- Iambic Metapoetics in Horace, Epodes 8 and 12
When in Book 1 of his Epistles Horace reflects back upon the beginning of his career in lyric poetry, he celebrates his adaptation of Archilochean iambos to the Latin language. He further states that while he followed the meter and spirit of Archilochus, his own iambi did not follow the matter and attacking words that drove the daughters of Lycambes to commit suicide (Epist. 1.19.23–5, 31).1 The paired erotic invectives, Epodes 8 and 12, however, thematize the poet’s sexual impotence and his disgust during encounters with a repulsive sexual partner. The tone of these Epodes is unmistakably that of harsh invective, and the virulent targeting of the mulieres’ revolting bodies is precisely in line with an Archilochean poetics that uses sexually-explicit, graphic obscenities as well as animal comparisons for the sake of a poetic attack. Epodes 8 and 12 may, in fact, offer Roman culture’s most overtly misogynistic tone.2
In spite of the vehemence in the speaker’s verbal assaults, he is reacting to his own perceived sexual weakness. In fact, Horatian iambic continually notes the unmartial status and weakness of the speaker’s body. He is programmatically imbellis ac firmus parum (Epod. 1.16) and his final appearance is that of an enervated old man: he is jaundiced, breathless, feverish, and aged on account of Canidia’s powers (Epod. 17.21–6, 31–4).3 Accordingly, I posit here that bodily invective in Epodes 8 and 12 functions metapoetically. I call attention to the repetition of stylistic terms—mollitia, inertia, and rabies—within Epodes 8 and 12, and show how these two poems can be seen as part of Horace’s ongoing project to distinguish his own emerging iambic project from the incipient genre of Roman love elegy.4 To these two elegiac terms, mollitia and inertia, the Horatian iambic speaker adds the quintessentially iambic rabies, a term that the poet Horace himself will later call the emotion that first generated iambic poetry.
My reading thus suggests that Horace was well aware not only of the tropes and topoi of Roman love elegy,5 but also of its vocabulary of style that routinely associates the human bodies of its characters with the central stylistic qualities of the poetic genre. While critics have disputed the chronology,6 most agree that Horace’s Epodes were published soon [End Page 55] after Actium, in approximately 31/30 BCE, and were followed by the publication of Propertius’s Monobiblos and Tibullus’s Book 1 in 28 and 27 BCE, respectively.7 We thus have evidence in the intergeneric dialogue that I draw out of Epodes 8 and 12 for the existence of two-way influence between the poets of Roman iambic and elegiac erotic poetry, what Peter Heslin (2011, 60) has aptly called “an extended process in which each poet defined himself against the other[s].” Furthermore, Horace’s poems articulate an iambic refusal to valorize these terms that generally characterized effeminacy or other failings of normative Roman masculinity in broader Roman discourses of gender and sexuality. Iambos, despite its transgressively obscene content, thus serves to uphold and reinforce the status quo in a period where elite Roman masculinity was challenged through social forces, upset by the political instability of the Triumviral period, and was witness to the emergence of alternative masculinities in the sartorial self-expression of Roman elites like Caesar and Maecenas and in the poetic aesthetics of Roman love elegy.8
For many decades, Epodes 8 and 12 were considered so obscene that they were censored from publication and ignored by critics of Horatian iambic.9 By the late 1980s, however, these Epodes began to be re-evaluated as an integral part of Horace’s first lyric collection.10 William Fitzgerald’s groundbreaking study (1988) argued for the interrelation between the political, invective, and erotic poems of the Epodes, and has laid the foundation for much later criticism focused on the sociopolitical context of the Epodes’ production and on Roman sexuality.11 The Epodes demonstrate a disconnection between the Archilochean iambic pose of “masculinity and sexual potency adapted by the...