HORACE ODES: A selection

Edited by John Godwin

Bloomsbury (2018) p/b 104pp £12.99 ISBN 9781501324222)

This is one of the comparatively short books published by Bloomsbury and endorsed by the OCR Examination Board to accompany the set texts for Latin ‘A’ Level. The texts in question are Horace’s Odes III 2, III 3, III 4 and III 6, set for examination from 2020—2021 inclusive. 

On its website, OCR sets out, under eight bullet points, what students should be able to do, and under four bullet points what they will be required to do, and as one would expect with this publisher and this author, John Godwin, for many years Head of Classics at Shrewsbury School, all these points are addressed and ‘it does what it says on the tin’. This involves helping students to understand and to be able to comment on the social, literary and historical context of the Odes, both in general and in the set odes in detail, as well as to translate passages into English, and (perhaps most demanding) to ‘critically analyse the literary style, characterisation, argument and literary meaning of a passage from a set text’.

To fulfil this commission G. offers an introduction covering Horace’s life, his relationship with Augustus, the lyric poem in Greece and Rome, the philosophical background and the metre, which in the case of the set odes, is Alcaic. He suggests further reading, offers a detailed commentary on the Latin text, and a full vocabulary linked where appropriate to particular lines.

A good example of his approach is his handling of Juno’s speech in III 3 in which she inveighs against any idea of the rebuilding of Troy. G. asks, in effect, ‘What is going on?’ and he outlines three possible explanations.

First, there is the theory that Horace is ‘thanking Augustus for resisting Anthony’s desire to move the centre of power from Rome to Alexandria’. G. rejects this as ‘tenuous’, writing ‘Egypt is not Troy’, though perhaps he should have given a little more weight to the claim in Suetonius Divus Julius 79 that ‘there was a persistent rumour that Caesar intended to move the seat of government to Troy or Alexandria’—persistent rumours may need persistent rebuttal.

Secondly, G. suggests that Horace may be ‘alluding to the legend whereby the anger of Juno … was finally laid to rest on the explicit condition … that Troy itself would remain destroyed for ever’, and that Horace was ‘mimicking the epic themes of the Aeneid and stealing some of the language of the epic’: what epic verse can do, lyric verse can do as well. But G. is unhappy with this approach as reducing the poem ‘to a literary pastiche’.

After hinting at the third explanation i.e. that Troy was ‘something of a byword for luxury and even debauchery’ and by implication anathema to Augustus’ moral crusade, G. concludes that this poem ‘resists easy interpretation’.

The point is that G. is encouraging the able students to think for themselves, to beware the trap of thinking that there must be a ‘right’ answer, and to help them see the study of Latin literature as not simply knowing how the words are to be translated, but as a stimulating aesthetic and intellectual adventure. And all this in barely over one hundred pages. It is a veritable multum in parvo.

Ray Morris

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