Satires and Epistles by Horace | Satires by Persius.

For at least a month I've been working my way through the comparatively short Penguin edition of Horace's Satires and Epistles and Persius' Satires. It was a tough read. It includes:
  • Satires I by Horace.
  • Satires II by Horace.
  • Epistles I by Horace.
  • Epistles II by Horace, including Ars Poetica (which I'd already read).
  • Satires by Persius.
And now I'm giving myself the monumental task of reviewing them all at once, and you'll have to forgive me for being brief: I'm afraid I didn't get much out of them, and reading this felt far more like a chore than an intellectual exercise.

Satires (Satirae) were Horace's first published works, the first being written and published around 35 - 33 B.C. and the second around 30 B.C. There are ten poems in the first and eight in the second. Here's the beginning of the first poem:
How is it, Maecenas, that no one is content with his own lot -
whether he has got it by an act of choice or taken it up
by chance - but instead envies people in other occupations?
'It's well for the merchant!' says the soldier, feeling the weight of his years
and physically broken down by long weary service.
The merchant, however, when his ship is pitching in a southern gale,
cries 'Soldiering's better than this! Of course it is! You charge,
and all in a moment comes sudden death of the joy of victory.'
The expert in law and statute longs for the farmer's luck
when before daylight an anxious client knocks on his door.
The other, dragged up to town from the country to appear in court,
swears that only city folk know what happiness is.
He goes on in this vein, writing about discontentment and, so, contentment. He was inspired by  Epicureanism, a philosophy developed by the Greek philosopher Epicurus in the 4th Century B.C. who sought to explain happiness in terms of peace (ἀταραξία; ataraxia) and the absence of pain (ἀπονία; aponia). In the first of the satires, Horace criticises greed arguing in favour of balance. He then applies this to excessive and immoral sexual behaviour (adultery specifically), and then turns to character faults before writing on poetry, his journey to Brindisi, and his time as a soldier serving Brutus during the Civil War. He also writes on flattery, witchcraft, and Lucilius, the earliest Roman satirist (2nd Century B.C.) who inspired his work (along with Lucretius' On the Nature of Things).

In the second set of Satires Horace begins by writing why he writes. The first poem begins,
Some people think I'm too sharp in my satire and stretch
the form beyond its legitimate limits; the rest maintain
that whatever I write is slack and that a thousand verses like mine
could be wound off every day. Please advise me, Trebatius;
what am I to do?
          'Take a rest.'
                    Not to write verses at all,
you mean?
          'I do.'
                    Dammit you're right; that would be the best thing.
But I can't go to sleep.
Sleep, he says, is the reason for his writing, and he must write.

In the second satire, in line with the first collection, he writes on the simple life and the importance of balance, the next on Stoicism, and the fourth on good food and cooking. The fifth satire is perhaps the most famous: Horace writes on Odysseus discussing his lack of money with Tiresias, set in the Underworld and a continuation of Book XI of Homer's Odyssey. In the final three satires Horace writes on the pleasures of country life (Satire would be imitated by both Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift), Stoicism again, and a description of events at the dinner party of Maecenas as described by Horace's friend Fundanius. All in all, as suggested in the first satire of the second collection, they are more gentler in tone.

And now, the epistles. There are two collections: Epistularum liber primus (written around 20 B.C.) and Epistularum liber secundus (14 B.C.). They are not letters in the traditional sense as one would expect, but poems much like the Satires. They are concerned with the importance of philosophy, virtue, and balance, and in the early Epistles he writes that Homer's works were the root of the study of ethics. Contentment is a key theme in this collection as well as happiness and morality. Horace also writes again on country life. There are 20 epistles in this first collection, and in the second there are just three. The first, dedicated to Augustus, is on literature and taste, the second, dedicated to Julius Florus, is a continuation, and the third, usually treated as a separate entity, is the famous Ars Poetica, which I first read a few years ago now.

All in all I'd say Horace was a very interesting chap (not to be glib about it!), and I wonder if I'd have benefited from a different translation. I wanted to read these, but a part of the problem was I actually took too long with them and they came to hang over me somewhat. I'm glad to have read them, but I regret not enjoying them as much as I feel I ought to have done. One day, though, I will certainly return to them.

So, that's Horace. Next, a very short collection of satires by Persius, a Roman poet and Stoic of the 1st Century A.D., born about 100 years after Horace's first collection of Satires. There are six satires and they begin with a prologue,
I never drenched my lips in cart-horse spring,
nor dreamed upon Parnassus' two-pronged height
(I think) to explain my bursting on the scene
as poet. Pale Pirene and Helicon's Maods
I leave to those whose portraits are entwined
with clinging ivy. I present my song,
a semi-clansman, at the bardic rites.
Who coached the parrot to pronounce 'Bonjour!'?
Who helped the magpie mimic human speech?
Teacher or art, giver of genius' gift -
the belly, adept at bending nature's laws.
If cash sends out a tempting ray of hope,
then raven poets and magpie poetesses
you're swear were singing Pegasus' nectar-flow.
He goes on to criticise popular poetry of the time, dismissing it as false and written only for praise and reward. He hopes, he writes, for a reader who is above all that. From literature, he turns his attention to faith, arguing that men are fools with no concept of real belief, before turning his attention to sin, beginning with sloth, and arguing in favour of Stoic philosophy. Satire 4 examines the benefits of introspection arguing against what Persius sees as a perpetual concern with other people's faults, with Satire 5 arguing in favour of the control of reason. In the final satire, written to Caesius Bassus from the Ligurian coast, is on the subject of money, again advocating balance - be not greedy and miserly, but arguing that one should enjoy spending what one has rather than worrying about one's heir's inheritance. Another interesting collection, but dare I say not as enjoyable or as insightful as Horace (that, at least, is my opinion from my reading).

And there it is - a tough post to write, interesting but not wholly engaging, though that may be down to mood more than anything else. Despite that, I still look forward to reading Horace's Odes fairly soon!


  1. i think it was while reading the ars poetica that i really wished i had majored in Greek instead of geology... it always seemed to me that the translations were so lame... in my most recent post, Alfieri learned Greek when he was in his late fifties... maybe it's not too late? well, yes.. at 75 i'm not feeling that ambitious...

    1. I always mean to learn ancient Greek. I learned the alphabet and a few words but never got beyond that. I really really must pick that back up again...


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