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Horace, Lollius, and the Consolation of Poetry (C.4.9)

Steven Jones

Houston Baptist University

Since Suetonius, Odes 4 has been the focus of much criticism and apology. Odes 4’s apparent disunity as well as its eclectic mixture of encomium and occasional pieces seems to call for some explanation. A microcosm of this phenomenon can be found in the various treatment of Horace's ode to Lollius (C.4.9). From what we know of Lollius, he seems a less than obvious choice to stand alongside the other addressees of Odes 4: Augustus, his relatives, Maecenas, and Vergil. Lollius’ political life was moderately prominent but less than smooth.  His early career was exceedingly successful: he oversaw the annexation of Galatia, was consul in 21 BC, and proconsul in Macedonia. The bump in the road came in 16 BC. While in Gaul, he was ambushed by marauding Sygambri and lost the legion’s eagle. Though Lollius immediately regrouped, defeated of the Sygambri and recovered the standard, many modern scholars consider his reputation tarnished by the defeat. In the light of what Tacitus called the clades Lolliana, how are we to understand the praise Horace offers in C.4.9? 

Most scholars take one of four approaches. First, some understand the encomium as secondary. The previous ode, C.4.8, focuses on poetics to the virtual exclusion of all information about the addressee. Why should C.4.9 be any different? A second group sees Horace doing the best he could with the material at his disposal. Such a view considers the eulogy to be “labored” and executed with “tact.” Horace has “gathered ungrudgingly all that could possibly be said in favour of him.” The assumption is that Horace did not find praising Lollius a “congenial topic” and so dedicated to it “a decent minimum of space” in what is a rather lengthy poem. A slightly different approach is taken by those who perceive in this ode a microcosm of the same compulsion that they suppose was the genesis of the entire book. The command to do a “whitewashing job” had been “imposed” on him. Horace, therefore, makes his encomium “viciously two-edged” and fills it with “deliberate tactlessness” which “ensures that the reader does not miss the point.” Lastly, some read this ode as an attempt, with varying understandings of its success, to rehabilitate Lollius’ reputation.

I propose a new reading of this poem: it is indeed a rehabilitation, not of Lollius, but rather for Lollius. Horace presents him with the consolation of poetry. The ode's unified message begins with “the poet’s words will never die,” moves to “whatever lacks poetry will be forgotten,” and ends with “here is what you shall be remembered for.” Lollius’ supposedly inglorious defeat did not cause him to lose standing with Augustus nor prevent him from serving as advisor to Gaius Caesar when he assumed proconsular power. In this context, the poem should be read as a statement of poetry's power not only to immortalize but even to exclude from immortality. This notion becomes evident when the ode is considered alongside the poems immediately preceding it. C.4.9 forms a triptych with C.4.7 and 8 in the middle of Odes 4 in which Horace develops a sustained poetic meditation on the finality of death, the power of poetry, and the nature of what poetry confers. Lollius should not worry about his legacy.  Horace will not sing of his defeat and so it will be forgotten.

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