Carpe Vinum

Horace, the great poet of wine

Classics Language Philosophy Wine
"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?)

A further incitement to drink which is connected to our mortality is the galling thought (as Odes II.14 explains) of who will drink our carefully-cellared wine after we are gone, and also perhaps how it will be drunk—that poem ends by imagining a worthier (“dignior”) heir who breaks open the cellar of the dead Postumus and floods the pavement with wine more glorious than that drunk at the feasts of the pontiffs (“pontificum potiore cenis”). The only way to guard against that miserable prospect is, of course, to leave no wine behind.

Is Horace then simply a cheery old soak? That there is more to his appreciation of wine than mere hedonism is suggested by poems in which a certain simple directness towards wine is associated with the quality of Roman-ness.

For instance, Odes I.20 begins by inviting Horace’s patron Maecenas to join him in drinking cheap Sabine wine served in common tankards (“Vile potabis modicis Sabinum / cantharis”), but which is at least wine of his own making, sealed on a day of giddy triumph for Maecenas when he was acclaimed in the theatre. This short, enigmatic poem ends by contrasting the choice contents of Maecenas’s cellar—Caecuban from Southern Latium and wine from the famous presses of Cales (“prelo . . . Caleno”), a town in Campania.

Might Horace not be whispering to his patron, rather in the manner of the slave in the chariot of a triumphing Roman general, that he should allow his current glory neither to make him forget his common humanity, nor to prevent him from enjoying rough but healthy Sabine home-brew?

To be too picky about wine, to crave unusual liquors, is for Horace to be un-Roman. The great ode on the fall of Cleopatra (I.37), that which begins “Nunc est bibendum”, invokes wine not just as a way of celebrating victory, but also as a way of discriminating between national characters. Horace begins by inviting his fellow Romans to celebrate Augustus’s success at Actium with drink and dancing—now is the time to sacrifice that fine Caecuban you have been keeping for a special day:

antehac nefas depromere Caecubum
cellis avitis, dum Capitolio
        regina dementis ruinas,
            funus et imperio parabat.

(Before today it would have been wrong to bring out our Caecuban from its ancient bins, while a demented queen was plotting to ruin the Capitol and destroy the empire.)

But what has made Cleopatra mad (“dementis”)? Horace goes on to say that she is drunk with Fortune’s favours (“fortunaque dulci / ebria”), and figures the aftermath of Actium for Cleopatra as like waking up after binge-drinking on exotic but dangerous beverages:

mentemque lymphatam Mareotico
        redegit in veros timores
            Caesar, . . .

(Caesar made a mind maddened by Mareotic wine focus on fearful actuality.)

Mareotic was a rarity of the ancient world, wine which had undergone a secondary fermentation in the heat of the city of Marea in Lower Egypt. Caesar’s victory at Actium is a more brutal version of the bowls of rough Sabine that Horace offers to sober up the similarly intoxicated Maecenas.

For wine is a gift from the gods, and as such its enjoyment must not preclude respect, and even reverence. When Bacchus appears in Horace’s odes, it is not as some riotous boon companion, but as a lover of what is seemly, and as a remote and even strangely austere figure, glimpsed from afar on distant crags (“in remotis . . . rupibus”).Nor is he a figure of self-indulgence, but rather of justice and resolve. In Odes III.3 Horace praised the just man who adheres to his purpose (“Iustum et tenacem propositi virum”) but then—perhaps to our surprise—offers Bacchus as the divine pattern of just such a man:

hac te merentem, Bacche pater, tuae
vexere tigres, indocili iugum
        collo trahentes; . . .

(It was for these merits, Father Bacchus, that your tigers drew you, bearing the yoke on their wild neck . . .)

Although Horace could at times say that he loved to get wildly drunk (“insanire iuvat”), his poetry in general points away from that, and associates wine more with a kind of informal ceremoniousness.