Horace, Epistles 2. 2: Introspection and Retrospective

Classical Quarterly 31 (02):375- (1981)


The epistle to Florus has usually been grouped with the epistle to Augustus and the Ars Poetica, partly because of its length, which sets it, like the other two, apart from the letters of the first book, and partly because of the common interest in literary theory which is manifested in all three. These poems have always been the subject of controversy; but 2. 2 has received less attention than the others, perhaps because the elegance and humour of the poem, which have been so often praised, have eclipsed the possibility that it may have something to say, especially about Horace himself, his personality and his changing allegiances to philosophy and poetry. The object of this paper is to offer a reading of 2. 2, not as a piece of autobiography, nor as a mosaic of conventional motifs, but as an examination by Horace of his own poetry and poetic aims, in which he is testing and criticizing his own achievement, and himself. In this he continues one of the most attractive and impressive practices of the earlier book of epistles. Horace here abnegates his role as a lyric poet, and this is generally taken literally as placing the poem quite precisely between the completion of Epistles 1 and Horace's resumption of lyric writing in the Carmen Saeculare and Odes 4. But more important is the way in which Horace in Ep. 2. 2 itself expresses a judgement about his own poetic ambitions. The philosophic themes of the Epistles and the more frivolous lyric subjects which he presents as the essence of his Odes, are both aspects of Horace's poetry and personality; the question is whether one should be considered more valid than the other in the poet's own mature judgement, whether Horace should in fact have outgrown either or both kinds of poetry. In this poem, then, it is important not only that he renews the renunciation of poetry and the gay life which he made at Ep. 1. 1. 10–11, but also that this decision is to some extent forced on him, and reluctantly made

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