You are here

Horace the Communist: Marx’s Capital as Satire

Katherine Wasdin

George Washington University

Horace has had a long and varied afterlife. In the Victorian era, for example, he became a model for learned gentlemen among the English upper classes (Harrison 2017). But Horace’s role was not restricted to the complacent elite. This paper argues that the Augustan poet plays a quite different part in Karl Marx’s Capital. For Marx,Horace represents not a traditional and conventional gentleman, but a satirist and a potent voice for ethical change. The first volume of Capitol is replete with quotations from authors both ancient and modernbut Horace appears with surprising frequency, more often than, e.g., Goethe (six times) and Dante (twice). Marx repeatedly turns to Horace as a politically engaged satirist who critiques man’s desire for wealth. While scholars such as Morley 2009 have discussed Marx’s debt to antiquity from an economic and political viewpoint, I propose to focus on the rhetorical style of Marx’s Capital and its grounding in ancient satirical traditions as found in Horace. Building on Sutherland’s work on satire in Marx and Prawer’s attention to his literary background, I argue that Marx uses Horace’s hexameter poetry as a model for the literary persuasion of the reader. 

References to Horace are most common in volume one of Capital, the only of the three volumes edited by Marx himself and embellished with his final rhetorical flourishes. In this volume, Horace appears seven times, with four references to the Satires and one each to the Ars, Epistles, and Epodes. Despite the relatively unpolished style of the third volume of Capital, Horace does appear twice there as well, both times in quotations from the Epistles. The texts chosen for quotation are particularly significant. Twice Marx quotes from Sat. 1.169-70:mutato nomine de te fabula narratur(the name may be changed, but the story is told about you). In both instances, he intends to implicate the reader in immoral actions he may feel detached from. As is often the case, the popular line is more than just a throwaway quote (Hiscock 2010). Rather, it encapsulates the importance of Horace in creating composite and anonymous satirical targets who are nonetheless supposed to awaken self-recognition, and prepares the readers for the vivid and frequently sardonic tone of the treatise.

Other aspects of Horace’s poetic persona were also useful for Marx’s project. Horace was associated with the Epicureans (Freudenburg 1993), a philosophical school that was the subject of Marx’s dissertation. As a writer with Epicurean leanings, Horace could be framed as a materialist forerunner, pragmatically opposed to the continually increasing and incalculable greed of capitalist society. Finally, Horace offers a model of politically engaged poetry, albeit one with a checkered ability to speak honestly to those in power. Capital’s one quotation from the non-hexametric poems, a reference to the Roman Civil Wars in Epode 7, is the most cryptic of Marx’s references to Horace, and suggests that the population movements caused by capitalism may engender a new war between England and America (Cap. 1.870). Marx’s avoidance of the Odes, I argue,stems from the prevalence of praise poetry in them. Throughout Capital, both he and Engels use Pindar as a figure for corrupt flattery in subtle jabs such as “Pindars of the slave trade” (Cap. 1.924-25). Although Marx does quote the Odes positively elsewhere, their Pindaric leanings and praise of Augustus made them unsuitable for the more satirical polemics of Capital.

Ancient poetry, unlike ancient economy, which is viewed as a long-past model of production, remains a productive framework for Marx’s own compositions. He frequently turns to Horace at moments of high rhetorical impact, mentioning him three times in his tour-de-force chapter “The Working Day.” His Epicurean forerunner offers a useful and significant model for engaging and critiquing a potentially aloof bourgeois readership.

Session/Panel Title

Horace and his Legacy

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy