The Codes of Horace

[An abbreviated version of a talk I gave to the Horatian Society in London in 2005, in which I take a critical view of the idea that poets and authors insert acrostic or other ‘codes’ into their works.]

The profanum vulgus, the lay public spurned by our poet in Odes 3.1, has latched on to codes with a passion. Not so long ago a book called The Bible Code purported to show that recherché patterns of letters in the Hebrew text of the Bible can be shown to produce strings of miraculous predictions. No doubt the Bible code will have predicted that half the world would fall for the heady fictions expounded by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code. Sadly, the clues that might lead us to the truth about Horace cannot be unravelled as simply and definitively as the truth of the Holy Grail. Horace is a poet of many codes as well as many Odes, so I should not be satisfied to speak simply of the Horace Code.

Pindarum quisquis studet aemulari, Horace warns Iullus Antonius in Odes 4.2 – ‘whoever strives to emulate Pindar’ risks the watery death suffered by Icarus after he flew too close to the sun with wings of wax. Commentators on this ode discuss the meaning of aemulari – is it rivalry or imitation? – the significance Icarus’ borrowed wings in that context, the poetic and social status of the addressee Iullus Antonius, and so on. These are what I would call genuine Horatian codes – verbal, poetic, and historical puzzles – that demand our attention if we are to appreciate Horace’s poetry. But one cryptic fact I recently discovered in a commentary was that in lines 1 and 3 the words Pindarum and daturus contain the syllables PIN DA and RUS, while the words nomina ponto in line 4 contain an anagram of the addressee’s name, Antoni, in the vocative. How clever, one instantly thinks – but the thought is rapidly superseded by a question: why on earth Horace would want to encode these names so ingeniously into a poem, indeed a stanza, which actually contains the names of both Pindar and Iullus? One may equally well observe, as I subsequently did, that the initial letters of each line in the opening stanza spell P-I-N-N, while the final letters of the last couplet are I-S: pinnis, wings, the very things Horace has told us the Pindaric emulator depends upon, nititur! A nice coincidence, perhaps, but hardly a coded message.

In his well-known book on Horace, the scholar Eduard Fraenkel declared that the odes are ‘self-contained works of art’ and not ‘written for only a few initiates’. He deplored what he called the ‘destructive tendency…to treat any ancient poem as a kind of riddle, the solution of which should be the primary concern of the commentator’. Horace, he thundered, ‘does not play hide-and-seek with the general reader’, a pronouncement curiously reminiscent of Einstein’s comment on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – ‘God does not play dice’. I only agree up to a point. After all, Horace’s forthright statement in Odes 3.1 odi profanum vulgus et arceo could almost be translated ‘I don’t care for the general reader, so I play hide and seek with him’! Just as nowadays physicists generally accept that God does play dice, Fraenkel was presuming too much to claim he knew the mind of Horace. Horace’s poems are replete with riddling allusions, covert patterns, and subtle wordplay; and in general they present ambiguous and complex messages which are bound to challenge the reader to unravel their meaning. Riddler or not, Horace has always presented an enigmatic and indeterminate persona, hidden behind great poetry that requires us to try to decode his personality, beliefs and poetic intentions through close scrutiny of his individual words and artful phrases. Is he modest or disingenuous, a moralist or a libertine, Augustus’ supporter or lackey, Apollonian or Dionysiac, a prophet or a craftsman?

In warning against Pindaric emulation in Odes 4.2, Horace compares his own activity to that of a busy Italian bee, apis Matinus. In the Ars Poetica he indicates exactly how laborious his mode of work is likely to have been. There he advises the poet not to be satisfied with his finished product until, like a sculptor, he has whittled and chiselled away all imperfections and refined it a dozen times until it is shaped to a nicety. The words Horace uses for ‘to a nicety’ are ‘ad unguem’, literally ‘to a fingernail’. Why did the phrase come to have this meaning, and what would Horace have expected his readers to understand by it? Commentators have referred the phrase to a passage in the satirist Persius in which a sculptor in marble is described running his fingernail over a finished statue to test that its surface is perfectly smooth. But Persius was writing a whole century after Horace, and there’s no indication that the simple phrase ad unguem should evoke such an image in the Ars Poetica. If Horace’s words are to be referred to anything, it has to be to a pre-existing use of such a phrase; and there’s only one such to be found, the use of ‘to a nail’ in Greek, eis onucha, a phrase used by the fifth-century BC sculptor Polyclitus of Argos in his lost treatise on sculpture.

The fragment of Polyclitus actually says that ‘the hardest part of creating a sculpture is when the clay is worked eis onucha, into the nail’. What does this mean? Art historians have no doubt. The process of making a statue out of bronze involved constructing a core figure out of wood and clay, covering it with a layer of thick wax, carving all the fine details such as hair and fingernails into the wax, and then placing a further clay mantle over that. The clay would be baked solid, and molten bronze would be poured into the space between the two layers of clay, melting the wax and solidifying into the finely etched moulds on the inner surface of the clay mantle. In order to achieve the extraordinary precision of detail that we can still see on such magnificent works as the Riace Bronzes, the sculptor had to take special care when applying the final layer of clay to the small details etched into the wax covering. That was why the hardest part was working the clay into the fingernails or toenails – Greek onyx and Latin unguis can mean either – of the pre-sculpted figure: because they represented the tiniest and most intricate elements of the resulting statue. So when Horace tells his aspiring poet to whittle down his work ad unguem, he’s not referring at all to the artist’s fingernail, as commentators have supposed since antiquity, but to the smallest detail, the unguis, of the finished figure.

Ad unguem is an example of the kind of Horatian code that isn’t meant to pose a riddle but nonetheless requires careful decoding. One of the pleasures of doing so is that it demonstrates the compressed artistry of Horatian phraseology, showing how steeped Horace was in Greek culture and literature. Other clues similarly embedded in his poems can be, and are regularly, referred to Greek precedents and predecessors. Most of the women’s names, for instance, found in his Odes are Greek, pointing us in the direction of Greek lyric verse rather than to the Hellenised demi-monde of Horace’s contemporary Rome. Horace will frequently suggest a pun on their names, such as in Odes 1.33, where Glycera, whose name in Greek means ‘sweet’, is described as immitis, ‘harsh’. He does the same with Roman addressees, as with Grosphus in Odes 2.16, whose name means ‘javelin’ in Greek. ‘Quid brevi fortes iaculamur aevo / multa?’ Horace asks mischievously, literally translated by David West ‘Why do we brave fellows throw so many javelins in our short lives?’ In Odes 3.17 the bogus claims of Aelius Lamia to noble lineage are gently mocked by Horace’s knowledge that Lamia is the Greek for ‘bogeyman’.

So what about Horace’s own name? The American scholar Kenneth Reckford has argued that Horace intended us to relate his name to the Latin hora, hour or season, and it’s true that Horace makes frequent reference to the passing of time and to seasons. But to my ears, and I think to Roman ones, hora with its long first syllable wouldn’t really echo Horatius with its short one. Moreover, Horace names himself only once in the Odes, at the very end of Odes 4.6, where the words ‘vatis Horati’ – Horace the seer – seem significantly juxtaposed. The image of the vates, the inspired bard, is made concrete in Odes 2.19 which begins ‘I have seen Bacchus among the lonely crags, teaching his songs,’ Bacchum in remotis carmina rupibus / vidi docentem. This suggests another possibility. When Horace was completing his education in Athens, it must have occurred to him that the vocative of his name, ‘Horati’, sounded exactly like the Greek words hora ti – ‘see something!’. Coincidence? It seems no less likely than similar codes that have been proposed in all seriousness. I really cannot believe the first word of Odes Book 3, Odi (I spurn) is a self-referential pun on the Greek ôdoi, ‘songs’ or Odes, possibly picking up odi in the last Ode of Book 1, Persicos odi. Are we even supposed to construe Persicos odi as per sic os Odi – ‘thus through my mouth come Odes’? In the face of such absurdities one can only exclaim ‘Ye gods’ – which, by the way, translates into Latin as (you got it) O di!

Horace certainly indicates his own emulation of Pindar, by signs both overt and covert. Even in Odes 4.2, Horace can hardly suggest without irony that one should avoid imitating Pindar and then call himself a bee, since he knew that Pindar himself in his 10th Pythian Ode represented himself as a bee. Horace intends us to think of him as in some way attaining Pindaric status, and an association to Pindar’s poetry is surely coded into the last couplet of Odes book 3, where we read of the Delphic laurels awarded to victorious athletes. Horace suggests with true Pindaric boastfulness that he be crowned poet laureate, and just as the last word of Pindar’s Olympian odes is chaitan, hair, the last word of Horace’s first collection of Odes is comam, hair. David West ends his collection of recent commentaries on Horace’s Odes with this obser­vation, so inevitably the last word of his commentary on Odes 3 is also ‘hair’. No coincidence, of course. Professor West is clearly making a claim to his affinity with Pindar and Horace. But what about the very first Ode, in which the first example Horace gives of the way of life, mos, sought by the ambitious is that of an Olympic charioteer, the kind of individual famously praised by Pindar in his Victory Odes? Horace ends Odes 1.1 with the suggestion that his own chosen way of life, mos, indeed his destiny, sors, is to be the star of the Roman lyric firmament. So should we not look for a code that reinforces his theme? Well, the initial letters of the first three lines of Odes 1.1 spell M-O-S, mos, while the final letters of lines 24-7 spell S-O-R-S.

Quo Musa tendis? Returning to my original proposal to emulate Dan Brown, let me accelerate into ‘Brownian motion’, a term descriptive, appropriately enough, of gas, and in particular of the way its particles move with chaotic randomness when heated up. It seems that a code exists which proves that Horace did not after all, as has long been supposed, die a childless bachelor. Hitherto one would have scorned the notion that the ‘puer’ addressed in Odes 1.38 and 3.14 could refer to Horace’s own son. Now, thanks to Dan Brown’s alter ego Dan Gore, we know better. In fact, I can now reveal the sensational truth that our poet left a bloodline whose secret has been jealously guarded for centuries by a society of self-selected initiates who gather annually in a venerable edifice in the heart of this great metropolis. But rather than indulging in more cryptological onomastic libertinism, let me give the last word to Horace: ‘I shall not wholly die; a large part of me will escape the final reckoning’ – non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei / vitabit Libitinam (Odes 3.30.6-7).



About Armand D'Angour

Fellow and Tutor in Classics, Jesus College Oxford.
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