Transgression and Transformation in Horace Satire 1.8

Victoria E. Pagán

University of Florida

The fart that brings Horace Satire 1.8 to a close continues to embarrass readers.  Although scholars do not blush to theorize on such sensitive subjects as intercourse, rape, sodomy, and pederasty, few would consider farting a fruitful avenue of inquiry beyond the realm of comedy.  The embarrassment caused by Horace's overtly distasteful expression distracts the reader from more potent possibilities of interpretation. Anderson's seminal essay (1982) promises to redress the lack of attention to Satire 1.8, but half of the article treats Satires 1.7 and 1.9.  Hallett explores the way Horace's emphasis on the anus, rather than the penis, deviates from typical Priapic imagery (RhM 1981: 341-7).  Indeed, the fart is probably the most memorable part of the poem, but attention to the setting of the poem in the Gardens of Maecenas brings out the themes of transgression and transformation that make this poem a powerful statement of Horatian poetics. 

To my mind, Satire 1.8 expresses anxiety over boundary violation.  In Satire 1.8, the witches who trespass in the Gardens of Maecenas perform unholy rites that transgress religious propriety.  Located on the Esquiline Hill, the garden of Satire 1.8 is a peripheral site that is neither completely urban nor truly rural.  In addition, because it is transformed from a cemetery (1.8.8-16), the peripheral status of the garden in Satire is further underscored.  A cemetery is a place for death; a garden is a place for life.  Such an ambivalent setting in which the boundaries between city and country, death and life are so unstable, beckons transgression.  The liminality of the garden makes it an ideal setting for such marginalized persons as witches and the impotent Priapus. 

The importance of the garden setting is further strengthened by the resonances between Satires I and Vergil's Eclogues.  Van Rooy (Acta Classica 1973, 81-2) lists general correspondences between the two collections; Satire 1.8 and Eclogue 8 both involve witchcraft.  Beyond this simple association, however, lurks a more pressing concern of both poets about the reapportionment of land in the recent settlements of Octavian.  The Gardens of Maecenas were once a pauper's cemetery, and the transformation anticipates the many topographical changes that were to define Augustan Rome.  The transgression of the witches, moreover, shows that the transformation is not yet complete, for they can still threaten the peace of the garden by conjuring its former status as a cemetery.   The poem expresses an anxiety over a rapidly transforming landscape and society whose transformations only serve to trigger further transgressions.  In the finest that satire has to offer, however, Horace obscures this disturbing political worry in a cloud of flatulence.  


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