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.


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).

Anacreon fr. 417: I heard you were a wild one

Another funny little poem by Anacreon, a Greek lyricist writing from the the 6th century BC. In this ode the poet, an old man, clumsily tries to impress a beautiful young girl. In an extended metaphor the narrator compares her to a ‘filly’, a young horse, and asks her why she is avoiding him. After all, he knows what he is doing and could show her a good time.

Thracian filly, why so sharply
shy away with sidelong glances,
thinking I’ve no expertise?

Be assured, I’d put your bit on
smartly, hold the rains and run you
round the limits of the course.

But for now you graze the meadows,
frisk and play, for want of any
good experienced riding man.

Sadly this would-be-seducer is very unconvincing. Worry about his lack of expertise is probably the least of the girl’s concerns. After all the narrator’s promise to ‘put her bit on’ and ‘run her around the course’ does not sound especially appealing. In fact the description of her playing by herself in the meadow sounds far more pleasant than anything of the things he wants to do with her! The narrator completely misunderstands why he is being rejected, suggesting that he is not quite as worldly as he would have us believe.

We have a few fragments where Anacreon takes on the persona of an elderly and unsuccessful lover. I look at his most famous here. The tradition goes that that Anacreon lived to a very old age, and that he was a great lover and laugher all the way up to his death. These poems then are perhaps the poet having a joke at his own expense when he is past his prime. Anacreon unconvincingly tries to pass off his advanced age as experience, however he cannot help but see the funny side as he chases after girls who are well out of his league.

West, M. (2008).

Theocritus Idyll XI: The Cyclops falls in love.

Galatea by Gustave Moreau c. 1880

Galatea by Gustave Moreau c. 1880

Idyll XI is the love song of the Cyclops for the sea nymph Galatea. The nymph appears to him in his dreams, but when he wakes she flees his monstrous form. To entice her the Cyclops offers cheeses, baby animals and flowers, but ultimately she is a creature of the sea and he is tied to the land; it is a doomed passion.

In this Idyll we see the Cyclops as a bumbling adolescent, clumsily attempting to woo the beautiful nymph. Most commentators have seen him as a comic figure. He clumsily compares her to cream cheese, and whereas the language of love is not concerned with reality or details, he pedantically points out his expertise in cheese-making, and labours over the point that he could not literally bring her snowdrops and poppies at the same time.

However he is not completely inept. Personally the promise of flowers and baby animals is pretty appealing, not to mention cheese! He promises her a pastoral paradise. In places his song is very similar to Sappho, the ultimate Greek love poet. But it is not too hard imagine Galatea laughing at her hairy lover, and his promise to singe off all his hair isn’t much more appealing.

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Plato’s Symposium 189a-193e: Aristophanes on the Nature of Love

Ancient Greek sexuality is a fascinating topic. In the Symposium the great philosopher Plato explores the nature of love, and one form of love he particularly admires is that between two males.

The scene is the Greek Symposium; a drinking party where the Athenian male elite would discuss philosophy and perform poetry. The distinguished guests decide that at this Symposium they will discuss the topic of ‘Love’, and so in turn each man gives a speech about what he considers love to be.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC.

The speech I have focussed on here is that of Aristophanes, the famous Athenian comic playwright. True to his profession it is a very funny speech, at least in an Ancient Athenian sort of way, but it is also incredibly charming, and very interesting in its portrayal of homosexual relationships.

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Anacreon 358: A Short-Lived Affair

My next poem is by Anacreon. It is an extremely playful piece describing an encounter with a beautiful girl playing ball. There is a build up of anticipation where the narrator imagines that the god of love Eros has orchestrated this propitious meeting, and then a self-mocking anticlimax when he realises that she is completely out of his league, and also happens to fancy someone of her own sex.

Anacreon is often over-looked as one of the Greek lyric poets, and unfairly so I think. As I hope to show his poems are extremely witty and many-layered, building up a wonderful irony, here at the narrator’s own expense.

Golden-haired Eros strikes me
once again with a purple ball
And invites me to play with a
girl in fancy sandals.

But she is from proud Lesbos,
and turns her nose up at my
grey hair; she is gawping after
some other girl.

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