The Walking Muse: Horace on the Theory of Satire

The Walking Muse: Horace on the Theory of Satire

by Kirk Freudenburg

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In laying the groundwork for a fresh and challenging reading of Roman satire, Kirk Freudenburg explores the literary precedents behind the situations and characters created by Horace, one of Rome's earliest and most influential satirists. Critics tend to think that his two books of Satires are but trite sermons of moral reform--which the poems superficially claim to


In laying the groundwork for a fresh and challenging reading of Roman satire, Kirk Freudenburg explores the literary precedents behind the situations and characters created by Horace, one of Rome's earliest and most influential satirists. Critics tend to think that his two books of Satires are but trite sermons of moral reform--which the poems superficially claim to be--and that the reformer speaking to us is the young Horace, a naive Roman imitator of the rustic, self-made Greek philosopher Bion. By examining Horace's debt to popular comedy and to the conventions of Hellenistic moral literature, however, Freudenburg reveals the sophisticated mask through which the writer distances himself from the speaker in these earthy diatribes--a mask that enables the lofty muse of poetry to walk in satire's mundane world of adulterous lovers and quarrelsome neighbors. After presenting the speaker of the diatribes as a stage character, a version of the haranguing cynic of comedy and mime, Freudenburg explains the theoretical importance of such conventions in satire at large. His analysis includes a reinterpretation of Horace's criticisms of Lucilius, and ends with a theory of satire based on the several images of the satirist presented in Book One, which reveals the true depth of Horace's ethical and philosophical concerns.

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The Walking Muse

Horace on the Theory of Satire

By Kirk Freudenburg

Princeton, New Jersey

Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03166-8


Horatian Satire and the Conventions of Popular Drama


"The poet's work may be a mask, a dramatized conventionalization, but it is frequently a conventionalization of his own experiences, his own life. If used with a sense of these distinctions, there is use in biographical study." Since the days of the great "Personal Heresy" debate, which pitted C. S. Lewis of Oxford against E. M. Tillyard of Cambridge, critics of personal poetry have struggled to strike a balance between the opposing claims of art and autobiography. The concept of the poet's mask, the persona, while generally accepted in theory, still suffers from much neglect in the actual practice of criticism. It troubles us, for it leads to the ironic realization that all personal poetry, such as satire, elegy, and lyric, is essentially impersonal, or at least personal only in a restricted sense, for the poet chooses to create and project a specific image of himself as speaker just as he would create any other character to play a role in his fictional poetic world. This remarkable irony is central to a proper understanding of Horatian and all Roman satire: the speaker who delivers his criticisms in the first person is not the poet himself but the poet in disguise. Like the modern stand-up comedian who claims, "a funny thing happened to me on the way to the show," he invents a second life for himself, a conventionalized, often ridiculous existence, which may or may not bear any significant resemblance to his own life experience. In the end, Horace's satiric persona is no more the real Horace than is "Maudie Pritchert" the real Jonathan Winters or "Karnak the Magnificent" the real Johnny Carson. He is simply one of the satirist's favorite masks, the moralistic preacher adapted from diatribe and comedy.

This approach to Roman satire, despite its iconoclastic ring, is by no means an innovation of modern theory. It is important to realize that the Roman poets themselves were fully inured to this way of thinking about their work. We recall from Catullus 16 that the speaker saw fit to berate his critics, Aurelius and Furius, for daring to draw from his poems conclusions about his own life. He counters, "For it is proper that the devoted poet himself be chaste, though this is not required of his verse" (16.5–6).

Neither Catullus nor Horace can be credited with inventing the practice of speaking through a mask, for as the term persona (the actor's "mask") suggests, the practice was well known to them from drama. Even more influential was the use of the first-person mask in rhetoric. Every Roman schoolboy was expected to master the practice of characterization for the sake of projecting a positive, trustworthy image (ethos) of himself as speaker and a highly negative image of his opposition. The evidence of ancient theory suggests that the training involved could be quite tedious. Aristotle, for example, at Rhetoric 2.1395a2–5 relates that storytelling ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and the use of maxims ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) are suited to older speakers, especially those from the countryside. They impress upon the listener the notion of timeworn experience, and thus they carry no conviction in the mouth of a younger speaker. At 3.1413a, however, discussing the comic use of metaphor, Aristotle relates, "Hyperboles are juvenile, as they indicate vehemence ... that is why such expression is inappropriate in the mouth of an older man."6 Unlike his ancient counterpart, the modern reader tends either to overlook such details or to assign them a significance much less than they deserve. For the ancient reader, hyperboles project youth and vehemence whereas maxims create the impression of age and country simplicity. Both contribute significantly to the unseen ethos of the speaker.

Problems associated with the separation of art from autobiography are especially acute in the case of Roman satire, for it is the poet's aim to invite trust, to project sincerity and candor. As a result, his words convince us, and we are all too willing to believe that the speaker and the poet are one and the same. Here again, every detail is significant. Hermogenes, writing in the second century A.D., discusses the various means available to the orator in the formation of an ethos characterized by simplicity (On Types 324):

"Simple" also are thoughts that appear to border on the vulgar. These are found when one speaks about vulgar or ordinary matters. For example, in the speech against Stephanus for false witness, we have the phrase "showered the nuts over him," and again "strip the rose-garden." In the Appeal against Eubulides, we find the speaker saying that his mother used to sell ribbons in the market.

This last detail reminds us that Horace, too, chose to stress his father's humble station in life even though it is obvious that he grew up in most privileged circumstances. The repeated libertino patre natus of 1.6, in conscious emulation of Bion ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), creates a specific image of the speaker in the mind of the ancient reader: a man of humble origins, he has never learned the subtleties of deceit.

As he continues his discussion of characterization (On Types 325), Hermogenes draws the following illustration from Xenophon's Cyropaedia 2.3.9: "'Simple' also are thoughts occurring in arguments drawn from irrational animals. 'The ox strikes with his horn, the horse with his hoof, the dog with his mouth, the boar with his tusk.'" The passage is immediately reminiscent of Horace's Satires 2.1.51–55:

Come, consider with me how every creature frightens its enemies with its most powerful weapon, as nature herself compels: the wolf attacks with its tooth, the bull with its horn. How so, unless by instinct? Entrust Lefty [Scaeva] the Prodigal with a long-lived mother and it won't be his pious right hand that does the dirty deed. Neither does the wolf attack with hoof, nor does the bull bite.

Horace has given the motif a humorous twist. As Hermogenes indicates, the illustration is highly suggestive, projecting the distinct image of the homespun, moralizing rustic who simply cannot deceive. We trust him fully. He, like the Lucilius of Satires 2.1, entrusts us with his secrets, as he would his closest friends, and as a result we find it very hard to question his sincerity and to believe that he is in fact a product of fiction. Satire deceives, for more than any other genre it demands an autobiographical explanation.

Although recent scholarship has sought to redefine the speaker's role in the satires by drawing the necessary distinction between autobiography and art, a clear, coherent picture of Horace's satiric persona is still much needed. The works of W. S. Anderson and J. Zetzel have advanced far in the right direction. What is needed is a more comprehensive approach, one that respects the enormous possibilities of tiny details. In undertaking this study I take Aristotle as my guide, especially mindful of his advice on the topic of characterization, knowing that Horace was like-minded in such matters: at Rhetoric 3.14l7al5–l7, Aristotle expresses the opinion that the narrative portion of a forensic speech "should be expressive of character, and will be so if we know what produces this effect." He gives the example of the Socratic dialogues, which he considered particularly expressive of moral character. He then adds: "Other things indicative of character are the concomitants of different sorts of character, like for instance, 'He went on walking as he spoke,' an act that shows insolence and boorishness of character."12 The detail is too slight to merit much notice, but for Aristotle the act of speaking while walking was all-telling, a tiny detail of enormous significance. For Aristotle, as for his many adherents in rhetoric and drama, good character portrayal required extreme subtlety. He concludes, at 3.1417b: "And introduce yourself at once as having a certain character so that the audience can contemplate you as such, and do the same with your adversary, but without being obvious."13 Good character portrayal is well hidden and works under the surface by nuance, the glancing reference, the well-chosen word. Horace was extremely well versed in earlier theory, both Greek and Latin. Like Theophrastus, Menander, and Terence before him, he well knew the value of concealing the mechanisms of theory (celare artem). It is with this understanding that I approach the task of defining Horace's satiric persona.

To begin this study, I limit myself to the first four satires of Book 1, the so-called diatribe satires, for here alone has Horace developed an image of the speaker fully consistent from satire to satire. Satires 1.5 introduces a new speaker, and 1.6 yet another. The speaker of the diatribe satires does return from time to time, primarily in Book 2, where he appears in the guise of Ofellus, Damasippus, and Davus. He was a favorite character of Horace, resurrected again in several of the Epistles and fondly remembered as the one outstanding figure of his earlier work. This speaker, I maintain, is clear and self-consistent. His full color can be appreciated only by close study of the minute details that went into his portrayal.

Among those who made an art of character portrayal, the writers of popular comedy were regarded by theorists and practitioners alike as unequaled masters of their craft. Horace, I maintain, shared this view, and he consciously shaped his satiric persona along lines suggested by various characters known to him from the comic stage. He admits as much at the end of Satires 1.4 where, in sketching the famous portrait of his father, which is, in fact, a version of his own satiric persona, he adapts his picture to a wholly fictional model: the satirist, like his father, is the comic doctor ineptus, displaying all the humorous loose ends of Terence's Demea.

This is not the type of image that a standard moralist would choose to convey. It is an image that undermines old assumptions concerning Horace's satiric mission; too often the Satires are regarded as entirely serious in their didactic intent, and Horace himself is accepted as a second Bion with an equally serious ethical mission, much in line with Augustus's efforts at moral reform. The satirist's overt ineptitude, just alluded to, argues against this approach. The notion of an inept persona, shaped at least as much by comedy as it was by Hellenistic moralizing, calls for a new understanding of Horace's work. Zetzel said it well: "Whatever we feel the final aim of the poet is, it is surely not simple-minded moral or literary judgments; it is, among other things, the creation of a complex and demanding poetic world." This world, we shall see, brings with it all the trappings of the comic stage.


Horace's Satires contain numerous references to the beliefs and day-to-day experiences of the speaker that may, in fact, bear little resemblance to the beliefs and experiences of Horace himself. Only rarely can such autobiographical details be checked against references to the life of the poet outside of the poetry itself, and thus, the lines separating art from autobiography must always remain somewhat obscure. We can never know, for example, whether Horace actually made the trip to Brundisium described in 1.5, was confronted by the bore of 1.9, or was trained in the lessons of satire by his father, as he suggests in 1.4. We can be sure, however, that even if these events belonged to Horace's experience, they have been conventionalized—some, at least, to an extreme degree—for each invites comparison with characters and events well known to Horace's audience from earlier literature. The life experiences of Horace have been thoroughly sifted. Those contained by his poems, regardless of their "sincerity," have been carefully selected from among an infinite number of like experiences for the specific purpose of creating an image of the satirist and the world that surrounds him. Satire, in other words, is not a log of personal experience, the votive tablet described in 2.1; for the satirist has, at all points, carefully chosen and worked his "personal" experiences along conventional lines in order to carve out a place for his work within the larger literary tradition familiar to his audience.

W. S. Anderson was the first to recognize and take seriously the conventional nature of Horace's satiric persona, noting the inherent incongruity that separates the persona from what must have been Horace's character in real life:

He strikes us as a considerably older man, possessing the wisdom of experience, serenely above the materialistic pursuits of his fellow men, capable of a self-irony which only the profoundest self-restraint and self-analysis will permit. How much effort must have gone into the creation of that character by a young man not quite thirty, I leave to the reader's imagination. The main point is that Horace produced a Socratic satirist probably quite unrepresentative of himself.

Anderson's Socratic satirist represents perhaps the clearest and most reasonable attempt yet made to encapsulate the persona of Book 1. Even so, the analogy with Socrates fails in two significant respects: first, it falsely assumes that the satirist maintains a single consistent persona throughout Book 1. Although the Socratic analogy has some claim to accuracy in the case of the diatribe satires, it cannot account for the several unique images of the satirist projected in Satires 5, 7, 9, and the renegade 8. Second, even within the diatribe satires, the Socratic analogy shows certain limitations, most notably in its failure to account for the satirist's nondialectical approach. Unlike Socrates, the satirist pontificates. His interlocutor is a shadowboxer, totally void of personality, outside of time and place; he functions as a rhetorical convenience. He is neither a peer nor a pupil; he is an adversary, an ignorant voice from the crowd. This type of teacher/adversary relationship Oltramare defined as the singular characteristic that separates true diatribe from its ancient counterpart, the Socratic dialogue, and thus he aligns Horace's early satires with a different, yet related tradition. The case for Socrates, therefore, is severely limited. If it is to be maintained at all, it must be adjusted not to the image of Plato's Socrates, but to the caustic, censorious Socrates cherished by the Cynic tradition. Even beyond this, there is a degree of ineptitude displayed by the satirist of the diatribe satires for which no analogy with Socrates, Bion, or any other moral philosopher can account.

Taking a different approach, Zetzel has analyzed Horace's satiric persona within a larger treatment of the structure of Book 1, arguing that the progressive structure of the book is apparent through the gradual development of the speaker:

We begin with a voice that is all but disembodied, except for the fact that he is addressing Maecenas on a philosophical topic. This lack of detail lasts through the first three poems, but from the introduction of Horace's father in the fourth, through the explicitly autobiographical narratives of 5–7 to the statements about Maecenas and his friends and their social and literary beliefs that occupy the last two poems, we gain an increasingly vivid idea of the speaker. In a sense, the book is a progressive revelation, a development of a persona, and also a description of the speaker's progress from outside the circle of Maecenas to inside it.


Excerpted from The Walking Muse by Kirk Freudenburg. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of Princeton, New Jersey.
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