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Horace on the Hymnic Genre

Brittney Szempruch

Stanford University

Horace’s Carmen Saeculare is often viewed as an entity unto itself, generically distinct from the rest of the Horatian corpus. As a result, when Horace pauses briefly in Epist. 2.1 to consider choral song’s place in Latin literary history, scholars have argued that Horace is likely talking about his own secular hymn, performed in 17 BCE [Hornblower et al. 2014: 395, Lyne 1995: 195 n.7]. In this passage, Epist. 2.1.132-8, Horace assigns to the chorus a variety of apotropaic and favor-winning functions (2.1.134-6). As a result of their hymnic performance, he says, there will be peace and agricultural abundance (2.1.137): “the gods above are pleased by their song, as well as the gods below (carmine di superi placantur, carmine Manes 2.1.138)  

Yet to view Epist. 2.1.132-8 as a reference only to the Carmen Saeculare largely removes from the generic conversation Horace’s hymnic odes, which I define as: 1.10 (to Mercury), 1.21 (Diana/Apollo/Latona), 1.35 (Fortuna), 2.19 (Bacchus), 3.18 (Faunus), and 4.6 (Apollo). The possibility that the Epistle passage might refer to more of Horace's work than just the Carmen Saeculare is likely, given the demonstrated richness and variety of genres in Horace’s work [Harrison 2007]; Ode 4.6 has enjoyed some scholarly attention in regards to its genre because of its close relationship with the Carmen Saeculare [Brink 1982]. The hymnic odes have recently gained attention in their own right by virtue of their connection to the Homeric Hymns [Harrison 2016], but each of these strands of scholarship has remained distinct. In this paper, I synthesize Horace’s theoretical perspective on the hymnic genre with the hymns he embeds in his own poetic corpus. Instead of solely focusing on the Carmen Saeculare, I argue that Epist. 2.1.132-8 provides us with a framework through which we can interpret the “embedded” hymns of the Horatian Odes, which unlike the Carmen Saeculare lack a performance context. By reading passages from Horace’s ‘literary theory’ alongside the Odes, we find that two kinds of embedded hymns emerge: those that appear as ‘literary’ hymns, and those that evoke a choral performance. From this reading, I conclude that Horace uses the subtleties of the hymnic genre to explore the possibilities of praise poetry in his own socio-historical context.

The first half of this paper analyzes the above passage from the Epistles alongside Horace’s other "theoretical” reference to hymnic carmina, Ars Poetica 83-5. In the latter, the “muse granted to the lyre [songs about] gods and the children of the gods,” an idea also found in Horace’s hymnic praises of Augustus (1.12.1-3). These two passages read together suggest that Horace conceptualized hymn as more than just the kind of public song he created in the Carmen Saeculare; for Horace, hymns are part of a broader lyric project of praise both literary and performative. The second half of the paper is dedicated to reading the hymnic odes with those about Augustus, showing how Horace—who is known for his engagement with his Greek lyric predecessors—makes use of both the ‘cultic’ and ‘literary’ varieties of Greek hymns to talk about the emperor, much like Callimachus’ hymns could accommodate commentary on Ptolemy II.

I conclude that reading Horace’s embedded hymnic odes with Epist. 2.1.132-8 reveals Horace taking advantage of the hymnic genre to blur two boundaries: that between literary and cultic hymn, and the one inherent to his addressee, Augustus as both man and god. Though the emperor could not be formally addressed as as a god while alive, the hymnic genre gives Horace space to negotiate forms of praise; like those of the chorus he describes in Epist. 2.1, Horace’s hymns embedded in the Odes may also please the Olympic “gods above” and his own emperor, “a god below.”

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Lyric from Greece to Rome

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