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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
How Horace Lived at His Country House
By Gaston Boissier (1823–1908)
 
From ‘The Country of Horace and Virgil’

IT is very annoying that Horace, who has described with so many details the employment of his days while he remained in Rome, should not have thought it necessary to tell us as clearly how he spent his life in the country. The only thing we know with certainty is that he was very happy there: he for the first time tasted the pleasure of being a proprietor. “I take my meals,” said he, “before household gods that are mine own” (“ante larem proprium vescor”). To have a hearth and domestic gods, to fix his life in a dwelling of which he was the master, was the greatest happiness that could befall a Roman. To enjoy it, Horace had waited until he was more than thirty years of age. We have seen that his domain, when he took possession of it, was very much neglected, and that the house was falling into ruins. He first had to build and plant. Do not let us pity him; these cares have their charms. One loves one’s house when one has built or repaired it, and the very trouble our land costs us attaches us to it. He came to it as often as he could, and always with pleasure. Everything served him as a pretext to leave Rome. It was too hot there, or too cold; the Saturnalia were approaching—an unbearable time of the year, when all the town was out of doors; it was the moment to finish a work which Mæcenas had pressingly required. Well, how could anything good be done at Rome, where the noises of the street, the bustle of intercourse, the troublesome people one has to visit or receive, the bad verses one has to listen to, take up the best part of your time? So he put Plato with Menander into his portmanteau, took with him the work he had begun, promising to do wonders, and started for Tibur. But when he was at home, his good resolutions did not hold out. He had something to do quite different from shutting himself up in his study. He had to chat with his farmer, and superintend his laborers. He went to see them at work, and sometimes lent a hand himself. He dug the spade into the field, took out the stones, etc., to the great amusement of the neighbors, who marveled both at his ardor and his clumsiness:—
  “Rident vicini glebas et saxa moventem.”
  1
  In the evening he received at his table a few of the neighboring proprietors. They were honest folk, who did not speak ill of their neighbors, and who, unlike the fops of Rome, had not for sole topic of conversation the races or the theatre. They handled most serious questions, and their rustic wisdom found ready expression in proverbs and apologues. What pleased Horace above all at these country dinners was that etiquette was laughed at, that everything was simple and frugal, that one did not feel constrained to obey those silly laws which Varro had drawn up, and which had become the code of good company. Nobody thought of electing a king of the feast, to fix for the guests the number of cups that must be drained. Every one ate according to his hunger and drank according to his thirst. “They were,” said Horace, “divine repasts” (“O noctes cenæque Deum”).  2
  Yet he did not always stay at home, however great the pleasure he felt in being there. This steady-going, regular man thought it right from time to time to put a little irregularity into one’s life. Does not a Grecian sage—Aristotle, I think—recommend that one excess per month be indulged in, in the interest of health? It serves at least to break the round of habit. Such also was the opinion of Horace. Although the most moderate of men, he found it pleasant to commit an occasional wildness (“dulce est desipere in loco”). With age these outbursts had become less frequent, yet he still loved to break the sage uniformity of his existence by some pleasure jaunt. Then he returned to Præneste, to Baiæ, or to Tarentum, which he had loved so much in his youth. Once he was unfaithful to these old affections, and chose for the goal of his journey spots that were new to him. The occasion of the change was this: Antonius Musa, a Greek physician, had just cured Augustus of a dangerous illness, which it had been thought must prove fatal, by means of cold water. Hydrotherapeutics at once became fashionable. People deserted the thermal springs, formerly so much sought after, to go off to Clusium, to Gabii, into the mountains, where springs of icy water were found. Horace did like the rest. In the winter of the year 730, instead of going as usual towards Baiæ, he turned his little steed towards Salerno and Velia. This was the affair of a season. Next year Marcellus, the Emperor’s son-in-law and heir, falling very ill, Antonius Musa was hastily sent for, and applied his usual remedy. But the remedy no longer healed, and hydrotherapeutics, which had saved Augustus, did not prevent Marcellus from dying. They were at once forsaken, and the sick again began following the road to Baiæ.  3
  When Horace started on these extraordinary journeys, he took a change of diet. “At home,” said he, “I can put up with anything; my Sabine table wine seems to me delicious; and I regale myself with vegetables from my garden seasoned with a slice of bacon. But when I have once left my house, I become more particular, and beans, beloved though they be of Pythagoras, no longer suffice me.” So before starting in the direction of Salerno, where he did not often go, he takes the precaution to question one of his friends as to the resources of the country; whether one can get fish, hares, and venison there, that he may come back home again as fat as a Phæacian. Above all, he is anxious to know what is drunk in those parts. He wants a generous wine to make him eloquent, and “which will give him strength, and rejuvenate him in the eyes of his young Lucanian sweetheart.” We see he pushes precaution a considerable length. He was not rich enough to possess a house of his own at Baiæ, Præneste, or Salerno, the spots frequented by all the Roman fashionable world, but he had his wonted lodgings (“deversoria nota”), where he used to put up. When Seneca was at Baiæ, he lived above a public bath, and he has furnished us a very amusing account of the sounds of all kinds that troubled his rest. Horace, who liked his ease and wished to be quiet, could not make a very long stay in those noisy places. His whim gratified, he returned as soon as possible to his peaceful house amid the fields, and I can well imagine that those few fatiguing weeks made it seem more pleasant and more sweet to him.  4
  One cannot read his works carefully without noticing that his affection for his country estate goes on constantly increasing. At first, when he had passed a few weeks there, the memory of Rome used to re-awaken in his thoughts. Those large towns, which we hate when we are forced to live in them, have only to be left in order to be regretted! When Horace’s slave, taking an unfair advantage of the liberty of the Saturnalia, tells his master so many unpleasant things, he reproaches him with never being pleased where he is:—
  “Romæ rus optas, absentem villicus urbem
Tollis ad astra levis?”
  5
  He was himself very much vexed at his inconstancy, and accused himself of “only loving Rome when he was at Tibur, and only thinking of Tibur from the moment he found himself in Rome.” However, he cured himself at last of this levity, which annoyed him so much. To this he bears witness in his own favor in the letter addressed to his farmer, where he strives to convince him that one may be happy without having a public-house next door. “As for me,” he tells him, “thou knowest that I am self-consistent, and that each time hated business recalls me to Rome I leave this spot with sadness.” He doubtless arranged matters so as to live more and more at his country house. He looked forward to a time when it would be possible for him scarcely ever to leave it, and counted upon it to enable him to bear more lightly the weight of his closing years.  6
  They are heavy, whatever one may do, and age never comes without bringing many griefs. Firstly, the long-lived must needs leave many friends upon the way. Horace lost some to whom he was very tenderly attached. He had the misfortune to survive Virgil and Tibullus ten years. What regrets he must have felt on the death of the great poet, of whom he said he “knew no soul more bright, and had no better friend”! The great success of Virgil’s posthumous work could only have half consoled him for his loss, for he regretted in him the man as well as the poet. He had also great cause to grieve for Mæcenas, whom he so dearly loved. This favorite of the Emperor, this king of fashion, whose fortune all men envied, finished by being very unhappy. It is all very well to take every kind of precaution in order to insure one’s happiness—to fly from business, to seek pleasure, to amass wealth, to gather clever men about one, to surround one’s self with all the charms of existence; however one may try to shut the door on them, troubles and sorrows find a way in. The saddest of it all is that Mæcenas was first unhappy through his own fault. Somewhat late in life this prudent, wise man had been foolish enough to marry a coquette, and to fall deeply in love with her. He had rivals, and among them the Emperor himself, of whom he dared not be jealous. He who had laughed so much at others afforded the Romans a comedy at his own expense. His time was passed in leaving Terentia and taking her back again. “He has been married more than a hundred times,” said Seneca, “although he has had but one wife.” To these domestic troubles illness was added. His health had never been good, and age and sorrows made it worse. Pliny tells us that he passed three whole years without being able to sleep. Enduring pain badly, he grieved his friends beyond measure by his groans. Horace, with whom he continually conversed about his approaching end, answered him in beautiful verses:—
          “Thou, Mæcenas, die first! Thou, stay of my fortune, adornment of my life! The gods will not allow it, and I will not consent. Ah! if Fate, hastening its blows, should tear from me part of myself in thee, what would betide the other? What should I henceforth do, hateful unto myself, and but half of myself surviving?”
  7
  In the midst of these sorrows, Horace himself felt that he was growing old. The hour when one finds one’s self face to face with age is a serious one. Cicero, when approaching it, tried to give himself courage in advance, and being accustomed to console himself for everything by writing, he composed his ‘De Senectute,’ a charming book in which he tries to deck the closing years of life with certain beauties. He had not to make use of the consolations which he prepared for himself, so we do not know whether he would have found them sufficient when the moment came. That spirit, so young, so full of life, would I fear have resigned itself with difficulty to the inevitable decadences of age. Nor did Horace love old age, and in his ‘Ars Poetica’ he has drawn a somewhat gloomy picture of it. He had all the more reason to detest it because it came to him rather early. In one of those passages where he so willingly gives us the description of his person, he tells us that his hair whitened quickly. As a climax of misfortune he had grown very fat, and being short, his corpulence was very unbecoming to him. Augustus, in a letter, compares him to one of those measures of liquids which are broader than they are high. If, in spite of these too evident signs which warned him of his age, he had tried to deceive himself, there was no lack of persons to disabuse him. There was the porter of Neæra, who no longer allowed his slave to enter; an affront which Horace was obliged to put up with without complaining. “My hair whitening,” said he, “warns me not to quarrel. I should not have been so patient in the time of my boiling youth, when Plancus was consul.” Then it was Neæra herself who declined to come when he summoned her, and again resigning himself with a good enough grace, the poor poet found that after all she was right, and that it was natural love should prefer youth to ripened age.
                      “Abi,
Quo blandæ juvenum te revocant preces.”
  8
  Fortunately he was not of a melancholy disposition, like his friends Tibullus and Virgil. He even had opinions on the subject of melancholy which differ widely from ours. Whereas, since Lamartine, we have assumed the habit of regarding sadness as one of the essential elements of poetry, he thought on the contrary that poetry has the privilege of preventing us from being sad. “A man protected by the Muses,” said he, “flings cares and sorrows to the winds to bear away.” His philosophy had taught him not to revolt against inevitable ills. However painful they be, one makes them lighter by bearing them. So he accepted old age because it cannot be eluded, and because no means have yet been found of living long without growing old. Death itself did not frighten him. He was not of those who reconcile themselves to it as well as they can by never thinking about it. On the contrary, he counsels us to have it always in mind. “Think that the day which lights you is the last you have to live. The morrow will have more charm for you if you have not hoped to see it:”—
  “Omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum;
Grata superveniet quæ non sperabitur hora.”
  9
  This is not, as might be supposed, one of those bravadoes of the timid, who shout before Death in order to deaden the sound of his footsteps. Horace was never more calm, more energetic, more master of his mind and of his soul, than in the works of his ripe age. The last lines of his that remain to us are the firmest and most serene he ever wrote.  10
  Then, more than ever, must he have loved the little Sabine valley. When we visit these beautiful tranquil spots, we tell ourselves that they appear made to shelter the declining years of a sage. It seems as if with old servants, a few faithful friends, and a stock of well-chosen books, the time must pass there without sadness. But I must stop. Since Horace has not taken us into his confidence respecting his last years, and nobody after him has told us of them, we are reduced to form conjectures, and we should put as few of them as possible into the life of a man who loved truth so well.  11
 
 
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