The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Angharad Derbyshire
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Horace’s Satires, specifically I.5, and II.6!
When did you first come across the Satires?
August, this year. I’d dipped into Horace before: I read o fons Bandusiae a few years ago, when my Latin was much poorer, and understood about 20% of it. Despite the terrifying incomprehension, I was interested in the marvellous vision of the outdoors he creates, and had always been aware of the Horace-shaped gap in both the A-Level and University Classics syllabi I was/am covering.
I decided to read these poems when I bought (profligately) a Horace Loeb (Satires/Epistles/Ars Poetica) from a local second-hand bookseller (shoutout to Hay on Wye Booksellers and their selection of reasonably priced second hand Loebs!) this summer. I opened it on Satires I.5 and started to read- and have never been more mesmerised. I’d heard about the Town Mouse/ Country Mouse Satire too, and read that one in the same sitting. I agree with Natalie Haynes: Latin is almost never cute, but when it is it’s marvellous.
Can you tell me a bit about this text and its context?
Horace’s Satires are a collection of hexameter poems written in the 30s BC. A real hodgepodge of poems, they give us a startingly clear insight into Roman life, whilst also asking and answering philosophical questions about the good life, ambition, and general human nonsense.
My two favourite satires are I.5, and II.6. The former treats Horace’s journey to Brundisium as part of an embassy hoping to mediate between Octavian and Marc Antony in 36BC, and the latter the glory of the countryside, culminating in the famous ‘Country Mouse/Town Mouse’ allegory, establishing the supremacy of the countryside.
Horace himself saw the ending of the Republic and the beginning of empire, and was part of Augustus’ literary world; figures such as Maecenas and Virgil are mentioned throughout his poetry. Chronologically, the Satires are early Horace; his (perhaps more) famous Odes are the product of the 20-10s BC, and he is credited with influencing Ovid and Propertius.
What is it about these satires that appeals to you most?
When I first read I.5, I yelped at the line ‘At Sinuessa… Virgil met us’. To see Virgil completely out of context, to see him as a real person (instead of a literary giant), was marvellous. Then later, when Horace tells us at lines 48-49 than both he and Virgil have bad digestion on their trip, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I think we have a tendency of distancing ourselves from people who lived in Ancient Cultures, especially ‘Great Writers/Thinkers’, all the while forgetting that they also experienced many of the things we do too. I got into Classics via Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries, which presented no visible gap between the Romans and ourselves, and I’ve been trying to close that gap in everything I’ve read ever since.
With II.6 too, the idea that a venerable author like Horace could think of a little country mouse, who just wants to go home from the city to his vetch is brilliant. It anticipates Beatrix Potter or Brambly Hedge by 1900 years, whilst also lightly mocking the urbane world of which Horace himself was a part. The vision Horace gives us of triclinia from a mouse’s point of view is seductively charming, and so is the punchline of the flustered Country Mouse sticking with his vetch after all, shaken from his encounter with hungry mastiffs.
My favourite lines in this poem are
‘o rus, quando ego te aspiciam! Quandoque licebit/
nunc ueterem libris, nunc somno et inertibus horis/
ducere sollicitae iucunda oblivia vitae’/
‘o rural home, when shall I behold you!
When shall I be able, now with books of the ancients,
Now with sleep and idle hours,
To quaff the sweet forgetfulness of life’s cares?’
I spend a lot of my time in the countryside around the Brecon Beacons, and when I’m not there, I miss it a lot. Horace’s lines sum up my dream of the peaceful countryside exactly, and when I read this for the first time, I realised that Horace and I have the same attitude. The countryside as a rural idyll is such an attractive thing to yearn over, even when you know in reality the truth is usually quite different. I am never able to have as stress-free of a time in Powys as I’d like to. However, I instantly got what Horace meant in a way I never quite have with Virgil (who I love only slightly less than Horace) or Pliny (another favourite), and that’s why Horace will always be special to me: he’s an author I’ll always consider a friend.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
An unapologetic nerd, I got really into dress history over lockdown! I spent a lot of my sixth form in collared shirts and jumpers, but recently I’ve been embracing the cape I got for my birthday. I’m also very interested in Welsh history, and Anglo-Welsh poetry (mainly because my Welsh isn’t good enough to read any Welsh-Welsh poetry). When I can drag my tired bones to do so, I also write fiction and poetry.
Angharad Derbyshire (@harryestinhorto on Twitter) is a second year Classics undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. She is interested in place in poetry, textual criticism, Late Antiquity, Roman Britain and Classics Access. Outside Classics, she enjoys hillwalking, Welsh History, and Real Ale. She is also a big fan of her cat, Minerva.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.