Joachim von Sandrart, Cleopatra Pleegt Zelfmoord, c. 1640, etching, W 125mm × H 110mm, Rijksmuseum

Commentary on Ode 1.37 by Horace

Ethan Wedel

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC – 8 BC), known to the anglophone world as Horace, was a Roman lyric poet. Published between 23 BC and 13 BC, his
Odes are a collection of praise songs, adapted principally from earlier Greek lyrics, on diverse subjects. In Horace, The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets (2002), the American literary critic J. D. McClatchy suggested that the “extraordinary versatility” of Horace’s poetic innovations — from swift perspectival shifts to the “compressed and febrile” order of his line, in which the ending rather than the syntactical position of a word construes meaning–literally “transformed Roman poetry.” Despite initially poor public reception, the Odes have become “the most important and influential book of lyric poems ever published,” widely imitated and translated for over two millennia by artists from Ovid to Alice Fulton.

Word order here reveals profound ambivalence in Horace’s view of imperial power. He doesn’t side with Cleopatra, but he does mourn her, and his sense of loyalty to the state’s fitness contains an undercurrent of admiration for and longing after this fabulous specimen of the vanquished east.

In the fourth quatrain, Caesar Octavian is delayed. Through scenes of incendiary conflict, wine-induced madness, and fears made corporeal, he pursues Cleopatra’s fallen men (virorum turpium) into the lexical countryside of the fifth quatrain, and there his metonyms hem-round the natural world with inextricable violence. The hawk (accipiter) literally plunges from line 17 to break the back of its prey, as the hunter (venator) stalks the snowy countryside (campis nivalis), which flees into the chains (catenis) intended for the heaven-sent and heaven-stricken, grand, ungodly, god-like[1] queen (fatale monstrum). Pitiless predation and unappeasable hostility surround the snowy plains of Thessaly (campis nivalis Haemoniae)—riven by strife, metrically broken by enjambment.

Word order here reveals profound ambivalence in Horace’s view of imperial power. He doesn’t side with Cleopatra, but he does mourn her.

Caesar himself, fearsome, murderous, dispassionate agent of destruction, mechanically surging (adsurgens) through a scrum of broken and burning vessels after an epicurean mind (mentem lymphatam Mareotico), collides with Cleopatra in her several roles. She is the queen preparing ruins for the Capitol and a funeral for the Empire (regina parabat ruinas Capitolio et funus imperio), both regal, therefore worthy of adversarial admiration, and intolerably inimical as rebel representative of a rival civilization. Inscrutable emblems of the decadence initially celebrated by the dancing priests of Mars (Saliaribus), her prodigious fantasies (verso timores) and ardent dynamism (furorem) invert established order, and, in the text’s formulation, incite armies to rapine and slaughter. Yet she is serene (sereno) in the face of ruin—stoic (deliberata), powerful (fortis), more ferocious than ever (ferocior), and unsettlingly epicene, neither fleeing to hidden shores (latentis oras) in her fast ships nor flinching (expavit) from the sword (ensem), as, Horace thinks, a woman would (muliebriter). She is also the dove (columba) ravaged by the accipiter, something natural and lyric, tragic and gentle (mollis); a sovereign individual (non iacenta, unlike her great civilization, her regiam) sacrificed, in the epic mode, to some dark, bewildering historical imperative.

In the end, Cleopatra seems more human than her pursuers because she can perform the poem’s final appalling gesture. Refusing to be deprived of either her dignity (non humilis) or her regal status (invidens privata deduci), she chooses her fate (atrum venenum) as tragic heroes do. And this, at last, points-up a hollowness at the heart of Caesar’s decisive triumph. There is a question, an awfulness there: What has been demolished, and why?

1 Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero
2 pulsanda tellus; nunc Saliaribus
3 ornare pulvinar deorum
4 tempus erat dapibus [feasts], sodales.

5 antehac nefas depromere Caecubum
6 cellis avitis, dum Capitolio
7 regina dementis ruinas,
8 funus et imperio parabat

9 contaminato cum grege turpium
10 morbo virorum quidlibet inpotens
11 sperare fortunaque dulci
12 ebria. {sed minuit furorem

13 vix una sospes navis ab ignibus
14 mentemque lymphatam Mareotico            
15 redegit in veros timores                               
16 Caesar ab Italia volantem

17 remis adurgens,} accipiter velut
18 mollis columbas aut leporem citus
19 venator in campis nivalis
20 Haemoniae, daret ut catenis

21 fatale monstrum. quae generosius
22 perire quaerens nec muliebriter
23 expavit ensem, nec latentis
24 classe cita reparavit oras.

25 ausa et iacentem visere regiam
26 voltu sereno, fortis et asperas
27 tractare serpentes, ut atrum
28 corpore combiberet venenum,

29 deliberata morte ferocior;
30 saevis Liburnis scilicet invidens
31 privata deduci superbo,
32 non humilis mulier, triumpho.

1 Now there must be drinking, now with loose foot
2 the ground must be pounded; now, for the Saliares,
3 to adorn the couch of the gods
4 it is time, friends.

5 In former days, [it was] a crime to bring out Caecubian [wine]
6 from ancestral cellars, while, for the Capitoline,
7 the queen demented ruins,
8 and a funeral for the government was preparing

9 with a contaminated gaggle of men
10 foul by reason of disease, anything desperate
11 to hope for and on sweet fortune
12 drunk. {But hardly one ship saved from the fires

13 lessened [her] madness
14 and Caesar, with oars pursuing closely,
15 drove true fears back into the mind,
16 besotted by Mareotic [wine], flying from Italy—

17} just as [chases] the hawk
18 the soft doves or the fast hunter
19 the hare on the plains of snowy
20 Haemonia—in order that he might give to chains

21 the fatal wonder. She, more nobly
22 to perish seeking, neither like a woman
23 dreaded the sword, nor
24 in a fast fleet repaired to hidden shores.

25 And bold to behold the fallen [lying (in ruins)] palace
26 with a face serene, and strong the harsh
27 serpents to wield, in order that the black
28 venom with her body she might drink,

29 by means of a determined death more ferocious;
30 in savage Liburnian ships certainly refusing
31 as a private [citizen] to be led away,
32 no submissive woman, to a haughty triumph.

[1] Herman Melville, Moby Dick, (New York: Modern Library, 1992)

Ethan Wedel

Ethan Wedel is a native of Northern Illinois and graduate of Knox College. He has worked in politics and social services with various organizations from the Midwest to the Bay Area.