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