You are here

Horace and Hypothêkai

Andrew Horne

Horace Satires 2.5 is a vicious undoing of Greek wisdom poetry. Odysseus, consulting Tiresias in the Underworld about his homecoming, asks for some follow-up advice on how he can get rich. Tiresias responds with a variety of uproariously immoral suggestions, presented in a speech that formally mimics instructional wisdom in the Greek hexameter. He speaks for a tradition that encompasses oracles, a number of Homeric speeches, and most prominently, Hesiod’s Works and Days. Horace sets a venerable form in tension with the most brazen content.

In proposing that we view the satire as a parody of wisdom poetry, I connect Horace scholarship with another branch of research, that which focuses on hypothêkai, or instructional wisdom: Friedländer (1913), Bielohlawek (1940), Kurke (1990), and Lardinois (1995). The main accomplishment of Friedländer and Kurke is to establish hypothêkai as a genre of wisdom literature, appearing in Hesiod, Theognis, and others. Horace’s poem is structured much like these Greek examples, with one instruction strung upon another; on the content level, he too gives wisdom advice. But the resemblance between hypothêkai and Horace becomes very strong if one looks at hexametrical wisdom only. Instructional passages throughout the hexameter show a distinct formal pattern, which Horace (also hexametrical) shares. This pattern is that of the command unit: a short passage of poetry centering on an imperative. The imperative is normally preceded by a description of the situation in which to carry out the command, expressed in a temporal or conditional clause; and it is followed by an explanation, in a marked explanatory or final clause, of why it would be better to carry out the command. These units are labelled hypothêkai by the Homeric scholia, and also account for the hexametrical examples adduced by Friedländer and Kurke. It is this precise form that Horace parodies.

Noticing this strong formal relationship between Satires 2.5 and hypothêkai offers a new entrée in interpreting Horace’s poem, which is something of an outlier among the Satires. The fuller treatments of this rather under-studied poem are Rudd (1966), Sallmann (1970), and Roberts (1984). Sallmann thought Horace parodied three distinct genres: Homer, oracles, and Hellenistic didactic (1970, 180). And the poet certainly alludes to Homer, oracles, and Hesiod (archaic didactic). But he does so within a form that all share. The hypothêkai or command units that make up Tiresias’ speech are also the forms that structure the second, instructional half of the Works and Days, and they are prominent in instructional speeches in Homer, including the speech on which Horace directly riffs, Tiresias’ in Odyssey 11. Further, a number of hexametrical oracles, which originate in the same tradition, also consist of hypothêkai. Thus we can account for Sallmann’s three categories—Homer, oracles, and didactic—within the single form, the hypothêke, that makes up Horace’s poem. Horace parodies several poems and one wisdom form; through his layered allusions, he establishes the formal unity of these poems.

What does the satire gain by making a philological point about hexametrical wisdom? The simple answer is authority. Horace starts by picking a famous seer to give his mock advice. He then expands the two hypothêkai of Homer’s Tiresias into a long speech that is essentially a miniature Works and Days. He outfits the prophet like a Hesiodic didactic poet, and, in case human wisdom is not enough, tosses an oracle in the middle. Apollo prophecies family deceit and sordidness; Hesiod and Homeric instructors advise Odysseus on how to get rich by hook or crook. Horace raises the stakes by ventriloquizing a veritable pantheon of the wise as his Tiresias spouts gleeful vice and immorality. It is a bit like having Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John advise politicians on maximally dishonest ways to get votes. Ancient wisdom has been turned on its head. 

Session/Panel Title

Problems of Triumviral and Augustan Poetics

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy