Wednesday, January 22, 2020


Paul Allen Miller, Horace. Understanding Classics. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2019. Pp. xii, 204. ISBN 9781784533304. $22.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Aaron Palmore, Loyola University Maryland (

Version at BMCR home site


Miller's contribution to I.B. Tauris' Understanding Classics series takes on Horace, the versatile and prolific Roman poet of the 1st century BCE. The book is aimed at "the educated reader, the avid student and the expert looking for new perspectives" (3). Read an extra emphasis on "educated" and "avid", because this would likely be a challenging book for most undergraduate audiences. Students of poetry who are looking to find out more about Horace as an artist will find much to appreciate here; students of history seeking to understand how Horace fits in with their craft are likely to be less satisfied. Individual chapters are useful for closer looks at the Satires, Epodes, Odes 1-3, and Epistles 1. There is very little coverage of Epistles 2, Odes 4, the Ars Poetica, or the Carmen Saeculare.

In the guise of an introduction to Horace, Miller has produced here a refreshingly readable monograph about Horatian irony. This, Miller convincingly argues, is a key concept for understanding Horace's consistency as a poet working in many genres. Miller channels Quintilian for his definition of irony: "a moment in which the understood meaning (intellectum) remains at some variance (diversum) with the letter of what has been said (dictum)" (70). For Miller, "understanding Horace, from first to last, is to take him seriously as a poet, thinker and ironist, and ultimately to see these functions as indissociable" (15). Miller makes organic and implicit use of theory (especially Foucault) to spark readers' minds, though the density of theoretical and philosophical ideas may occasionally overwhelm or frustrate less nimble readers.

The Introduction, "Why Horace? Why Now?", provides an overview of Horace's oeuvre and a framework for what makes Horace difficult to capture. Here Miller also deals with the biographical tradition, mostly drawn from Horace's own poems (there is no mention of the Suetonian Life of Horace, for instance), and Horace's relationships with Brutus, Vergil, Maecenas, and ultimately Augustus.

Chapter 1, "Roman Socrates: Irony in the Satires", demonstrates how Horace and Socrates share an approach to philosophical pedagogy: each is a passerby who stops you on the street, lures you in with a few questions, and then sends you on an endless quest of self-understanding and self-definition (17-20). Miller reads the program of the Satires as "a form of self-care that promotes moral health rather than a public indictment of vice" (28-29). Other than 1.4, the most space is reserved for 1.1, 2.7, and 2.8.

Key terms like satura (20-21) and libertas (21-31, with a compelling look at 1.4's complexities) are developed here. Miller finds part of the satiric approach gift-wrapped in the phrase seria ludo (1.1.27), and provides significant help to Latinless readers for the multiple dimensions of ludus (33-36). This chapter will promote further interest in the critical dimensions of the Satires for the reader new to Horace and help the more experienced reader recognize some new layers of Socratic presence in the collection.

In Chapter 2, "Going Soft on Canidia: The Epodes, an Unappreciated Classic," Miller contextualizes Horace's poetic production by situating iambic alongside satire in its "shared commitment to libertas" (53). The reader finds a good overview of the iambic genre with Archilochus, Hipponax, and Callimachus. Miller also reviews Catullus' contributions to the genre and discusses some interesting links between Horace and Catullus in mode and meter.

The chapter's final twenty pages are devoted primarily to readings of Epodes 3, 8, and 12, with a sustained emphasis on irony that "makes possible the cultivation of a private ethical self" (61). This is one strand of what is new in Horace's take on iambic; Horace's poetic persona is another, as he presents as an "impotent self-reflective, rather than a violent other-directed, iambist" (66). This impotence is well demonstrated with Canidia, whom Miller presents as a nexus of meaning (65). He connects the anonymous old woman of Epodes 8 and 12 with Canidia through lexical cues and references. Thus these poems become part of the intricate network of the Epodes, whose unity of image and reference Miller successfully demonstrates throughout the chapter.

Chapter 3, "Exegi Monumentum: Horace's Two-Eared Odes," is about Odes 1-3. The poems are "two- eared" for two reasons: one is their Latin-Greek "cultural bilingualism", the other is their "profoundly ironic discourse", which by now is familiar to Miller's reader (82). He devotes significant space to his reading of 1.9 (88-100) before turning to 1.14 and, finally, several poems in Odes 3. There are, of course, many more poems in the Odes than in the Epodes, Satires, or Epistles, and it was surprising to methat Miller focused on these three selections so heavily while the other chapters function more like surveys. This choice, though, allows Miller both to tackle the different dimensions of reading that the Odes make possible and to demonstrate the theoretical and methodological tools available to the reader for understanding these dimensions.

Miller's strategy in this chapter is perhaps best summed up by his reading of 1.14. Here he finds both a political and an erotic interpretation viable, but does not wish to advocate "a kind of deconstructive undecidability"; rather, he thinks that "this aporia is precisely the point" in that the poem prompts us to consider the "relation between the erotic and the political" (107). This approach to the Odes is refreshing and engaging, though some examples are more compelling than others. I would have liked to see more about the Latin-Greek bilingualism in the Odes. I also wondered how this chapter might work in a classroom setting. Miller's ideas are built upon a sound knowledge of both Latin and critical theory, but readers without this background may erroneously conclude that, with the right rhetorical twist, anything can mean anything in the Odes.

Chapter 4, "Freedom, Friendship, and the Ties That Bind: Socratic Irony in Epistles I," introduces us to a collection of poems that engages with the challenges of amicitia, genuine friendship, and social obligation. Libertas, too, receives a renewed focus, as "one is never simply free: one is always free somewhere, doing something, in relation to other people, who themselves exist in structured relations with one another" (131). As the Epistles—like the Satires, but unlike the Odes and Epodes—have already received extensive treatment along these lines, much of Miller's argument in this chapter seems familiar. A few pages on Persius interject themselves (136-138) to contextualize where the Horatian satire-epistle genre eventually goes, but this seems an odd digression in a book which does not even have space for all of Horace's works.

Metaphor and self-referentiality receive their due attention, as with Horace's key term depromere, which appears here after several occurrences in Odes 1 (139-141). The exploration of 1.19 focuses on the question of how things are versus how things seem, with a compelling argument about the wordplay in liber, Liber, and Libo (142-146). Miller treats us to ironic readings of 1.18's satiric treatment of Lollius (156), 1.2's focus on self-care (160), and 1.7's exploration of when "friendship become[s] patronage, and freedom a form of servitude" (176). These readings all sit comfortably within Miller's overall project, and the chapter makes a strong case for a kind of unity in Horace's diverse poetic output.

A short "Epilogue" covers some ground on reception, with glances at Petrarch, Du Bellay, and Boileau, among others.

The in-text references are helpful at every turn and often indicate more than one secondary source. This is a nice feature because it gives experienced readers a sense of the network of ideas in Horatian scholarship while giving the student, perhaps working on a research paper, a good starting bibliography on virtually any literary or philosophical question about Horace. The 16 endnotes in the book total fewer than 2 pages and would have been better left as part of the text itself.

Most of the time we get the Latin along with Miller's translation, but sometimes (and inexplicably) we do not. There are some proofreading errors in the Latin text.1 Given the intended audience for the book, though, most readers are likely to spend more time with the English translations. The translations themselves are strong but sometimes uneven. Horace's concise juxtaposition of "green" and "white" in 1.9's virenti canities, for example, becomes in Miller's translation "... so long as old age's irritable hoar is far from youthful verdancy" (98). This does the job, but it is far from the engaging voice of Miller's Epodes and Satires. The translation of Odes 1.9.9-12 seems to be missing something for it to make better sense in English (96). Some proofreading errors may hinder readers who want to follow up on some ideas.2 Several items are missing from the bibliography.3

Miller surpasses this reader's expectations of what a book in this genre purports to do. The coherent interpretive thread of irony is a pleasant surprise. That said, those considering adopting this book for classroom use should be aware that it could present some challenges without a guiding hand.


1.   Ars 42 on p. 10 is missing the verb erit. iactentem should likely be iacentem on p. 110. principium should be principum in the text of Odes 2.1 on p. 112. The text of Epistles 1.1.25 on p. 150 is missing the word verba, but "words" makes it into the translation. Epistles 1.7. 23 on p. 168 has significant problems: nec tamen ignorant quid distent area lupinis should be read rather ignorat and aera, which the translation reflects.
2.   Read "Meineke's Law" for "Meineck's Law" (86), perhaps sanitas for sania (30), "Fescennine" for "Fescinnine" (54), "Mamurra" for "Mammura" (55, 65), "Fordyce" for "Fodyce" (133), and "Bithynia" for "Bythinia" (165). The URL in the final endnote (186) is missing a final 'l' (i.e., the working link is ".html", not ".htm").
3.   Add to the bibliography: Fordyce, C. 1961. Catullus: A Commentary. Oxford. Freudenberg, K., ed. 2009. Horace: Satires and Epistles. Oxford. Within this edited volume, the reader will also find three items missing from Miller's bibliography: MacCleod's "The Poetry of Ethics: Horace Epistles I," Moles' "Poetry, Philosophy, Politics and Play: Epistles I," and Harrison's "Poetry, Philosopher, and Letter-Writing in Horace Epistles 1."

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