Horace and Roman Phobia of “Persians”
This is a Q&A with classicist and Odyssey author Bijan Omrani.
1. You recently spoke at the Horatian Society about Horace and “phobia” of the Persians: what kind of influences contributed to his views, and would he have had any first-hand contact with its culture?
There was always something amongst the Greeks and Romans about the “East”. Many looked to early myths and legends, such as the clash between the Greeks and the Trojans in the Iliad, to explain and justify their nervousness. For the Greeks, anyone who didn’t speak their language was a “barbarian” (“bar-bar” was the sound they considered non-Greeks to make when speaking) and many were alienated by stories of the monolithic vastness and unified kingship of the Persian Empire, a great contrast to the petty and independent (and frequently quarreling) city-states of the Greek world.
Horace would have known of the Persians through the historians – perhaps Herodotus’ account of the titanic struggle between the Greeks and the Persians in the wars of 490 and 480 BC, with Athens and Sparta defending the freedom of Greece against overwhelming odds at Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis. He would also have known of the Persians by repute – the wealth of the King of Persia was proverbial. But he would also have known of them through the frequent conflicts between the Roman armies in the east and the Persian Empire, one of which in 53 BC at the Battle of Carrhae led to a disastrous defeat of three legions, the death of their commander Crassus, and the shameful capture of their legionary standards.
For all that, it is unlikely that Horace, when writing his Odes, would have had any first-hand contact with Persian culture. Some Persian princes were brought to Rome in the late 20s BC as part of a peace deal between Augustus and the Persians to regain the captured standards, and these princes were even depicted sympathetically on Roman statuary.
2. Could you explain a little about how Horace’s generic naming of “Persians” was inaccurate?
The world “Persia” is derived from an area within the land of Iran called “Fars” from which an earlier dynasty – the Achaemenids – were sprung. The Achaemenids were the dynasty in control during the time of Persia’s great empire of the 6th-4th c. BC, responsible for the invasions of Greece. After their conquest by Alexander the Great and a Greek interlude, a new dynasty, the Parthians, came to power.
Hence, for Horace to call the land Persia, or to talk about “King Achaemenes” would be the same as us nowadays referring to Germany as the “Reich” or Russia as “Muscovy”.
3. Could any of Horace’s negative depictions of Persia be considered ironic or exaggerated to please — or even satirize — his audience’s own prejudices?
It is very likely that the depictions are exaggerated with the intention to please his audience.
However, I do wonder if Horace went beyond any sense of ordinary prejudice that many Romans, even amongst the ruling classes might have felt. It might be that he was more extreme in his attack on them, hoping to curry favour with the new Augustan regime in Rome, calling for a return to conquest and turning outwards the inherent aggression in Rome, rather than spending it in civil war.
Yet, one must also be aware that the Persians are being used as an icon for luxurious living and conspicuous consumption – something which is another of Horace’s bugbears. In their iconic capacity, attacks on them are naturally metaphorical.
4. Could reading Horace have contributed to later ages’ prejudices or ‘orientalism’, looking at Persia or other lands to the East?
There’s a little-known story that a former ambassador to Iran in the 20th century put up a sundial in the vast embassy grounds with the inscription “Persicos odi” (I hate Persian fripperies) from the beginning of Ode 1.38. It is likely that Horace’s impression of the Persians added to the mood-music about the east amongst the university elite of earlier ages up to the last century.
However, some easily could rise above it. Raymond Asquith, son of the First World War Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, who was killed on the Somme in 1916, wrote home that reading Horace and Omar Khayyam were the only things that gave him solace.
5. What better sources contemporary to Horace can we find to describe more objectively Rome’s relations with “Persia”?
Coin and statuary give a startlingly different viewpoint. It seems that the ara pacis (13-9 BC), a monument designed to mark the peace which Augustus brought to the Roman Empire, contains sympathetic depictions of Persian princes at Rome amongst members of the Augustan household. On the breastplate of Augustus of the Primaporta, a Parthian is depicted giving the standards back to Augustus – again, he is depicted with dignity, a great contrast to the way that the Gauls conquered by Julius Caesar in the 50s BC were depicted on coins and statues – bound, bowed and humiliated, even though many ended up fighting for Rome.
The Parthians in Augustan Rome: Author(s): Charles Brian Rose – Source: American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 109, No. 1 (Jan., 2005), pp. 21-75 Published by: Archaeological Institute of America – Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40025103 .Accessed: 02/08/2014