Was Horace a town or a country mouse?

  • Themes: Countryside Week

Romans - like the poet Horace - tired of the relentlessness of city life and depicted the country as a venue for retreat and relaxation. But they also knew that time in the country was made all the sweeter by big city moolah and achievement.

Dante meets the souls of great poets in Limbo, four of whom come forward, Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan.
Dante meets the souls of great poets in Limbo, four of whom come forward, Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Engraving by Gustave Dore (1832-1883), Canto IV, Inferno, Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1265- 1321) 1869 edition. Credit: Getty Images.

‘How lovely to be able shake off your cares, and head to the country for a break on your private estate,’ enthuses the ancient Roman poet Horace at the beginning of Epodes 2, a poem composed in the 30s BC:

Why would one want to be a soldier bound for battle, a trader setting out for profit on a dangerous sea voyage, or an ambitious politician needing to contend with the challenges of the forum and public life? Instead of such activities, you can enjoy tending your vines and fruit trees, pressing your honey into jars, and watching your cattle and sheep wandering over your financially unencumbered farmland. You can lie in the grass beside a bubbling stream, drifting off to the sound of birdsong and rustling leaves, happy in the knowledge that your loving wife awaits your return home, having set the table with home-grown olives and wine rather than those over-rated delicacies of urban cuisine – oysters, wrasse, African guinea-fowl…

Horace paints an idyllic picture of simple rustic pleasures in contrast to urban turbulence and excess. But the final couplets of the poem are calcul­ated to make readers smile as they are jolted out of the pastoral reverie Horace has conjured up. The congenial sentiments expressed are revealed as a monologue uttered by an unapologetic moneylender:

So spoke the loan-shark Alfius as he gathered in his loans, 
And headed to the countryside to rest his tired bones. 
A fortnight’s holiday his health and vigour to restore 
Until the new month dawns so he can place his loans once more! 

For all the mischievous reversal of expectations we find here, Horace was not cynical about the pleasures of country life. He was in the fortunate position of having been gifted, by his patron Maecenas, a tranquil country villa surrounded by acres of land which can still be visited, nestling in the hills of Licenza, northeast of Rome,  above the valley of the river Anio. Many of Horace’s poems speak of the delights of the villa with its farm and bubbling stream, and the beauty and tranquillity of its natural features.

Employed for a time as a treasury clerk Horace knew that Rome, then a bustling metropolis of about a million souls – in his time, the largest European city the world had known – was where everything that mattered took place. Imperial politics, senatorial disputes, law court dramas, business transactions, public shows, military triumphs – but also the life of poetry, art, and literature. ‘At Rome, you long for the country’ he depicts the outspoken slave Davus berating him in one of his Satires (2.7), written in the same decade as his Epodes, ‘but when you’re in the country, you fickle man, you praise to the skies the city you’ve left behind.’ The tension between town and country living is summed up in another of the Satires (2.6), in which Horace recreates the traditional fable of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, the earliest version of which was told by Aesop in the sixth century BC. Here Horace depicts it being told by his country neighbour Cervius to a relaxed gathering of philosophical friends.

Country Mouse, says Cervius, welcomes his old friend Town Mouse to his humble home, where he lives a frugal life. A generous host, he happily shares the vetch and oats he has gathered on the farm, and even provides the odd titbit – a raisin or a crust of bacon – scavenged from its residents. But the Town Mouse has his own idea of the good life, which he presents in Epicurean guise: ‘Life is brief, so enjoy it while you can,’ he says to Country Mouse. ‘Why not come to town and enjoy the sophist­icated pleasures that the city has to offer?’ Off to town they scurry, and they head for an opulent mansion. There in the great hall, which is furnished with ivory couches covered with scarlet rugs, lie piles of baskets containing the remains of a splendid feast held the previous night. Acting as waiter, Town Mouse rushes around waiting on his friend hand and foot (and, of course, giving everything a preliminary nibble, just as a Roman slave would). Country Mouse is reclining in style and enjoying the sumptuous treat with his urbane friend, ‘when suddenly a great clatter of doors shakes them from their seats. They hurtle across the hall in terror, becoming panic-stricken when they hear the high hall echoing to the barking of Molossian hounds.’ Country Mouse gasps:

This life’s no good for me. I’m off! In safety from such dread,
My woodland hole and simple fare will do just fine instead!

Country Mouse is scared by the dogs, but Horace doesn’t specify what he, a poet, might have had to dread about city life. A century later the satirist Juvenal was to contrast (in his Satire 3) the sheer physical danger of life in Rome with the safety of rustic living:

Who worries about the prospect of his house collapsing in shady Praeneste, rural Gabii, Tivoli perched on its hillside, or Volsinii nestling in woodland ridges? The city we inhabit teeters on flimsy props and poles, while landlords postpone the collapse of their buildings by papering over huge cracks in the antiquated brickwork and insisting that the tenants can sleep soundly even as their house totters. I personally prefer to live without fires and nightly panics…Think of those cracked and leaky pots that are tossed out of the windows, how they smash down with all their weight and damage the pavement: you’d be very irresponsible, a reckless fool, if you didn’t make your will before heading out to dinner! At night every open casement along the route could be a death trap.

Under the Principate of Augustus, what was equally likely to disturb someone’s sleep was the danger of political engagement, especially for anyone close to the centre of power. Even Horace’s beloved patron Maecenas was eventually to fall foul of the emperor. Until that point Horace was proud to recognise that their friendship gave him status and influence in others’ eyes, even if it meant constantly fending off irritating pleas to intercede with his powerful friend. ‘My day’s taken up with this kind of thing, dammit! I find myself praying “When will I get to see you again, my farm? When will I be able to breathe freely, happy in the forgetfulness of life’s cares, browsing among ancient classics, or spending my hours in sleep and idle leisure?”’

The simple country life that Horace craved, however, would not have given him the public recognition he sought and gained as a poet. For that he needed to be in Rome. When Augustus dedicated a temple to the god of music and poetry Apollo (Phoebus), accompanied by a lavish library, on the Palatine Hill in 28 BC, Horace wrote a poem for the occasion (Odes 1.31, here in the 1882 translation of John Conington):

What blessing shall the bard entreat
The god he hallows, as he pours
The winecup? Not the mounds of wheat
That load Sardinian threshing floors;
Not Indian gold or ivory—no,
Nor flocks that o'er Calabria stray,
Nor fields that Liris, still and slow,
Is eating, unperceived, away.
Let those whose fate allows them train
Calenum's vine; let trader bold
From golden cups rich liquor drain
For wares of Syria bought and sold,
Heaven's favourite, sooth, for thrice a year
He comes and goes across the brine
Undamaged. I in plenty here
On endives, mallows, succory dine.
O grant me, Phoebus, calm content,
Strength unimpaird, a mind entire,
Old age without dishonour spent,
Nor unbefriended by the lyre!

Here in the heart of the city, where his poetic lyre is sought to approve the high sacred enterprises of the emperor, Horace reiterates his dismissal of wealth and opulence, of commercial or worldly success, and opts for the healthfulness and pleasure of rustic fare and rural peace.


Armand D'Angour