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A few weeks into the marathon commemorations of the start of the Great War – here in the UK they are planned to continue for four years, a mind-boggling concept that recalls “On Exactitude in Science”, Jorge Luis Borges’s short fable of the map that is on the same scale as the world – and already the battles of words have begun.

In fact, the ideological terrain is becoming almost as muddy as the fields of Flanders (I exaggerate slightly). Michael Gove, the education secretary in the UK and no stranger to controversy, has got up the nose of historian Tristram Hunt, the Labour party’s education spokesman, by suggesting that the first world war centenary is an opportunity to battle “leftwing myths that belittle Britain”.

Hunt is right to castigate Gove for his cheap political point-scoring and to counter his suggestions that the left needs lessons in patriotism by reminding Gove of the courageous war service of tens of thousands of trade unionists. But Gove’s broader, revisionist argument is that the first world war should be seen not as a senseless slaughter of lions led by donkeys but as a locus of heroic and necessary sacrifice.

This political spat made me think of a much earlier spat between poets. This was unusual in that one of them had been dead for 2,000 years. But when Wilfred Owen wrote “Dulce et decorum est”, one of the most famous of all first world war poems, setting a line by Horace (meaning “it is sweet and fitting to die for your country”) against a description of the horrific effects of a gas attack, he delivered an almost mortal blow to the Roman poet’s reputation.

When I came to research and write a book on Horace recently, there was a chance to reassess what he had actually meant by that infamous line, and also to see Wilfred Owen, usually viewed as a great anti-war poet, in a somewhat different light. Owen makes Horace sound smug and unfeeling, an official cheerleader for imperial war who smooths over its terrible cruelty and violence with fine-sounding words. This is unfair, in the contexts both of the poem from which the words are taken and of Horace’s life. Horace knew what it was like to fight “pro patria”. He had done so at Philippi (42BC) and had been lucky to escape with his life.

More precisely, you could say Horace fought and was prepared to die for a certain idea of “patria”. At Philippi he fought on the side of Brutus and Cassius for the ideals of the old senatorial Roman republic against authoritarian tyranny. For Brutus, according to Plutarch, it boiled down to one question: “Whether they should live or die as free men?”

Many years had passed since those heady days by the time Horace came to write his Roman odes. He had not given up on his idea of patriotism but, after years of relative peace and having exchanged his sword and shield for the pen, he was more concerned with a wider notion of virtue or courage. He had also become more preoccupied with mortality, the inevitable terminus of all human lives, whether encountered in battle or in bed.

Dying for the fatherland may be sweet and fitting, he says, but it’s just one way of facing the fate that awaits us all. Death comes also to those who do not want to fight – even to cowards who run away. The question then becomes how to live, courageously and with integrity.

Wilfred Owen laid into Horace with such venom, one might suspect, because they were not so different after all. Owen did not always mock the idea of dying for one’s country. In “The Ballad of Peace and War”, written a few years before “Dulce et decorum est”, he surely glanced at Horace’s famous line and then outdid it in patriotic fervour, without any of Horace’s qualification and irony: “O meet it is and passing sweet/ To live in peace with others/ But sweeter still and far more meet/ To die in war for brothers.”

Owen was not a conscientious objector or a pacifist. After being treated for shell-shock at Craiglockhart military hospital, he went back to war. Just a year before he was shot on November 4 1918, he wrote the remarkable “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo”, which includes these lines, referring to his comrades in arms: “War brought more glory to their eyes than blood/ And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.”

Both Horace and Owen were ambivalent about war. Both were essentially peace-loving and neither was a warmonger – in one of his early Epodes, Horace castigates the Romans for the senseless bloodletting of the terrible civil wars – but both thought there could be a time and a place for fighting and dying for one’s country.

So the question then concerns the idea of one’s country, one’s “patria”, one is prepared to fight and die for. The sacrifices of the second world war are generally seen as necessary and noble because they were sustained in the fight against murderous fascism. Those of the first world war, rightly in my view, are regarded as a tragic waste, because that was a war between imperial powers in defence of empire.

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

More columns at ft.com/eyres

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