Rome will not surrender
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Sylvie Franchet d'Espèrey
This Ode is known as the ‘Regulus Ode’ due to the character who features prominently in all but three of its stanzas. The poem condemns Crassus’s Roman soldiers for the dishonour and disgrace they bring to Rome by being held captive by the Parthians, following their defeat at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Augustus took it upon himself to revive Rome’s military and its image, and this passage illustrates this in no uncertain times. Unlike elsewhere in the third book of Odes (III.XIV.1-20), Horace does not praise and look forward to the pax Augusta (Augustan peace) here, but rather seeks vengeance upon foreign powers that sully Rome’s all-powerful image.
While being careful not to explicitly state that Augustus was divine, Horace, like Virgil in Eclogues I.7 and Georgics I.24-42, and elsewhere in the Odes (III.2.21-22.) implies it here by claiming that he is considered praesens divus, “a god on earth” (2). Such euhemeristic praise encouraged the development of the imperial cult, and as Daniel Garrison argues, gave the worship of the emperor a philosophical edge due to its roots with the Stoic philosopher Posidonius. This gloss suggested that all gods had once been mortals, and were transformed into deities as a reward for their exemplary conduct on earth. After his victory at Actium, Octavian began to be associated more and more with the divine sphere, and poets such as Horace played a significant role in this blurring of the line between “resemblance to a god” and “actual divinity” (Daniel Garrison, Horace: Epodes and Odes, p. 301). Horace optimistically looks forward to the subjugation of the Britons and the Parthians to the Roman state, and speaks of it here as though it were already a certain reality (3-4). However, the invasion of Britain was something never actually accomplished under Augustus, and peace was made formally with the Parthians in 20 BCE!
The criticisms levelled at Crassus’s soldiers are as follows: they married Parthian women, were drafted into the Parthian army (both attested by Plutarch: Crassus, 31), and perhaps worst of all, forgot their Roman birthright and heritage (5-12). Those who were once men from great Roman families – Marsians and Apulians – are now subject to rulership by a Parthian (Mede), and have abandoned all that which defines them as Romans – their togas, shields, names, and their gods (hence the mention of both Vesta, the goddess responsible for the protection of Rome, and the temples of Jupiter). The Marsians and Apulians were known for their prestige as soldiers, which intensifies the disgrace of their having been captured and recruited by the Parthian ruler. In the next poem, Horace laments the moral decline of Rome, which he sees particularly as neglecting her religious duties and falling into sexual immorality (see Odes III.6.1-20). As Ellen Oliensis points out, this present poem sets Horace up for his tirade against Rome’s moral decline by discussing her corruption in a broader sense, and by blaming it on the corruption of the Senate (6-7) – in the next poem, this corruption is not restricted to the battlefield, but moves right into the centre of the city itself (Ellen Oliensis, Horace and the Rhetoric of Authority, p. 125-126).
Horace uses the example of Marcus Atilius Regulus who was consul in 256 BCE, during the First Punic War, and was captured and taken prisoner in 257 BCE while in North Africa, commanding the Roman troops. According to Roman tradition, he was sent by the Carthaginians to Rome in order to negotiate and exchange of prisoners, Regulus knew that if he completed his task and then himself returned to captivity, as was part of the agreement, he would be killed, and his moral dilemma was one that became popular in Roman rhetorical schools (see Daniel Garrison, Horace: Epodes and Odes, p. 302). As Horace relates (13-28), Regulus was wise to the type of disgrace that Crassus’s men have brought upon Rome, and as such warned the Romans not to liberate its captured troops in exchange for ransom money. Regulus claims that captured soldiers will not come back home as better or more loyal men – these soldiers are damaged on account of the trauma that they have been through, and as such cannot be reclaimed as effective Roman fighters: their morale is irreversibly ruined. Courage is not something that is easily restored once lost, and once a man has truly tasted the fear of death he is useless (29-30). Regulus laments that Carthage’s rise to power has been through the ruin of Italy (39-40), however, this is once again exaggeration on Horace’s part, as even though Rome had lost a significant military force and commander, it was far from completely destroyed! Regulus is now described as fleeing into exile, abandoning ever seeing his wife and children again, but keeping the greater mission of setting an honourable example to the broken Senate as his focus. Contrary to his advice not to ransom the Roman captives, he approaches the Senators, knowing all the while that he will put to death once he returns to Carthage (41-50). Horace concludes the poem with a simile of Regulus departing for Rome as if he were simply leaving for his country villa after settling business with clients. This understated image of Regulus highlights his dignity and honour in the face of certain death, and is for Horace the embodiment of what a true Roman citizen should be – precisely the opposite of Crassus’s weak-minded men. Moreover, Augustus must follow the example of Regulus; he must avenge the shame inflicted on Rome at Carrhae following in the footsteps of Regulus, who completed his task with honour, dignity, and tenacious purpose (see Robin Seager, “Horace and Augustus,” p. 33).