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War and the Muses - Horace on His Military Service

The son of a freedman who prospered in business, Horace – Quintus Horatius Flaccus – (65-8 B.C.) is best remembered as the author of some brilliant odes and satires as one of the court poets to the Roman Emperor Augustus. 

But before he was a poet, Horace had been a soldier. In 46 B.C., as civil war raged between Julius Caesar and the Senatorial party, Horace, then 18, went to Athens to complete his education. The young man seems to have enjoyed the academic life, but two years later it was interrupted by the disorders that followed Caesar’s assassination. With the Republic once more sliding into civil war, in the autumn of 44 B.C. Marcus Junius Brutus, the most well-known of the assassins, arrived in Greece to assume the governorship and began raising troops. Although most of his recruits were not Roman citizens, Brutus did try to secure Romans as officers, and soon appointed Horace a military tribune, a post usually reserved for the sons of wealthy citizens, which Horace probably was, of distinguished lineage, which Horace certainly was not. But Roman with sufficient education to serve as officers were scarce in Greece, so much so that 18-year old Marcus Tullius Cicero the Younger, son of the great senator, was given a field command, in which he performed rather well, defeating Marc Antony’s younger brother. So Horace became a military tribune – tribunus militum – a fairly substantial rank, arguably the equivalent of a major or lieutenant colonel.

Little is actually known about Horace’s military career. He initially seems to have served as a staff officer, possibly during the political machinations that put Brutus in control of Macedonia and Dyracchium over the winter of 44-43, and almost certainly during Brutus’ tour of Asia in late 43 B.C., helping raise troops and money. This is suggested by references to places in the Aegean and Asia (i.e., modern Turkey) in several of Horace’s poems. In addition, he made some comments about a court battle between a contractor and an army quartermaster that unfolded at Clezomenae (near modern Izmir), suggesting some personal knowledge of the affair. Horace was very likely present at the conference between Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, the other principal leader of the self-proclaimed “Liberators,” held at Clezomenae in November of 43 B.C., where they planned strategy against the Caesarian faction, led by Marc Antony and Octavian, later known as Augustus. 

It is not known whether Horace saw much combat, at least before the autumn of 43 B.C., when he fought in the Philippi Campaign. The First Battle of Philippi (October 3rd), was essentially a draw, but Cassius, believing at one point that all was lost, killed himself. At the Second Battle (October 23rd), Brutus suffered a crushing defeat, and also fell on his sword. Precisely what Horace did at Philippi is unknown. As a military tribune he might actually have been in command of a legion or major part of a legion, which seems unlikely to moderns, but was not unheard of among the Romans. Whatever his assignment, he seems to have been in the thick of it, as can be seen in occasional references to his military service in his poems, when he speaks, for example, of how tiring battle is, or, when he meets with an old comrade, as in O Seape Mecum – O, Oft With Me.

 

O SAEPE MECUM.

O, Oft with me in troublous time
Involved, when Brutus warr'd in Greece,
Who gives you back to your own clime
And your own gods, a man of peace,
Pompeius, the earliest friend I knew,
With whom I oft cut short the hours
With wine, my hair bright bathed in dew
Of Syrian oils, and wreathed with flowers?
With you I shared Philippi's rout,
Unseemly parted from my shield,
When Valour fell, and warriors stout
Were tumbled on the inglorious field:
But I was saved by Mercury,
Wrapp'd in thick mist, yet trembling sore,
While you to that tempestuous sea
Were swept by battle's tide once more.
Come, pay to Jove the feast you owe;
Lay down those limbs, with warfare spent,
Beneath my laurel; nor be slow
To drain my cask; for you 'twas meant.
Lethe's true draught is Massic wine;
Fill high the goblet; pour out free
Rich streams of unguent. Who will twine
The hasty wreath from myrtle-tree
Or parsley? Whom will Venus seat
Chairman of cups? Are Bacchants sane?
Then I'll be sober. O, 'tis sweet
To fool, when friends come home again!

In this piece, the comrade Pompeius whom Horace hails, is otherwise unknown, but may be a “composite” figure, referring to several men with whom he had been at school in Athens before the wars who had also served as officers. His reference to being “Unseemly parted from my shield” reminds us that losing one’s shield was considered a great disgrace, but also harks back to the Greek soldier-poet Archilochos, who noted that one can always buy a new shield [See CIC No. 167], and, of course, mention of Mercury, fleet-footed messenger of the gods, tells us he fled the field   The bit about “Lethe’s true draft is Massic wine” suggests two old comrades drowning melancholy memories of battles and toasting friends long gone in a cup or three, Lethe being one of the rivers of the underworld, from which newly dead souls were wont to drink in order to forget.

After the civil war Horace made his way back to Rome. There he found his father dead, probably of natural causes, and his property confiscated, for his having served with the Assassins. In 41 B.C. he was able to secure a post as a clerk in the quaestor's office, and, so he tells us, began to write poetry in the hopes of being able to make a little money on the side. For several years, the formerly pampered young man endured a life of near-poverty, which he describes in some of his work (giving us pretty much our only first-hand account of life in a Roman apartment block). But in the spring of 38 B.C. two of Horace’s poet-friends, Lucius Varius Rufus and the great Publius Virgilius Maro – Virgil – introduced him to Octavian’s close friend Caius Cilnius Maecenas, a noted patron of the arts, and his fortune was made.

Upon his death, Horace, who had no heirs, left his fortune to Augustus, including an small estate about 35 miles from Rome near the town of Licenza, which can be visited today.


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