Horace: The Son of a Slave Who Became Rome’s Leading Poet

The Roman poet Horace rose from humble beginnings to become one of the greatest writers of antiquity. Read on to discover more about the wit and wisdom of this fascinating man.

Apr 5, 2022By Laura Hayward, MA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with Greek

horace bust horace virgil varius jalabert painting


Horace is arguably the Roman poet who resonates most with readers today. Much of his poetry has a conversational style, which makes his verses accessible and enjoyable to read. Equally pleasing is the humble and likeable personality of the poet which shines through his large body of work. The well-known phrase carpe diem originates from Horace (Ode 1.11). The phrase is commonly translated as “seize the day,” but it is probably more accurate to say “pluck the day,” as Horace used it in the context of gathering flowers. Either way, this neat maxim illustrates well the main concerns of the poet. His poetry is rooted in philosophical reflections on life, love, and simple pleasures. He was a man who was not seduced by wealth and fame, instead his interests lay in how a person might become the best version of themselves. During his lifetime, Horace rose to become one of the great Roman poets. His success was all the more impressive given that he was also the son of a former slave.


Who Was the Roman Poet Horace?

A bronze medallion depicting the Roman poet Horace in profile, 4th century CE, via Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris


 “If my life is guiltless and clean and dear to my friends – all this I owe to my father.
(Satire 1.6)


Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known today as Horace, was born on 8th December 65 BCE at Venusia in Apulia, Italy. Horace describes his father as a freedman, meaning that he was once enslaved and later set free. The circumstances of his slavery are unknown, but he was certainly free by the time of Horace’s birth enabling his son to become a full Roman citizen. Horace does not mention his mother, which perhaps implies that she died during his infancy.


Once freed, his father worked as a public auctioneer and tax collector. He must have possessed a certain amount of wealth since he was able to send his son to be educated in Rome. Horace expresses heartfelt gratitude toward his father a number of times in his poems. His father was a constant presence in his life, including during his schooling in Rome, until he died sometime around 45 BCE. In the years that followed, Horace traveled to Athens to further his academic career.


A Roman silver denarius coin depicting Marcus Junius Brutus on obverse and the dagger and cap of liberty on reverse, 43—42 BCE, via British Museum

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While Horace was studying in Athens, in 44 BCE Julius Caesar was assassinated at the Senate in Rome. Brutus, who played a major role in the assassination, came to Athens and raised an army in order to bolster his bid for power. The young Horace was swept up in the political idealism of Brutus’ campaign, and he was soon appointed to the position of military tribune. However, by 42 BCE Brutus had been overthrown at the Battle of Philippi. Horace returned to Italy to find his family home confiscated and himself penniless.


Licenza, near Rome: Horace’s Villa, by William Havell, circa 1828-1829, via Met museum


Horace now had to write for a living. He soon found a job as an office clerk, and he used this small income to support himself while he started to compose his first book of poems. In his early days as a poet, he was fortunate enough to meet and become friends with the great poet Virgil. At some point in 38 BCE, Virgil introduced the young Roman poet to Maecenas. Maecenas was an influential patron of the arts and political adviser to the man who would become Emperor Augustus.


Horace, Virgil and Varius at the house of Maecenas, Charles Jalabert, 19th century, via Wikimedia Commons


He soon recognized Horace’s talent and, in time, he became his patron and lifelong friend. He supported the poet throughout the rest of his career, and he even gifted him a small farm in the Sabine hills. This gift is mentioned many times by Horace in his poetry, and it was held close to his heart. After a long and distinguished career, Horace died in 8 BCE and was buried on the Esquiline Hill in Rome next to Maecenas.


The Epodes – the Early Works

Marble portrait bust of Archilochus, 2nd century CE copy of Greek original, via Wikimedia Commons


Horace’s first known works were the Epodes, which consisted of 17 poems, probably published in 30 BCE. The Epodes were written in the iambic meter, a Greek poetic form inspired by the work of Archilocus. Horace was one the earliest Roman poets to introduce this form of poetry to the Latin language.


Traditionally, iambic poetry was invective in tone and manifested itself as literary attacks on people in the public eye. However, Horace’s Epodes do not amount to aggressive attacks on any one individual, at least not one who can be formally identified. For example, Epode 4 is addressed to a nameless man who was once a slave and appears to have forgotten his roots. Horace criticizes the man’s arrogant attitude with a scathing observation: “good fortune cannot change your breed.”


Red-figure kylix depicting lovers in various poses, signed by Hieron, circa 480 BC, via Met Museum


Some of the Epodes are addressed to Horace’s patron Maecenas. His tone is playful and suggests a relaxed and genuine friendship between the two men. In Epode 3 he rebukes his friend for serving too much garlic at dinner, and in Epode 14 he apologizes for not yet producing a promised set of poems. The reason for the delay is that he is gripped with lust for a woman named Phryne who also has a string of other lovers.


Epodes 8 and 12 are concerned with a sexual encounter between Horace and an older woman. The woman has apparently tried to seduce the Roman poet, and he is quick to state that his reaction was one of disgust. But, as we read on, it becomes clear that the disgust is really aimed at his own body’s sexual impotence. The language used in these two Epodes is so explicit that they were banned from many English publications until research shed new light on the poems in the late 1980s.


The Satires – Pioneering a Uniquely Roman Literary Genre

The location of Horace’s Sabine farm in Licenza near Rome, discovered in the early 20th century, via gardenvisit.com


At the same time as writing the Epodes, Horace was also working on his Satires. The Satires, or Sermones in Latin, meaning “conversations,” consisted of 18 poems across two books. Satire was a uniquely Roman literary genre. It was inspired by the work of Greek poets, such as Callimachus, but it was formally created by early Roman poets, in particular Lucilius. Lucilius was celebrated for his aggressive and mocking attacks on famous individuals of the time, especially politicians.


Horace was inspired by much of Lucilius’ work, but he was far less aggressive in his tone and language. Instead of naming and shaming people in his poems, he aimed to impart friendly and entertaining advice through examples taken from life. Horace based many of his Satires on the events and circumstances of his own life. As a result, we can learn a lot about his personal experiences, as well as the principles that he believed in.


Book illustration depicting the town mouse and the country mouse, by Gaston Gélibert, 1888, via Rijksmuseum Amsterdam


Horace maintained that it was important to take joy from the simple pleasures of life, a concept which aligned closely with the philosophy of Epicureanism. Essentially, Epicureans believed in the pursuit of pleasure and the absence of pain. But Horace also believed that you should take your enjoyment from the life that you already have, instead of always seeking out better alternatives.


In the Satires, Horace’s love of the countryside also comes to the fore. He is at pains to highlight the benefits of a simple country life over the hectic stress of the city. In Satire 2.6, he retells the famous tale from Aesop about the country mouse and the city mouse. The country mouse follows his urban companion to the city to experience more sophisticated food. But soon they meet with great danger and he decides to return home. The story effectively demonstrates the folly of believing that there is always a better life waiting somewhere else.


The Odes – Horace’s Most Well-Known Poems

Sappho and Alcaeus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1881, via The Walters Art Museum


After the publication of the Epodes and Satires, Horace turned his hand to lyric poetry. He wrote four books of lyric poems, which he called Carmina; today we refer to them as the Odes. The first three books are believed to have been published by 23 BCE, with the fourth book somewhat later in 13 BCE.


Lyric poetry originated with the early Greek poets of Lesbos, Alcaeus and Sappho. It was designed to be sung to music, and its verses often reflected on intense emotive experiences. Horace used the metrical form of lyric in his Odes, as well as many of its recurrent themes. But he also put his own contemporary Roman twist on these themes. One such example was his use of love poetry. The usual focus of lyrical love poetry was placed on one specific individual. However, Horace addresses his love poems to a variety of women. His focus is the simple enjoyment of sex, rather than passionate expressions of longing and heartbreak.


Statue of Emperor Augustus from Prima Porta, 1st century CE, via Vatican Museums


Lyric poetry could also be used as a vehicle of praise, often toward a particular deity. Horace dedicated Book 4 of his Odes to Emperor Augustus as a way of honoring and aligning himself with the new leader of Rome. He openly praised his new policies and moral reforms, and he claimed that they signaled the beginning of a new age:


[Augustus] has stopped all evils by which men transgress/And called the ancient virtues back again.
(Ode 4.15)


One of the most prevalent themes of the Odes is that of friendship, and Horace addresses his poems to a range of friends offering both support and advice. In Ode 2.2, he warns his friend Sallustius Crispus of the dangers of self-indulgence and overspending. Instead he promotes the joys of moderation. Here lies a fundamental philosophical ideal in Horace’s poetry – everything in moderation and nothing in excess – also known as the Golden Mean:


Whoever loves the golden middle way/Avoids the squalor of a roof outworn…
(Ode 2.10)


The Epistles – Literary Letters to Friends

A Roman letter writing kit, including a wax writing tablet, bronze and ivory pens (styluses) and inkwells, circa 1st-4th century CE, via British Museum


The publication of letters was not uncommon in Roman literary culture. Perhaps the most famous examples are the letters of the authors Cicero and Pliny the Younger. Horace’s Epistles were the last of his works to be published. His literary letters were unlikely to have actually been sent to the people to whom they were addressed. The Roman poet used the medium more as a vehicle for his own thoughts, and he found it a fruitful way of imparting advice and personal anecdotes.


A good example of how these letters provide humorous snippets about the poet’s life can be found in Epistle 2.2. Here Horace tells his old friend Florus why he has decided to stop writing poetry in his old age and focus on philosophy:


Now I have enough to live on/my brain would surely be addled beyond the power of hemlock/if I scribbled verses instead of enjoying a night’s sleep!
(Epistle 2.2)


Marble portrait bust of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, 1st century CE, Sotheby’s


At the end of Book 2 of the Epistles is the Ars Poetica. This long poem presents a literary reflection on the art of writing poetry. It examines different poetic genres and methods of composition. The poem reads like a manual for a young poet, and it is believed to have been influenced by the teaching style of the Greek philosopher Aristotle.


Epistle 1.20 is perhaps the most interesting of all the letters since it is a letter addressed to the book of poetry itself. Horace reflects on what might happen to the book during its lifetime, who might read it, who might hate it, and who might benefit from it. The final ten lines are musings about what the book might say about its author. In these lines we get a lovely description of how Horace saw himself:


He was born in a home of slender means/a freedman’s son; but his wingspan proved too large for the nest.
(Epistle 1.20)


The Legacy of the Roman Poet Horace

Alfred Lord Tennyson, by Samuel Laurence and Sir Edward Burne-Jones, circa 1840, via National Portrait Gallery London


Horace was very much a poet of his time. His body of work was immersed in the Augustan Age and all the promise it brought with it. But Horace’s words and wisdom have also been of great interest to writers across the centuries. One such example is Alfred Lord Tennyson, who was Poet Laureate to the United Kingdom from 1850 to 1892. Under the instruction of his father, Tennyson is said to have learned all 103 of Horace’s Odes by heart. Such was his love of the Odes that in one of his poems, The Princess, he describes them as:


“…jewels, five-words long, that on the stretched forefinger of all Time/Sparkle forever.
(The Princess, Part 2, l.355)


Photograph of Wilfred Owen, circa 1915, via the British Library


In 1918, the war poet Wilfred Owen wrote his famous poem Dulce et Decorum Est, which was published posthumously in 1920. The title and final line of the poem is taken from Ode 3.2: “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” For both poets, the words translate as the traditional ideal that it is “sweet and proper to die for one’s homeland.” Owen’s powerful poem about the horrors of the First World War shows that this ideal is a dangerous misconception. Like Owen, Horace had also been a soldier in war. It seems likely that he would have agreed with his fellow poet, writing some 2000 years later.


Bust of Horace, attributed to Henry Corbould, 1800-1860, via British Museum


There are countless other writers, poets, and artists who have been inspired by the works of Horace. All are testament to the Roman poet’s beautiful poetry, poetry which he himself dearly hoped would live on:


“A monument more durable than brass,

Rising above the regal pyramids,

Have I built, which no rain nor wind,

Nor centuries unnumbered, could destroy,

Nor all the flight of seasons.”

(Ode 3.30, lines 1-5)

Author Image

By Laura HaywardMA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with GreekLaura Hayward is a contributing writer and researcher from London, UK. She is a specialist in the field of Classics, in which she has either studied or worked for over twenty years. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in Classics from University College London. She has also worked as a teacher of Classics in a leading independent school in London. Her particular areas of interest are Latin language and literature as well as Roman art and epigraphy.