Rachel Birnbaum

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The present study deals with the black humor manifest in the three opening lines of Horace's Third Epode, humor generated by the incongruity of the conditional breaking of the aged father's neck (guttur fregerit) with the preposterous penalty-curse of eating garlic wished upon the unnatural son. The equivalent translation {Hebrew language presented} is offered for Horace's guttur fregerit in accord with its denotation. However, as the humorous effect is attained not so much by the denotation of the phrase as by its numerous connotations, the main bulk of the present study is dedicated to their examination: first, to the review of the actual penalty for parricidium, the culleus, as set against its historical and legal background; secondly, to the scrutiny of guttur frangere and kindred phrases used in republican and imperial literary texts dealing with parricidium as well as with the public execution of Roman citizens and provincials. Horace's guttur frangere gains a humorous macabre force by its association with the actual execution in the Tullianum of notorious prisoners of war as well as Roman senators and legati who were proclaimed hostes rei publicae. Descriptions of such executions are those of Sallust and Cicero, the former using the phrase laqueo gulam fregere in his terse and uncanny account of the public execution of the Catilinarian conspirators, and the latter the phrase cervices frangere pertaining to the arbitrary execution of innocent Roman citizens both in Rome and the provinces. A considerable portion of the study is dedicated to a discussion of Horace's assumed reasons for his choosing to mention manus in the Third Epode rather than the laqueus, the indispensable means of breaking one's neck as discernible in a relief on Trajan's column and validated by modern specialists. Horace's bold republican phrase guttur frangere is set against the equivocal verbs, strangulare and necare frequently used by the imperial writers Tacitus, Suetonius and Valerius Maximus, their use of strangulare being undoubtedly affected by the official language as manifest in the Fasti of Ostia in the time of Tiberius' reign. All these multifarious connotations and allusions constituting only a fraction of a host of associations, with which Horace's contemporary readers must have been familiar, presumably heightened the hilarious tone of Horace's Third Epode.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)285-324
Number of pages40
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes


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