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Deus nobis haec otia fecit: Illusions of Otium at the End of the Republic

Alicia Matz

Boston University

Vergil’s Eclogues (39-38 BCE) and Horace’s Satires I (36-35 BCE) were both written and published “during the uncertain period of the second triumvirate” (Gowers 2012: 4). In their earliest works, both Vergil and Horace delve into the political in the way they depict the future under Octavian, specifically by focusing on the concept of otium. Despite scholarly attention devoted to these two works, as Dufallo states, “we still lack a complete picture of how this strikingly unstable and ambiguous poetry responds to what must have been a pressing desire of many Romans in this period: the desire for political effectiveness and stability amid ongoing civil conflict and uncertainty” (Dufallo 2015: 313; see also Osgood 2008). By comparing the depiction of otium in Eclogues 1 and 4 to that in Satires 1.5, 1.6, and 1.7, I argue that, in response to Vergil’s insistence that otium will come in the future, Horace creates the illusion that otium has already been achieved for all. This investigation hopes to elaborate on how these two works might help us understand the anxiety and reactions to the political atmosphere in Rome at the time.

Dan Hanchey has identified a concept of idealized otium in Cicero, in which public and private otium work in conjunction with public otium for the benefit of the state. Using this concept of idealized otium, I show how Vergil’s Eclogues depict a Rome in which otium has been achieved by some but not yet all: private otium has been achieved while public otium will come in the future, meaning Cicero’s idealized otium has not yet been achieved. This is accomplished through the denial of otium for Meliboeus in Eclogue 1 when compared to his companion Tityrus (Ecl. 1.3-5). In addition, while Eclogue 4 speaks of a Rome flourishing under world peace, it is marked by complete futurity: not only are there 32 future verbs throughout the poem, but “there will be other wars/and great Achilles will be sent again to Troy” (Ecl. 4.35-6) before this golden age can truly be accomplished. While the Eclogues depict shepherds already enjoying otium elsewhere, especially the ‘singing contests’ of Eclogues 3 and 7, 1 and 4 are more significant in that they are set in a reality closer to that of contemporaneous Rome, rather than the artificial pastoral landscape of the majority of the Eclogues.

I then contrast Vergil’s depiction to Horace’s treatment of the same concept. Satire 1.7 indicates that negotium (“not-otium”) is in the past and associated with Brutus (Satire 1.7.33) and Satires 5 and 6 show the reader that otium is entirely present. Horace can spend the day in the pursuit of private otium (Satire 1.6.110-31, with special emphasis on otior in line 128). Additionally, while otium is not used explicitly in Satire 5, Horace suggests that public otium has been achieved through the relative lack of external threats to the travelers—the only war present is the one Horace must wage against his upset stomach (Satire 1.5.7-8). Thus it seems that, according to Horace, both private and public otia have been accomplished. However, I argue, in addition, that this peaceful existence depicted by Horace is an illusion created by Horace’s pretended disengagement from the major political events of his period, as evidenced by the fact he literally closes is eyes to them at Satire 1.5.30-31.


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Horace and his Legacy

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