Classics Horace’s Epistles and Ars Poetica
Stephanie McCarter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0253


The Epistles and the Ars Poetica consist of verse letters written in dactylic hexameter. Epistles 1, published in 19 BCE, comprises twenty letters with a range of real and fictive addressees. The dating of Epistles 2 presents a more difficult puzzle, although scholars generally date the poems to the period between 13 BCE and Horace’s death in 8 BCE. This book contains two poems, the first addressed to Augustus and the second to Julius Florus. The 476-line Ars Poetica is addressed to a Piso and his two sons and has been variously dated, with some estimates as early as 24 BCE and some as late as 8 BCE. Debate persists as to whether the poems of Epistles 2 should be treated singly or as a unified book. Sometimes treated as “Epistles 2.3,” the Ars Poetica was nevertheless thought of as a discrete work already in Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 8.3.60. Produced in the wake of Horace’s monumental Odes 1–3, Horace’s epistolary poems are the product of a mature poetic voice, and the persona constructed in them belongs to a man with the success and experience that allows him to address with authority not only younger colleagues and protégés but also his social superiors. In keeping with this experienced persona, the poems turn away from the erotic and sympotic themes prevalent in the Odes and focus instead on the ethical (Epistles 1) and literary (Epistles 2 and Ars Poetica) topics befitting his changed age and mentality (Epist. 1.1.4). The poet shifts away from the role of public vates adopted, for example, in the Roman Odes and instead occupies a secluded retreat from which he addresses men occupying a range of public and private positions. Horace ironically claims (Epist. 1.1.10, 2.2.52–57, and Ars 306) that these letters are something less than formal poetry, which, along with their short hexameter form and moral focus, connects the Epistles with his earlier Satires (cf. esp. 1.4.39–42), themselves the product of a “pedestrian muse” (Sat. 2.6.17). While the Epistles share strong thematic links to the Satires, Horace develops these themes anew in keeping not only with his own changed voice but also with the social and political transformations of Augustan Rome. Often viewed in the shadow of his more widely read Satires and Odes, the Epistles and Ars Poetica have nevertheless received an impressive amount of scholarly attention.

General Overviews

The introductions in Mayer 1994 and Rudd 1989 (under Commentaries) are the best place to start for a general overview. Additionally, several excellent companions to Horace have appeared in recent years with chapters devoted to these works. See contributions by Ferri and Laird in Harrison 2007; by Cucchiarelli and Johnson in Davis 2010; and by Fantham, Günther, and Reinhardt in Günther 2013. Dilke 1981 remains a useful introduction to Book 1. Freudenburg 2009 is a collection of seminal articles. The books Armstrong 1989 and Hills 2005 are introductions to Horace for general readers and treat the Epistles and Ars Poetica within the entire oeuvre. Harrison 2014 introduces the works and outlines major scholarly approaches.

  • Armstrong, David. 1989. Horace. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Discussion of the epistolary works forms part of a larger presentation of Horace’s poetry aimed at the general reader. The book purposefully avoids references and footnotes.

  • Davis, Gregson. 2010. A companion to Horace. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444319187

    Contains contributions on the Epistles by Cucchiarelli and Johnson as well as thematic studies pertinent to the Epistles and Ars Poetica, including Anderson and Bowditch on their social contexts and Braund and Golden on reception (Braund and Golden).

  • Dilke, Oswald A. W. 1981. The interpretation of Horace’s Epistles. Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II 31.3: 1837–1857.

    Focusing on Epistles 1, Dilke considers the structural, metrical, generic, and philosophical aspects of the poems and provides an exegesis of selected passages.

  • Freudenburg, Kirk. 2009. Horace: Satires and Epistles. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A collection of seminal articles, including ten on the Epistles and Ars Poetica. All non-English has been translated to increase accessibility for general readers.

  • Günther, Hans-Christian. 2013. Brill’s companion to Horace. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    Contains contributions on Epistles 1 by Fantham, Epistles 2 by Günther, and the Ars Poetica by Reinhardt.

  • Harrison, Stephen. 2007. The Cambridge companion to Horace. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521830028

    Contains contributions on the Epistles by Ferri and the Ars Poetica by Laird, but many others touch upon their literary themes, social contexts, and reception.

  • Harrison, Stephen. 2014. Horace. Greece & Rome New Surveys in the Classics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This volume offers a scholarly introduction to Horace’s poetry, outlining recent approaches to the poet and the text.

  • Hills, Philip D. 2005. Horace. Ancients in Action. London: Bristol Classical.

    As part of the Ancients in Action series, this book aims to introduce Horace and his poetry to general readers and contains sections on the Epistles and Ars Poetica.

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