Ode 1:37 on the Death of Cleopatra – A poem by Horace

A. CONTEXT

On the Life and Name of Cleopatra 

Cleopatra VII Philopator (Greek: Κλεοπάτρα Φιλοπάτωρ; 69-30 BC), known to history simply as Cleopatra, was the last active ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, briefly survived as pharaoh by her son Caesarion. After her reign, Egypt became a province of the recently established Roman Empire. Her title in Greek philopátōr means the one who loves the father. On the etymology of her given name wikipedia informs Cleopatra is derived from the Greek name Κλεοπάτρα (Kleopatra) which meant “she who comes from glorious father” or “glory of the father” in the feminine form, derived from κλέος (kleos) “glory” combined with πατήρ (pater) “father” (the masculine form would be written either as Kleopatros (Κλεόπατρος), or Patroklos (Πάτροκλος). She was a member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty who ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. Unlike her Ptolemaic predecessors who spoke Greek only; Cleopatra also learned the Egyptian language. She married her biological brother which was custom but didn’t produce any offspring until she met Julius Caesar.

B. THE POEM

Horace on Cleopatra and his Ode

Horace or Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC. –  8 BC), was on of the most famous Roman poets. He achieved great fame through his Odes [Carmina] but wrote also in Hexameter. He’s considered to be the first person who wrote an autobiography since he talks so much about himself through his poetry. According to English wikipedia: “Horace left Rome, possibly after his father’s death, and continued his formal education in Athens,[…] The Academy was now dominated by Epicureans and Stoics, whose theories and practises made a deep impression on the young man from Venusia.” The Odes were developed as a conscious imitation of the short lyric poetry of Greek originals – Pindar, Sappho and Alcaeus are some of Horace’s models.

The poem is a praise and celebration over the defeat of Cleopatra who comitted suicide and Egypt was then taken over by the Roman Empire. The news of her death likely reached Horace in Rome in the Autumn 30 BC. There are many interpretations of this poem. I quote John Cornington’s interpretation of Ode 1:37, published for the first time in 1882:

Now drink we deep, now featly tread
A measure; now before each shrine
With Salian feasts the table spread;
The time invites us, comrades mine.

‘Twas shame to broach, before today,
The Caecuban, while Egypt‘s dame
Threaten’d our power in dust to lay
And wrap the Capitol in flame,

Girt with her foul emasculate throng,
By Fortune’s sweet new wine befool’d,
In hope’s ungovern’d weakness strong
To hope for all; but soon she cool’d,

To see one ship from burning ‘scape;
Great Caesar taught her dizzy brain,
Made mad by Mareotic grape,
To feel the sobering truth of pain,

And gave her chase from Italy,
As after doves fierce falcons speed,
As hunters ‘neath Haemonia’s sky
Chase the tired hare, so might he lead

The fiend enchain’d; she sought to die
More nobly, nor with woman’s dread
Quail’d at the steel, nor timorously
In her fleet ships to covert fled.

Amid her ruin’d halls she stood
Unblench’d, and fearless to the end
Grasp’d the fell snakes, that all her blood
Might with the cold black venom blend,

Death’s purpose flushing in her face;
Nor to our ships the glory gave,
That she, no vulgar dame, should grace
A triumph, crownless, and a slave.

Sources

Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace. John Conington. trans. London. George Bell and Sons. 1882.

For the Latin version of Horace’s ode; published by wellesley.edu, please visit this link.

wikipedia.org [various entries].

Cleopatra portrayed worshipping with her son Caesarion, carvings on the Dendera temple.
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