Horace and the Persians – Horatian Society Address 2014

At the end of last month I made, along with the writer and FT journalist Harry Eyres, one of the two annual addresses to the Horatian Society, held at the Old Hall of Lincoln’s Inn, London. Previous speakers to the Society include Boris Johnson, Sir Peter Stothard and Gail Trimble. I decided to speak on Horace and the Persians…

Mr. President, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Persicos odi puer apparatus – “I hate Persian fripperies”. So began Horace the last poem of his first book of Odes. He was, in this instance, giving instructions to his slave boy for preparing an al-fresco dinner at the end of the summer. No need, he goes on, for anything fancy: no elaborate garlands woven with lime bark; don’t trouble to hunt out the last roses of the season; we need nothing, you and I, to adorn the beauty of simple myrtle.

I am glad to observe this Society honours the Poet’s memory by keeping his precepts over the setting of dinner. Persian fripperies are mercifully absent this evening, and there would be little enhancement brought to this excellent feast by the addition of belly-dancers, arak, or opium-filled shisha pipes.

But needless to say, Horace’s injunction is about much more than his preference for simplicity in table settings. Even the word “apparatus” is polyvalent.[1] I translated it as “fripperies”; it might be grand preparations, the paraphernalia for a military triumph (perish the thought that the Persians should have any of those) or even rhetorical devices (a dig at his Persian poetic rivals, perhaps?). And beyond that, the poem comes in a context of sustained barbarian-bashing. In the previous ode (I.37), there is a public celebration for the downfall of that dangerous easterner, Cleopatra. Perhaps Horace’s al fresco dinner is the private celebration to follow that public joy, with the sentiment of trashing oriental luxury and magnificence – be it Egyptian or Persian – as the abiding theme of both poems.

When Horace predicted his literary immortality, I do not know if he thought that descendants of the effete Persians might be numbered amongst his votaries. Seeing as I find myself amongst their number, it is not unreasonable for me to ask how comfortable it is to be in such a position. The Persians are notoriously touchy about those of the classical world who did them down. They still smart over the ruins of Persepolis, and Alexander the Great is strictly Alexander of Macedon in Iranian circles. Should I then begrudge the poet his Delphic laurel for his general denigration of the Persian kind?

I need hardly remind you of the main source of Horace’s Persophobia. It was not just the un-Roman luxury of the “gorgeous East” which rankled with him. It was the Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus’ ill-conceived adventure to win himself glory and riches in the East, and make himself a rival to Caesar. Instead, he found at the hand of the Persians – or Parthians, I should say – his own death, the annihilation of his legions, and the shameful capture of their legionary standards. The Roman prisoners, as Horace recalls “lived in vile marriages with barbarian wives… forgetful of their shields, and togas and eternal Vesta…” Persia was, for generations, an existential threat to Rome. Their conflict was perennial, and one recalls that even a Roman Emperor, Valerian, was captured in AD 260 and forced to serve as the Great King’s footstool. If Horace egged on Augustus to protect Rome from this menace, and to turn Rome’s energy, so recently expended against itself in civil war, outwards against a dangerous foreigner, can he really be blamed?

Yet it is curious to think about how the Persians are portrayed in Horace’s work. First, there is his carelessness about naming them – one in which I have so far shared. The Arsacid dynasty of the Parthians were in charge in Horace’s time, not the Achaemenid Persians. Yet, for Horace, they are all one: Persians, Parthians, Medes, King Achamenes, King Cyrus. By the same token, today’s diplomats might complain of the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Ottoman Sultan, or the wearisome truculence of the Grand Duke of Muscovy towards the eastern Ukraine. Naturally, it is a studied carelessness. It is not worth our while spending precious time to learn in detail about these barbarians, and besides, to call them by those old names will associate Augustus with Salamis and Marathon, the Greek triumphs over the Persians in the 5th century BC in defence of western liberty; an elegant way to bring lustre to one’s ultimate patron.

But when Horace does trouble to offer any detail about them, how wonderfully contrary his depiction. On the one hand, we have the jihadi. They are feroces, warlike and insolent[2], graves, harsh and oppressive[3], horribiles, dreadful[4], and infidi, deceitful[5]. It is indeed by their deceitful means of war that we know them, their use of feigned retreat[6] and archery[7]. Think of an Islamic State guerrilla armed with a bow and arrow.

On the other hand, we have the trustafarian sybarite. They drip with wealth, drip with extremely expensive perfume, as do even their slaves, and they are addicted to apparatus, fripperies. None of this opulence ever seems to please them. And, on occasion, the warrior and the wastrel are fused together; in one ode we see the “Median” soldier strutting about and showing off his flashy and no-doubt bejewelled quiver[8].

Even where credit might be due to the Persians, Horace is unwilling to give it. Some have suggested that Horace was aware of the Persian notion of the paradise garden: a retreat, usually the King’s, pleasant and cool with shade and running water[9]. When Horace urges his friend Tyndaris to visit his Sabine Farm, in addition to many of these paradisal qualities, observes Horace, Tyndaris will not be troubled by a rival who has been importuning him: a wanton fellow who can’t keep his fists under control, who might tear off Tyndaris’ festal robe or garland. The name of this devil kept out of paradise? A resoundingly Persian Cyrus.[10]

Curiously, Horace’s bipolar stereotype is little changed even today. Look at any newspaper: we either see those villainous ayatollahs ducking and weaving at the negotiating table as they menacingly spin their secret nuclear centrifuges; or else the jeunesse dorée of north Tehran, taunting the religious police with headscarves provocatively pulled back, diving into carouses so unbounded that they make a Friday night in Soho look like one of Savonarola’s tea-parties. 

It was not as if Rome was entirely without its Persians to give to the airy nothingness of Horace’s imagination some sensible definition, nor as if he were following some official line of the Augustan regime. In 20 BC, when Augustus returned in triumph with those captured standards – won by negotiation, not war – the Roman statuary and coinage of the period generally portrayed the Persians with dignity. This was shortly after the publication of the Odes in 23 BC. The Persians are shown not as humiliated enemies, bowed and shackled, as for example were the Gauls in coinage to mark Julius Caesar’s conquests. They appear standing upright, hands unbound, almost, but not quite, on a par with Augustus himself.

Indeed, they seem to have made their way to the heart of the Roman establishment. Recent scholarship has identified two of the figures in the imperial entourage on the Ara Pacis, that most perfect icon of Augustus’ blessings (inaugurated in 13 BC), as children of the Persian King, brought back to Rome as part of the settlement over Crassus’ standards[11]. The official iconography does not show them as enemies, but as “contributors to peace”; a far cry from Horace’s wish that war, plague and famine be visited on the Persians[12]. So far from Horace contentedly reclining under his vine, urging us chin-chin with the chosen Massic and not to worry about tedious conflicts in far-off countries of which we know little, he is avid for war. Is our Horace in fact less a guide to life and more a neo-con before his time, a sort of be-togaed Rumsfeld?

Perhaps Horace little esteemed the Persians because he knew little of their literature. Persian princes made it to Rome under Augustus, but it seems that it was not the same for their books. Horace speaks slightingly of Persian apparatus perhaps with its literature in mind, but in truth he had very little to go on. Then again, for Persian writing of that age, neither do we. There was certainly the Avesta, the ancient body of Zoroastrian texts, but had he somehow access to this dense corpus of scripture and liturgy, I feel he would have esteemed these noble but stolid verses little in comparison to what he had from the Greeks. And were there Persian lyricists of that age, they are lost, mute and inglorious.

Yet, if Horace is content to mislay several hundred years in his portrayal of the Persians, then I too claim the right of anachronism in my response. Horace is immortal, after all. Let him fly forward a thousand years and more, and engage in amoebean contest with those later Persians who have raised poetic monuments more long-lasting than bronze. Horace sings of the pleasures of friendship, wine and humble contentment:

Vile potabis modicis Sabinum / Cantharis … “you will drink cheap booze with me, Maecenas, from plastic glasses”[13]

And so Omar Khayyam, mediated by Edward Fitzgerald:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness-

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow![14]

The folly of future worries, and love of the moment:

Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere – “Quit asking what will come tomorrow”[15]

Khayyam replies:

Waste not your Hour, nor in vain pursuit

Of This and That endeavour and dispute;

Better be jocund with the fruitful grape

Than sadder after none, or bitter Fruit.[16]

The folly of excessive toil in the face inevitable death:

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume… “A worthier heir will quaff your Caecuban vintage now guarded by a hundred keys…”[17]

Step forward Hafez, in the words of Gertrude Bell:

A tale of April the meadows unfold—

Ah, foolish for future credit to slave,

And to leave the cash of the present untold!

Build a fort with wine where thy heart may brave

The assault of the world; when thy fortress falls,

The relentless victor shall knead from thy dust

The bricks that repair its crumbling walls.[18]

And poetic immortality:

Exegi monumentum aere perennius… “I have made a monument more long-lasting than bronze…”[19]

We hear from Sa’adi’s Gulistan or “Rose Garden”:

What use to you might be a dish of roses?

Rather, take a leaf from my Rose Garden.

A rose endures for just five days or six

But the bloom of my Rose Garden will for ever be fresh.[20]

So many are the similarities in motifs, concerns and even spirit that one might quote until the Sultan’s turret is caught in a noose of light, and we hardly know whether Horace’s favourite retreat is the Sabine farm or Shiraz. It might even have been his favourite grape, had he known of it.

It is troubling to find Horace unwilling to see the potential for humanitas in the Persians he so resembled (even at a thousand years’ difference), especially when their verse was so willing to transcend the incidents of religion and tribe. Again from Sa’adi’s Gulistan:

Human beings are members of a whole, / In creation of one essence and soul.[21]

Yet perhaps it is asking too much of Horace to have transcended his age to the extent of spurning its politics, and foregoing a convenient bogeyman. It must be overlooked, as we must overlook for example the inescapable anti-Semitism of Wagner for the boon and ultimate humanity of his work. If Horace had encountered the verse of his Persian brethren – and perhaps he has done so in some paradise somewhere – then doubtless he would have acknowledged his error, and held that Crassus’ soldiers even in Parthian captivity encountered Romanitas and humanitas. And similarly today, amongst those threatening ayatollahs and wild parties of north Tehran, we might recognise something of our own European lives instead of an implacable other. It is something to ponder this on day, when for the first time since the Iranian Revolution a British Prime Minister has met an Iranian President. Let no more be said against Persian fripperies; they are much the same as our own.



[1] See P. Hardie, “Fifth-Century Athenian and Augustan Images of the Barbarian Other” Classics Ireland, Vol. 4, (1997), 46-56

[2] Od III.ii.3

[3] Od III.v.4

[4] Od I.xxix,4

[5] Od IV.xv.23

[6] Od I.xix.11

[7] Od II.xiii.19

[8] Od. II.xvi.6

[9] W.S. Anderson, “Paradise Gained by Horace, Lost by Gulliver”, The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 14, Satire Special Number. Essays in Memory of Robert C. Elliott 1914-1981 (1984), 151-166

[10] Od. I.xvii

[11] C.B. Rose, “The Parthians in Ancient Rome”, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 109, No. 1 (Jan. 2005),  21-75

[12] Od. I.xxi.15

[13] Od. I.xx.1

[14] Rubaiyat XII

[15] Od I.ix.12

[16] Rubaiyat LIV

[17] Od. II.14

[18] Ode VII

[19] Od. III.xxx.1

[20] Introduction

[21] Chapter 1 Story 10

Afghan presidential handover – a historical perspective

Last week I wrote a historical perspective for the BBC Persian Service on the handover of power in Afghanistan from President Karzai to his successor, Ashraf Ghani. Here is a translation of the article:

A Harmless handover

In the week of the Afghan presidential inauguration, Bijan Omrani looks at previous handovers of power in Afghanistan.

No-one would deny that the process of finding a successor to Hamid Karzai as Afghan president has not been easy. A delay of over three months between the second presidential poll and the inauguration; an assassination attempt on the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah; accusations of vast electoral fraud involving over one million votes appearing from nowhere; and weeks of protracted negotiations about power-sharing and whether to reveal the numerical result of the poll: all of this has led to widespread dissatisfaction and even fear within Afghanistan and the international community.

Yet, for those who feel this way about the 2014 Afghan presidential poll, it pays to stand back for a moment and take a longer view of Afghanistan’s history. In Afghanistan, the handover of power has never been easy, and a look at what has happened in the past might make one more sanguine about the present.

Spare a thought, for example, for Zaman Shah. He ruled Afghanistan from 1793-1800, the third king on the Afghan throne since the country was established in 1747. In the mid-18th century, Afghanistan had been a formidable empire, reaching down to the Indian Ocean in Baluchistan, and also including the Punjab and Kashmir. But by Zaman Shah’s time the country was breaking up. He had relied on various Afghan chiefs to help him secure the throne and keep his kingdom together, but caught up in bitter tribal rivalries, he started to execute the chiefs who had helped him and replace them with members of his own clan. In 1800, his former allies decided that he had to be replaced. Instead of using negotiation or the ballot box, they blinded him, piercing his eyes with a needle. One of his brothers was put on the throne in his place, and Zaman Shah later fled to British India, where he lived on a British Government pension until 1844.

He might have been relieved to have been spared the sight of what went on in Afghan politics in the first half of the 19th century. A host of royal princes – brothers and half-brothers – manipulated by powerful tribal interests struggled bitterly for control of Kabul. Five kings were deposed, two of whom managed even to regain power for short periods. One of them, Shah Shuja, was put back on the throne by a British occupying army in 1839 during the First Afghan War, only to be assassinated shortly after their withdrawal in 1842. He was gunned down by a party of riflemen after being lured out of his Kabul stronghold, the Bala Hissar. Shot through the head, his body was stripped of the mass of jewels he always wore in public, and was then thrown into a ditch.

After a further prolonged period of civil war in the 1860s which saw another struggle between members of the royal family, with no fewer than three people claiming the throne in as many years, the British were again responsible for the loss of two Afghan kings in the 1870s. Fearing Russian interference, they invaded in 1878. Sher Ali Khan, a king who had worked hard to reunify the country after the earlier civil war, fled Kabul and died in Mazar-i Sharif, probably of despair. His son, Yaqub Khan, took the throne in February 1879, but abdicated in October that year after being unable to stop Kabul rioters massacring the members of a British diplomatic mission in the city. Surrendering to the British, he complained “I would rather be a grass-cutter in your camp than king of Afghanistan.”

It was little better in the 20th century. King Habibullah (1901-1919) was assassinated on a hunting expedition by an unknown killer, shot through the ear whilst alone in his tent. His successor, King Amanullah, who had forced through wide ranging social reforms including the education and unveiling of women, was overthrown in a revolution in 1929 by outraged traditionalists. Having fled Kabul in a Rolls-Royce, his role as king was later taken by a bandit chief nicknamed Bacha-i Saqao, “the son of the water carrier”. A member of the royal family, Nadir Shah, managed to rally resistance, capture and execute him by firing squad later in the year, taking over the throne. However, Nadir himself was assassinated by conspirators in 1933. He was attacked by a number of trusted servants outside the royal harem, shot three times and stabbed with daggers.

Although the Afghan monarchy was abolished in 1973 (again, thanks to a coup where one of the king’s uncles, Mohammed Daoud, took over executive power as president and prime minister whilst the then king, Zahir Shah, was out of the country), the violence still continued. Daoud, along with most of his family, was murdered in a communist coup in 1978. Nur Mohammed Taraki, who became president shortly afterwards, was killed in September 1979 after falling out with one of his former political allies, Hafizullah Amin. After gunmen under Amin’s orders failed to assassinate him, he was captured and smothered to death with a pillow in the presidential palace. Amin himself, as Afghanistan spiralled out of control, was ordered to be killed by the Soviet government who thought that his bad government was giving communism a bad name. After failed attempts to poison him, he was killed by Soviet Special Forces when they stormed his residence in December 1979.

The 2014 presidential election and handover of power from Hamid Karzai to Ashraf Ghani has hardly been a smooth or painless process. However, in a country where there is little tradition of executive power being transferred peacefully, and where the building of stable state institutions to allow such peaceful handovers has been deeply disrupted by decades of foreign interference, the sight of a well-ordered and amicable presidential inauguration on Monday can only give one hope. This week’s presidential handover, which has been based on the ballot box and negotiation, is a vast improvement on what has happened before.