Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Day with Horace

From Theotimus of Athens, to Meton, the Philosopher, at his house, in the Garden of Academus.

Written from Rome, in the third year of the one hundred and eighty third Olympiad.

Many thanks, most venerable and dear Meton, for the letters of commendation, especially for that which bore the superscription of Quintus Horatius Flaccus. I chanced to find him at home, and though he was busy (I saw a parchment, on which a slave had been writing from his dictation), he welcomed me most warmly, and constrained me to take up my abode in his house.

That first day, we talked of men and things in Athens, till the third watch of the night was nearly spent. Never was any one more simple, more candid, more gay. You will remember, that you warned me not to speak of his doings as a soldier, yet by some inconceivable awkwardness—for which, when the word was uttered, I could have bitten off my tongue,—I stumbled upon that very subject. Yet I need not have troubled myself: he certainly was not disturbed.

"Ah" said he, "I should have done well to have listened to the wise Meton. I was a foolish lad of twenty, and they offered me a Tribune's commission—surely they must have been in sore need of officers, if they could not make a better choice.

"Well, I went to our dear friend. 'What madness!' he cried, 'You have, for your years, a fair smattering of philosophy and a very pretty talent for writing verses, but as for being a leader of soldiers—'tis the veriest folly. And are you sure,' he went on, 'that you are on the right side? I take it, that your friends did a bad day's work when they killed your Caesar. Depend upon it, you will go farther and fare worse, if your friend Brutus, who really thinks of nothing but himself, and Cassius who is a pedant, not a statesman, get the upper hand. But, if you will go, go as a private soldier, and risk no life but your own.'

"Well, I did what other people do, who ask for advice; I took my own way, and into a pretty slough it led me. As for soldiering, I knew no more about it than a babe. Happily I had two dry nurses, in the shape of two veteran centurions, and I had no chance of making any bad blunder. Indeed the whole business lasted only a few months and my first battle was my last.

"Did I run away? you are too polite to ask me, but you would like to know. Well, I did, and I did not. I stopped where I was, till it was practically all over, and when my betters ran, I followed them. As for my shield—well, your own Alcaeus lost his shield, and he was as good a fighting man, according to all accounts, as he was a poet.

"But to tell the truth, I had a motive in talking as I did about my share in the battle. You see, I had to make friends with the conqueror, and what was the good of making out that I had fought desperately to the last? That  would have been no recommendation. So I rather laughed at myself, and if other people laugh at me, well. I can shrug my shoulders and bear it. I shall not be unhappy if they think I am a poor soldier, if they will allow that I am something of a poet."

But certainly, if I try to write down even a tenth of what this most delightful of talkers said to me, I shall more than fill my letter, and you asked me to describe one of my days at Rome. To that therefore let me turn without further delay.

Five days after my arrival, my host said to me, "You can rise early, is it not so?" and when I assented, he went on. "We will go to-morrow, and salute my dear friend Maecenas. At sunrise then, we will start." I suppose that I looked somewhat surprised, for he said, "We set about our business betimes at Rome, and as for Maecenas, we cannot be too early; he sleeps so ill, that he cannot rise too soon, and he likes his callers to do the same."

At the appointed hour we went. It was a house of the most magnificent proportions, with the very highest tower in all Rome surmounting it, and within, it was furnished with a splendour to which, there is, I am told, nothing equal. As for the Emperor, he lives very simply. The great man himself, I must own, did not impress me very favourably. To speak plainly, he was too much of a fop; the scent of the unguents with which he was, so to speak, drenched, almost overpowered me, and I could barely see his fingers, for the rings with which they were covered. His face was pale; his eyes sunken and weary, yet it was good to note how he lighted up at the sight of the poet.

"You have brought something for me, I hope," he said, and when my host shook his head. "Nay, but this is intolerable. There are, at least, twenty poets there," and he pointed to the crowd of callers, who half filled the hall, "and every one has his pocket full of bad verses, and you, who really can write, are as idle as a sea-calf."

Then he greeted me most politely, and beckoned to us, to sit beside him.

But how shall I describe what I saw and heard that morning? Maecenas, you know, has the ear of the emperor, and every one who wants anything, a clerkship, a commission in the army, a pension, a word to one of the judges, a lease of land, a free pass for travelling abroad, comes to him, to make his request. He had too a number of visitors of his own.

His liberality to men of letters, is beyond belief. Instead of twenty, he might have said fifty poets. One man brought an Epic. It was as much as he could hold in his hand. "It is twice as long as the Iliad," said the great man, without changing a muscle on his face, and the silly creature thought he was serious.

"He pays them all," whispered my host to me, "and of course they go on writing. He has positively raised the price of parchment in Rome, but 'tis a fault on the right side, and I who have profited by it, should be the last to blame." And as he said this, I saw the tears in his eyes. Horace has the tenderest and most grateful heart in the world.

Well the stream went on for two hours, and might have been going on now, if the door had not been shut.

Maecenas would have us stop, and share his morning meal. "Share" I say, but as a matter of fact, the great man took nothing, but a draught of wine cooled with snow, and my host but a little salad and some water. (You must understand, that he praises wine, but for the most part drinks water.) As for myself, I relished an omelette and some broiled fish, for I cannot bring my stomach to their Roman fashion of fasting till mid-day.

The meal over, we went to the Senate-House, where a great cause was being tried.

"Ah!" said the great man as we bade him farewell. "Every day, I thank the Gods that I am but a simple knight. If I had to go to the Senate, and hear the trial of Fabius, life would not be worth having."

To me, indeed, as a stranger, the thing was interesting enough. Fabius had been governor of a province, and was on his trial for extortion. We heard the peroration of the prosecutor and the examination of three or four witnesses. What a story it was that they told! If only a quarter were true, Fabius must have been the most scandalous thief since Sisyphus. One old man, a temple-servant, told the Senate how the governor scraped the gold from off the gates, in fact laid his hands on every thing that had the least value. He described how the priest had hidden a gold shield, an offering they said, by Alexander of Macedon, and how Fabius had heard of it. "He tortured me to make me tell him the secret" said the man, and held up his hands, which were twisted out of all shape.

The judges, who had seemed very careless till then, were visibly moved: and the Emperor, who, I should have said, was presiding, a singularly handsome man of about forty, flushed with anger.

Fabius himself sat as haughty and indifferent as though he had no concern in the matter. "It will go hard with him," said my host, as we came out. "Fabius seems to have thought he was living under the Republic, when these things were winked at, but the Emperor has different ways. He is not going to sacrifice his provinces that the nobles may dine off gold plate. Yes, it will want all, and more than all Pollio's eloquence, to get off his client."

From the Senate-house we went home, to the mid-day meal. Horatius ate nothing but vegetables, drinking a little wine, very much diluted, but his cook had procured a piece of roast kid for me.

After the meal came a short siesta, and then we went to what seems a common entertainment at Rome, a literary reading. A young author was to recite some of his poems to a circle of friends. Horatius was one of those invited, he does not like these things, but he went nevertheless, for he is good nature itself. It was but a poor business. The audience was not large at the beginning, and it grew smaller and smaller, till at last there were but a score left.

"Poor fellow," said my host, "I am afraid this will cost him more than he will get. You see the room was lent, but he had to pay for the benches and other matters, and I suspect had to hire the very fine rings which he wore on his fingers. It is the etiquette for a reader to make himself very fine; why I know not, for the race are notoriously poor."

After the reading, a stroll to the Field of Mars, the Roman playground, was welcome. The sports were very clumsy; nothing could be more barbarous than the bits which the riders use, great jagged things which must tear the horse's mouth to pieces. The Romans are not particularly fleet of foot, nor agile jumpers, but their swimming is marvellously good. I saw young lads cross the Tiber which was running high, and pass, three or four times without resting.

It was a gay and brilliant scene. You must know that the ladies who are allowed, or take, a liberty which would seem strange to us, come to the Field, and look on.

After the sports came dinner, a gorgeous entertainment, to which with my whetted appetite, I did justice.

Earth and sea were ransacked to furnish the feast. There were turbots, fresh from the Black Sea, mullets caught in Charybdis itself, oysters from Britain, an outlandish isle in the frozen sea, I am told, rare birds from Africa, a wild boar from Gaul, hares and coneys and I know not what besides; one thing I remember, a peacock, very splendid to look at, but as tough and tasteless a meat as I ever ate.

Our host was a "nouveau riche," who wearied us by telling us the cost of every dish, and every flagon of wine. Of all tiresome entertainments, this was the worst, and I was heartily glad, when, somewhere about midnight, (our host and half his guests being no longer masters of themselves) to find myself in the open air again.

I like our quiet Athens tenfold better than this splendid Rome. Farewell.