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Carpe Vinum
March 2015


"Now is the time to drink": Horace's words are familiar even for those who have never read his poetry

Horace is one of the great poets of wine. The famous opening to Odes I.37—"Nunc est bibendum", "now is the time to drink"—supplied the name to a London wine merchant and is familiar to many who perhaps have never read in its entirety the poem in which it occurs. In fact, Horace's poetic use of wine is more varied than at first glance it seems. Wine, and Bacchus the god of wine, make frequent appearances in his poetry—but not always with the positively affable connotations one might expect.

One emphasis to which Horace returns is that wine gives human beings consolation for the transience of their lives, and even that their mortality can be construed as an invitation to enjoy the pleasure of wine. The addressee of Odes II.3, Dellius, is advised to keep an even mind ("aequam . . . mentem") and not to allow either adversity to depress him or success to elate him, since he is doomed to die ("moriture") whether he is morose or cheerful:

seu maestus omni tempore vixeris,
seu te in remoto gramine per dies
                  festos reclinatum bearis
                              interiore nota Falerni.

(Whether you live always sad, or reclining in some hidden grassy spot take pleasure on holidays with some choice Falernian.)

Similarly in Odes II.11 the passing of the capacity for strength and joy and the pressingness of business combine to make relaxed drinking in the shade of a tree the choice of a wise man:

cur non sub alta vel platano vel hac
pinu iacentes sic temere et rosa
               canos odorati capillos,
                      dum licet, Assyriaque nardo
potamus uncti?

(Why not rather drink wine while we still can, reclining under this tall plane or pine in careless ease, our grey hair decked with roses and perfumed with Syrian nard?)

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