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Princeps and poet-priest: Horace and the transformation of religious authority under Augustus

Zsuzsa Varhelyi

Boston University

This paper examines Horace’s exploration of his own and the emperor’s poetic image as priest and as a figure of connection to the divine. I argue that Horace’s works allow us a glimpse into a more dynamic reception of the Augustan takeover and transformation of religious powers among contemporaries in Rome.

Scholars of religious studies have succesfully outlined the far-reaching religious appropriations by the princeps: his membership in all major priesthoods, his iconic depiction as the main sacrificer and thereby Rome’s main connection to its gods, his unification of political and religious powers in his new house and temple complex on the Palatine, to mention only some key elements. Literary scholars explored the transformations of the image of the poet in Horace’s work: the new emphasis on the civic-minded obligations on the writer’s creative output, the increased demands for engagement with Augustan rule and its religious justification, and also possible signs of ambivalence towards some of these transformations. While the implications of these changes with regard to the role of the poet have been explored by select literary scholars, what Horace’s poems, and especially his engagement with notions of the poet-priest, reveal about more complex perceptions towards the princeps’ appropriation of religious authority has not been sufficiently investigated.

My examination follows images of the poet-priest in Horace’s poetry against their cultural and historical backdrop (Woodman and Feeney 2002): such as the vates, addressing the newly installed Palatine Apollo, who prays for the pleasures of his simple life (Odes 1.31) and the Musarum sacerdos, who creates a new song for boys and girls, and sings of a divine hierarchy in which kings rule over people, but Jupiter rules over kings (Odes 3.1).  Quite significantly, in the relatively late Epistle to Augustus, Horace goes as far as comparing himself to an aedituus, the much more prosaic figure of the temple-caretaker (Ep. 2.1. 230, a sort of recusatio, for which now see Freudenburg 2014). Without pursuing a pro- or anti-Augustan interpretation, my reading investigates ambivalence along the fault lines of Augustan religious renewal as revealed by these images: may an “Augustan” poet pursue private wishes with a god who stands for and alongside with the emperor? Horace is of course the poet to write new songs of the gods to be taught to the young, yet, as I show, the poems implicitly question how much space is open to songs that thematize the power of the gods over rulers, or even, more generally, to innovation in a religious atmosphere that cherishes antiquity. Comparing the ceremonial tone of the Saecular Hymn of 17 BCE and the last book of Horace’s Odes on the one hand with the second book of his more ambivalent Epistles on the other hand, I trace the bifurcation of a civic-minded, pragmatic sacerdos and the dignified yet subversive poeta. Significanly, the final reference to the poet as vates occurs in a context describing the almost magical powers of Orpheus  and Amphion (Ep. 2.3. 391-407), yet one which strangely also juxtaposes their divine honor with their wisdom to fulfill civic functions. This final image of poet-priests suggests a seemingly well-ordered literary-religious universe that nevertheless reveals the alternative power of poetic inspiration and irrational forces (Citroni 2015).  

Session/Panel Title

Roman Religion and Augustan Poetry (organized by the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religions)

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