Horace's ''Carmen Saeculare'': Ritual Magic and the Poet's Art

Horace's ''Carmen Saeculare'': Ritual Magic and the Poet's Art

by Michael C. J. Putnam

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This is the first book devoted to Horace’s Carmen Saeculare, a poem commissioned by Roman emperor Augustus in 17 B.C.E. for choral performance at the Ludi Saeculares, the Secular Games. The poem is the first fully preserved Latin hymn whose circumstances of presentation are known, and it is the only lyric of Horace we can be certain was first presented orally.

Michael C. J. Putnam offers a close and sensitive reading of this hymn, shedding new light on the richness and virtuosity of its poetry, on the many sources Horace drew on, and on the poem’s power and significance as a public ritual. A rich and compelling work, this poem is a masterpiece, Putnam shows, and it represents a crucial link in the development of Rome’s outstanding lyric poet.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300130454
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
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Horace's Carmen Saeculare

Ritual Magic and the Poet's Art
By Michael C. J. Putnam

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2000 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08333-5

Chapter One


The Carmen Saeculare is unique in the corpus of Horace's writing and in the remains of classical Latin literature because it was written for, and performed at, a public ceremony. The occasion itself was far from ordinary. In 17 B.C.E. the emperor Augustus had chosen to resuscitate, after the lapse of some one hundred and thirty years, the Ludi Saeculares, "games" to honor the end of one saeculum, defined as the span of a generous lifetime, and to initiate auspiciously the next era. The tradition of their performance was ancient, and the honor given to the poet, to write the Song that would cap the religious segment of the proceedings, therefore remarkable.

The challenge that the emperor offered Horace, and that, by accepting the invitation, the poet presented himself, was equally notable. Although the Carmen is Horace's only public poem, its composition marked a signal juncture in his career as lyricist, serving as transition between a Horace who, in the initial ode of his first collection, can imagine his pleasure if Maecenas, his patron and the poem's addressee, would rank him among "lyric bards" (lyricis vatibus) and a Horace who, in the third poem of his fourth and final gathering of odes, can identify himself as "the performer on Rome's lyre" (Romanae fidicen lyrae), the cynosure of his fellow citizens' eyes. The distance separating the two poems takes us from a private world of apparent interdependence between poet and patron, source of a spate of masterpieces written for contemplation, to communal acknowledgment arising from the most communal of poetic gestures. The transfer of epithet in the last quotation is purposeful. As celebrated lyricist, Horace strums a (Greek) lyre that he has made Roman, and he does so as a Roman performing with, and before, fellow Romans during a highly conspicuous civic event.

In one detail this passage from Greece to Rome illustrates a significant intellectual hurdle that Horace set for himself here. In representing his position before Maecenas as lyric bard, the poet, by a form of metonymy as well as by the emulation apparent in his words themselves, is now adopting the stance of his most prominent intellectual forebears, the lyric poets of archaic Greece, in particular-though far from exclusively-Sappho, Alcaeus and Pindar. But at least in the first compilation of odes published in 23 B.C.E., however much he may replicate the matter and manner of his Greek predecessors, Horace feels no compulsion, nor did his contemporaries expect of him, to follow one of their primary procedures, namely the oral presentation of poetry, composed to be assimilated, at least initially, by a listening audience rather than perused by literate reader or readers.

Although the consequences of his achievement as momentarily oral bard make their mark on his subsequent verse, whether composed in lyric verse forms or in hexameters, Horace's departure in the Carmen from his own tradition of written poetry is unique. The resulting poem is also singular. By comparison to Horace's other hymns, which were not meant for public delivery, however exacting their references might be to the divinities addressed or to specific events in the Roman religious calendar, we sense in the Carmen at the very least a heightening of such rhetorical figurations as assonance and alliteration that prominently affect the aural reception of poetry. Likewise, there is more verbal repetition than is Horace's wont in his specifically written work. Such iteration not only served to help weave the poem's imaginative threads together for its original audience, but it continues to afford its hearers the pleasure of experiencing patterns of structure, be it, among other examples, through echoes that round off the poem's first half or apprise us of how beginning and end merge to create a satisfying whole. Such lexical recurrences would also function as aides-memoire for the ode's young singers, signposts to direct their attention. Horace's use of the meter that bears Sappho's name would offer similar assistance to both performers and audience. Out of some thirteen metrical schemes utilized in his lyric corpus, Horace here chooses the most simple in form, with the quatrains' first three lines, each of eleven syllables, repeated stanza by stanza.

The ears of the participants in the ceremony, whether listeners or singers, would have found delight in the heard music of verse. The eye, which in Horace's other poetry remained the instrument for comprehension of the written word, as deployed on the page for critical appreciation, is here gratified by literally beholding the beauty of the sights depicted in the Carmen and by esteeming anew their importance. The audience would have watched, just as we readers still behold its ambience through the mind's inner vision, as the young chanters called attention to details of the gleaming temple to Apollo, in front of which the rites were taking place. It would have gained a greater sense of aesthetic quality and iconographic resonance of its surroundings on Rome's Palatine hill, as well as from the Aventine in the near, and the Alban mount in the far, distance.

The commissioning of the Carmen Saeculare, the circumstances of its creation, and its specific contents, raise the question of the poem's politics. As we will see, not only Augustus' reformulation of the Ludi but the ode itself paint a generously glowing picture of contemporary Rome. All things dark and dangerous are largely suppressed from Horace's praise of his world. In our present age where politics and those who profess it are equally objects of suspicion, it would be easy enough to accuse the poet of collusion with or, worse still, of public complicity in the propagandistic schemes of the emperor. The expert fiction-maker Augustus, we are prone to postulate and so the argument could run, effected this triumph of art over truth by manipulating the genius of his master-poet into fabricating one of the spiritual building blocks of his governmental enterprise. The modern reader tends to evaluate any public poem, especially one that could be charged with political bias, as second-rate. When the poet in question is Horace, whose autonomy elsewhere is notorious, and when the product of his intelligence is a virtually unalloyed eulogy of the contemporary Roman status quo, our distrust increases. We remain as wary of the poet undertaking such a venture as of the poem that is its result.

The quality of the Carmen itself is evidence enough to disprove such a contention or, to phrase matters more positively, to evince the poet's honest commitment to his words and their optimistic tonality. Nevertheless I would like to address such a proposition briefly from several angles. First the Vita Horati, the ancient life of the poet that comes down to us under the name of the biographer Suetonius, is at pains to document the emperor's deference to the poet, and not vice versa, proof that Augustus retains an awareness that immortality is often the writer's prerogative to bestow, not the politician's. Then there is the evidence of the earlier poetry. The first collection of lyrics was published eight years after Augustus' defeat of Antony at Actium had brought about both an end to a century of civil strife and his de facto establishment as sole ruler of Rome. During the intervening period, if not before, we can presume that Horace fully recognized the emperor's accomplishment and the administrative talent that lay behind it. Nevertheless, in the course of the eighty-eight brilliant odes of this gathering he could have seized the opportunity openly to praise Augustus and his works but carefully does not. In my subsequent discussion I will employ the word "conditionality" to characterize Horace's treatment therein of the chief of state. The poet imagines a series of ellipses that lay the onus of proving his quality squarely upon the emperor. Augustus will become a god if ...; he will be worthy of the poet's full-fledged approbation, and therefore of a share in his incantatory power, if ... At the least we can claim for Horace that, by treating the emperor in a provisionary manner, he nudges his all-powerful subject, for all the latter's unaccountability, toward appreciation and implementation of the poet's hopes and expectations.

Then there is the evidence of the Carmen itself. Splendidly honorific it may be, but the ode celebrates not Augustus but the Rome that has been realized up to, and during, his regime. It is a prayer for the city, for continued protection of her patron divinities, and for the success of the emperor's own entreaties on her behalf. In fact, though elsewhere in Horace's poetry Augustus is directly named with frequency and is apostrophized in several instances, here he is only alluded to by innuendo. Although our sources universally confirm that the princeps called for and, we can accordingly presuppose, masterminded the festivities of which the Carmen forms a crucial segment, Horace draws him into the poem only as "the famous progeny of Anchises and Venus," that is, as a notable extension of tradition and described in its terms as renewer and sustainer of Rome's mythical beginnings, not as a salient entity worthy, here at least, of his own elogium. As a figure in the Carmen he is part of the continuum of Roman history just as the Song itself, and the Ludi Saeculares that included it, both of which modify and reinvigorate their inheritance, projecting past into future and assuring the present through the dynamism of song.

It is the Song itself, as Carmen and as carmen, that will be my primary concern in this book. After some pages on the earlier collection of odes, to establish an intellectual background within Horace's previous lyric oeuvre against which to test the Song's originality, I will examine the Carmen, saving a review of the intimacy of carmina-not only with the genre of lyric but more generally with verse's magic potential-for the book's final segment. As part of my close examination of the ode's ritual connection with "secular renewal" I will survey how the poem's patterns of repetition stand as metaphor for the religious recurrences of which it tells.

Because of the explicit logistics of the Song's performance on the Palatine on a June day in 17 B.C.E., Horace is much concerned with the specifics of its presentation and setting as well as with the more general categories of space and time. The first stretches our eye not only to Troy and its exiles arriving long ago on Italy's Tyrrhenian coast but to the bounds of modern Roman dominion, from the city's hills to the Indi in the east who bow before its sway. Space and time further interact as we trace the connection between Aeneas and Augustus, between Rome's mythic beginnings and her present bright moment of renewal. The way the poet represents his principal addressees, the gods Apollo and Diana, will also be of paramount concern. To study the first takes us both backward and forward in literature, backward to Pindar and Simonides, forward to Horace's own c. 4. 6, which reveals to us something of the genesis of the Carmen and, in particular, of aspects of Apollo's violence and penchant for vengeance that are suppressed from the Song. For the second we will look closely at Catullus poem 34, a hymn directed to the goddess, which Horace had much in mind as he wrote.

Brutality finds no place in the Carmen; neither does the need for apotropaic vocabulary, which elsewhere in preserved Latin letters has regular associations with the negative charm inherent in carmina. The voices the poet adopts, and adapts, for his own purposes are those of the Sibyl and of the Parcae (Fates), each anticipating the future, and, by implication, of Augustus, uttering his prayers as incorporated into the poet's own larger intercession before the divine. Above all we are dealing with the language of generation, which reaffirms and sustains the value and values of Rome. Such energy in turn resides in the generative power of language itself and, in the specific case of the Carmen Saeculare as a hymn to Rome, in the restorative powers that lie in the joyous crafting-and skilled craftiness-of words, especially as deployed with propitiousness by one of the grandest masters of lyric song.


Excerpted from Horace's Carmen Saeculare by Michael C. J. Putnam Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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