Party Lines: Jugs, Japes and the Generation Gap in Horace Ode 1.27

Anne Hardy

Natis in usum laetitiae scyphis
pugnare Thracum est: tollite barbarum
   morem, verecundumque Bacchum
    sanguineis prohibete rixis.

vino et lucernis Medus acinaces
immane quantum discrepat: impium
   lenite clamorem, sodales,
    et cubito remanete presso.

voltis severi me quoque sumere
partem Falerni? dicat Opuntiae
   frater Megyllae, quo beatus
    volnere, qua pereat sagitta.

cessat voluntas? non alia bibam
mercede. quae te cumque domat Venus,
   non erubescendis adurit
    ignibus ingenuoque semper

amore peccas. quidquid habes, age
depone tutis auribus. a! miser,
   quanta laboras in Charybdi,
    digne puer meliore flamma.

quae saga, quis te solvere Thessalis
magus venenis, quis poterit deus?
   vix illigatum te triformi
    Pegasus expediet Chimaera.

Tankards are born for the service of joy; only Thracians use them as weapons. Take away that barbarian behaviour and bar Bacchus, who is shamed by bloody brawls. 

Where there is wine and lamplight, a Persian dagger is utterly out of place. Quieten down this unholy row, my friends, and stay where you are, resting on an elbow. 

Do you want me to drink my share of sober Falernian? Well then, let Megylla’s brother from Opus tell us by what wound, by what arrow, he perishes, blissfully. 

Does will delay? I shall not drink at any other price! Whatever Venus rules you, don’t blush with the fires she ignites – you always err in amour

Come, whatever you have going on, confide it to safe ears. Ah! You poor fellow, what a great Charybdis you toil in, boy, worthy of a better flame!

What witch, what wizard with Thessalian potions will free you; what god will be able to do that? You are held bound by a three-formed Chimera and even Pegasus will struggle to extricate you.[1]

It is unfashionable to read poetry as autobiography. However, with Horace, it can be said with near certainty that he liked a good party. The grape and its patron deity, Bacchus, appear frequently in his verse, and one of the favourite themes of the Odes is the symposium – the drinking party, whose key elements are conversation, poetic performance and sex.[2] Ode 1.27 covers familiar ground, but its form is unusual. Horace, as “narrator”, performs a dramatic monologue, which unfolds in real time.

Nisbet and Hubbard state that it is “one of the cleverest [poems] that Horace ever wrote”,[3] although they fail to support this assertion. My view is that one of the key reasons that Ode 1.27 is so appealing is that, with skilful deployment of language and structure, it portrays archetypal characters and emotions, so that readers are able, metaphorically speaking, to catch each other’s eyes and to exchange knowing smiles of recognition.

A 4th-century AD statue of Bacchus with vine, panther and predictably empty wine-cup (found in Spoonley Wood, Gloucestershire, UK, and now in the British Museum, London).

In the poem, the “narrator” is at a party. He may have arrived late, like Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, and immediately recognises a gathering that is in danger of veering out of control; one misplaced word and the tankards will start flying. He quickly brushes off those hardened boozers who urge him to make up for lost drinking-time, declaring that, before he joins in, one of the young men present must divulge the name of his new beloved. His chosen victim demurs. The narrator persists. The youth hesitates, but eventually, reluctantly, complies. The narrator then delivers his killer blow – the girl, he proclaims, is a monster. There is no hope. The boy is lost.

Tantalisingly, the poem ends there; the reader never finds out what happens next.

While the subject matter is commonplace, there are a number of factors which raise this vignette to the level of a mini-masterpiece. The first of these is Horace’s literary technique. He is the master deployer of le mot juste, just so. Richard Martin[4] has suggested that, for the reader (or, even better, the listener, as this is a piece which works best when performed), it is like overhearing one side of a telephone conversation. However, this is not strictly true. The text is “complete”, in the sense that it is easy to “fill in the blanks”, as each new question posed illuminates the previous answer. Meanwhile, the reader shares the guilty and compulsive pleasure of the eavesdropper.

Ode 1.27 meets 1.28 in the manuscript made by William Morris in 1875–6 (Oxford Bodleian Library MS Lat. class. e. 38, p.40).

One factor which stops this scenario from playing out as soap-opera is Horace’s use of rhetorical techniques and imagery. In the first two stanzas, he employs high-flown language to evoke, and contrast, “elsewhere”, with its daggers and barbarians, and “here”, where conviviality, wine, comrades and lamplight prevail. As “narrator”, he also appeals to the traditional Roman values of pietas and fides. Bacchus will, apparently, be “shamed” by the company’s bad behaviour, which is implicitly linked to the familiar image of Thracians, brawling in myth – did anyone say “lapiths and centaurs”?

The narrator continues. His tone is reasonable; he urges moderation. This is the familiar voice of the praeceptor amoris and the promotor of the Golden Mean. However, despite his genial persona, the narrator is also a commanding presence: four firm imperatives (tollite, prohibete, lenite, manete) in quick succession make it clear that the rowdy company will do what it is told.

Horace, as depicted by Anton von Werner in 1877.

As the third stanza commences, there is a lightening of mood. Of course, the narrator implies, he will happily join the party, but first… his language turns military. First, he must receive a confidence from someone present who is subject to “arrows”; who “perishes”; who is subject to a “wound”, all because of love. He has now switched to the familiar imagery of the miles amoris, the soldier-lover of lyric poetry, who undertakes campaigns in his pursuit of his beloved.

The two word exclamation cessat voluntas in line 13 marks a turning-point in the poem and a change of pace and tone. All eyes now turn towards the hapless youth, who is nowhere named (tellingly, he is identified only by reference to his sister, the apparently-infamous Megylla).

Bacchus and Silenus, depicted in a fresco from the Villa Boscoreale, Italy, painted around 30 BC, when Horace was active as a poet (now in the British Museum, London).

The price of his participation in the current Bacchanalia, the narrator announces – for all the world as if he were a merchant engaging in negotium – is a confidence. He deftly switches to the familiar imagery of love as fire and the torment of a passion which feels like a punishment from angry gods. Odi, amo, excrucior, indeed.[5] He then changes tone yet again, addressing the boy directly, in wheedling terms. Come, he cajoles, your secret is safe with me.

Once the name of the beloved is revealed, there is a further change of tack. The narrator adopts mythical and mystical terms, conjuring up magicians and sorceresses, as well as Charybdis, the whirlpool, seizer of young hearts. Slender youth loves Venus (flytrap). Then comes the final blow and the stage business at this point must surely include much head-shaking and mock sympathy. The boy is called miser. He is a victim and nothing can save him from – the placement of the fateful term as the very final word of the poem adds to its horror – the chimera with which he has entangled himself.

Two Satyrs, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618/19 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany).

One reason why Ode 1.27 works so well is the universality of the emotions it evokes. Every adult was once an adolescent and will remember that time when everything mattered, desperately, and every emotion ran deep. The narrator’s victim may be nameless and voiceless, but the reader knows exactly how he feels; hugely proud at being included with the grown-ups, but then mortified to find himself publicly quizzed on his most private emotions. We feel for him as he hunts, in vain, for a way out, before realising, with dawning horror, that he is now an object of amusement to those he admires. Older adults will recall, guiltily, those times when they, too, have teased youngsters in the throes of first love.

Much scholarly energy has been expended on trying to identify the inspiration for this poem; some, following the ancient scholiast Porphyrio, have identified an antecedent in Anacreon’s fragment 356(b); others such as Wilkinson have found echoes of Callimachus.[6] However, the antecedents of Ode 1.27 do not really matter. Joyce Grenfell employed the same technique in her 1950s “nursery school” monologues, and no one worried about her sources of inspiration. She reinvented the “dialogue for one” in her own unique way, just like Horace.

The 18.55 BC Classification (courtesy of B.G. Whitfield’s Classical Handbook for Sixth Forms, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1956, 43).

I did not expect to like Horace – “the Emperor’s chubby court jester,” as the teenage Bertolt Brecht would have it. The reason I do, I have concluded, is because he reminds me of my Uncle Brian. Both were bachelors, who inspired affection and admiration in equal measure, seemingly without effort. I gave the eulogy at my uncle’s funeral. I did not dwell on his activities, which sounded slight when recited, but on his character, which was convivial, charming and charismatic. I ended my speech with a mock toast. There followed a faint clink of cufflinks, as two hundred right arms twitched involuntarily in response. Afterwards, we held a big party; everyone got very drunk and there were no fights. Details of Horace’s death are scant, but I expect his friends did the same for him. 

Anne Hardy has just finished a Classics BA at Birkbeck, University of London, and is due to start her Masters in September.

Further Reading

William Fitzgerald’s How to Read a Latin Poem (Oxford UP, 2013) provides a good introduction to Latin poetry for those with little or no Latin. Chapter 3 is devoted to Horace. David West’s series of books on Odes 1-3 (1995–2002) includes, for each poem, the Latin text, an excellent translation, and a lively commentary. The first volume is Horace Odes 1: Carpe Diem (Oxford UP, 1995). Robin Nisbet and Margaret Hubbard’s Commentary on Horace: Odes, Book 1 (Oxford UP, 1970) provides detailed analysis for the more committed Horatian.


1 My translation renders the Latin text of E.C. Wickham’s Oxford text.
2 See, for example, Odes 3.19 and 3.21.
3 R.G.M. Nisbet and M. Hubbard, A Commentary on Horace: Odes, Book 1 (Oxford UP, 1970) 311.
4 “Horace in real time: Odes 1.27 and its congeners,” in M. Paschalis (ed.), Horace and Greek Lyric Poetry (University of Crete Press, Rethymno, 2002) 103–18.
5 From a generation earlier we have Catullus 85: odi et amo. quare id faciam fortasse requiris? / nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior (I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do this? I don’t know – but I feel it happening and I’m utterly tortured.).
6 L.P. Wilkinson, Horace and his Lyric Poetry (Cambridge UP, 1945) 119.