Horace 3.26: The Unassailable Chloe

In a temple of Venus, Horace dedicates his weapons of love to the goddess: he is done with his campaigns of the heart. But the ode ends unexpectedly when the poet has one last request: please punish Chloe for rejecting him.

I have lived my life, till lately popular with girls, and I have been a soldier not without renown: now these weapons and this lyre that has completed its military service this wall shall keep which guards the left side of sea-born Venus. Here, here place the gleaming torches and the crowbars and the bows that threaten barred doors:

“O goddess, you who dwell in blessed Cyprus and Memphis that is free from Thracian snow, queen touch just once with uplifted lash Chloe the arrogant”.

The tone of the poem is that of mock-solemnity. The first word, ‘I have lived’, is the same as that of Dido’s speech before she commits suicide for being abandoned by her lover Aeneas. Horace’s dedication is therefore incredibly melodramatic: as far as he is concerned his life is over.

Horace uses a common metaphor in comparing love to war. All of the weapons that he describes: torch, crowbar, and bow, are those that would be required to assault a besieged city, or in this case, a girl’s door that has been barred against him. The imagery is comic in the grand, epic resonances of the military language used to describe the poet’s many love affairs.

When the prayer begins a Roman audience would be expecting a traditional dedication to the goddess. This appears to be the case when it opens conventionally with a list of Aphrodite’s dwelling places. However, while Cyprus is her most famous home, Memphis, located in Egypt, is not such an obvious choice. Its inclusion is explained by the following reference to Thrace, Chloe’s homeland, located in comparatively chilly northern Greece. Horace is asking the goddess of sunny climes to melt Chloe’s frozen heart.

But the ode does not necessarily suggest a searing passion on Horace’s part. He wants ‘arrogant’ Chloe to be subjugated under Venus’ whip. The implication is that she has humiliated Horace, and for his revenge the poet wants her in turn to feel the painful lash of love. This suggests an amusing twist: the reason for Horace’s solemn despair is the slight he feels at Chloe’s persistent “no”. His dramatic retirement is no more than a strategic withdrawal, as he asks the goddess to warm Chloe to his advances.

Sources:

Translation from Gordon Williams (1969)

Gordon Williams, ed., The Third Book of Horace’s Odes (Oxford, 1969).
Kenneth Quinn, ed. Horace the Odes (Bristol, 1980).

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