Stephen Harrison


            Two long-running issues in the criticism of  Horace's first book of Epistles now appear to be in a steady state: that of whether these twenty hexameter poems are in any sense 'real' letters, and that of whether Horace's professions of philosophical eclecticism in the programmatic Epistles 1.1 (13-19) are borne out by the collection. On the first issue, most would now agree that 'while the possibility remains that some of the Epistles were actually sent as letters, they are best judged as fictional discourse' and that these poems aim at 'a lively illusion of reality'  (Kilpatrick 1986 : xvii). On the second issue, Horace's lack of dogmatism seems to be re-established after attempts to make him more philosophically systematic, and he is now seen as an independent purveyor of familiar ethical generalisations. [1]  These issues form the background to the questions addressed here. First, what kind of techniques does Horace use to present philosophical material (whatever it is) within the context of a collection of hexameter poetry ?  And second, how does Horace's fictionalised use of the letter-form (assuming that it is fictionalised) relate to ancient practice and prescription in the field of letter-writing ?   These issues will be dealt with separately in what follows, but as will emerge, they are crucially interrelated : letters were well-known as a means of presenting philosophy in the ancient world (note the extant epistles ascribed to Plato and Epicurus, and the lost epistles of Aristotle), and some of the techniques used in the presentation of philosophy in the Epistles have clear links with the prescriptions of ancient epistolographical theory.


1 : Poetry and Philosophy


            The idea of putting philosophy into hexameter poetry was not of course original to Horace. Its history stretches back to Parmenides and Empedocles, and the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius had come out in the 50's B.C. There is clear evidence that Horace knew and used the work of Lucretius in the Satires and Odes as well as the Epistles [2], but there are some important differences between the two poets. Horace deals not with the relatively recondite subject of Epicurean physics but with the central matters of ethics and personal conduct, common topics of educated conversation at Rome and closely applicable to everyday life; here, as has long been recognised, he is indebted to the De Officiis of Cicero, another publication of the previous generation, which tries similarly to apply the precepts of Greek ethics to the practice of Roman public and private life (McGann 1969 : 10-14). There is also the question of dogmatism, intensity and grandeur: the doctrinaire missionary fervour and epic sublimity of Lucretius, though tempered at times by reflection and humour, is far from the mellow and humble protreptic persona adopted by Horace in the first book of Epistles.

            Horace's presentation of philosophy in the first book of Epistles may be considered under two general headings: that of the poet's own self-representation as writer of the poems, and that of  how the resources of hexameter poetry in particular are used in the exposition of ethics.


            (i) Self-presentation


                        The first and programmatic poem of Epistles 1 gives the reader vital indications of the kind of philosopher Horace will be (Ep.1.1.1-12):


                        Prima dicte mihi, summa dicende Camena,

                        spectatum satis et donatum iam rude quaeris,

                        Maecenas, iterum antiquo me includere ludo.

                        non eadem  est aetas, non mens. Veianius armis

                        Herculis ad postem fixis latet abditus agro,

                        ne populum extrema totiens exoret harena.

                        est mihi purgatam crebro qui personet aurem:

                        'solve senescentem mature sanus equum, ne

                        peccet ad extremum ridendus et ilia ducat'.

                        nunc itaque et versus et cetera ludicra pono;

                        quid verum atque decens, curo et rogo et omnis in hoc sum.

                        condo et compono quae mox depromere possim.


                        Proclaimed by me in my first poetry, to be proclaimed in my last,

                        Maecenas, you seek to shut me up in my school/play of old.

                        Though already enough on show and presented with my retirement-sword.

                        My age, my mind are not the same. Veianius hung his arms

                        On Hercules’ door and stays quiet hidden in the country,          

                        To avoid begging the people so often from the arena’s edge.

                        I have a voice which rings in my ear, now clean of dirt :

                        ‘Come to sense in time and loose the ageing stallion,

                        So that he doesn’t stumble at the last and split his sides’.

                        So now I lay aside poetry and other playthings :

                        What is true and fitting is my care and request, I’m all for that.

                        I fashion/store and lay up/compose things to draw down in due course.


Horace here describes his turning to philosophy as the retirement of a gladiator, who does not wish to enter again the ludus, playing on the double sense of that word, which means both 'gladiatorial school' and 'frivolous play' (West 1967 : 23-4) : the metaphorical message to Maecenas is clearly that Horace will not write another book of  erotic Odes after the recent publication of Odes 1-3, and that he is keen to put such frivolities behind him in his new ethical project.  Ludus can refer specifically to love as well as to erotic poetry, as it does in a similar context at Epistles 1.14.36, non lusisse pudet, sed non incidere ludum, ‘I’m not ashamed to have played, but of not cutting the game short’ (cf. TLL 7.1789.32ff) ;  Horace is presenting himself as too old both for love and for its poetry, as at Odes 3.26.1-2 : vixi puellis nuper idoneus, / et militavi non sine gloria, ‘I have lived my life until recently as one fit or girls, and I have campaigned not without glory’ (cf. also Odes 1.5.13-16) .

The image used there was of course the elegiac one of the militia amoris; here in the Epistles the same idea is presented through the image of the retired gladiator, a decidedly down-market and sordid version of the same metaphor (Veianius is not an elevated character - as a gladiator he was probably a slave). The rural retirement of the gladiator (latet abditus agro) reinforces  the parallel with Horace the poet on his own Sabine ager (Ep.1.16.4): Horace's pensive withdrawal to the country and its opportunities for philosophical reflection will be a major theme in Epistles 1 (cf. Ep.1.7, 1.10, 1.14, 1.16). This lower tone is confirmed by the image of lines 8-9, where Horace's poetry is compared to a clapped-out nag, a reduced and comic version of the chariot of poetry; [3] Horace will have to slow down to a walk, suitable to the Musa pedestris of sermo (Sat 2.6.17). Explicit allusion to philosophy comes at lines 10-12, where all poetry is renounced in favour of moral philosophy. The protestation is solemn, but tinged with not a little humour: Horace is after all renouncing poetry in the context of introducing a book of poems, a type of ironic fiction found elsewhere in his hexameter poetry (Sat.1.4.41-2, AP 306). As in the opening image of the ludus, ambiguous language indicates this irony: condo and compono are technical terms for the storage or laying down of wine in a cellar, but both verbs can also refer elsewhere in Horace to the composition of poetry (Mayer 1994 : 90).

            So the first book of Epistles begins with a self-representation which is far from sublime, and with a renunciation of poetry in favour of morality which is strongly stated but cannot be literally  true; the erotic and symposiastic themes of the Odes do largely disappear, but the collection is indubitably poetic. The apparent conversion to philosophy is at least partly a fiction for literary purposes, since philosophical concerns are far from absent from Horace's earlier writings. [4] The poet is not a 'born again' fundamentalist missionary in the Lucretian mould, but is able to joke about his new career as a poetic purveyor  of philosophy to his friends. This combination of self-depreciating humour and enthusiasm in conveying his philosophical interests is a hall-mark of Horace's self-presentation in the first book of  Epistles. This is confirmed by further examples. In Ep. 1.4 Horace writes to Tibullus, [5] advising his fellow-poet to enjoy the material benefits of his comfortable life while he may, despite the emotional traumas he writes about in his love-elegies (12-16):


                        inter spem curamque, timores inter et iras,

                        omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum.

                        grata superveniet quae non sperabitur hora.

                        me pinguem et nitidum bene curata cute vises

                        cum ridere voles Epicuri de grege porcum.


                        Amid hope and concern, amid fear and anger

                        Believe every day to have dawned your last.

                        Pleasant will be the coming of the hour that’s not expected.

                        You’ll come and see me, fat and shining with well-cared-for skin

                        When you want to laugh at a porker from Epicurus’ herd.


Once again this famous self-characterisation by Horace is clearly not an elevated one, and  here again, as in the opening epistle, it is conjoined with earnest philosophical exhortations, here of an Epicurean kind no doubt suited to a hedonistic elegist. [6] Horace the philosophical teacher uses self-depreciation as a captatio benevolentiae.

            Horace commonly presents himself in Epistles 1 not as the great teacher and moral paragon but as a fallible fellow-pupil, while still urging a particular moral line. At the end of Ep.1.6, Horace refers to his advice as no better than anyone else's,  but encourages Numicius to take it if he knows nothing else better (67-8), while at the beginning of Ep.1.17, in an equally prominent position, Scaeva is given instruction on the art of friendship, a philosophical subject in antiquity (see Powell 1995), but by a Horace who is still learning and who is like a blind man leading the way (3-4). Twice Horace, advocating the consistent moral life, alludes prominently to his own inconsistency (Ep.1.8, 1.15.42-6), and the final poem of the book, although it is not concerned with philosophy as such, continues this modest self-presentation, in a direct contrast with the great closing claims for the poet made in Odes 2.20 and 3.30 (see Harrison 1988). The rationale behind this modesty both as poet and as teacher of philosophy is clear enough : Horace is evidently going to get further in interesting his friends in ethical topics by not posing as an omniscient sage. The humorous and fallible self-image of the poet as philosopher in Epistles 1 helps to convey its protreptic message in the most effective and acceptable way.


            (ii)  Poetic Packaging


                        I now turn to the advantages of poetry in general and of the hexameter in particular in Horace's presentation and packaging of philosophical material in Epistles 1. Two techniques will suffice here. One is the use of single-line sententiae, 'one-liners', through which the poet can encapsulate a thought in a single syntactical unit in one easily-memorable hexameter. There are many examples, of which the following list is merely a convenient selection:


            1.  Ep. 1.1.19               et mihi res, non me rebus subiungere conor

                                                ‘I try to yoke events to myself, not myself to events’

            2.  Ep. 1.1.52              vilius argentum est auro, virtutibus aurum

                                                ‘silver’s inferior to gold, gold to good qualities’ 

            3.  Ep. 1.2.46               quod satis est cui contingit nihil amplius optet

                                                ‘let he who has enough never wish for more’                

            4.  Ep. 1.4.13               omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum

                                                ‘believe every day to have dawned your last’

5.  Ep. 1.6.23               hic tibi sit potius quam tu memorabilis illi

                                                ‘let him be a marvel to you rather than you to him’

            6.  Ep. 1.7.98               metiri se quemque suo modulo ac pede verum est

‘it’s a truth that each gauges himself by his own foot and measure’

            7.  Ep. 1.11.27             caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt

‘those who speed across the sea change climate, not their spirits’

            8.  Ep. 1.14.11             cui placet alterius, sua nimirum est odio sors 

                                                ‘he who likes another’s lot naturally hates his own’

            9.  Ep. 1.14.44             quam scit uterque libens censebo exerceat artem

                                                ‘I’ll rule that each of us should pursue the art he knows’

            10. Ep. 1.16.17            tu recte vivis, si curas esse quod audis

‘you live rightly, if you take care to match your reputation’

            11. Ep. 1.17.10            nec vixit male qui natus moriensque fefellit

‘he has lived no bad life who was born and died in obscurity’

            12. Ep. 1.17.36            non cuivis homini contingit adire Corinthum

                                                ‘not every man gets to go to Corinth

            13. Ep. 1.18.9              virtus est medium vitiorum et utrimque reductum

‘virtue is a mean between opposite vices, far removed from either end’


These thirteen one-line sententiae divide into two types: those which express a very general philosophical or proverbial idea, and those which translate or adapt known moral precepts of Greek philosophers. Of the first type, 3 encapsulates the ideal of self-sufficiency (autarkeia) desiderated by most ancient philosophies, 6 the general idea that each man has his own individual measure, 7 refers to the common idea that travel does not ease the mind, 8 to the commonplace that each man dislikes his own lot and wants another (mempsimoiria) while 6, 9 and 12 are versions of known proverbs; [7] here it is worth recalling that ancient proverbs were often expressed in metrical units. [8] For each of the second type, we can trace a particular Greek prose source cast by Horace into verse, as follows : [9]


1. cf. Aristippus in Diogenes Laertius 2.75   eÃxw ... a)ll' ou)k eÃxomai

2. cf. Plato Laws 5.728a  xruso\j a)reth=j ou)k a)nta/cioj         

4. cf. Epicurus fr. 490 Us. (Plutarch De Tranq. 474C)   o( th=j auÃrion hÀkista

deo/menoj ... hÀdista pro/seisi pro\j th\n auÃrion      

5. cf. Plutarch De Tranq. 470 d  zhlwto\n eiånai ma=llon hÄ zhlou=n e(te/rouj

10. cf. Socrates in Xenophon Mem.2.6.39    oÀ ti aÄn bou/lv dokeiÍn a)gaqo\j eiånai,

tou=to kaiì gene/sqai a)gaqo\n peira=sqai

11. cf. Epicurus fr. 551 Us. la¢qe biw¢saj

13. cf. Aristotle NE 2.6 1106b-1107a       ãEstin aÃra h( a)reth\ ... meso/thj de\ du/o kakiw½n,

th=j me\n kaq' u(perbolh\n th=j de\ kat' eÃlleiyin


Thus it is clear that Horace is aware in the Epistles that hexameter verse adds an extra dimension to the presentation of philosophical precepts, enabling the poet to communicate philosophical views, whether general or particular, with epigrammatic point and neatness in a single regular and memorable unit not available to writers of prose.

            A second resource offered by the poetic medium is that of imagery. Of course, prose texts and prose expositions of philosophy need not be poor in imagery (Plato's dialogues and Seneca's letters are good counter-examples), but the Epistles show that poetry, especially hexameter poetry with its long and rich tradition,  offers greater opportunity for such ornament, and Lucretius had provided an important precedent for the extensive use of imagery in the poetic exposition of philosophy. [10] One particular technique which the Epistles share with Lucretius here is the use of analogy with the familiar and visual in giving expositions of  non-visual philosophical ideas.  A few examples. In the first poem Horace compares disorder of appearance and of soul (Ep.1.1.94-100):


                        si curatus inaequali tonsore capillos

                        occurri, rides; si forte subucula pexae

                        trita subest tunicae vel si toga dissidet impar,

                        rides: quid mea cum pugnat sententia secum,

                        quod petiit spernit, repetit quod nuper omisit,

                        aestuat et vitae disconvenit ordine toto,

                        diruit, aedificat, mutat quadrata rotundis ?


                        If I meet you with my hair done by a barber who cuts crooked,

                        You laugh; if a worn shirt is under my smooth new tunic,

                        Or if my toga parts unevenly, you laugh :

                        What then, when my mind is at variance with itself,

                        Spurns what it used to pursue, seeks again what it just dropped,

                        Seethes and is at odds in the whole ordering of life,

                        Demolishes, builds, changes square for round ?


Here Horace comically implies that the elegant Maecenas is more interested in minor aberrations in Horace's dress and appearance than in major aberrations in his moral and internal state. The minute and everyday details of dress and haircut give the thought a strong visual element, and suggest that moral confusion is just as common a state as untidiness of dress, a significant disadvantage in polite Roman society, so forcing it on the reader's attention. Very similar is the briefer image at 1.10.42-3:


                        cui non conveniet sua res, ut calceus olim,

                        si pede maior erit, subvertet, si minor, uret.


                        If a man’s fortune doesn’t fit him, it’s like a shoe :

Too big for his foot, it will trip him up in time, too small, it’ll pinch him.



There discontent with one's material lot is aptly compared to an ill-fitting shoe, which will be uncomfortable if it is either too small or too big; again the sartorial detail brings the moral point home to the reader. Another instance is 1.18.84-5:


                        nam tua res agitur, paries cum proximus ardet,

                        et neglecta solent incendia sumere viris.


                        For it’s your concern when the neighbour’s wall burns,

                        And fires that are left alone usually grow in strength.


Here Horace advises Lollius to stick by friends who are attacked by others - he may be next, and will need their support in turn. This is reinforced by the vivid image of the burning house; in the close confines of a heavily inflammable Rome, conflagrations were all too common, and a neighbour's property in flames meant disaster for one's own. [11] All this is very similar to the technique by which Lucretius presents such invisible and arcane scientific matter as atomic motion through comparison in similes with things and events common in the visual life of late Republican Rome, most memorably public festivals or events in the theatre (cf. West 1969 : 49-63).

            The same can be said for the deployment of another image in the Epistles, the idea that philosophy is a cure for the soul just as medicine is a cure for the body. Again this is an image which begins in prose texts such as Democritus and Plato, but in Epistles 1 Horace uses it a number of times, taking advantage of the capacity of a poetry-book to continue and develop an image. [12] This medical analogy appears prominently in the first and programmatic poem (1.28-37):


                        non possis oculo quantum contendere Lynceus,

                        non tamen idcirco contemnas lippus inungi;

                        nec quia desperes invicti membra Glyconis,

                        nodosa corpus nolis prohibere cheragra.

                        est quadam prodire tenus, si non datur ultra.

                        fervet avaritia miseroque cupidine pectus:

                        sunt verba et voces quibus hunc lenire dolorem

                        possis et magnam morbi deponere partem.

                        laudis amore tumes: sunt certa piacula quae te

                        ter pure lecto poterunt recreare libello.


                        Just because you couldn’t strain your eyes like Lynceus

                        Doesn’t mean that you should reject ointment when they’re sore :

                        And if you have no hope of the firm limbs of the champion Glycon,

                        You should still keep your body free of knotty gout.

                        You can always advance a little, even if you can’t go any further.

                        Your breast seethes with greed and wretched desire :

                        There are words and expressions to soothe that kind of pain,

                        And to dispel a great part of the disease.

You swell with desire for glory: there are certain rites which can give you respite,

                        When you’ve three times read your book in purity of heart.


Here the poet encourages Maecenas and the reader in general to make as much effort to cure their moral ills as they would to heal physical complaints. The illnesses named as analogies in lines 29-31 are familiar and everyday ones, inflamed eyes and gout; the poet then goes on to treat moral ills in terms of bodily metaphor, with some careful and elegant ambiguity - fervet can refer to simple feverish heat as well as spiritual warmth, lenire dolorem is as appropriate to the relief of physical pain as to mental soothing, while tumes can suggest malignant physical swelling as well as the metaphorical swelling of ambition (Mayer 1994 : 95). Ter pure suggests a formula of magical or medicinal relief of a physical kind, [13] an idea continued in recreare, but lecto ... libello points the surprise and the intentional ambiguity - the illness is one of the spirit, and its cure is a book, a text of philosophy, perhaps the very book which the poet is writing. The reader is being encouraged to read on in hope of a cure.

            After this prominent introduction, the theme appears again in the next poem (1.2.51-3):


                        qui cupit aut metuit, iuvat illum sic domus et res

                        ut lippum pictae tabulae, fomenta podagrum,

                        auriculas citharae collecta sorde dolentis.


                        He who desires or fears is as much pleased by his house and wealth

                        As painted pictures please a man with sore eyes or dressings the gouty,

                        Or lyres please ears suffering from a blockage of dirt.


Once again the poet picks on everyday complaints, adding to the watery eyes and gout of the first epistle the pain of ears blocked with wax, arguing that they prevent the enjoyment of normal pleasures, and the point illustrated is similarly a trite one; the impossibility of pleasure for the rich man beset by cares is a favourite notion for Roman moralists. [14] Again, the point about moral health is effectively made through physical comparison and analogy.  Equally effective is the image at 1.3.31-2, where the poet enquires of  Florus whether the rift between Celsus and Munatius has been properly patched up, or whether it is still in operation:


                                                                       an male sarta

                        gratia nequiquam coit ac rescinditur ... ?


                        Or has your goodwill been poorly patched,

                        So that the wound is mended in vain and then reopens ?


Here the sundered friendship is clearly compared to an open wound where the stitches may or may not come together and heal ; sarta, coit and rescinditur are technical terms of medicine.[15] The point is clearly an ethical one: the moral harm of quarrelling is like the physical harm of injury, and the reconciled friend is like the whole and healed body.

            This link in imagery between physical and moral distemper is extended through another feature of the first book of Epistles already identified, the poet's detailed self-representation. Horace's own actual or potential ill-health is mentioned a number of times in the collection, and is linked from time to time with the unsatisfactory state of his mind. In 1.8, in a letter to Celsus, on campaign with Tiberius in the East, the analogy is fully explored (3-12):


                        si quaeret quid agam, dic multa et pulchra minantem

                        vivere nec recte nec suaviter; haud quia grando

                        contuderit vitis oleamque momorderit aestus,

                        nec quia longinquis armentum aegrotet in agris;

                        sed quia mente minus validus quam corpore toto

                        nil audire velim, nil discere, quod levet aegrum;

                        fidis offendar medicis, irascar amicis,

                        cur me funesto properent arcere veterno;

                        quae nocuere sequar, fugiam quae profore credam;

                        Romae Tibur amem ventosus, Tibure Romam.


                        If he asks how I am doing, say that I promise many fine things

                        But live with neither virtue nor pleasure : not because

                        Hail has battered my vines or heat attacked my olives,

                        Or because my flock is sick in distant fields,

                        But because I am even weaker in mind than in my whole body,

                        And do not like to hear or learn any relief for my illness :

                        I take offence at my faithful doctors, rage at my friends,

                        Asking why they hasten to keep me from deadly lethargy;

                        I pursue what harms me, and avoid what I deem good:

                        Fickle as the wind, I love Tibur at Rome, Rome at Tibur.


Again, as elsewhere, the terms used are neatly ambiguous: audire, discere and quod levet aegrum refer equally well to listening to medically or spiritually curative advice, matching the  balance in line 9 between medicis and amicis which suggests that friends try to do for the mind what doctors try to do for the body, veterno in line 10 can refer to physical conditions such as dropsy as well as mental lethargy, and the pithy one-liner of line 11 presents a moral dilemma akin to Aristotelian akrasia as well as a problem with daily diet and habits (Mayer 1994 : 177).

             In 1.7, Horace's Sabine estate is used as a starting-point for more general analogies between bodily and spiritual health. There Horace claims health as a reason for staying on his  estate rather than coming to Maecenas in Rome; the opening, with its talk of the insalubrious summer conditions in the city, stresses that physical risk is a main factor in Horace's absence (1-13). But the rest of the poem, with its exempla of the Calabrian host, the vixen in the corn-bin, and the story of Philippus and Mena,  makes it clear that the Sabine estate and Horace's capacity to remain there represent more than physical health. The estate and its gift through Maecenas' friendship allow Horace to remain healthy in spirit, that is to pursue an appropriate life-style of rural philosophical otium in dignified but grateful independence, and the poem ends with a generalising and proverbial 'one-liner'  (see above) which stresses the ethical dimension (98 metiri se quemque suo modulo ac pede verum est).

            The extension and variation of a type of imagery illustrating a philosophical idea to provide a link with a central theme of the whole collection is typical of the resources available for the exposition of ideas in a poetry-book. In fact, we have seen that discussion of the analogy between mental and physical health has also mentioned and included the two other aspects of the first book of Epistles which have been classified above as poetic techniques - the elaborate self-presentation of the writer and the use of 'one-liners', showing that the poet is in full command of a range of poetical strategies, and uses them in an integrated way towards the objective of his collection, the entertaining and informative presentation of ethical issues both to his immediate correspondents and to a larger readership.


2 : Letter-writing and Epistles I


            Here we turn to our second issue, that of whether the first book of Epistles is written with some consciousness of formal works on letter-writing; we shall see in due course that this links closely with our first issue of the poetic presentation of philosophy. Some influence on Horace from the epistolographical tradition is not improbable; Cicero’s letters (especially those of recommendation) may show some awareness of it, [16] and it would only be natural for Horace to employ it in recasting sermo into epistolary mode in the first book of Epistles. The Greek works devoted to letter-writing collected in Hercher's Epistolographi Graeci are jejune and concerned almost entirely with epistolary typology, and insignificant here (Hercher 1873 : 1-13); most important are the pages devoted to letter-writing in Demetrius On Style, perhaps from the early Imperial period. [17]  Similarities between Demetrius' precepts and Horace's practice in the Epistles could suggest knowledge on Horace's part of epistolographical theory, even if Demetrius' work were written much later, since ancient handbooks of this kind are notoriously tralatician, and even those who wish to assign a late date to Demetrius recognise that his treatise contains elements of much earlier doctrine. It is possible, of course, that Demetrius' precepts merely reflected literary practice in letter-writing, and that any links with Horace could be owed to Horace's knowledge of actual letters rather than of theory, but the striking nature of some of the resemblances suggest a more direct connection.

            Demetrius begins his section on letter-writing (On Style 223-235) by asserting that the style of letters requires plainness (ischnotes), though this should also be combined with the more elevated quality of charm (charis). In support of this, he cites Artemon, editor of Aristotle's letters and certainly a pre-Horatian writer, to the effect that 'a letter may be regarded as one of the two sides in a dialogue'. This, like plainness of style, is one of the conventional recommendations of ancient epistolography (Cugusi 1983 : 32-3).. Here Horace fits the prescription, since most of the epistles in the first book are in effect his side of an exchange with the addressee, commonly an intimate with whom the poet might have regular contact and converse. More importantly, Artemon's view implies a colloquial stylistic level for letters, a view endorsed elsewhere in the epistolographical tradition (Thraede 1970 : 27-61, Cugusi 1983 : 33); of course, this is the natural register of Horatian hexameter sermo, making it a natural vehicle for letter-writing. Demetrius also stresses the small scale of the letter (228); in addition to mirroring the practicalities of ancient correspondence, brevity itself is another stylistic topos in epistolographical writing (Cugusi 1983 : 34-6). Here we can see an interesting contrast between the Satires and the first book of Epistles: the two books of Satires show an average poem-length of 119 lines (103 lines for Book 1, 135 for Book 2), the first book of Epistles one of 50 lines, dramatically different. The second book of Epistles and the Ars Poetica are of course rather longer, but there the epistolographical fiction is less immediately important; in Epistles I Horace is conforming more closely and consciously to the practice and prescriptions of letter-writing.

            Further points made by Demetrius concern the content rather than the style of letters (227): 'A letter should be very largely an expression of character, just like the dialogue. Perhaps everyone reflects his own soul in writing a letter. It is possible to discern a writer's character in every other form of literature, but in none so fully as in the letter' . This aspect of self-revelation again fits Horatian sermo as a whole; Horace characterises his Satires as self-revelatory, following the tradition of Lucilius (Sat.2.1.30-34), and we indeed hear much there about Horace's earlier and present life. It is even more a feature of the first book of Epistles; as Gordon Williams has noted, 'a most marked feature of the Epistles is the way in which the form invites, indeed compels, statements apparently autobiographical' (Williams 1968 : 29). Horace continually presents the topics of his own life -  his turning to philosophy (1.1), his literary studies (1.2), his social life (1.5), his friendship with Maecenas (1.7), the publication and reception of his poems (1.13, 1.19, 1.20), his life in the country (1.10, 1.14, 1.16), his health (1.7, 1.15), and of course the concluding self-description in the final poem (1.20.20-28). This relentless self-presentation recalls the intimate detail of actual correspondence such as Cicero's letters to Atticus; Horace  relies here on the convention and practice of letter-writing as well as on the autobiographical element in Lucilian sermo. Here we can see a link with our earlier discussion of poetic self-presentation; the prominence of the writer himself in the first book of Epistles is both an effective protreptic tactic and an epistolary feature.

            Most interesting of all in Demetrius' prescriptions for our purposes are those on the content of letters (230-2): 'We should also recognise that it is not only a certain style but certain topics which suit letters. Let me quote Aristotle, who is admitted to be an especially felicitous writer of letters: 'I do not write to you on this; it does not suit a letter'. If anyone writes on logic or science in a letter, he is writing something but certainly not a letter. A letter aims to be a brief token of friendship and handles simple topics in simple language. Its charm lies in the warmth of friendship it conveys and in its numerous proverbs. This is the only kind of wisdom a letter should have; for proverbs give popular sayings in everyday use. The man who is sententious and sermonises seems to have lost the letter's air of a talk and mounted the pulpit'.  All these aspects apply closely to the first book of Horace's Epistles, and link up neatly with the poetical tactics discussed in 1 above.

            First, the non-technical and simple nature of letters. This might appear to be paradoxical for a book of poems which includes a fair amount of philosophical doctrine, but in fact, as outlined at the beginning, Horace's exposition of philosophy in Epistles 1 is generalising, undogmatic and fundamentally concerned with ethics, the most popular part of philosophy which was of universal interest in his own day, and not with the grittier topics of logic or physics; it is interesting to note that the quotation from Aristotle in Demetrius specifically refers to science and logic being excluded as inappropriate to letters. Second, the link of letters and friendship. In one sense, this is simply an obvious comment on the means of intimate communication in a pre-telephonic age, but it is again worth noting that almost all the poems in the first book of Epistles are addressed to known friends of Horace, a difference from the Odes and even the Satires,  that they contain particularly warm expressions of personal affection (e.g. 1.1.105, 1.10.1-5), and that friendship and its rightful conduct is a major topic in the collection (e.g. 1.7, 1.17, 1.18).

             Third and perhaps most importantly, Demetrius' stress on the non-dogmatic and non-preaching role of the letter-writer, and his use of homely proverbs rather than technicalities and high-flown moral prescription, fits remarkably well with Horace's self-presentation in Epistles 1 as already discussed. Horace's humorous and self-deprecating role as author of moral protreptic in Epistles 1 is obvious from 1(i) above, but here we can see how it fits neatly into the conventions of letter-writing. The use of proverbs, too, can be plausibly connected with the 'one-liner' technique identified in 1(ii) above; not only does this technique resemble that of proverbial discourse with its pithy and memorable results (discussed, incidentally in Ch.9 of Demetrius On Style), but several of the 'one-liners' identified in Epistles I are, as already noted, themselves known proverbs. The homely and generalising wisdom of proverbs may also be appropriately compared with the overall strategy of Epistles 1 in proclaiming undogmatic and general ethical principles to which few would take exception.


3 : Conclusion


            In sum, I hope to have pointed to two features of the first book of Horace's Epistles, features which are crucially interrelated. First, I have indicated some of the strategies used by Horace to present his ethical material in hexameter poetry. Second, I have argued that some of the central features of Horace's  treatment of his material are shared with ancient strictures on letter-writing, suggesting perhaps some knowledge on his part of epistolographical precept in his epistolary practice.


Corpus Christi College, Oxford                                     S.J.HARRISON



Postscript 2007


Of works which have appeared since I wrote this piece, Roland Mayer’s commentary on Epistles 1 (1994) is very helpful on a number of points, and I have included references to it throughout; a few of the footnotes have also been updated. Beyond this, on philosophy in Horace’s Epistles see now further Ferri 1993 and Moles 2007; Ferri 2007 is now a good starting-point on the key features of the Epistles as a whole. The relationship between Horace’s Epistles and Roman epistolary theory has now been further investigated by De Pretis 2002 and Morrison 2007; on Roman epistolography more generally see further recently Trapp 2003, Edwards 2005 and Morello and Gibson 2007.




Bramble, J.C. (1974). Persius and the programmatic satire.  Cambridge : CUP.


Cotton, H.M. (1984). ‘Greek and Latin Epistolary Formulae: Some Light on Cicero's Letter Writing’. The American Journal of Philology, 105 : 409-425.


Cotton, H.M. (1985). ’Mirificum Genus Commendationis: Cicero and the Latin Letter of Recommendation’. The American Journal of Philology, 106 : 328-334.


Cugusi, P. (1983). Evoluzione e forme dell’epistolografia Latina. Rome : Herder.


De Pretis, A. (2002). Epistolarity’ in the First Book of Horace’s Epistles. Totowa, NJ: Gorgias Press.


Edwards, C. (2005). ‘Epistolography’ in Harrison, 270-83.


Ferri, R. (1993). I dispiaceri di un epicureo. Uno studio sulla poetica delle epistole oraziane. Pisa : Giardini.


Ferri, R. (2007). ‘The Epistles’, in Harrison, 121-31.


Freudenberg, K.(1993). The Walking Muse. Horace on the theory of satire. Princeton : Princeton UP.


Halm,, C. (1863). Rhetores Latini minores. Leipizig : Teubner.


Harrison, S.J., ed. (2005). A Companion to Latin Literature. Oxford : Blackwell.


Harrison, S.J., ed. (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Horace. Cambridge : CUP.


Hercher, R. (1873). Epistolographi Graeci. Paris: Didot.


Hutchinson, G.O. (1998). Cicero’s Correspondence : A Literary Study. Oxford : OUP.


Keyes, C.W. (1935). ‘The Greek Letter of Introduction’. The American Journal of Philology, 56 : 28-44


Kiessling, A. and Heinze, R.(1915). Q. Horatius Flaccus. Briefe.  (4th ed.) Berlin : Weidmann.


Kilpatrick, R.S. (1986). The Poetry of Friendship: Horace, Epistles I. Edmonton : Alberta UP.


Macleod, C. (1979). ‘The Poetry of Ethics: Horace, Epistles I’. Journal of Roman Studies, 69: 16-27


McGann, M. J. (1969). Studies in Horace’s First Book of Epistles. Brussels : Latomus.


Mayer, R.G. (1986). ‘Horace's Epistles I and Philosophy’,  The American Journal of Philology,  107: 55-73


Mayer, R.G. (1994). Horace : Epistles I. Cambridge : CUP.


Moles, J. (1985).’Cynicism in Horace Epistles 1’, Proceedings of the Liverpool Latin Seminar, 5 : 33-60


Moles, J. (2007). ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ in Harrison, 165-80.


Morello, R. , R. and Morrison, A.M., eds. (2007). Ancient Letters : Classical and Late Antique Epistolography. Oxford : OUP.


Morrison, A.M. (2007), ‘Didacticism and Epistolarity in Horace Epistles 1’, in Morello and Gibson, 107-32.


Nisbet, R. G. M. and Hubbard, M. (1970). A Commentary on Horace, Odes I. Oxford : OUP.


Otto, A. (1890). Die Sprichwörter und sprichwörtlichen Redensarten der Römer. Leipzig : Teubner. 1890.


Pappenroth, K. (1994). ‘A Note on the Dating of Demetrius’ On Style’, Classical Quarterly,

44 : 280-1.


Rehmann, W. (1969). Die Beziehungen zwischen Lukrez und Horaz. Diss.: Freiburg am Breisgau.



Rudd, N., (1993). ‘Horace as Moralist’ in id., ed., Horace 2000: a Celebration. Essays for the Bimillennium. London : Duckworth, 64-88.


Russell, D.A., and Winterbottom, M. (1972). Ancient Literary Criticism. Oxford : OUP.


Thraede, K. (1970). Grundzüge griechische-römische Brieftopik [Zetemata 48]. Munich : Beck.



Trapp, M.B. (2003). Greek and Roman Letters. Cambridge : CUP.



West, D. (1969). The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius. Edinburgh : Edinburgh UP.



Williams, G.W. (1968). Tradition and Originality in Roman Poetry. Oxford : OUP.




[1] See e.g. Moles 1985, Mayer 1986, Rudd 1993. Kilpatrick 1986 sees Horace as an Academic, McGann 1969 as an eclectic Stoic, but both these positions seem too dogmatic.

[2] Cf. Rehmann  1969, Freudenburg  1993 : 19.

[3] For the chariot of poetry see e.g. Pindar Ol.6.23, P.6.23, Isthm.8.68, Callimachus Aetia fr.1.25-8, Virgil G.2.542, 3.18. Mayer 1994 : 89 points out the link with Ibycus’ presentation of himself as a superannuated race-horse pressed back into the competition of love : this link with archaic lyric is of course very fitting in a context where the lyric poetry of the Odes is being renounced.

[4] Here I agree with Mayer  1986 and Rudd 1993 against Macleod 1979, who takes the concept of conversion too literally.

[5] So I think with Nisbet and Hubbard 1970 : 368; for a more sceptical view on the identity of the Albius of Odes 1.33 and Epistles 1.4 see Mayer 1994 : 133.

[6] As will be seen below, 1.4.13 translates an Epicurean precept.

[7] Cf. Otto 1890 : nos. 221, 151 and 92 respectively.

[8] Cf. Otto 1890 : xxxiii-iv.

[9] All these parallels are collected by Kiessling and Heinze 1915.

[10] See still West 1969.

[11] See the material gathered by J.E.B.Mayor on Juvenal 3.7.

[12] See conveniently Bramble 1974 : 35 n.2 and 3.

[13] Cf. conveniently Murgatroyd on Tibullus 1.2.54 and 1.3.25.

[14] Cf. e.g. Odes 2.16.9-24, 3.1.17-24, 3.16.17-28; Seneca Ep.84.11, 115.16, Brev.Vit.2.4.

[15] Cf. OLD s.v. sarcio 1, coeo 5, rescindo 2b.

[16] See Keyes 1935, Cotton 1984 and 1985; for Cicero’s (very general) awareness of various epistolary types see Hutchinson 1998 : 7-9.

[17] On the date see most recently Paffenroth 1994; I cite the translation of Demetrius by D.C.Innes in Russell and Winterbottom 1972. For Greek and Roman letter-writing cf. Thraede 1970 and Cugusi 1983. There is only one extant formal discussion of letter-writing in Latin from the ancient world, a few pages in the fourth-century Ars Rhetorica of C.Iulius Victor (see Halm 1863 : 447-8), which uses Greek precepts but examples from Cicero. .