Dulce et decorum est

Clichéd it may be, but the ringing allusion to Horace’s Ode 3.2 in Wilfred Owen’s poem is still pertinent to anyone with an interest in military studies or the realities of warfare.

However, I was surprised to see Horace’s Ode on the syllabus for the new GCSE curriculum theme, ‘War and Warfare,’ without Owen’s later appropriation included for comparison.

We are in a post-world-war society, a notion which is repeated whenever the attitudes to war and violence today are contrasted with those of periods long past. The conflict of 1914-1918 changed everything, people say. War would never be the same again.

The aim of my schools workshop series, Experiencing War, is to convey a sense of transhistoricity to pupils studying Classical warfare for the first time. It is to provide them with a way of reading ancient texts about conflict and violence framed by a knowledge of how these kinds of events affect individuals today. With civil war and political struggle in the news daily, and this news evermore immediate to young people, the cross-historical comparison has so far been easy to facilitate.

What is remarkable about Ode 3.2 is the way that its flat praise of Roman military duty so exemplarily reflects the majority of Roman literary representations of warfare. The epic poets are exceptional in their choice to exhibit, at length, the horrors of war, where historiography preferences tactics over terror. Yet, even they make space for ‘heroes’ in a way which treatises concerning WWI rarely do, at least in a conventional sense.

To me, it therefore seems almost a moral or social duty to make students aware of the later reception of Horace’s poem – at the very minimum, to pose the question in class of what students make of its adulation. A line or two added to the curriculum would suffice, perhaps even just a punctuation mark: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori?

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