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  • Horatius: The Man and the Hour
  • Kenneth J. Reckford

Trimalchio’s projected monumentum in Petronius’ Satyricon will include, among other ill-assorted designs, a sundial: horologium in medio, ut quisquis horas inspiciet, velit nolit, nomen meum legat (71). Horace too, I argue, connects his name with the passing hours: more subtly and modestly than Trimalchio, but also more significantly, in a recurrent play of sounds and words.

That Roman poets and orators exploited puns on names, especially cognomina, is well known; but although scholars have noted scattered name-puns in Horace’s poetry (some of which will be mentioned here), the important play on Horatius/hora has been ignored, and any argument seeking to restore it to general consciousness must rely on probabilities: somewhat subjective ones, to be sure, yet which carry a certain cumulative conviction. I begin by discussing Satires 2.6, where Horace is most clearly involved in the horae, and then proceed through a wide range of hora references, most notably in Odes 4.6. A code on Vergilius/ver will provide a friendly parallel. I hope in all this to suggest that Horace plays on his own redende Name not just for occasional fun, but as a way of asserting, and sometimes exploring, his personal identity beneath the shifting personae of his life and craft.

Hora Quota Est? (Satires 2.6.44)

The question hora quota est? is given as an example of small talk, safely “entrusted” to Horace’s “leaky ear”:

septimus octavo propior iam fugerit annus ex quo Maecenas me coepit habere suorum in numero, dumtaxat ad hoc, quem tollere raeda vellet iter faciens et cui concredere nugas hoc genus, “hora quota est? Thraex est Gallina Syro par? matutina parum cautos iam frigora mordent”: et quae rimosa bene deponuntur in aure. per totum hoc tempus subiectior in diem et horam invidiae noster. . . .

(40–48) [End Page 583]

As if he were giving a public interview, Horace carefully and humorously delimits his relationship with Maecenas. He is an occasional, amusing companion, not a privileged insider. In Satires 1.6 he had distinguished his personal and social acceptance within Maecenas’ circle, where true merit is honored, from those political ambitions from which—in the blind, prejudiced world of Roman politics—a freedman’s son must normally be barred. In Satires 2.6 he goes further. He is not (he alleges) really intimate with Maecenas, certainly not to the point of sharing inside information about, e.g., the Dacian threat or plans to resettle veterans in Southern Italy or Sicily. He is nothing like the confidential friend described by Ennius, “with whom he [the great man] often and gladly shares his table, his conversation, and the giving and taking of advice about his affairs” (rerumque suarum consilium) and “to whom he would speak out confidently” (audacter) about great things or small, good things or bad, all “vomited forth” carelessly, yet “safely deposited” (evomeret . . . tutoque locaret), and “with whom [he would share] many pleasures.” 1

We may suspect that Horace played the role of just such a confidential friend to Maecenas, and played it well. 2 We may also suspect that while he regaled that first audience of insiders with the comic narrative of his daily frustrations in Rome, he was also reassuring Maecenas—to everyone’s amusement, as with the earlier “Journey to Brundisium”—that he did not have, precisely, a leaky ear. One resulting and more than simply dramatic irony is that today’s reader must identify with those importunate street people who were teased, baffled, and insulted by Horace’s silence. I want, however, to argue here for a second irony involving the offhand question hora quota est? which may mean a good deal more to Horace, Maecenas, and ourselves than first appears [End Page 584] on the surface—much as Falstaff’s opening question to the Prince, “Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?” proves fatally relevant to the affairs of Hal and Hotspur, Falstaff and the King, in Henry IV, Part 1. 3

“What time is it?” The Romans did not wear watches. Their sense of time, even with sundials, was very inexact by modern standards. Because they had hours (roughly...

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