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How to live for ever

Boris Johnson on the relationship between Horace the poet and Augustus the emperor, and why the poet identified with Mercury

10 September 2005

12:00 AM

10 September 2005

12:00 AM

I found myself in disgrace a while ago when I contrived to fly my family to a Greek airport called Preveza, only to discover on arrival that they didn’t have a hire car big enough for our purposes. It was about 11 p.m. and I was standing pathetically thinking about buses and looking at a map of the area when I saw that Preveza was really called Preveza Aktio.

‘Hey!’ I said to my wife. ‘It’s fantastic!’

‘What is fantastic?’ she asked in the tones of someone still faintly hoping that her husband would produce a people carrier. ‘It’s Actium,’ I cried. ‘All my life I have wanted to see Actium!’

‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘and I’m still waiting to see some action from you.’

‘You don’t understand,’ I said. ‘It’s the great battle of 31 bc, the naval engagement that changed the history of the world. It was the one where Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra. The Roman poets built it up as a clash of civilisations, east meets west, Roman virtues against the nard-dripping hordes of Egypt….’ For the rest of the week I am afraid I raved about the importance of this site, and on the last day I persuaded everyone to cram into the Korean saloon and to go in search of Actium, and above all of Nikopolis, the victory city built by Octavian as a lasting memorial to his triumph.

As I sat there looking at the scattered grey drums of the columns, I had a flash of complacent Gibbonian melancholy, and it occurred to me that I could not find a single inscription, or statue, or monument recording the connection between these lumps of masonry and the epoch-making ruler who founded Nikopolis or the victory he was commemorating; and so I took out my edition of Horace, and, ‘Horace, old man,’ I said to the book (rather in the manner of Horace himself, who believed in addressing his own volume), ‘Horace,’ I said, ‘you were right.

‘That monument you erected in 23 bc, in your first three books of Odes, has indeed turned out to be a good deal more perennial than bronze. Look what the imber edax has done to Nikopolis, not to speak of the innumerabilis annorum series. Who has been more effective at preserving the memory of the sea-battle — you, Horace, or the ruthless politician, who left nothing but anonymous ruins choked with geckos and brambles?’

It is not just Octavian who has triumphed over Antony at Actium; in a larger sense it is Horace who has triumphed over Augustus, and so helped to settle one of the great questions posed by his own work.


Who, ultimately, is more important, the subject of the poem or the writer? The sitter or the artist? The journalist or the politician? It is a question that Horace raises repeatedly to the powerful Romans who were his patrons. There were many brave men who lived before Agamemnon, he notes in the fourth book of Odes, but they were all unwept by posterity, all lost in death’s dateless night because they lack a holy bard, carent quia vate sacro.

Never was there an artist who played so successfully with the relative positions — in life and in death — of himself and his addressees. As he never tires of telling us, he was of humble origins, born in Venusia in 65 bc, son of a coactor, an auctioneer, that model Tory parent who made sacrifices to send Horace to a seriously posh school where the classics were thrashed into him. He’s sensitive about his origins; he’s sensitive about fighting on the wrong side at Philippi in 42 bc, when he ingloriously stuck up for Brutus and Cassius and the republican principle; and he’s aware of the political compromise he appears to be making in celebrating these staggeringly rich dynasts of the Caesarian faction.

Above all, he is sensitive about his financial dependency on Maecenas, and the obligation this sets up. No matter how often he tries to tell us that it’s really rather modest, that Sabine farm, and that there’s nothing he likes better than cheap wine and simple tankards, the truth of his circumstances is inescapable. He has at least three properties, and possibly five, one of them with at least eight tenants. He’s got mosaics, and gleaming silver. He’s got fountains, and babbling brooks and echoing waterfalls, and forests stocked with poetically helpful falling trees, wolves and platoons of virgins and young boys, to whom he sings. He has unlimited supplies of ivy, myrtle, Achaemenian nard and other key sympotic equipment, and far from being content with plonk he is the world’s first serious wine snob and goes on about vineyards and vintages in a way that is unmistakably nouveau riche. Me locupletem fecisti, you’ve made me rich, he tells Maecenas in a moment of candour, and his poetic challenge is to repay that debt while being true to himself and his art. So his strategy is not so much to bite the hand that feeds him but to nibble it, sometimes quite hard.

How can he cope, a self-respecting poet, with this wave of sesterces that Maecenas sends crashing over his bows? The obvious answer is to moralise about wealth, and at times to mount vicious attacks on millionaires, like the monster of Baiae who pushes out the coastline and stuns the fishes with the foundations of his new villa, and who kicks out poor families together with their household gods and their grubby little children. Is this an attack on Maecenas? Not exactly, but it wasn’t meant to be entirely comfortable reading. How is a self-respecting ex-republican poet supposed to cope with his new status, as the hired psalmist of Augustus, that chill and subtle terrorist, whose regime has grown rich on the property of the men it has liquidated?

The answer of course is to extol the princeps and the principate, but to fill the poems with little coughs and inflections that signal an alternative viewpoint: a hint of sympathy for Pompey lying chopped up on the shore; a suspicion of admiration for Cleopatra; repeated and sometimes incongruous references to the bloody-minded Cato, instant symbol of old republican rectitude. None of this is to say that Horace was some dissident poet. His flattery may sometimes be emetic — ‘When your face beams upon the people it’s just like spring, O Caesar, and the day passes more pleasantly and the sun shines more sweetly’ — but there is no reason to think Horace wholly insincere in his admiration of Augustus, and no matter how often he puts him down, he was genuinely fond of and grateful to Maecenas.

The purpose of these coughs and asides is literary. He is a poet, and he knows that the poem won’t be genuinely flattering unless it has moral integrity, and given his financial and political circumstances it is poetically essential for him to assert not just his independence but his importance; and by heck he does. Was there ever a poet who dwelt with such unabashed exuberance on his own unique and historic status?

He was the first to pour the Italian wine into Greek bottles, to mix the Chian with the Falernian, to take the lyric metres suited to the tiny tessellations of Greek, and yet so ingeniously to dress the heftier marble of Latin that his stones click sweetly and unforgettably into place, in a way not achieved before or since. He can do this because he is as priestly, in his way, as any pontifex maximus or other politician entrusted with religious office. He is a sacer vatis, he is the sacerdos musarum, and when he sings he wants a bit of ’ush, because he is god-gifted; and which is his special god — celebrated in that pivotal tenth ode of the first book, a poem whose only purpose is to magnify that immortal? It could have been Apollo, who tugged the trembling ears of Callimachus and Milton. But no, it’s Mercury, Mercuri facunde nepos Atlantis, Mercury wh
o appears at key moments in Horace’s life and who had something like the status of Horace’s personal divinity.

Mercury rescues him at Philippi; and when he is saved from the falling tree it is because he is a vir Mercurialis; Mercury he thanks in the Satires for his farm, and if I am right in thinking that Mercury was important to Horace’s poetic self-conception, the question is, why? Well, of course Mercury is logios: he’s the god of poetry and eloquence and therefore the supreme exponent of the chat-up line. In I.30 Horace asks Venus to go to the house of Glycera, who is praying for her to come, as are lots of other girls with loosened girdles; Mercuriusque — and Mercury too! By which Horace means not just the god but also Horace himself, in the sense that it is Mercury who gives Horace his nifty sweet-talking skills, and there is no point in Venus getting Glycera nicely primed if Horace/Mercury can’t follow it up; and that is of course Mercury’s role at Philippi, too, a metaphor for Horace’s own poetic cunning.

As Porphyrio the scholiast perceptively says, Iucunde autem a Mercurio se sublatum de illa caede dicit, significans clam et quasi furto quodam se inde fugisse. ‘He playfully suggests that it was by Mercury that he was removed from that slaughter, meaning that he fled the scene in secret and as if by some dodge.’ Who knows exactly how Horace made his escape after he chucked his shield and scarpered? Did he pretend to be someone else? Did he pretend to be on the other side? Whatever it was, this dodge, you can bet it was thoroughly facundus and Mercurial. As Horace concisely suggests in that programmatic ode, I.10, Mercury is the perfect divinity for a poet like him. Mercury can do comic: viduus pharetra risit Apollo, the exasperated senior god laughing at his cheek, just as his great patrons were intended to laugh at Horace’s teasing. And Mercury can do the tragic and moving stuff, accompanying Priam through the line in one of the sublime moments of the Iliad. So Horace signals the literary advantages of his association with Mercury, the logios, the facundus, whose alternation of mood and function exactly suits his own poetic temperament. Nor is that the only merit, in a self-respecting poet, of being a vir Mercurialis.

It has been pointed out by my late and much lamented tutor, Oliver Lyne, that it was only after the battle of Actium, in 31 bc, that Horace started to crank out the public poetry, and Oliver points out that this was for the prudent if not noble reason that there was no longer any need for a sensible man to hedge his bets: Augustus was on top, and likely to remain so, and in the new atmosphere Horace produces pieces of enormous political and moralising pretension. In fact he sometimes reads like Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail after a particularly difficult Tube ride. Young girls think of sex to the tips of their tender fingers! Is this the race that conquered Antiochus and Hannibal? asks Simon Heffer. I tell you what, says Peter Hitchens in a provocative personal view, Roman wives these days are having it off with Spanish sea captains and travelling salesmen.

Now if you are a self-respecting poet, and you are producing this kind of right-wing claptrap in response to Augustus’s moral and sumptuary reforms, you must be very careful how you do it. You can’t do it too often, and if your poems are to have any value — even to the politicians who have commissioned them — you can’t come across as some Pravda-like toady to the regime. You’ve got to be poetic, and refractory, and tricksy, and that’s why Horace so often protests that his Muse is procax and his lyra is imbellis, and that’s why he chooses to accomplish so much through the device of the recusatio. It is poetically vital for him to minimise the fact of his basic subservience to Caesar, Caesar qui cogere posset, and that’s why he finds it useful to posit a kind of bathetic equivalence between himself and his famous honorands. Maecenas almost died; yes, says Horace, and I was almost killed by a falling tree. The great men are always going off on dangerous sea voyages or military campaigns; well, I’ve done a few amatory ship journeys myself, says Horace, and vixi puellis nuper idoneus et militavi non sine gloria; and in so far as he is a vir Mercurialis he shares that identification with the highest and the greatest man in Rome, as he explains in those truly astonishing lines in I.2, near the beginning of his collection:

Or you, Mercury, winged child of sweet Maia! If you descend to earth and take the form of a youth, and allow yourself to be called the avenger of Caesar, may you not go back early to heaven, and may you dwell long among the Roman people, and may you not be soon wafted back to heaven, offended by our crimes ….

No wonder these lines have so excited Christians; but what an appalling and frightening thing it is to say about a man against whom Horace fought, after all, and who is now brutally centralising power on himself and his faction. Does Horace really mean to say that he is a god incarnate, this Augustus? Not really, and in any case for Horace to identify a man with Mercury is not quite the compliment it seems, because there is a final sense in which Horace is not just the ward and protégé of Mercury, but also carries out the ultimate function of that divinity.

What are Horace’s poems all about? Why is he such a charming and beguiling companion to those of us who have completed our 8th lustrum and hung up our dripping vestments (more or less) in the temple of Venus? It’s because he writes about mortality and loss, and the prospect that we will all soon be as white-topped and frozen-veined as Soracte, and he writes about all the pleasures of life that are made sweeter and sadder by the imminence of that loss. He can say it in a nasty way, as he does to poor old Lyce, the aging strumpet who presumably once turned him down. But one way or another he seems to say it to almost all his addressees; they’re going to die.

You’re going to die, Moriture Delli; eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume; Pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas regumque turris, O beate Sesti. You’re all going to die, says Horace to his honorands, except in this sense: the poem is aere perennius. The poem is going to live. That is why it is of course no coincidence that Horace twice refers to Mercury’s ultimate function, first at the end of 1.X, as the god who takes over after death:

‘You place the souls of the dead in their joyful seats, and with your golden wand you control the airy throng, darling of the gods above and below …’.

And he comes back to this role at the end of II.18, where Nisbet and Hubbard are surely right to see that Mercury must be the satelles Orci, who guides the poor man and the sons of kings alike beneath the earth. If Horace is a vir Mercurialis, as he says, then he is also surely Mercurialis in this most powerful sense, that he is psychopompos, that he guides them above and then below, that by his poetic and Mercurial gifts he determines their destination and indeed their very existence after death, and in that respect he is fantastically powerful, more powerful even than Augustus, that other vir Mercurialis, because it is his poetry that makes him the gatekeeper to immortality.

The poet could not be clearer on this point. There may have been brave men before Agamemnon, but they had no poet to immortalise them. And in IV.8 he corrects the impression of III.3, that you can achieve immortality by virtue alone. Immortality is a metaphor, says Horace, a fa


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