Classics Horace's Satires
Kirk Freudenburg, Niek Janssen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0286


Horace’s Satires are a collection of two books of hexameter poems that offer a humorous-critical commentary, of an indirect kind, unique to Horace, on various social phenomena in first century BCE Rome. The Satires are Horace’s earliest published work: Book 1, with ten poems, was published around 35 BCE, and Book 2, with eight poems, was published around 30 BCE. Also known as the Sermones (“Conversations,” which seems to be the title that Horace gave them), the Satires stand out for their markedly unelevated themes and attitudes; their seemingly colloquial (but carefully composed) style; their often frank tone; and their rapid shifts of speakers, audiences, and perspectives. Horace’s primary mode of operation is to take a complex philosophical issue and tackle it in a quasi-moralizing, self-effacing, and purposefully inconsistent way. The diatribe in Satire 1.1 against people’s avarice and discontent with their own lot, for example, is obviously at odds with the fact that the poem, emphatically addressed to Maecenas in its opening line, marks the beginning of Horace’s first published collection, his move into the public eye, which (despite the poet’s own protestations in Satire 1.6) is inevitably a bid to move up to the higher echelons of Roman society. Yet, Horace employs other registers as well. He offers a dialogue between Odysseus and Tiresias (Satire 2.5), an exposé on witchcraft through the eyes of a statue of Priapus (Satire 1.8), and jeremiads directed against the poet himself in the voice of a failed businessman turned Stoic zealot (Satire 2.3) and of his own slave (2.7). He frequently explores themes usually avoided in high classical poetry, such as sex (Satire 1.2) and food (Satires 2.2, 2.4 and 2.8). The self-awareness of these poems becomes apparent in recurrent reflections on the art of writing satire (Satires 1.4, 1.10, and 2.1), in which Horace repeatedly compares himself to Lucilius, the originator of Roman satire, and laments his inability to speak as freely as his forebears given who he is, and the troubled times that he lives in. In short, Horace’s Satires embody the core idea of Roman satura, which literally means a “mish-mash of foodstuffs.” The outstanding “Horatian” quality of his poems is their imperviousness to being pinned down. In later times they were just as popular with pious monks as they were with dirty-minded epigrammatists. Today they are equally likely to be cited in studies of Roman sexuality, ancient literary criticism, and Epicurean philosophy. It is Horace’s protean slipperiness that has kept interest in the Sermones alive to this day.

General Overviews

Given that Horace’s Satires defy easy definition by their very nature, it is difficult to recommend a single introduction to these difficult poems. The most convenient recent overview of the contents and contexts of the Sermones can be found in the introductions to Gowers 2012 and Freudenburg 2021 (cited under Commentaries and Translations). The chapters on the Satires in two broader introductions to Horace, Harrison 2014 and Holzberg 2009, contextualize these poems within the framework of Horace’s life and works. Hooley 2007 is a general introduction to Roman satire with an excellent chapter on Horace, which goes into quite some detail on the individual poems and provides helpful generic and political context. To get a good idea of some of the most important themes and discussions surrounding Horace’s Sermones, McGann 1973, Courtney 2013, and Rudd 1966 are a good start. McGann 1973 traces three recurring discourses (“The self within society,” “madness,” and “art”) throughout the poems. Courtney 2013 performs a thorough sequential reading, almost a paraphrase of the two books, explicitly disagreeing at many points with recent readings of the Satires, and thereby indicating some glaring points of contention. Rudd 1966, a classic of Horatian scholarship, offers suggestive and detailed literary and historical backgrounds, without being overwhelming for the beginning scholar. As an introduction to the scholarship on the Sermones, it is best to begin from Freudenburg 2009 (which anthologizes some classics of Horatian scholarship) and Davis 2010 (which collects some recent advances with bibliographical notes). While not specifically dedicated to Horace, Rudd 1986 and the collection of essays in Freudenburg 2005 highlight some important themes in Roman satire more generally, providing useful context for some of Horace’s major interests in these poems.

  • Courtney, Edward. 2013. The two books of satires. In Brill’s companion to Horace. Edited by Hans-Christian Günther, 63–168. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004241961_003

    Thorough sequential reading of Horace’s two books of Satires, which almost amounts to a paraphrase. Because the article polemically opposes itself to a perceived contemporary trend of “manic, undisciplined, self-indulgent over-interpretation” (p. 63), it helps in identifying some important current areas of disagreement in Satires scholarship. As always, readers would do well to approach this kind of self-proclaimed “atheoretical” reading with a healthy dose of skepticism.

  • Davis, Gregson, ed. 2010. A companion to Horace. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Collection of articles on Horace’s Satires, which together give a good impression of current interests in these poems. Particularly helpful is that each article is followed by a section on “Further Reading,” which provides additional bibliographical pointers.

  • Freudenburg, Kirk, ed. 2005. The Cambridge companion to Roman satire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Collection of essays on various major topics in (the study of) Roman satire. While the volume is not specifically dedicated to Horace, his poems play a significant role in many individual contributions. Comparisons with Lucilius, Persius, and Juvenal contextualize Horace’s choices and interest, and they shed light on his particular brand of Roman satire.

  • Freudenburg, Kirk, ed. 2009. Horace: Satires and epistles. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Anthology of some classic studies of Horace’s Satires, which together provide a good idea of important advances in the study of these poems up to the early twenty-first century. Several seminal articles in Italian and German are offered in English translation.

  • Harrison, S. J. 2014. Horace. New Surveys in the Classics 42. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    General introduction to the life and works of Horace, with a good chapter on the Satires, as well as an interesting discussion of the development of Horace’s style throughout his career.

  • Holzberg, Niklas. 2009. Horaz: Dichter und Werk. Munich: Beck.

    General introduction in German to the life and works of Horace, with a good chapter on the Satires. Particularly good on the structure of the two books, and the difference in poetic voice between Sermones 1 and 2.

  • Hooley, Daniel M. 2007. Roman satire. Malden. MA: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470776261

    Introduction to the genre of Roman satire, with a long chapter on Horace’s Sermones. For an introduction, it offers surprisingly detailed discussions of the individual poems. Particularly good on Horace’s reflection on the genre of satire and the politics of these poems.

  • McGann, M. J. 1973. The three worlds of Horace’s Satires. In Horace. Edited by C. D. N. Costa, 59–93. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    Study of three recurring themes in Horace’s Satires, which collectively give a good overview of what Horace is doing in this corpus: “The self in society,” “madness,” and “art.”

  • Morgan, Llewelyn. 2023. Horace: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192849649.001.0001

    The book’s second chapter covers both books of Horace’s Satires, with special emphasis on the poems’ engagements with and departures from the aggressive mode of Lucilius, and the artfully rugged craft of their unassuming verse style.

  • Rudd, Niall. 1966. The satires of Horace: A study. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A classic of Satires scholarship, largely responsible for the revived interest in these poems in the English-speaking world. Contains detailed analysis of the poems, which are grouped thematically. Offers enough original details to stay relevant to seasoned scholars, without being overwhelming for the beginning reader. Particularly good on historical and literary backgrounds.

  • Rudd, Niall. 1986. Themes in Roman satire. London: Duckworth.

    Looks at the whole of Roman satire, showing the different ways in which certain themes, such as sex, luxury, and greed are handled by satirists from Lucilius to Juvenal. No chapter is specifically devoted to Horace’s Satires, but qualities specific to Horace’s satiric practices are made to stand out by being set alongside comparably themed criticisms in the poems of Rome’s other verse satirists.

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