Horace Odes Book 1.37

…fatale monstrum. Quae generosius
perire quaerens nec muliebriter
expavit ensem nec latentis
classe cita reparavit oras,
ausa et iacentem visere regiam 25
voltu sereno, fortis et asperas
tractare serpentes, ut atrum
corpore combiberet uenenum,
deliberata morte ferocior;
saevis Liburnis scilicet invidens 30
privata deduci superbo
non humilis mulier triumpho.


The final three stanzas of Horace’s ode celebrating the fall of Cleopatra are in contrast with the previous denouncements of the enemy and praise of the victor. The atmosphere of these last three stanzas takes on an honorable sound, painting Cleopatra as a worthy adversary. Horace achieves this dramatic shift in tone through the adept use of meter and word placement. This shift leaves the reader with thoughts to ponder: is Horace commending the unnamed queen or, rather, painting her as an admirable, yet dangerous, foe?


The meter drives the effects of these last stanzas. The Alcaic Strophe provides for four lines in each stanza with the first and second lines each pivoting on a caesura. The third line emphasizes three long syllables in the center of the line, while the fourth line reads moderately fast compared to the other three. The first pronounced used of the meter in this selection occurs in “fatale monstrum. Quae generosius” The caesura occurs immediately following monstrum and is marked by a period signifying a major shift in the speaker’s tone. This “doomed monster” may still be doomed, but she has a choice as to how her situation will end. In line 21, she decides to end her life generosius, not as the dove or the hare depicted in lines 17-20. Immediately following in line 22, the caesura marks emphasis on nec muliebriter. The queen handles her death as a man would: neither fearing the dagger, nor seeking escape (nec muliebriter / expavit ensem nec latentis). Poetically ensem nec (l. 23) occupies a metrically significant position; the meter slows down with added emphasis. Although not grammatically connected, the juxtaposition of ensem and nec visually and aurally accents Cleopatra’s masculine actions. Cleopatra is not the frenzied woman in the lines above; reason rules her now. The theme continues in line 26, where the caesura marks the divide between sereno and fortis. Unlike the common perception that women are ruled by their emotions, Cleopatra is painted as serene when viewing her razed kingdom and brave in her choice of death, serpentes (l. 27), which holds the same pivotal position as ensem nec (l. 23). Deliberata continues the thought of a strong Cleopatra. Occupying the first half of line 29 and marked by the pause of the caesura, it shows that the queen rationally reflected on her options and chose the path any true Roman man would have chosen. The emphasis placed by the meter suggests not an effeminate character but one who acts with more masculine traits – one who makes rational decisions without trepidation.


A second significant aspect of the poem is Horace’s word placement. The first example is a form of poetical chiasmus in the structure of line 21. This arrangement uniquely contrasts the “doomed monster” to her “nobler” death. This effect links the previous thought of Augustus bringing Cleopatra to Rome in chains to the fact that Cleopatra still has a choice as to her own fate. Cleopatra may seek a nobler way out, but the deep connection of the construction insists that she still is a monster to be feared by the Roman people. The second example, in line 31, pivots on the only passive infinitive in the poem, deduci. Cleopatra is to be led down deprived of her regal position, privata, but she is still non humilis mulier – willing to stand up to men. The placement of triumpho in the last line cannot be read connected with Cleopatra; rather the last word of the poem should be read with Augustus in mind. He has proudly triumphed over the non humilis queen seeking to destroy Rome.


Horace attacks Cleopatra throughout the poem, except for the last three stanzas. This should not lead the reader to confirm that Horace has gone soft on Cleopatra and praises her as a martyr. By improving her status in the last three stanzas, Horace improves her stance as the conquest of Augustus. Cleopatra’s only noble action is dying as a Roman would. Looking on her burning city is only a desperate acceptance of reality. She took the chance to challenge the princeps of the greatest city and failed; her only hope is to view reality for what it is. Does Horace attempt to make the reader empathize with Cleopatra? The answer is no. She made her choice and lost. Does he seek to paint her as an admirable opponent? The answer is yes. A noble warrior always seeks to fight the greatest champion in battle to gain the greatest honor; Horace portrays Augustus to be the nobler of warriors.

Devin Reid