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by Horace


A collection of poems in Latin that Horace arranged into books; three books (88 odes) published together as a group around 23 bce, followed by a fourth book (15 odes) published around 13 bce.


The Odes deals with a range of topics, from a lover’s difficulties in his relationships, through the local natural environment of central Italy, to subtle commentary about public issues and the fate of Rome in a sensitive, post-conflict period of the empire’s history.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

The Poems in Focus

For More Information

Born in 65 bce to a modestly prosperous family, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known to us as Horace, grew up during one of the most volatile eras in Rome’s history and his own background reflected this. Horace’s father, from the town of Venusia in the region of Apulia in southern Italy, had been enslaved for part of his life. Once freed, he achieved a reasonable level of prosperity as a businessman and thus gave his son a superior education at one of the better schools in Rome. Horace went to study at Athens as a young man, where he was recruited into the army of Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar in 44 bce. Surviving the defeat of the Republican cause at Philippi in 42 bce, Ho-race returned to Rome where he obtained an administrative job and began to write poetry. The Roman poet Virgil, a near contemporary (he was five years older than Horace), introduced him to Maecenas, a wealthy aristocrat of Etruscan de-scent who already was an intimate political adviser to Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar who would later become the emperor Augustus. Maecenas became Horace’s friend and patron for 30 years, and through him, Horace was granted a country estate known as the Sabine Farm, about 30 miles outside Rome, where he lived and wrote for the rest of his life. Horace died in 8 bce, leaving behind poetic works (the Odes, Satires, Epodes, Epistles, and Art of Poetry) that have influenced writers down to the present day. In Ode 11 of book 1, Horace coined one of his most famous lines— carpe diem (“seize the day”). Still well known after 2,000 years, the expression is one of the finest examples of Horace’s ability to craft a memorable phrase that is both elegantly appropriate in its poetic context and a clear echo of his common-sense philosophy. The Odes reveals a master poet who took the styles and traditions of Greek poetry to a new level in Latin literature, in the form of a subtle integration of the private and the public man.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

From Republic to Empire

From the middle of the second century bce the Roman Republic began to show signs of strain. The growth of Rome’s foreign territories, the substantial deployments of major legions in far distant lands, and the ever in-creasing ambitions of military generals contending for political supremacy in Rome all contributed to this effect. By the time Horace was born (65 bce) the battle for power had engulfed at least two generations of Romans. Vying for control were men such as Sulla, Marius, Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar in struggles that had pitched Roman armies against each other across the Mediterranean world. In 44 bce, shortly after being pro-claimed dictator for life (perpetuo), Julius Caesar


Ask not… what end
the gods have allotted either to me or to you.
Nor consult the Babylonian tables. How much better
to patiently endure whatever comes…
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Even as we speak, envious Time is fleeting.
Seize the day: entrusting as little as possible to tomorrow.
(Horace, Complete Odes, book 1; Ode 11)

was assassinated. The political structure of Rome, it seems, was too unstable to guarantee anyone’s future, even Caesar’s.

Around this time, Horace, a young man of 20, traveled to Athens to study. The political domination of Greece by Rome was now more than a century old, but Athenians and other Greeks believed themselves to have cultural superiority over the Romans. This assumption provoked little opposition from Romans themselves—in fact, they largely agreed with it. In Rome itself, the fashion was for Greek-style decoration, design, and cultural models. The Greek cities of the eastern Mediterranean, especially Alexandria with its literary culture and Athens with its philosophical schools (including the Academy founded by Plato three centuries earlier), enjoyed high reputations. But though Athens was far from Rome (and Horace was there to study), Roman politics wielded a significant influence, especially on the young men of the city. When the assassins of Julius Caesar fled to Athens to find support for their efforts to restore the Re-public, Horace was recruited into the army of Brutus and Cassius as a military tribune.

One of the rising stars in Roman political life was Octavian, a young military commander who was a grandnephew and an adopted son of Julius Caesar. He proved to be calculating, ruthless, and sensitive to political dynamics. The so-called “Second Triumvirate”—a ruling coalition of three men including Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus (who had been one of Caesar’s lieutenants)—systemically murdered their political opponents, killing 300 senators as well as many others. Octavian determined that his most important objective was to neutralize Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Caesar. To this end, he engineered, in alliance with Mark Antony, the defeat of the assassins’ forces at the Battle of Philippi (42 bce). Horace, an officer on the losing side, managed to survive the battlefield. He later joked in one of his odes that he threw away his shield and fled—an incident evocative of literary associations (the Greek poet Archilochus had made a similar assertion) rather than a statement of historical fact. The final defeat of Brutus and Cassius exposed the fragile alliance of the Second Triumvirate. Lepidus tried too late to turn himself into a more powerful presence by claiming authority over Sicily, but his troops deserted him, and he was disarmed. He escaped with his life intact, but lost his triumviral powers. After Lepidus’s disgrace and failed conspiracy, rule of the empire became a struggle for power between two men, Octavian in Rome and Mark Antony in the East. In 41 bce Antony at-tempted to control the empire from the eastern provinces by way of an alliance with Egypt and his marriage—he ultimately divorced his Roman wife—to Cleopatra, heiress to the Egyptian crown. The situation in Rome continued to be one of uncertainty and dread as society seemed once more to be held hostage to the power struggles of the military elite. In 31 bce, the situation was resolved when Octavian’s forces defeated Mark Antony’s at the sea battle of Actium. One year later in Alexandria, Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. Their deaths left Octavian with no serious opponents. He returned to Rome and confronted the Senate with a new and radical state of affairs: no longer was a cluster of powerful military and political leaders at loggerheads, leading to waves of war, peace, and then war again; now, an undisputed victor had emerged. In subsequent years, Octavian endeavored to establish his supreme position according to traditional Republican models and political offices. In 27 bce he formally accepted his powers from the Senate and took the name and title Augustus (most “revered” or “hallowed” one). He was, however, circumspect about displaying his new status and authority. Despite his unchallenged power, he made several strategic concessions to Rome’s constitutional past and insisted that he was less an absolute ruler than princeps (“first citizen”), a title he adopted to show that he respected the rights of other Roman institutions and the tradition of senatorial power. How-ever Augustus sought to represent or define the nature of his regime, Rome breathed a collective sigh of relief that the decades of turmoil and vicious, inconclusive struggle were finally over.

Patronage and poetry

The Rome that Horace had returned to in 42 bce was one dominated by a new power structure—the uneasy 10-year joint rule of Mark Antony and Octavian. Patronage was still the key to social and professional security, and now the chain of favor and counter-favor went up a longer hierarchical ladder, ending with whoever headed the empire at that moment. To call this patronage corruption would not be accurate; it was closer to the tribal and clan loyalty structures still operative in areas of the world today.

Patronage was part of an aristocratic view of the world, a view that was linked to concepts of loyalty, duty, and reciprocal responsibility. Clients rendered services to a patron, someone higher up on the social scale. They, for example, voted for the patron, accompanied him each morning to the forum (the social and business center), or immortalized him in verse perhaps. In exchange, the patron provided clients with loans and free legal assistance or used his influence to help them secure a job, a plot of land, or some other asset.

In the Rome of Horace’s day, the friendship and support of a senator, consul, or respected public figure could be of great use to a young man in any kind of career. For Horace, that was the kind of patronage he received from Virgil (an older and better connected fellow poet), from Maecenas (as noted, a close political adviser to Augustus), and even from Augustus himself. These types of patronage differed from one another, but all showed a willingness to support the creative artist, who in return dedicated some of his creative effort to promoting the social order or the patron, which is what made it possible for the support to be granted at all. Rome’s most famous literary patron, Maecenas was actually patron to an entire literary circle, which included both Horace and Virgil. The two poets returned the favor by celebrating the political and social accomplishments of Augustus’s regime in their verses. However, praise of the social order—in book 4 of Horace’s Odes, for example—was not timid subservience to power. It could be, as in Horace’s case, an opportunity for a poet to contemplate the social order, to consider (and indicate through poetry) the doubleedged requirements of a strong state—strictness and generosity, politics and culture, prosperity and recognition of where the reach of prosperity ends. The poet could remind readers of harsh realities that entered into these requirements. Built into his role for a patron was a capacity to remind the patron of the nature of war, the meaning of loss and injury, the persistence of disappointment in political and personal affairs, and the certainty of impending death. The task for such a writer/social commentator was to achieve a balance between critique and celebration in an often dangerous political environment. Horace and his poet-colleagues had to be cautious in their use of historical and mythological allusions and poetic motifs.

Love, etc

The sexual structure of Roman society was in many ways divided. There was a great deal of power and respectability located in the family, which was very authoritarian and rigid, especially during the Republic, but that did not necessarily mean that its members were happy or emotionally fulfilled. Indeed, the amount of authority invested in the paterfamilias, the father, meant that a lot of tensions—emotional, social, sexual—could build up, and the more influential the family the nastier it could get. If the family was close to the political and military power struggles, violence within the family circle could transpire, as in Julius Caesar’s case, when he was supplanted by his grandnephew Octavian.

Contracted to produce children and consolidate or improve family fortune, Roman marriages were generally arranged by family members, with little say given to the bride or groom when it came to selecting a marriage partner. Consequently marriages often lacked emotional depth or satisfaction, leaving women to fixate on other dimensions of family life, and many men and some women to seek sexual fulfillment elsewhere. Sexual morality was a matter of prudence, of being careful in one’s selection of a sexual partner, rather than a matter of moral principle. For a man from the aristocratic class to have an affair with a woman of similar status could create personal problems for both, though such relationships did sometimes occur. It was safer for a man to have a liaison with a woman of a lower class who benefited materially. Forced sex with (male or female) house servants and the like was common, given that slaves were considered property.

In sexual relationships between men or between a man and a woman—the two types discussed in ancient literature—the same rules applied: prudence was valued; the social order should not be endangered by public misbehavior; family values should at least be outwardly maintained to guarantee the political stability of Roman society.

Within this context, poets and other writers kept up a vital tradition of love poetry and erotic allusion. The tradition of love poetry in Rome, as in ancient Greek society, is marked by two important factors: 1) the poems are as often about the irritating problems of human affections as about romantic celebration, and 2) the social con-text of the relationship (either existing or hopedfor) between the lovers could be as important as the feelings that the poet is expressing.

The Poems in Focus

Contents summary

The Odes of Horace comprise a total of 103 poems, 88 in books 1 to 3 (sometimes known as the Carmina, from the Latin word Carmen, meaning “song”) and 15 poems in the later book 4. The subjects range from the poet’s thoughts on love, to his relationships and desires, to politics in Rome under Augustus, to human existence and the roles of various deities, and finally to aspects of everyday life in his rural villa. Several poems are dedicated to Horace’s close friend and patron, Maecenas. Others are dedicated to Caesar Augustus. Horace uses the ode, a long lyric poem of a serious nature written in calm, thoughtful, everyday language, to rove across many images and topics, often ending at a point unanticipated by the opening of the poem.

The public poems

The first book of Horace’s Odes opens with a public dedication to his patron Maecenas, whose influence has brought Ho-race an ideal environment—his beloved farm—and the leisure to write. The poem also manages to tell us much about Horace himself. He de-scribes the various manifestations of glory and success, from those of the Olympic winners “arriving at the goal / with wheels aflame and the noble palm of victory” (Complete Odes, 1.1) to those of farmers, hunters, and soldiers. The poetic speaker then says “Place me, then, among the lyric poets / with my head in the heavens; I shall touch the stars” (Complete Odes, 1.1). By suggesting that he, Horace, is destined for longer-lasting glory and immortality as a poet, he implicitly praises Maecenas for his good judgment in becoming his patron.

Later in the penultimate ode of book 1, Ho-race turns to the suicide of Cleopatra. Like other Romans, he was both repelled and fascinated by the Egyptian queen. She exuded a blend of feminine subtlety and political ambition that made her a dangerous presence. Yet for a time, she threatened to become a Roman power, along with her consort and ally, Mark Antony. On the heels of their crushing defeat at Actium (31 bce) and their suicides in Egypt a year later, Horace composed a rich and complex ode (1.37) that shifts from an exuberant jubilation to thoughtful admiration, from a public celebration in Rome to a private act in Alexandria.

The ode begins with a double literary allusion. Horace’s opening cry, “Now we must drink,” translates the first words of a poem by the sixth-century bce Greek poet, Alcaeus, one of Horace’s favorite lyric models. But the initial word “Now” also looks back to one of Horace’s own epodes, which he composed shortly after the battle at Actium, when Antony and Cleopatra escaped and the outcome was still unclear. (Horace began his career with 17 epodes, brief poems written in a bold, forceful tone and usually in couplets whose second line was shorter than the first.) Epode 9, the one being recalled, starts with a question to Maecenas, “When shall I drink the Caecuban wine with you?” The epode closes on a note of anxiety and uncertainty. But by the later Cleopatra ode, Antony and Cleopatra are dead, the threat has been eliminated, and this earlier question can be answered triumphantly, with a re-sounding call to celebrate. In earlier days, explains the poet,

it would have been wrong to bring forth
     our Caecuban wine from the cellars of
        our ancestors, while a demented
            was plotting to destroy the

(Complete Odes, 1.37)

The poem celebrates—exults in, even—the de-feat and death of the Egyptian queen, but then unexpectedly adjusts its tone, portraying her as a complex personality, who in the end does not quake with fear, flee in cowardice, or allow her-self to be paraded in ignominy down the streets of Rome as a war trophy. Rather she nobly, courageously, as portrayed by the poem, takes her fate into her own hands. She grows fiercer as she faces death, bravely surveying the ruins of her palace, boldly grasping the poisonous snakes and bringing them to her breast to fell herself with their dark venom. “So in premeditated death / fiercer yet she became, / Scorning to be led off in triumph [the victory procession of a Roman general]… / She, no longer a queen / but a woman unyielding, unhumbled” (Complete Odes, 1.37). First spotlighting Cleopatra as a public figure, the ode ends on not the queen but the private woman, who gains her own triumph through suicide. The ode takes a much-hated figure and celebrates her act of defiance, revealing the attitude of the poet to be as complex as his subject.

In Ode 1 of the second book, a poem ad-dressed to Gaius Asinius Pollio, who was under-taking to write a history of the recent civil wars, Horace expresses a thought that occupied, perhaps even haunted, him: the meaning of the wars and struggle for power within a ruling family that plagued Rome for several generations. Pollio, who had been a close ally and friend of Julius Caesar and later Mark Antony, was also a well-known literary figure in Rome, who gave the city its first public library. Horace begins on an ominous note:

The civil discord that began during the consulship
of Metellus; the causes, the blunders, the phases
of those wars; the play of fortune;
of alliances of leaders boding ill.

(Complete Odes, 2.1)

The poet implies that Pollio is in some personal danger due to the sensitive themes he touches on in his history. He, like Horace, fought on the side of the losers, and here he alerts his friend to take heed, as he himself does. Horace meditates on war and violence, forces that he is afraid might be too powerful to contain. He asks later in the poem, “What field is not fertilized with Latin blood?…


Unexpected changes occur within Horace’s poems. A casual evocation of everyday experience can give way immediately to a philosophical observation, after which the gods of Roman mythology make an appearance, or perhaps the shades of Horace’s Greek poetic forbears. Ode 13 of book 2, for example, opens with the poet directing his hostility toward a tree on his farm that has nearly fallen on him: “Whoever first planted you, o tree, surely / did so on an ill-omened day, / and with a sacrilegious hand / reared you op for the destruction of posterity / and the shame of this village” (Complete Odes, 2,1 3). This leads the speaker into a meditation on the peculiar nature of fear, the fact that, so often, people fear the wrong thing or do not realize that others suffer the same fears; the speaker moves to the misdirected fears of sailors and the unknown fates that lurk ahead of them. Finally the poem takes a turn into the realm of death and the afterlife, as Horace realizes he has narrowly escaped a final trip to the underworld, where the spirits of Alcaeus and Sappho, two Greek poets of an earlier age, recite their songs. With this, the poem returns full circle to Horace’s initial anger at the evil-intentioned tree, and recommends calming down and thinking about the big picture: nothing happened to hurt anyone.

what beach is not bathed in our blood?” (Complete Odes, 2.1). The poem refers to two muses, or goddesses of intellectual and artistic pursuits, the first being Clio, the stern, tragic muse of history. In conclusion, the poet invokes his own muse, Euterpe, the muse of lyric poetry, encouraging her to avoid such martial, political themes.

The ode begins as a public, political poem but, as Horace’s work often does, retreats from that arena at the end. The respect for Pollio and his historical writing is genuine, but at the close Horace asserts other literary values, those of his own poetry. Moreover, the assertion is not made apologetically, but rather almost forcefully. There is a deliberate shift here from the public discourse of history to the more individual voice of poetry.

A similar movement occurs among the so-called Roman Odes in book 3 (Odes 1-6). Addressed to Caesar Augustus, one of these odes (Ode 3.3) is a wide-ranging set of verses that invokes the image of a just ruler (Augustus) who resists the shallow desires of the mob and thus achieves immortal status. Augustus is seen in immortal company, which includes the goddess Juno, who describes her fury at the city of Troy, destroyed several centuries earlier and memorialized in Homer’s Iliad (also in Classical Literature and Its Times):

And so long as a wide ocean
Fiercely divides Troy and Rome,
let the exiles reign in happiness
Wheresoever they may please.

And resplendently
the Capitol shall stand, and warlike
dictate terms to the vanquished.

(Complete Odes, 3.3)

The poem argues for a connection between the ruins of Troy and the power of Rome hundreds of years later. The image of a mistaken attempt, on the part of Roman armies, to rebuild Troy dominates the later part of the poem, and seems to be a projection of a fear on the poet’s part: that Rome will also become no more than ruins one day. At the end of the poem, Horace once again chides himself for allowing his muse to be carried away by themes that are inappropriately dramatic or political. To invoke the gods, says Horace, to engage in prophecy—such tasks are not well suited to his poetic talents.

Poems of love and everyday life

As noted, in Roman love poetry, the social context of a love relationship (either existing or hoped-for) could be as important as the feelings expressed. This is well illustrated by Ode 23 of book 1, in which the poet appeals to an unduly coy and reticent young woman named Chloe. He first reassures her that she has no need to fear him—he is not a wild animal—then finishes on a different note from the standard lover’s pursuit:

Stop clinging to your mother.
  You have reached marriageable age:
     the proper age:
         the time for love.

(Complete Odes, 1.23)

The poet is not so enamored of the young woman that he is going to waste his time. His close reveals an impatience, a brusqueness almost; now the coyness and reticence he dealt with gently at the outset are condemned as socially inappropriate. Chloe is the beloved, but she needs to start acting like a young woman on the marriage market, not like a girl in a love story, desired by all. The force of the last stanza of the ode almost makes it an anti love poem: as discussed above, in Rome social stability counts for more than sexual attraction, and Chloe needs to understand this.

Horace was a local patriot when it came to the produce of rural Italy. One of many odes that mention the everyday enjoyment of food and drink is Ode 27 of book 1, addressed to Horace’s guests at dinner. He begins by disapproving of some primitive habits:

Hurling wine cups made for joyous use
is only fit for Thracians. Away with
     that barbaric custom! Let us keep our modest
     Bacchus far from all such bloody quarrels.

(Complete Odes, 1.27)

Treating wine badly is not permitted in Horace’s company. Wine is often a central image in the Odes, representing hospitality, as in Ode 29 of book 3, in which Horace announces that all is prepared for Maecenas’s visit.

Maecenas, descendant of Etruscan kings,
an amphora of mellow wine not yet poured
     has been waiting for you at my house
     along with roses and balsam distilled
for your hair. Delay no more!

(Complete Odes, 3.29)

The offerings of the host are not luxurious, but they are locally produced, thoughtful, and exactly what the exhausted guest will need. The poem reflects a familiar type of dinner invitation. In fact, such poetic dinner invitations were so common in Rome, notes one scholar, they be-came “a minor literary genre” (Shelton, p. 80).

Wine is, for Horace, also a diplomatic tool, helping to resolve disputes and produce a mellow atmosphere. Civilized gatherings make it possible to leave behind the strains and pressures of public life. Along with such gatherings, short vacations, often in villas outside the city, provided escapes for the Roman establishment. The Sabine Farm was just such a retreat for Horace, a place of natural grace, full of sunlight, trees, and vines, and an attractive setting for many of his poems of everyday life. In the concluding poem of book 1, for example, Horace expresses a willingness to accept the ordinary, the non-special. The key motif in the poem is an instruction to his servant boy to stop straining himself to put together a garland from some difficult-to-find late summer rose: “Simple myrtle / is sufficient. 1 care not that you anxiously / add more” (Complete Odes, 1.38). In what one could read as a mature judgment by Horace on living and writing poetry, as well as advice for a young servant, to “anxiously add more,” as far as he is concerned, can be as bad as adding nothing at all.

Roman attitudes to Cleopatra

The first century bce was wracked by Roman civil wars (88-82 bce, 49-45 bce, and 44-30 bce). With the resolution of these wars came the transition from republican to imperial rule, and relief from years of strife. For many Romans, the empire’s new ruler, Caesar Augustus, stood for stability and order. It was a reputation he had gained by defeating some formidable enemies, including Antony and Antony’s political and romantic ally, the Egyptian ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty Cleopatra VII, whose figure towers over the late first century bce.

This was not the only time that the Egyptian queen had played a major role in Roman affairs. A few years before, in her early twenties, while sitting on an insecure Egyptian throne, Cleopatra became Julius Caesar’s lover. Caesar found in her a useful, wealthy, and attractive ally in his ambitions to lead a military campaign in the East and to avenge an earlier Roman defeat at the hands of the Parthians. Shortly after he left Egypt, Cleopatra bore a son, whose paternity she publicly proclaimed by the name Caesarion (“Little Caesar”). Caesar himself never acknowledged the child, although he invited Cleopatra and her son to Rome. It was after Caesar’s assassination in 44 bce that Cleopatra allied herself to Mark Antony, selecting him as her new road to power. Together they strove to rule Rome, but the attempt led only to their own suicides.

Cleopatra was vilified by the poets of Rome and by its society in general. She was the daughter of the Egyptian king (Ptolemy XII), part of a family that was of Macedonian Greek descent and that had ruled Egypt since the death of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century bce. Cleopatra shrewdly engaged in relationships with great Roman generals to her benefit, gaining territory (Crete, Cyprus, Palestine) from them in ex-change for her financial aid to them. She became the first ruler in her line to speak the native language of the Egyptians, which may have had much to do with her success in Egypt. Winning the support of the Egyptians, Cleopatra developed an image among them as loving mother of her country. But in Rome, where she was hated, she attained a contrary image as the “whore queen,” an unnaturally militant woman, given to drunkenness, immoral liaisons, and the abuse of political power (Wyke, p. 207). The Romans, their writers included, saw her as nothing short of a monstrosity, a mannish woman who unmanned her lovers (Wyke, p. 227). Using the Eastern image of royal luxury against her, Rome pictured her as wholly wicked. But her suicide interfered. Normally after a conquest, a Roman general jubilantly led the enemy and the enemy’s children in triumphant procession through Rome. But Cleopatra’s suicide, by the poisonous bite of the asp, say the ancient accounts, denied Augustus that pleasure. Defiantly, by her manner of death, Cleopatra reclaimed her dignity and authority—a perspective that countered the stereotype and that Horace’s ode manages to convey.

In the ode, Horace reveals an ability to consider an imperial event in personal as well as historical terms. To make her defeat the central topic of an ode is very close to centering it on Cleopatra herself. The poet realizes that Rome has been both afraid of and fascinated by Cleopatra’s ability to draw two leading Roman generals into a personal and political alliance just a few years apart. Her ambitions and conquests made her a disconcerting mix of sexual adventuress and political demagogue to the Romans, an image that was probably augmented by her suicide. As Horace’s ode suggests, the way Cleopatra died must have only enhanced the romance and mystery surrounding her.

Behind the Roman understanding or misunderstanding of Cleopatra lay a cultural clash between a Roman worldview that vested political and social authority in its males and the Egyptian tradition of “empowering royal women” to some degree (Wyke, p. 201). Rome’s male-only approach clashed with the possibility of female rule in Egypt (though the female always ruled in tandem with a male), a practice that seemed irrational and primitive to Romans of the day. Associated with the Greeks and the Egyptians, Cleopatra was maligned and hated as a foreigner. Horace’s ode capitalizes on these attitudes, portraying her as a monster at the start but then transforming her into something quite different as she chooses suicide over the indignity of being paraded through Rome in defeat. In the ode, her final act appears worthy of the noble Roman, not a woman or a foreigner. How much this poem contributed to Rome’s fascination with Cleopatra, or to the legendary figure she became is unknown. But certainly Horace’s multisided look at her death fits with the mystery that surrounds her. In the end, the true character of the young queen remains elusive; and the question of whether Caesar and Antony used her in their bid for power or whether it happened more the other way around will likely never be completely resolved.

Sources and literary context

The term “ode” comes from the Greek word for song, aoide. It is sometimes described as a lyric poem in stanza form. Originally the ode was meant for performance by a chorus and began as a commissioned work composed in praise of some person or event. This is the key element in the so-called Pindaric odes, the poems credited to the Greek poet Pindar (522-448? bce). The word was brought by the Roman writers into Latin poetry and was disseminated over the centuries into many European languages in an almost unchanged form.

Pindar wrote poems on commission to honor aristocratic leaders and to extol the winners at the various Greek sporting festivals, the Olympic Games among them. The development of the ode in Greece was also marked by a different kind of poem, a more personal meditation on love and individual feeling. This second form was identified with the female poet Sappho, whose Poems survive mostly in fragments (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Sappho also invented for lyric poetry a new stanzaic form, consisting of 3 lines of 11 syllables followed by a fourth and final line of 5 syllables. Fittingly, this form became known as the Sapphic stanza. Together, these two models, that of Pindar and that of Sappho, established a dual tradition in the history of the ode—public and private—that Horace inherited and developed.

Horace was conscious of the double-edged nature of the ode. For him, it was an original and personal poem, but one that needed an object or addressee. It dealt with actual relationships rather than just inner feelings, politics and the dynamics of leadership in Roman society, and the poet’s real-world surroundings.

Horace’s collection of odes is remarkable for its diversity of ancient meters. In fact, the first nine poems of book 1 each display a different Greek meter adapted to Latin verse. Among his favorite meters are those that he borrowed from the Greek lyric poets Sappho and Alcaeus, who composed their various poems in stanzas (four lines in a fixed scheme of short and long syllables).

In subject matter several of Horace’s most famous poems resemble the large-scale, public odes of Pindar, as in the second ode of book 1,


Horace is the author of one of the most famous and influential critical works in Western civilization, Ars Poetica, or The Art of Poetry. In this long essay, probably written late In his life, Horace lists many of the traps and faults that the aspiring writer should avoid at all costs and declares that training and skill must complement inspiration if the poet is going to do any good work at all

Horace was especially dismissive of people who think that poetry will come to them simply because they have feelings, as if nothing else were needed. People who are not good at sports, or at playing music, normally stay out of the ballpark or avoid playing an instrument in public, but “the man who knows nothing about poetry has the audacity to write it” (Horace in Classical Literary Criticism, p. 109).

which closes with a prayer to the god Mercury, who, Horace exclaims in the ode, has assumed the guise of the young Caesar on earth:

O may you return as late as possible to the skies,
and joyously remain among the people of
Quirinus [a state god],
though Roman vices anger you, may you never
in an untimely blast
be borne away. Here rather amidst your great triumphs,
here may you choose to be called Father and Prince
nor permit the Medes to raid us with impunity,
You, Leader, Caesar.

(Complete Odes, 1.2)

The devotion to Augustus is here both a matter of the public good—the preservation of Italy and the empire from attack by the outside world (represented by the Medes, a people related the Persians)—and a personal statement of affection and respect.

The Greek culture and poetic tradition that Horace picked up during his student days in Athens became a vital part of his literary work. The style of such writers as Sappho, Pindar, and Alcaeus appealed to him both for the mixture of public and private concerns, and for the way in which the “real world” can step aside to reveal the world of mythology and legend.

Reception and impact

Beyond realizing his own personal vision of the poetic art, Horace’s work was produced partly, as we know, for the pleasure of his friend and patron Maecenas, and at times Caesar Augustus. No doubt other readers were also important to Horace, particularly fellow writers like the highly regarded Virgil. However, we have little evidence of how his odes were generally received beyond the Roman establishment, although his ability to generate slogan-like phrases and lines might well have given him a reputation among ordinary Romans who would otherwise have had limited taste for his writings. To take one example, the persistence of the famous line in Ode 2, book 3 (“dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” or “it is sweet and appropriate to die for one’s country” (Complete Odes, 3.2) suggests a certain level of popularity, as inscriptions of this epigraph have turned up on Roman funerary architecture. Horace himself claims in his later poetry that his odes did not achieve the acclaim he desired. It may be a telling confirmation of this claim that the elegy writers of the day (Ovid, for example) made no mention of Horace, but then neither did he mention them.

Horace’s modern reception is much easier to document. He was rediscovered during the Renaissance, and his poetry became a model for aspiring verse-makers, especially in England, where there was a strong interest in exploring the ode—as conceived by both Pindar and Horace. The interweaving of personal and public issues was an attractive dimension of the ode as a poetic genre, particularly for writers in situations such as that in which Horace found himself: a volatile but exciting era with both dangers and promise.

One of the most expert and powerful examples of the English ode is Andrew Marvell’s 1651 poem “Horatian Ode on Cromwell’s Return from Ireland.” In this text, the poet is both an admirer of, and somewhat intimidated by, Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the English Puritan revolution. The poem is about Cromwell at the moment of his return to England from Ireland after having crushed the Catholic, royalist rebellion there. Marvell’s attitude to Cromwell, who overthrew the Stuart monarchy and had the king executed, matches that of Horace’s to Augustus: a fear-inspiring military leader who just might be the right man to make sure that the national community survives in-tact into the future.

The Romantic poet John Keats was the major English practitioner of the ode in the early nineteenth century. He conceived “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to Psyche,” and others, all over a nine-month period in 1819. Although neither Keats nor Marvell were part of a culture in which poets were regularly commissioned by individuals to write odes celebrating or memorializing people or events, it is clear from Keats’s titles that something of that older dynamic haunts the modern ode.

In the twentieth century, there have been several famous odes in English and American poetry, including Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” and Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” two poems that meditate on the Civil War and its meaning for both the American nation and the poets themselves.

—Martin Griffin

For More Information

Armstrong, David. Horace. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Cantor, Norman F. Antiquity: The Civilization of the Ancient World. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Classical Literary Criticism. Trans. Penelope Murray and T. S. Dorsch. London: Penguin, 2000.

Fraenkel, Eduard. Horace. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957.

Heath-Stubbs, John. The Ode. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Horace. The Complete Odes and Satires of Horace. Trans. Sidney Alexander. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Kebric, Robert B. Roman People. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

Shelton, Jo-Ann. As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Wyke, Maria. The Roman Mistress: Ancient and Modern Representations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.