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.


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).


Laments for Lost Friends in Ancient Rome

The below are two of the most moving poems to have survived from Ancient Rome. The poets Catullus and Horace comfort close friends on the death of someone dear to them. Both odes are deeply poignant in their grief, but also use poetry to wilfully defy mortality itself by showing that those we loved are never truly lost to us.

In poem 96, Catullus comforts his friend Calvus on the death of his wife, telling him that her spirit is gladdened by the love her husband shows in his great grief:


If anything from our grief, can reach beyond
the silent tomb, Calvus, and be pleasing and welcome,
grief with which, in longing, we revive our lost loves,
and weep for vanished friendships once known,
surely Quintilia is not so much grieved at her early death,
as joyful for your love.

In Ode 1.24, Horace comforts the famous poet of the Aeneid, Virgil, at the death of their mutual friend and teacher Quintilius. I have only included the last 3 stanzas as they are the ones I want to discuss here. Horace tells his friend that no amount of grieving can help them to bring their friend back, comparing Virgil to Orpheus, the mythical poet who performed for the King of the underworld to try in vain to bring back his wife from the dead. The god Mercury was the guardian of the boundaries between the upper and lower worlds, and Horace reminds us that those who pass by him are never suffered to return.


Many are the good men who weep for his dying,
none of them, Virgil, weep more profusely than you.
Piously, you ask the gods for him, alas, in vain:
not so was he given to us.

Even if you played on the Thracian lyre, listened
to by the trees, more sweetly than Orpheus could,
would life then return, to that empty phantom,
once Mercury, with fearsome wand,

who won’t simply re-open the gates of Fate
at our bidding, has gathered him to the dark throng?
It is hard: but patience makes more tolerable
whatever wrong’s to be righted.

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Horace’s Carpe Diem Ode and Andrew Marvell’s To his coy mistress.

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero: Seize the day and place as little faith as possible in the hours to come. Horace’s most famous line comes at the end of Ode 1.11, in an address to a girl called Leuconoe. He warns her against trying to read the future; for no man can know his fate. So instead humankind must seize the day, make the most of the present moment. Keep pouring the wine, for even as we speak our short time on earth is flying past.

Leuconoe, do not ask, it is wrong to know, what fate the gods grant us,
whether your fate or mine, don’t waste your time on Babylonian,
futile, calculations. How much better to suffer what happens,
whether Jupiter gives us more winters or this is the last one,
one debilitating the Tyrrhenian Sea on opposing cliffs.
Be wise, and mix the wine, since time is short: limit that far-reaching hope.
The envious moment is flying now, now, while we’re speaking:
Seize the day, place in the hours that come as little faith as you can.

Translation by David West (2008)

Horace’s philosophy is called Epicureanism, which argues that mankind must – uncomplaining – accept life’s unpredictability and the misfortunes that come with this. It was a very popular philosophy and Horace expounds Epicurean ideas in lots of his odes. In this ode he uses nature as a metaphor for life, where the storm outside represents life’s vicissitudes. The storm can also be read as a metaphor for the dangers and discomforts that threaten the philosopher’s inner tranquillity. His conversation with Leuconoe is a safe haven; with wine and company it is an attractive contrast to the wild outdoors, and so emphasises the need to snatch such moments and enjoy their shelter from life’s storms.

So why in my title have I put this ode with To his coy mistress, a poem written by the 17th Century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell? The similarity between the two has been noted by the scholar Anderson. As Horace senses time flying past even as they speak, so Marvell says:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity

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Horace 2.6: The Weary Soldier

Addressed to his friend Septimius, in Ode 2.6 Horace turns down an invitation to the restless corners of the Empire, pleading the war-weariness of a footsore soldier. He would rather stay in Italy by the river Tibur, or maybe go down south to the river Galaesus, where he can end his days in peace and quiet.

Septimius, you, who are prepared to visit

Cadiz with me, and its tribes (they’re not used

to bearing our yoke) and barbarous Syrtes,

by the Moors’ fierce Sea,

I’d rather Tibur, founded by men of Greece,

were my home when I’m old, let it be my goal,

when I’m tired of the seas, and the roads, and all

this endless fighting.

But if the cruel Fates deny me that place,

I’ll head for the river Galaesus, sweet

with its precious sheep, on Spartan fields, once ruled

by King Phalanthus.

That corner of earth is the brightest to me,

where the honey gives nothing away to that

of Hymettus, and its olives compete with

green Venafrum:

where Jupiter grants a lengthy spring, and mild

winters, and Aulon’s hill-slopes, dear to fertile

Bacchus, are filled with least envy for those rich

grapes of Falernum.

That place, and its lovely heights, call out to me,

to you: and there’ll you’ll scatter your debt of a sad

tear, over the still-glowing ashes of this,

the poet, your friend.

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Horace 3.9: A Strangely Matched Pair

‘With you I would live, and die, happily’. But we get the impression that this is not the fate in store for Lydia and Horace, the two speakers of this moving poem. Horace’s infidelity broke them apart, and they have both now moved on. However, love is never predictable, and here the pair here reflect on what might have been, and on what still could be.

The poem is a dialogue where Horace speaks first. Although Horace is not named, scholars pretty much agree it must be him speaking. He is usually the narrator of his Odes, and the complaints that he is fickle and quick-tempered are faults Horace admits to in another poem. Also Lydia’s claim that she was famous is probably talking about poetry Horace had written about her. We have no idea who this Lydia might have been, she survives only in Horace’s poetry.

For as long as you loved me
and no other man, more dear, clasped his arms
around your white neck,
I was richer than the king of Persia.

While you desired no one else
and Lydia was not second to Chloe,
I, famous Lydia,
shone brighter than Ilia of Rome.

Thracian Chloe rules me now,
who knows sweet songs and plays on the lyre.
I’m not afraid to die
if the fates would only spare my darling.

I love he who returns my love,
Calais, son of Thurian Ornytus.
I would die twice over
if the fates would spare my beloved boy.

What if our love were to return,
and forced us again under a bronze yoke,
if I spurned blonde Chloe
and opened the door closed to Lydia?

Though he is fairer than starlight
and you are fickle and more quick-tempered
than the Hadrian sea,
With you I would live, and with you, die happily.

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Horace 2.20: The Swan Poet

Writing in the 1st century BC Horace is my favourite Roman poet. Whether he is being charming and witty or lofty and philosophical he is always a great friend of those who read him.

Ode 2.20 one of his more fantastic poems. In it he warns his friend Maecenas not to mourn his death, for he is an immortal poet. He imagines himself transformed into a swan, borne by his song to the very edges of the Roman Empire. Like Catullus in my previous post, Horace is exploring the immortality of the poet’s voice.

By no ordinary or flimsy wings shall I be borne
through the clear air, a poet of two forms,
and I shall not remain any longer on land,
beyond all envy, I shall leave these cities.

For I, born to poor parents, I whom you command,
dear Maecenas, I shall not die,
and the waters of the Styx shall not encircle me.
Now, already, rough skin spreads over my legs,
and I am transforming from above
into a white swan, soft feathers
sprout from my fingers and shoulders.
Now, more renowned than Icarus, son of Daedalus,
as a melodious bird I shall see the shores of the groaning Bosphorus,
the Gaetulian Syrtes, and the Hyperborean plains.
And Colchus shall hear me, and the Dacians,
who hide their fear for Marsian troops,
and the Geloni at the edges of the earth,
the learned Iberians and drunken Rhodes shall know me.

Let there be no mindless funeral rites,
and unsightly lamenting and weeping,
Restrain from crying, and do not trouble
with the empty honour of a tomb.

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