Exegi Monumentem Aere Perennius: Horace and his Poetic Immortality

Non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei vitabit Libitinam[1] (‘not of all me shall perish, and a great part of me will escape Libitina’ [goddess of corpses and funerals]) wrote the Roman poet Horace. Why was he so sure of his immortality? The answer is in the first lines of the first stanza of Ode 3.30: Exegi monumentem aere perennius, regalique situ pyramidum altius[2] (‘I have crafted a monument more lasting than bronze, and loftier than the pyramids’). The monument in question is of course is own poetical craft, his three books of Odes (to be followed by a fourth), together with his Epistles, Satires, and a handful of other material.

Horace Nuremberg Worcester Cathedral Library

Horace as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Now Horace did actually die – there’s no escaping from that. If he didn’t, then he’s kept very quiet about it. In fact he died 2022 years ago to this very day. Yet he did have a sort of a point – we are still talking about him, so in a sense he still does live on. As a form of eternity, it may seem pretty flimsy to us today. For the Ancients, however, with no real fixed, codified and canonical notion of what there was after death in Graeco-Roman religion, this was the closest thing that many of them could get to the pearly gates.

The concept of immortality through renown, your name living ever on upon the lips of future generations, was known as kleos. The surest way to gain kleos was through glorious and daring deeds on the battlefield. The heroes of Greek Epic – Achilles and Hector – are two such examples. Could a poet too claim the same prestige and legend? Conventional wisdom of the Roman variety would have said no, but Horace dared and he won.

Horace Worcester Cathedral Library

Horace – from our French edition of 1619. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Now if Horace hadn’t ever challenged conventional wisdom, if he always toed the line and did things the way they had always been done, we may very well not be having this discussion. However, he did things differently. He was all about breaking down traditional forms and thoughts and re-building them in his own fashion, and poetry was his building site. Whereas conventional wisdom dictated that a poem had to be just one thing – an erotic ode simply an erotic ode, and a political panegyric simply just that – Horace decided to mix genres and topics around. There was nothing generic or contrived in his poetry. For the first time, literature was taking on a real emotional complexity and multifaceted sense of meaning. If you’ve ever admired the tragicomedy in Elizabethan drama, or struggled to explain just what Twin Peaks is to your friends, or weren’t sure if Frank Zappa is joking or not, then know that Horace started it all.

The effect of all this could often be quite subversive – not only subverting the old hackneyed forms of Classical poetry, but also subverting the legitimacy of Rome’s political master – Augustus. Augustus (formerly Octavian) came to power in first-century BC Rome after a series of battles and political intrigues far too complicated to get in to here. The crux of the matter was that Rome, while once a Republic (with a very real democratic element in her political constitution), suddenly became an autocratic Empire. The Emperor’s excuse for imposing his iron will on his subjects was, naturally, in order to save the Republic. Naturally, the excuse didn’t really wash, so Augustus put his PR machine into over-drive. He got Maecenas, his director of communications, on the case, tasked with rounding up the greatest writers and artists of the age to start publically praising the new regime and the man at its head. Horace was one of those chosen to lead the literary charge.

Stillingfleet Worcester Cathedral Library Marsh

Worcester Cathedral Library’s earliest edition of Horace’s works, from 1596. This volume once belonged to Bishop Edward Stillingfleet, the famous bibliophile. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

There was one small problem. In the wars that had preceded Augustus’ rise to power, Horace had fought on the wrong side (and in actual physical combat rather than the battlefield of metaphor). We should question how heartedly Horace backed his new-found patron. When we ask such questions with an awareness of just how successful Horace was at mixing and manipulating genres, we perhaps see that sense of political subversion appearing between the lines.

Political subversion wasn’t Horace’s only game. He could be funny, sensual, dramatic and tragic. He also famously loved his wine. Reading his poetry, we get the sense not only of a literary genius, but also somebody with a zest for life (carpe diem[3] is one of his most frequently quoted lines) and a real sense of humour. Most people (on my own anecdotal evidence) who study him want to be his friend.

Any claim to immortality may seem a bit rich, but Horace is still being spoken about two millennia after he ‘died’. That’s pretty good going by anybody’s reckoning – and may he continue to delight readers for many more thousands of years to come!

Tom Hopkins

[1] Horace Carmen 3.30.6-7

[2] Horace Carmen 3.30.1-2

[3] Horace Carmen 1.11.8

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