Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 - 8 BCE)

Dactyls and Spondees

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1,692.94 hours

Horace was born in Venosa in southern Italy. His father was a freedman who eventually became an auctioneer in Rome, and despite the family's modest wealth, Horace was provided the best education. While finishing his education in Athens, Julius Caesar was murdered and Horace joined Brutus' army as a military tribune in command of a legion, perhaps enticed by the idea of libertas. After defeat at the Battle of Philippi, he returned under amnesty to Italy and to a life of writing. He eventually joined the literary circle of Maecenas, the friend of Octavian (who was victor at Philippi) and patron of other poets like Vergil. Maecenas provided Horace with the means and property to spend the rest of his life writing poetry, and he is one of the most prolific poets of the Augustan age.

His Work

Horace was a very versatile poet and wrote using a multitude of meters. Of these, hexameter is used in just a few works: his Satires, Epistles, and the Ars Poetica. The Satires consist of 18 distinct poems with a wide variety of subjects, ranging from greed, adultery, to a criticism of luxury and legacy-hunters. Satire itself is a very Roman genre, and Horace's own works stand out as some of its greatest examples. Running through his satires are the basic ideas of moderation (the golden mean is the subject of Ode 2.10, not written in hexameter) and self-sufficiency. In contrast to other forms of satire, Horace's own Satires are more playful and light-hearted, focusing less on evil than on moral vices.

The Epistles are letters very similar in tone to his Satires, with just slightly less intensity (addressing people who are absent rather than those who are there). In fact, this may be a new genre, where the letter itself is the art form. Each addressee is encouraged to follow Horace's own version of Epicurean philosophy (the same philosophy expounded in Lucretius' De Rerum Natura). Horace has removed himself from urban society and has rejected the social life of Rome in order to pursue his own philosophical themes.

The Ars Poetica is a short poem of 476 lines that is often included in the set of Epistles. It is a reflection on poetry, especially theatrical poetry, but it also includes an outline of the history of Greek and Roman literature. We are even allowed a glimpse into the life of a poet involved in Rome's literary circles.

His Style

Horace's meter is similar to that of other authors of his time, like Vergil and Lucretius, by being heavy on spondaic patterns. In fact, Horace's most favorite pattern is DSSS, which occurs in 13.73% of the time. This pattern also is also the favorite pattern of Vergil (15.09%) and Lucretius (17.36%), both of whom were rough contemporaries to Horace in Rome's Golden Age of literature. Also, much like these two poets, and in stark contrast to Ovid, Horace prefers spondees in general over dactyls, 57.39% to 42.61%.

Duckworth uses metrical analysis to assign a late date to Horace's Ars Poetica, noting that its metrical tendencies are more similar to Horace's later works, like the second book of Epistles, rather than his earlier Satires.


Conte, Gian Biagio. 1994. Latin Literature: A History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.
Duckworth, George E. Horace's Hexameters and the Date of the Ars Poetica. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 96 (1965), pp. 73-95.

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