A combination of drinking song, victory ode, and political manifesto, Odes 1.37, the Cleopatra ode, is a celebration of Cleopatra VII’s defeat by the forces of Octavian and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in 31 b.c.e. It is also another example of Horace’s ability to combine diverse themes and poetic genres in an interesting way. While the poem begins with a simple invitation to drink in celebration of the Roman victory, the tone of the work gradually becomes more serious as the work progresses. Cleopatra is first presented as a queen plotting mad destruction for the Capitoline Hill (line 37), then as an accursed monster (fatale monstrum, line 21), then as “no submissive woman” (non humilis mulier, line 32) but a queen who preferred death to humiliation. There is, in the end, a grudging admiration by Horace for Cleopatra’s heroism, even though she had been an enemy to the Roman people.
Marc Antony, who had been defeated along with Cleopatra, is not mentioned. (He had been similarly ignored in Octavian’s declaration of war against Cleopatra.) Horace does not think it suitable to revel in the defeat of Antony, a fellow Roman citizen. Nevertheless, Antony’s presence is felt throughout the poem in the frequent references to wine and drunkenness. Before the battle, Octavian, Cicero, and others had attempted to depict Antony as a drunk. The poem’s structure as a drinking song, its references to Caecuban and Maeotic wine, and its (historically inaccurate) image of Cleopatra as inebriated at the battle are all attempts to remind the reader indirectly of Antony.
The meter of the work is borrowed from the Greek lyric poet Alcaeus, who also wrote drinking songs and victory odes. The repetition of the word “now” (nunc) three times in the opening line established an immediacy as though a great threat, long impending, has only now been removed. In addition to the imagery of drunkenness and wine, symbolism of the hunter (Octavian) and hunted (Cleopatra) appears throughout the work. Cleopatra fled, Horace suggests, from the pursuit of Octavian; but when death proved inescapable, she met it nobly as befits a queen.