This ode brings us the news that Cleopatra and Mark Antony are no more. The year is 30 BC, and Rome rejoices with the Augustus Caesar, who now reigns supreme. The year before, Cleopatra and Antony were defeated in the Battle of Actium off the west coast of Greece, when Anthony's ships caught fire and burned. Cleopatra's ships escaped the conflagration, and she and Antony sailed to the mouth of the Nile, where, near Alexandria, they suffered another defeat at the hands of Octavian's forces. With hope lost, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide.
Because of the politics of the time, Horace could not mention Antony's name nor the naval battle. Rebellion and civil unrest were not to be glorified. As for Cleopatra, she was such a monster that she, too, is nameless.
The poem, according to most scholars is in two parts: a vilification of Cleopatra followed by, according to Garrison in his 1991 book on Horace, "a moving tribute to [her] courageous spirit." (pg. 254) Let me represent this graphically with these two photos from Hollywood:
Does Horace really end with a moving tribute? I suppose, but what was the general feeling in Rome about suicide? Was it a noble, grand, last gesture of defiance? Or was it what was expected of a foreign queen defeated by the forces of mighty, Imperial Rome? In other words, perhaps Horace is not paying tribute to Cleopatra. Rather he is reinforcing Rome's view of itself as the dominant power in the world. After all, didn't the Romans enjoy the gladiator games when the doomed fighters bowed to the emperor and shouted, morituri te salutant?
Horace doesn't have us get out our wine to celebrate Cleopatra's death then ask us to consider her nobility. Somebody, drunk by the end of the poem, must have said, "And that's how all Rome's enemies should end–with an asp at their hearts–if I have anything to do with it!" Another might have added, "Yeah, and that hag from hell cheated us out of a right good parade!"
The parade, of course, was dragging the defeated Cleopatra and the rebel Antony through the streets of Rome to the jeers of the crowd. As it turned out, the Roman empire-machine had the parade anyway. How so? Antony and Cleopatra were present in effigy.
The two oldest commentaries by Pomponius Porphyrion and Helenius Acron merely state that:
Hac ode laetitiam profitetur suam poeta ob uictoriam Actiacam Augusti, cum M. Antonium
apud Actium promunturium nauali proelio superauit, ac deinde Alexandriam cepit.
They don't talk about paying tribute to Cleopatra. Another monster, Hitler, commited suicide as well. I haven't seen anyone glorify his death. Okay, maybe my comparison is a bit off. Cleopatra has mystique. Hitler does not.
Cleopatra has captured the minds of men for centuries. Certainly Shakespeare was intrigued. Did he not have her say:
Shall they hoist me up and show me to the shouting varletry of censuring Rome?
Did not audiences thrill at seeing Theda Bara or Claudette Colbert or Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra in all her splendor?
So, maybe in Horace's time as well, there was a certain star quality about Cleopatra. She was terrifying, and she was glorious at the same time.
Then there is the little matter of lines 17 to 20. Horace compares Augustus Caesar to a hawk after a dove, a hunter after a hare in the snows of Haemoniae [an old name for Thessaly, Greece]. Is Cleopatra the beautiful dove? Is she then the frightened winter-white hare? I am afraid so. But these are perhaps my connotations not Horace's. Doves and hares were simply prey. They were not symbols of peace, and beauty, God's grace, and cute-cuddliness—at least, I don't think so in this poem. Otherwise, this poem is more "messed up" than I had thought: Ding-dong the witch is dead. Not the ugly one, but the beautiful, dove-like seductress of emperors (for she did have an affair with Julius). Not the one who melted with a splash of water but the defiant one who went out on her own terms, bowing to no one, uttering perhaps "moritura te maledicit!"
Two words to know before reading the poem: Mareoticum is a famous Egyptian wine of the period, and Liburnians are fast-moving galley-ships modeled after those used by pirates from Liburnia [modern Albania]. [Note added April 2, 2015: in lines 18 & 19 aut leporem citus vēnātor in campīs nivālis, the sense must be that the hunter is nivālis, cold with snow. Some translators logically conclude that the fields must be covered with snow and translate the line as Rudd did in the Loeb Series: "or a speedy hunter after a hare on the snowy plains."]
Now we drink, my friends; now the earth rocks
with feet set free; now's the time to dress up
the couch of the gods for the Salii.
Before this, it wasn't right to bring out
the Caecubum from the old man's cellar,
while the queen plotted craziness for
the Capitol and death to the Empire
with her band of sicko eunuchs, out of
control, hoping for whatever, she drunk
on dumb luck. But one ship saved from the fire
could hardly lessen her rage; so Caesar
drove back the woman truly frightened, high
on Mareoticum, pursuing her—
hawk after gentle dove or swift hunter
after hare in the snows of Thessaly—
from Italy with her oars flying so
that he might capture the fateful monster.
She planned to perish with nobility,
not like a woman afraid of the sword,
not like one repairing with a swift fleet
to hidden shores, but one gutsy enough
to look upon her ruined palace with
a serene face, strong enough to take out
wild snakes and let death's poison sink into
her body, fiercer when determined to die.
No longer a queen, this one proud woman
must have hated the wild Liburnians,
the thought of being paraded around
in a triumphal march of arrogance.
translation© 2010 by James Rumford
Nunc est bibendum. Nunc tellus pede libero pulsanda [est]. Nunc, [o] sodales, erat tempus pulvinar deorum dapibus Saliaribus ornare.
Antehac [erat] nefas Caecubum [ex] cellis avitis depromere, dum regina dementis ‹cum grege virorum turpium morbo contaminato› ruinas Capitolio et funus imperio parabat—[illa] impotens [sui] quidlibet sperare fortunaque dulci ebria. Sed furorem [Cleopatrae] minuit; vix una navis ab ignibus sospes [fuit]. Caesarque mentem Mareotico lymphatam in timores veros redegit, ‹ab Ītalia volantem› remis adurgens, velut accipter columbas molles aut venator citus leporem in campis Haemoniae nivalis, ut monstrum fatale catenis daret.Quae, generosius perire quaerens, nec ensem muliebriter expavit, nec classe cita oras latentes reparavit. Et ausa [est] regiam iacentem vultu sereno visere, serpentes fortes et asperas tractare, ut corpore venenum atrum combiberet, morte ferocior deliberata. Liburnis saevis scilicet invidens [et], privata, triumpho superbo deduci [invidens], [illa erat] mulier non humilis. [revised April 2, 2015]
Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede līberō
pulsanda tellūs, nunc Saliāribus
ornāre pulvīnar deōrum
tempus erat dapibus, sodālēs.
antehāc nefas dēprōmere Caecubum
cellīs avītīs, dum Capitōliō
rēgīna dēmentis ruīnās
fūnus et imperiō parābat
contāminātō cum grege turpium
morbō virōrum, quidlibet impotēns
spērāre fortūnāque dulcī
ēbria. sed minuit furōrem
vix ūna sospes nāvis ab ignibus,
mentemque lymphātam Mareōticō
redēgit in vērōs timōrēs
Caesar, ab Ītaliā volantem
rēmīs adurgēns, accipiter velut
mollıs columbās aut leporem citus
vēnātor in campīs nivālis
Haemōniae, dāret ut catēnīs
fātāle monstrum. quae generōsius
perīre quaerēns nec muliēbriter
expāvit ensem nec latentıs
clāsse citā reparāvit ōrās,
ausa et iacentem vīsere rēgiam
vultū serēnō, fortis et asperās
tractāre serpentēs, ut ātrum
corpore combiberet venēnum,
dēlīberātā morte ferōcior:
saevīs Liburnīs scīlicet invidēns
prīvāta dēdūcī superbō,
nōn humilis mulier, triūmphō.
:: Latin books by James Rumford ::
For all 102 odes purchase Carpe Diem, Horace De-Poetized, for $11.50 at
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To find out more about Carpe Diem go to the blog of March 26, 2015;
for more about Pericla Thomae Sawyer, go to the blog of November 22, 2016.