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Ridentem dicere verum: Philodemean Ethics in Horace's Sermones 1.1

Sergio Yona

            One of the most powerful attributes of Horatian satire is its ability to provide seemingly frivolous entertainment while communicating moral truth.  The Roman satirist Perseus effectively captured the force of this paradox: omne uafer uitium ridenti Flaccus amico | tangit et admissus circum praecordia ludit (1.116-117).  This approach to satire is traditionally associated with the Cynic spoudaiogeloion motif, which combines attacks on vicious behavior with language that is colorful, outrageous and even obscene.  In Sermones 1.1, Horace employs this approach against an imaginary interlocutor whose obsession with hoarding riches knows no bounds: nil satis est (62).  The entertaining conversation between Horace’s literary persona and the wretched miser is as pathetic as it is hilarious, but underneath the farce lie sobering, even philosophical, convictions regarding the proper administration of wealth.  In many ways, the miser of Sermones 1.1 is completely antithetical to Horace’s portrayal of his own role as property manager, especially in relation to the Sabine Farm.  This study will attempt to demonstrate that Horace’s criticism of avarice and understanding of property management are solidly grounded in Epicurean economic theory as preserved in Philodemus of Gadara’s treatises On household economics (PHerc. 1424) and On wealth. (PHerc. 163).    

            Horace portrays the interlocutor in Sermones 1.1 as a completely dysfunctional landowner: he is possessed by an insatiable desire for limitless wealth (40), the manager of a large-scale agricultural operation (45), vigilant to the point of sleeplessness (76), terrified of financial loss (93-94) and utterly friendless (84-85).  Although these characteristics owe much to similar portrayals in Comedy and Cynic diatribe (Freudenburg 1993; Leach 1971), they also coincide with Philodemus’ condemnation of vicious habits associated with property management (Laurenti 1973; Asmis 2004; Tsouna 2007).  The desire for boundless riches, for example, violates the traditional Epicurean teaching that landowners ought to observe a “limit of wealth” (ploutou metron) as defined by the requirements of nature (On household economics col. 12.17-25).  Like Horace, moreover, Philodemus values patronage as an acceptable source of financial revenue over commercial agriculture, since the latter involves excessive toil and often yields more than nature requires (On household economics col. 23.7-9).  In addition to this, he notes that the administration of great wealth inevitably results in paranoia and fear at the thought of financial loss (On household economics col. 14.30-37; On wealth col. 27 fr. 2).  Finally, the obsession with acquiring wealth eventually destroys friendships and leads to utter abandonment (On household management col. 24.20). 

            In many ways, the miser’s vicious disposition is diametrically opposed to Horace’s own economic habits, which are perfectly defined by nature, conducive to philosophical discourse (not to mention frequent siestas) and supported by the generous patronage of close friends like Maecenas (Bowditch 2012).  All of this is entirely consistent with Philodemus’ advice in his economic treatises, which Horatian scholars over the last century have consistently neglected to evaluate.  This is surprising, especially since Philodemus was a contemporary Epicurean philosopher and poet who dwelled in southern Italy, wrote with Roman sensitivities in mind (Asmis 1991, 2004) and associated with Horace’s closest friends (Körte 1890; Della Corte 1969).  Instead, scholars have examined Philodemus’ influence on Horace with regard to poetry, literary theory (Oberhelm & Armstrong 1995) and frank criticism (DeWitt 1935).  It is noteworthy, moreover, that the impact of Philodemean ethics on an author traditionally recognized as a moralist remains obscure; nor is it not unreasonable to believe that Horace, the son of a freedman who supposedly went from rags to riches and received significant benefits from his patron, would have had particular interest in property management.  It is my hope to demonstrate in this study that the views associated with Epicurean economics, to which Philodemus contributed and of which he is the only ancient source, are of particular significance for Horace’s understanding of the proper administration of wealth in Sermones 1.1

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Epicurean Philosophy in Roman Poetry

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