Horace 3.26: The Unassailable Chloe

Another Horace ode, because I firmly believe there can be no such thing as too much Horace. In a temple of Venus the poet dedicates his weapons of love to the goddess: he is done with his campaigns of the heart. But the ode ends unexpectedly when Horace 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 suicide speech, making Horace’s dedication incredibly melodramatic: as far as he is concerned his life is over.

Horace uses the common metaphor of the warfare of love. All the weapons that Horace 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 the poet. The imagery is comic in the grand, epic resonances of military language used to describe his many love affairs.

When the prayer begins a Roman audience would be expecting a traditional prayer of dedication to the goddess. This still appears to be the case when it opens with a conventional list of the goddess’ dwelling places. However, while Cyprus is her most famous home, Memphis is a more unusual choice. Memphis was in Egypt and the following reference to Thrace, located in comparatively chilly northern Greece, is a reference to Chloe’s homeland. He is asking for the goddess to melt Chloe’s frozen heart.

But the ode does not 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. 3.26 then ends with an amusing twist: the reason for Horace’s solemn despair is the slight he feels at Chloe’s persistent “no”. Far from giving up on love, his proclaimed retirement is no more than a strategic withdrawal.

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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