
            Your mansion climbing to the sky!
        Don’t stare at the city smoke and gaze
            At blessed Rome’s wealth and noisy ways!


Besides, he had his own work to do.  “How can I be thought capable here,” he wrote, “amid the billows of business and the tempests of the city, of composing lines to awake the sound of the lyre?” (Epistles II.2).  Here is a hint about the musical nature of the odes. In the Epodes Horace had been trying to scribere versiculos (write little verses).   The Odes, to use his own term, were carmina (songs).

He began writing the carmina in about 35 BC, adapting the rhythms and music of the sixth-century lyric poets of Greece to the more formal structures and syntax of Latin. His early audiences were young poets like himself and their coterie of friends.  But as his craft developed, and his association with Octavian and Maecenas, Horace’s Odes, like Virgil’s Aeneid, came to give legitimacy to the regime of the new Caesarian party.  

Horace became a polished entertainer, and entertainment presupposed a more formal performance.  Horace describes himself being called on stage with his lyre:
        We’re called.  If ever, sitting in the shade,
            I’ve strummed a tune with you that, both this year
        And in the years to come, will still be played,
            Come sing a Latin song, o Grecian lyre!


Maecenas’s palace compound had an auditorium that still exists.  It is a single-story hall, half sunken into the ground, about 24 metres long and 11 metres wide.  It was decorated as a sort of aquatic fairyland or nymphaeum with gently cascading waterfalls at the far end, and it seems to have been used as an elaborate dining salon, where guests at a symposium could recline on their triclinium couches and enjoy food, drink and entertainment.  Here was an environment where Horace could sing his compositions to Rome’s elite and enhance the prestige of his sponsor.

As an entertainer for City folk, Horace made a point of presenting himself as a more simple citizen and something of an environmentalist.  In describing what he is not, he gives us an insight into the lifestyle of the rich:

        No ivory, no gold panels shine
            Resplendent in a house of mine.
        No roofbeams from Hymettus weigh
            On columns hewn in Africa.
        No unknown heir of Attalus
            Am I, seizing his royal palace.
        For me no ladies of good birth
            Trail yards of purple Spartan cloth.


Indeed, the rich exported their city lifestyle to the holiday resort of Baiae.  As in Rome, there are builders at work:

        Meanwhile, the fishes feel the waters shrink
            As piles drive into the deep.  A busy band
        Of contractors and their employees sink
            Thick rubble for a lord who scorns the land.


But Rome had ceremony as well as squalor.  One of the Odes shows women participating in a religious celebration on Augustus’s safe return from Spain:

        His wife, rejoicing at her unique lord,
            Shall after sacred rituals appear;
        The sister of our emperor adored,
            The ladies wearing holy bands of prayer.


For men, these were occasions for noisier celebration.  On another occasion, Augustus comes up the Via Sacra crowned with triumphal bay and dragging his Sygambrian captives:
        Not once, but three times, we will shout the words
        “Joy! Triumph!” as you go.  The whole city
        Will cry, and we’ll burn incense to the gods
            For their generosity.


There were the regular holy days of the Roman calendar, too.  Here is Licymnia on the Ides of August:
        How neatly she can dance, and play
            Her jokes and games, and throw her arms
            Round girls glowing with youthful charms
        On thronged Diana’s holiday.


The most significant such occasion in Horace’s life was when he was asked by Augustus to compose and perform the Carmen Saeculare, the hymn for the Centennial Games of 17 BC.  The games were preceded by purification rites and the offering of first fruits.  The opening ceremony was at nightfall on 31st May and continued until the morning of 3rd June.  On that day, Augustus and Agrippa, in their capacity as leaders of the quindecimviri, the priestly college, made a sacrifice to Apollo and Diana on the Palatine Hill.  Afterwards, Horace’s choir of 27 boys and 27 girls, all freeborn and of living parents, sang the hymn, first on the Palatine Hill and then on the Capitoline:

        Phoebus and mighty Diana holding sway
        Over the forests, heaven’s bright ornament,
        Worshipped and worshipful, to our prayers consent
            On this holy day.

                                             (C.S. 1-4)

Horace liked to be away from Rome, in his beloved Sabine farm.  He paints an idyllic picture of the countryside there.  But this was no smallholding.  There were five tenant farmers on his estate and a full complement of servants.   This is a rich man’s country house to which urban entertainments are transferred at will.  It is a world of Greek wine and music, to which he tempts his lady friends away from the heat of the city:
        Here, you’ll escape in my secluded vale
            The dog days’ heat.  The Teian lyre you’ll play
        And tell of two loves sighing for one male,
            Penelope, and Circe bright as day.

        Here, in the shade, you’ll rest awhile and pour
            Deep goblets of my harmless Lesbian wines.

In winter, the distant Mount Soracte is considered from an urban perspective.  It may be cold outside, but indoors there is a log fire and vintage wine:

        Soracte stands before your eyes
            White with deep snow, the labouring woods
            Can’t hold their burden, and the floods
        Are stilled, set fast with jagged ice.

        So come and melt away the cold,
            Pile the logs high upon the fire
            And generously from a Sabine jar
        Draw off a vintage four years old.


The dichotomy between Horace’s rural self-image and sophisticated urbanity is underlined at the end of the same ode.  Here is Horace, back in the city, using financial terminology  (“lucro adpone …composita repetantur hora…pignus”) that he learned from his financier father:

        Don’t ask what will tomorrow bring!
            Count every day that Chance above
            Shall grant, a plus!  Shun not sweet love
        Or, while you’re young, to dance and sing!

        For now you are green, and grey hair sour
            Is far off.  Sports field and the square,
            Smooth whispers in the twilight air,
        Must be claimed now, at the appointed hour, –

        Soft laughter that betrays a girl
            Who in some deep nook hides her charms,
            And a pledge stolen from her arms
        Or finger that will just uncurl!


In the twilight of his life, Horace still invites attractive musicians to his house, but in the case of Phyllis, the party is not for her, but for Maecenas’s birthday.  Even in the country, the preparations seem almost metropolitan.  The silver, as Horace puts it, smiles within his house:

        Hither and thither servants hurry;
            The slave boys run, the busy girls;
        And rolling flames flicker and carry
            Black smoke that up the chimney curls.

This, the Ode to Phyllis, adds weight to the view that Horace’s odes were intended for sung performance.  “Come to me now, my own last love, – ” it concludes:

        No other love will keep me warm, –
            Learn, learn the music!  Come along,
        And with your lovely voice perform!
            Dark cares will become less with song.


A melody for this ode survives in a tenth-century manuscript in the Medical School library at Montpellier in southern France.  The notation takes the form of neumes, a system of dots and dashes above the text, which denote the musical pitches.  It is possible that the musical arrangement was used to help young students articulate and remember their Latin, as text books had to be written by hand in scriptoria and were too expensive to be widely available.

It is a beautiful tune.  Its discovery is a matter of real excitement.  Perhaps even more strange is the use to which the melody was put.  

The melody of the Ode to Phyllis starts on middle C, but each of the six half-lines that follow begins one note higher than its predecessor.  This is the tune which Guido d’Arezzo, the foremost music teacher of his day, used to invent do-re-mi.

Stuart Lyons is the author of Horace’s Odes and the Mystery of Do-Re-Mi and has a website at www.horace-odes.com.