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Horace’s pulp fiction? Rediscovering the Epodes

When it comes to Roman poets, most have heard of Horace (Horatius Quintus Flaccus). Horace is the freedman’s son who, against all odds – impoverished circumstances, fighting on the losing side at the Battle of Philippi (42B.C.) – secured the patronage of Maecenas, Augustus’ right hand man. He is the poet of a multi-book lyric work, the Odes, which gave us the well-known cliché carpe diem! (C.1.11.8) and which inspired its parody, carpe noctem, often a popular name for bars, clubs, and other establishments.

But while most people have at least a passing acquaintance with Horace’s most famous work, few have bothered to read, or indeed have heard of, his iambic Epodes. The Epodes are a pugnacious little collection of seventeen poems, at times witty and smutty, but more often than not, a verbal slap in the face. Today all but the most hardened tend to steer clear of this slim yet challenging collection. But this wasn’t always the case. Horace’s version of pulp fiction, or trash aesthetics, not only appealed to the masses of his own times, but spawned characters such as the wicked witch of Rome, Canidia, who remained a well-known figure up until the end of the 19th century. What happened, then, to make Horace’s Epodes fall off the best-sellers’ list?

Horace published his Epodes some time in 30 or 29 BC, some five years after the publication of his first book of Satires (36/35BC). As a collection of iambic poetry, Horace’s Epodes are firmly rooted in the iambic tradition of Greek writers such as Archilochus and Callimachus, whose biting invective poetry aimed at lampooning (directly or indirectly) various figures of their own day. The collection proved popular, at least to Horace. At the start of his Epistles 1.19, published some time in 20BC or 19BC, Horace makes the claim: ‘It was I who first showed Latium Parian iambics (Parios ego primus iambos/ ostendi Latio).’ No matter that Horace is playing fast and loose with the truth here – iambic in fact already had a long history in Rome and was the meter of Comedy and Tragedy – by stating the primacy of his Epodes, Horace was staking his claim to have created something innovative and worthy of attention.

Painting of Horace by Adalbert von Roessler. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Horace. Oil on canvas by Adalbert von Roessler. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, however worthy of attention the Epodes might be, they have been overshadowed by his more popular works. The Epodes are often viewed by scholars as a warm-up act in Horace’s career before he sat down seriously to compose his Odes. In part, this response is due to the position that the Epodes occupies in Horace’s literary corpus: caught between his informal hexameter poetry, the Satires (Book 1, 36/35BC; Book 2, 30/29BC), and the more elevated tone of his celebrated lyric Odes (Books 1-3, 23 BC), readers of the Epodes have often found themselves looking either forwards or backwards, and rarely giving their undivided attention to this little collection. Recent scholarship has tried to give the Epodes their due, and to focus on this collection of poems as a work worthy of attention in its own right. But it would be wrong to assume that the Epodes languished in obscurity from ancient times onwards until contemporary scholars in a fit of Horatian fervour decided to switch on the light.

True, for the majority of the 20th century few people had heard of the Epodes, but their popularity within the Anglo-speaking world for at least three centuries prior to this has just now come to light. Evidence shows that they featured as an important part of the curriculum in many English schools, albeit in sanitised form with the more scandalous Epodes (notably 8 and 12) removed. From the 17th century onwards, they were often published in translation alongside the Odes serving as a worthy companion piece.

Finally, there is Canidia, the witchy star of the Epodes, who was so well known in literate circles from the 17th – 19th centuries that she often appeared in texts without any direct reference to the Epodes. The transformation of this mythological hell-raiser to obscure nobody during the 19th century is symptomatic of the Epodes’ fall from grace during this period too. Both text and witch were probably victims of historical events: the advent of the First World War which signalled huge societal upheaval and the loss of ‘Classics’ on the school curriculum. Popular culture continued to perpetuate the legacy of a Hercules and a Spartacus, but the witchy Canidia had lost her invective bite. Thankfully for Canidia, and the rest of the individuals who populate the world of Horace’s Epodes, Horace’s smallest collection is staging a come-back. It remains to be seen if it can ever recapture the attention of writers to the extent that it once did.

Headline image credit: Carpe Diem by pedrik. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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