Lyric, History, and Vision: Horace as Historiographer (C. 2.1)

Timothy S. Johnson

University of Florida

The most complete paradigm for Horace's criticism of historical composition occurs in C. 2.1, when Horace addresses his friend Asinius Pollio's intent to leave behind tragedy to write a history of the civil wars. As any author knows, it is not easy to switch to a completely different type of writing, especially after success in a particular genre. Such career changes always risk criticism and court failure. When the tragedian Asinius Pollio tries his hand at writing history, Horace cannot resist playing the critic and taking the opportunity to contrast Pollio's dual talents (tragedy to history) with his own singular loyalty to the lyric Muse.

Horace's criticism avoids any antagonistic tone by paying due compliments: Pollio's absence from the theater will be missed (9-12). The compliment is back-handed, of course, since it also implies that Pollio's new project, a history of the most recent civil wars, is distracting him from grander literary accomplishments (11).  Horace deploys a familiar stratagem in response to Pollio's turn to history. Horace will define the genre, in this instance historical writing (1-8), expose its weaknesses (13-28), and then demonstrate that he can manipulate the genre via visual effects to counter its deficiencies (29-36). As Horace's critique develops generic boundaries and limits begin to blur -- "What precisely is the grande munus: tragedy, history, or lyric?"

Horace's lyre does not reject outright historical / tragic themes and techniques. Horace invites Pollio's wandering Muse (from tragedy to history) with him into Venus' cave to accept the modifications of his lighter lyric plectrum (37-40). This act of assimilation and imagination (or history as theater) does not allow for easy either-or-choices that leave authors (tragedian, historian, or lyricist) safely in control of their story.  Horace's lyrical history demands interpretation and plays a far riskier game of "hot coals" (8) than Pollio might find comfortable. 


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