In 88 b.c. the town of Venusia, on the borders of Apulia and Lucania, which had sided with the Italian Allies in their struggle against Rome, was stormed, and more than 3,000 prisoners were taken (Diodorus 37.2.10). That may have been the occasion when Horace’s father, probably still a minor, became a slave. Although he was subsequently emancipated, and was free at the time of Horace’s birth (December 8, 65 b.c.), the poet had to endure the sneer that he was “the son of a freedman” (Sat. I.6.6,45,46; Epist. I.20.20). His mother is not mentioned; perhaps he never knew her.

In spite of these tragic events, Horace’s father had made sufficient money as an auctioneer’s agent to enable him to take his boy away from Venusia, where the local school was attended by the swaggering sons of Roman centurions (Sat. I.6.72-5), and to have him educated in the capital at a fashionable school, where he mixed with the sons of the upper class. At that time (the 50’s) Rome was plagued by gang warfare between Caesarians (led by Clodius) and Pompeians (led by Milo), which eventually led to the civil war (49-45). Then came the assassination of Caesar, after which Brutus left Italy to raise an army in the East. In Athens he recruited Horace, who was attending university in Athens along with several young aristocrats.