Horace, Odes III.6.1-20

The moral decline of Rome

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23 BCE
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Horace here laments the sorry state of many of Rome’s temples and shrines, which have fallen into disrepair through prolonged neglect of their upkeep (verses 3-4). In the poet’s view, this abandonment of care for the city’s holy spaces signals broader state decay and serious moral decline amongst Rome’s citizens. While the temples did naturally sometimes suffer damage from fire and flood, it is human neglect that Horace sees as the issue here. His sentiment echoes, for example, that found in Ovid’s Fasti II.58 in relation to the shrines of Juno. Ovid uses the poor state of the shrines to praise Augustus, whom he goes on to describe as undertaking substantial efforts to repair and maintain the religious spaces of the city. Without Augustus’s pious actions, Ovid claims, Juno’s shrines would have tumbled to the ground. John North argues that Horace seems to exaggerate here about the dismal state of affairs (John North, “Religion and Politics,” p. 254 ), as in 28 BCE, Augustus did in fact use the money he acquired from his victory in Egypt to begin a programme of rebuilding and restoration (see Suetonius, Augustus 30.2; Augustus, Res Gestae 20.4).

For Horace, Rome prospered because of the beneficence of the gods and human obedience to divine will (5-6). The punishment for the side-lining of religious observance was the civil wars (7-8) – it is likely that Horace alludes to the defeat of Antony’s legate Decidius Saxa by the Parthians under Pacorus’s command in 40 BCE, or possibly to Antony’s invasion of Parthia in 36 BCE, in which Monaeses the Parthian was a prominent figure (see Robert Nisbet and Niall Rudd, Horace, Odes, Book III, p. 103). The Roman general Crassus was also defeated at Carrhae in 53 BCE, a battle which was pursued despite the auspices. Essentially, Rome is being punished for its impiety – the theme continues with further reference to invasion by foreign enemies in verses 13-16. As far as Horace is concerned, sexual immorality has played a large part in the moral decline of the city (17-18). The Augustan idea that the health of the empire was strongly dependent on stable family life and marital union at its core seems to resonate clearly here (Karl Galinsky, “Augustus’ Legislation,” p. 126), and might also be at least in part responsible for the thinking behind Ovid’s elaboration of the deification of Romulus’s wife, Hersilia in the Metamorphoses (XIV.829-851), after her husband, Rome’s founder is himself taken up to heaven.

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Sylvie Franchet d'Espèrey
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