Best Wine Poems: Ode 1.37 by Horace

This poem marks the death of Cleopatra.

© Shutterstock


This poem marks the death of Cleopatra.

© Shutterstock

“Wine is bottled poetry”, said Robert Louis Stephenson. But poetry returns the favour, capturing the mysterious yet earthy essence of wine and its capricious effect on human equilibrium. Across the millennia and around the world, poets have drunk deep, inspired to moods of celebration, reflection, devotion and antagonism. Here is one of the five finest poems written about wine.

Ode 1.37, Horace

Nunc est Bibendum, nunc pede libero

pulsanda tellus…”

There are times when pouring that glass of wine isn’t so much about convivial leisure but an act of patriotism. “Now we must drink,” commands the Roman poet Horace in this explicitly political ode to mark the death of Cleopatra in 30BC. The final defeat of this Egyptian queen and her lover, Mark Anthony, marked not only the removal of a major foreign threat but also the end of decades of civil war.

“…antehac nefas depromere Caecubum

cellis avitis…”

Now Horace urges his fellow Romans to celebrate the glorious new era of peace and prosperity under Caesar Augustus – and wine takes its place at the heart of these celebrations. “It would have been wrong before today to broach the Caecuban wine from ancestral cellars,” he notes, a reference to the most coveted fine wine of his day, thought to have been produced near the coast of Lazio between Rome and Naples.

“…mentemque lymphatam Mareotico…

Meanwhile, Horace depicts Cleopatra, “the maddened queen”, as suffering “frantic thoughts, bred by Maerotic wine.” Clearly he expects his reader to be familiar with this Egyptian wine region, on the shores of Lake Mareotis – modern-day Lake Mariut – close to Alexandria. Fellow writers of this era, including Strabo, Pliny the Elder and Catullus, all praised the quality of these wines, which were widely regarded as worth laying down.

“…tractare serpentis, ut atrum

corpore combiberet venenum…”

In her final moments, of course, it is not wine that Cleopatra drinks but “black poison”. While Rome drinks in jubilation, the poet ends his ode in a more sombre tone, graciously acknowledging the fierce bravery of this defeated foreign queen, who chooses death rather than be paraded as “a lowly woman led in proud triumph.”