Odes 1.37

Horace’s Cleopatra ode

by Horace

One of Horace’s most famous poems, this celebrates the final victory of Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Neither Antony nor Cleopatra, who lost, is mentioned by name, but Cleopatra comes in for lively abuse and Antony and his supporters get a hefty sideswipe. The wording of the initial call for celebration seems contorted, but the poem was no doubt a sincere reaction to the end of a dire threat to Rome. There is a neat double meaning in the third stanza: not only was Cleopatra powerless (impotens)to achieve her aims, she was also out of her mind (impotens)to try. The mood changes abruptly at the end as bile against Cleopatra gives way to grudging respect for her courage.

The opening is a direct echo of a celebration poem written five hundred years earlier by Alcaeus, one of Horace’s Greek idols, and the poem uses the same metre. The Salians were priests of Mars and were known for a jumping dance, so they fit well both with the warlike subject and the dancing rhythm of the poem. Caecuban and Mareotic are wines: Mareotic was from Egypt, so the vines saw a lot of sun and the wine would have been especially alcoholic. the Liburni were a detachment of Octavian’s naval forces with a reputation for speed and deadliness.

Metre: Alcaic

To scroll the original and English translation of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.

Nunc est bibendum, nuc pede libero
pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus
ornare pulvinar deorum
tempus erat dapibus, sodales.

antehac nefas depromere Caecubum
cellis avitis, dum Capitolio
regina dementes ruinas
funus et imperio parabat

contaminato cum grege turpium
morbo virorum, quidlibet impotens
sperare fortunaque dulci
ebria. Sed minuit furorem

vix una sospes navis ab ignibus
mentemque lymphatam Mareotico
redegit in veros timores
Caesar, ab Italia volantem

remis adurgens, accipiter velut
molles columbas aut leporem citus
venator in campis nivalis
Haemoniae, daret ut catenis

fatale monstrum. Quae generosius
perire quaerens nec muliebriter
expavit ensem nec latentes
classe cita reparavit oras.

ausa et iacentem visere regiam
voltu sereno, fortis et asperas
tractare serpentis, ut atrum
corpore combiberet venenum,

deliberata morte ferocior;
saevis Liburnis scilicet invidens
privata deduci superbo
non humilis mulier triumpho.

Now is the time to drink, without restraint
to beat the ground with dancing feet, now the time
to dress the couches of the Gods
with Salian banquets, my friends!

to bring out Caecuban from our grandfathers’ bins
till now would have been a crime, while
a queen was plotting insane disaster
for the Capitol and destruction for the City’s power

with her tainted crowd of followers hideous
with disease, ready to hope, vainly, for anything
and drunk with good fortune.
But she was less inclined

to rage when barely a single ship escaped the fires
and Caesar brought back her mind, drunk
with Mareotic wine, to a fearful reality
as she fled from Italy,

pressing her close with his oars, as the hawk does
helpless doves or the swift hunter the hare
in the fields of snowbound
Thessaly, to put the deadly monster

in chains. But she, seeking a nobler death,
did not flinch at the sword
like a woman, and sought no hidden shores
with her swift fleet to regroup.

She dared endure the sight of her realm in ruins,
her face serenely calm, and had the strength
to handle stinging serpents to absorb
their black venom into her body,

fiercer as she resolved to die; no wonder
she begrudged the fierce Liburnian sailors,
and was no woman to be deposed and humbly led
in splendid triumph.