A Literary Criticism of Horace’s Epode 4

Horace Epode 4:

Lupis et agnis quanta Sortito obtigit,
tecum mihi discordia est,
Hibericis peruste funibus latus
et crura dura compede.
licet superbus ambules pecunia,
fortuna non mutat genus.
videsne, sacram metiente te viam
cum bis trium ulnarum toga,
ut ora vertat huc et huc euntium
liberrima indignatio?
‘sectus flagellis hic triumviralibus
praeconis ad fastidium
arat Falerni mille fundi iugera
et Appiam mannis terit
sedilibusque magnus in primis eques
Othone contempto sedet.
quid attinet tot ora navium gravi
rostrata duci pondere
contra latrones atque servilem manum
hoc, hoc tribuno militum?’


The subject of this poem is a parvenu, a freed slave who has subsequently acquired great wealth and is now ‘flaunting’ it around. The tone of the poem appears to be one of indignation, an attack on such people overstepping their station.

The first theme to note is that Horace could be advocating a hierarchical society, in which slaves, freedmen and citizens know their place. In antiquity, the slave had relatively few (if any) rights, the freedman slightly more, and a citizen the most. The parvenu has been subjected to the ‘Spanish lash’ and ‘iron fetters’, and yet now his ‘mules scour the apian way’, Horace’s tone is more indignant, ending the poem with the implication that such an elevation from slave to wealthy man is an insult to Roman society. He also brings anonymous members of society into the poem to enforce his view. The passers-by displaying ‘unrestrained indignation’ could well be telling of a general social consensus voiced by Horace; that no-one likes someone overstepping their breeding. It is interesting to consider that the child of a freedman has as many rights as a citizen, so Horace could have taken issue with a freedman showing such tenacity, but were he to have children, such behaviour would be more befitting of their ‘breeding’.

Though it is possible that merely the rise in social status is an insult, it could also be an attack on the arrogance of those with wealth. By making the wealthy man in question an ex-slave, Horace avoids offending outright the wealthy equestrians and patricians for whom the poem could be just as much intended. His description of the parvenu suggests a flaunting of wealth – an absurdly wide toga; strutting; pride – wealth doesn’t have to induce these things. Horace could be reminding the audience to maintain a degree of humility, not to succumb to the social degeneration that afflicted Roman society in the wake of spoils of war. There was much admiration for the first Romans and their frugal living, and writers such as Livy made clear a dissatisfaction with contemporary morals.

Therefore, the poem is open to interpretation, but the two most likely conclusions to draw from it are that Horace frowned upon excessive pride, and that there was enough stigma surrounding the success of freedmen for Horace to make a poem out of it.

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