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  • Personal and Communal Memory in the Reading of Horace’s Odes, Books 1–3 1
  • Eleanor Winsor Leach

Evocations of the River Tiber in flood figure conspicuously in the odes located next to the beginning and ending of Horace’s three books. In both instances, the image creates anxieties. Ode 1.2 dramatizes the river’s turbulence amidst an ominously tempestuous season to foreground public fears for the future of Rome. As readers, we watch (vidimus) the churning waters dashed back from the Janiculum bank leaving their channel and advancing towards the Forum to cast down the monuments of the kings and the sacred buildings of the Vestals (1.2.13–16). Ode 3.29 addresses Maecenas’ personal obsession with Rome’s welfare by comparing human anxieties with the seasonal alterations of the current between violence and tranquility (3.29.32–41). Thus the river that borders the city creates inner boundaries for Horace’s three books.

This framing of the collection by a physical image establishes the city of Rome as the spatial framework of the poetry’s experiences. The monumenta regis templaque Vestae of Ode 1.2 stand at the ancient center of [End Page 43] the city; Ode 3.29 positions Maecenas on some eminence with a view of the surrounding hills to marvel at the smoke and wealth and clamor that are beata Roma (3.29.6–12). Thus physical territory furnishes discursive space. But the two odes also embrace time in a number of ways. Rhetorically located in the immediacy of its historical moment, the action of the first vignette remains open-ended. As the Tiber turns threateningly towards the city, we see him cast suddenly as “the avenger of an overly complaining Ilia” (1.2.17–20). Fictive mythology distances the moment and immobilizes the action. With Jupiter “disapproving” of Tiber’s “uxorious” partisanship, the flood itself disappears from the text, leaving the outcome of its menacing march ambiguously suspended. 2 By contrast, the vignette in Book 3 poses an end to its action within a context of natural time. Here we first see the river slipping quietly on its course to the Mare Etruscum; then, swollen, it roars through its channel laden with debris: worn stones and tree-stems, herds and houses, until the words quietos amnis make it subside again. No longer imbued with portentous significance, the flood has become an event within a natural cycle that leaves the city effectually unharmed. Appropriately, the picture of Rome in this Ode is not focussed within a moment of collective anxiety. In the very production of its characteristic smoke, riches, and clamor, the city is now fortunate (beata). Thus the second of the two poems, diminishing the urgency of its moment through a paradigm of familiar experience, gives a delayed resolution to the action left open-ended by the first.

Between the two vignettes, time has advanced by a progression of seasons. With its hail and thunder, the wintry flood of Ode 1.2 precedes spring, but Ode 3.29 evokes a parched summer landscape amidst which flocks and shepherds seek sheltering shade. Only the responsible mind of Maecenas, brooding on dangers at the borders of the empire, harbors anxieties that it is the poet’s intention to dispel. 3 The deus who veils the [End Page 44] future laughs when mortal fears exceed just cause (3.29.29–33). Counseling equanimity, the poet heralds poetic closure. In the following Ode, he will proclaim the completion of his monumentum outlasting bronze but coterminous with the Capitoline, the pontifex, and a silent Vestal.

These symmetrically placed allusions with their ultimate sense of resolution suggest to me, as they have to many others, a concern for principles of unity underlying the diversity of the Odes. As a topic that has recently attracted much attention from Horatian scholars, the design of the Odes has been envisioned according to a variety of schemes: some symmetrical, some linear, and still others a blending of the two. 4 Based primarily on thematic cross-referencing, and highlighting the intricate verbal artistry of the poems, the majority of such studies represent the poet as speaking to himself or to selected intimates—whose...

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