Scholia Reviews ns 6 (1997) 7.

Ronnie Ancona, Time and the Erotic in Horace's Odes, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994. Pp. xii + 186. ISBN 0-8223-1476-2. US$39.95.

Aileen Bevis
University of Natal, Durban

Time and the Erotic is a re-examination of a number of Horace's odes in the light of feminist theory. Fundamental to Ancona's approach is Judith Fetterley's idea of the 'resisting reader'; in this case the resistance needs to be shown to the essentially male perspective not only of the poet himself but also of most of the critics who have written about Horace's love poetry, i.e. the reader needs to realise that the perspective of the other partner in each relationship, the female beloved,[[1]] is almost entirely ignored, and that the view of love that emerges is therefore one- sided and incomplete. This resistant attitude is given more specific focus by two other important ideas. The first, drawn from feminist writers such as Jan Montefiore, is that 'the traditional love poet has as his central concern not the beloved herself, but rather his own identity.' (p. 17), i.e. the poet uses the beloved as a means of establishing his own identity. In Horace's case, says Ancona, the identity that the poet seeks to establish is that of a self removed from temporality, not subject to the passing of time; if the beloved cannot provide such an escape the poet/lover seeks to affirm himself in ways that result in a dehumanizing of the beloved and that turn her into a mere object to be dominated by the lover. In the second place Ancona draws on the object-relations theory of psychoanalysis to explain why Horace in the Odes fails to depict a truly mutual love relationship. This theory traces the failure to an excessive need for autonomy on the part of the male lover, and a concomitant inability to recognise the self of the other (the beloved), features which are apparently essentially connected with the male gender. Ancona sees the issues of autonomy and temporality as linked in Horace, since the form that the lover's struggle for autonomy assumes in the Odes is the desire or attempt to control the temporality of the beloved.

It is in these terms that Ancona seeks to explain in a new way some of the well known qualities of Horace's love poetry such as his distanced, ironic stance, and to question the universality of the concept of love that emerges from the Odes. The theoretical basis on which she has worked is succinctly set out in chapter one (pp. 4-21), as are her reasons for finding much previous criticism of the erotic odes either mistaken or inadequate. In chapters two to five (pp. 22-139) she applies the theories to the interpretation of a selection of odes, each chapter focusing on a different aspect of her theme, and attempts to show how pervasive the issue of temporality is in the erotic odes. All the odes discussed are provided with literal translations, which are generally accurate.[[2]] It is beyond the scope of this review to comment on each of these interpretations individually; on the whole they are detailed, sensitive and stimulating, providing new insights even into poems as thoroughly analysed and criticised as the Soracte ode (1.9) and bringing out the significance of tensions between a poem's surface meaning and the effect of its imagery, word-order, vocabulary, etc. On the other hand, I found that the theoretical basis did not work equally well for all the poems chosen for analysis, and even where the material did in general seem to fit the theory I was often uncomfortable with some of the details of Ancona's interpretations.

To take one fairly straightforward example, in chapter two (pp. 22-43) Ancona has chosen Odes 1.25 (Parcius iunctas quatiunt fenestras), 2.5 (Nondum subacta ferre iugum valet), and 3.7 (Quid fles, Asterie, quem tibi candidi) to illustrate 'the dominance of the theme of temporality in the particular love situation' (p. 22). While it is undoubtedly true that temporality does constitute a major theme of 1.25 and 2.5, I did not find Ancona's arguments convincing in the case of 3.7; although adhuc (line 22), which she sees as being crucial to her interpretation of the ode, does imply that Gyges' integritas may not endure forever, i.e. that his integritas, and therefore the love affair too, are subject to temporality, the threat comes not from the passing of time itself, but from the artful Chloe. Of course these temptations, and those offered to Asterie by Enipeus, operate within time, but so must all human action and experience. Nor can I agree with one of Ancona's concluding points, that Asterie's fidelity is valued only in so far as it is needed to ensure the continued faithfulness of Gyges (pp. 42f.). She argues that since the speaker cannot actually know what is happening to Gyges on Oricum, his words about Gyges' integritas should simply be taken as a warning to Asterie 'that somehow her fidelity is required for Gyges to remain faithful' (p. 42). Perhaps one should not apply logic too strictly to this light-hearted ode, but one might equally well ask how Gyges, cut off in Oricum, is to know whether or not Asterie is remaining faithful. And if he cannot know this, how can her fidelity be merely instrumental for ensuring his fidelity? In my opinion, the speaker in this ode assumes a bardic omniscience (a frivolous parallel to the more serious role adopted in the immediately preceding Roman odes) that allows him to know both what is happening to Gyges and what is going on in Asterie's mind,[[3]] and so to speak with authority.

It is, however, difficult to do justice to the strengths and the weaknesses of Time and the Erotic without engaging in detailed discussion of every ode. Readers will judge the book both according to their own assessment of the feminist and psychoanalytical theories on which it is based and according to the degree of success with which they feel Ancona has applied these theories to Horace's poetry. I found myself quite frequently becoming a resisting reader, not because the theories seemed invalid per se but because some of the material chosen was inappropriate and because Ancona seemed to be forcing upon some poems or parts of poems over-ingenious interpretations that might be hard to disprove conclusively but that were, to me at any rate, ultimately unconvincing in their context. I was also troubled by the lack of reference to the added dimension created in the erotic odes by Horace's awareness of himself as love poet, not just as lover, and by an apparent insensitivity to the humour in some of the odes discussed.

Despite these criticisms, Time and the Erotic is a stimulating and challenging book which should provide plenty of material for debate. It would be interesting to see these same theories applied to other Classical love poets, not excluding Sappho. It would also be valuable to bring in some consideration of the social context that would have helped to shape Horace's ideas on love; it is surely relevant that almost every 'beloved' mentioned in the Odes was probably a member of the demi-monde and that the relationships depicted were therefore at least in part a matter of business. This is a book that opens up new avenues for exploration, but its theories must be used with great care and checked by constant reference to text and context.


[[1]] Ancona treats every 'beloved' as female, whether female in fact or feminized male.

[[2]] For exceptions see e.g. 'always' for saepe in 3.7.31 (p. 37) and 'choruses' for choreas in 1.9.16 (p. 61).

[[3]] I interpret his words about Enipeus not as an attempt to plead that young man's cause but as a revelation of what Asterie herself is secretly thinking about him.