Insanire Iuvat - 'It's Good to Go Nuts'

Alcoholic Genius
Horace and Wines in the Odes
Pat Tanzola
Latin 311
For prof: Ross S. Kilpatrick
Fall 1999

balnea vina Venus corrumpunt corpora nostra, sed vitam faciunt balnea vina Venus

-Roman poem-fragment found inscribed in stone (Griffin, 89)

potabis: ‘you will drink deeply’
-Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Ode 1.20.3)

Those upper class Romans loved a wild party, and Horace was no exception, so the story goes. Wine, long associated with images of Bacchic revelry--the “eat-drink-and-be-merry” of the Epicurean cliche--indelibly stains the Horatian verse with its ubiquitous alcoholic presence: in Odes III alone, seventeen of the thirty poems (odes 1, 4, 6, 8, 12-19, 21, 23, 25, 28-29) contain references, allusions, and even (in Ode 3.21) prayers to wine and drinking. Indeed, the Horace novice begins to wonder whether the poet was in need of a twelve-step program, for wine is so noticeable a weapon in Horace’s poetic arsenal, used (abused?) in a scope and style unlike any other Roman poet. Upon a more sober examination of the Odes, however, the sensitive reader becomes aware that Horace uses wine for reasons deeper than merely boorish expression of his hedonistic habits (as they are alleged to be). The famous drinking-party or convivium (‘living together’) is not exclusively an end in itself in the Odes; more often drinking serves Horace as a point of departure, from which he may tackle any number of topics—love, friendship, politics, philosophy, morality, and so on. Horace was no chaste monk, but above he all preached the Golden Mean (Harrison, 6) of moderation. He uses wine by way of example, reproaching its over-indulgence as well as praising its pleasures. Wine was also a prominent theme in the work of Greek poets such as Alcaeus. It was the Greek style that Horace reinvented in Latin, and to which he paid homage in his symposiastic (from Greek symposium or ‘drinking together’, equivalent to a Roman convivium) odes; as an attonitus vates (‘inspired bard’) of Bacchus, wine was a key part of his ambitious poetical stylization. Drinking and the appreciation of wine, then, is a poetical framework, an aspect of Roman life whose manifold aspects and subtle nuances—including not only orgiastic fever but also relaxed conversation between friends--Horace explores to the fullest in his role as poet.

The Romans had a bad reputation for indulging in drink and losing control. Expensive wines, perfumes and flowers were “characteristic features of the voluptuary’s convivium”; these parties were synonymous with alcoholic excess (Edwards, 187). Drunken brawling was instilled in the literature: Ovid’s Metamorphoses include scenes of centaurs and lapiths braining each other with massive wine bowls. The Romans were blithely self-aware of their alcohol-soaked excess. Many contemporary writers, such as Seneca, denounced convivia as the settings for prodigal consumption, and wine as the prime instigator (Griffin, 86). In a famously hilarious Phillipic, Cicero tore into Antony’s wine-soaked atrocities:
Let us speak instead of the nastiest kind of vulgarity. You, with that gorge of yours, that stomach, that body as strong as a gladiator’s, had consumed so vast a quantity of wine at the wedding of Hippias that you had to vomit in the sight of the assembled Roman people the following day—a scene disgusting to behold—even to hear about! If this had occurred in the middle of one of your drinking-bouts, even then, who would not consider it shameful? Yet in a gathering of the Roman People, while engaged in public business, the Master of the House—in whom belching would be most indecorous—vomited, spilling fragments of food, stinking of wine, into his own lap and over the whole tribunal.
(Cicero Phil 2.63—from Edwards, 191-192)

Horace himself acknowledges this capacity of wine for incapacitation, noting rixarum metuens…Gratia (3.19.16)—‘the Graces fear brawling’. Wine was the companion of both love (Veneris sodali/ vina craterae –3.18.6-7) and witty conversation, but at the other end of the symposiastic spectrum lurked riotous quarreling and sexual jealousies (rixam et insanos amores –3.21.3), ever-dangerous beneath the surface of any party. Wine and debauchery went hand in hand, and the Romans were not necessarily proud of this fact.

And yet, by Horace’s time, appreciation of wine was something of an art form, which brought an air of distinction to the wine-lover. In the late Republic, the systematic specialization of knowledge spilled over from areas like philosophy and law onto the supper table, resulting in an increased connoisseurship of food and drink (Edwards, 203). In his encyclopediae Pliny the Elder devoted an entire book to wines (Griffin, 65); even the strict Cato was said to be quite knowledgeable on the subject: “narratur et prisci Catonis/ saepe mero caluisse virtus” (3.21.11-12). Wine could be appreciated without the noisy accompaniment of the convivium. Heightened awareness of the differences between vintages helped raise the wine-jar above the level of low debauchery, to the level of haute-couture.

Of Roman poets, it is above all Horace who speaks of wines with a most comfortable sophistication. The elegiac poets, such as Catullus, do not display an expertise in this area; Asclepiades and Meleager never mention wines by name; the epic writer Virgil is just as sparing—“wine snobbery was not appropriate at all levels of poetry”(Griffin, 67). This makes Horace’s knowledge of vintage, demonstrated throughout his body of work, all the more compelling: “he mentions the Falernian fifteen times, seven times the Caecubean, six times the Chian…” (Griffin, 66). Horace is unduly paranoid about wine: he worries that Spartacus has destroyed all the fine bottles from the Marsian War (see 3.14.18-20)—as though Spartacus’ chief concern were drinking. Indeed, no one (and certainly not Spartacus) can match Horace as arbiter bibendi: he knows how to store the wine (amphorae fumum bibere institutae –3.8.11), how to dilute and heat the wine (aquam temperet ignibus –3.19.6) and how to make a toast. In making the toasts, he even makes correct use of the genitive case, with sume…amici/ sospitis (3.8.13) and da lunae…da noctis…da auguris Murenae (3.19.9-11) representing holdovers from corresponding Greek ‘toasting’ expressions (Williams-1969, 72). Horace was a lyric poet; lyric poetry was traditionally supposed to be written to accompany musical performance at parties, where, after all, there would have been drinking (Williams-1969, 8). This alone, however, does not account for Horace’s peculiar fondness for wine.

Enemies of Horace might have said that he was just “a ‘fat little hedonist with a knack for writing verse’” (Harrison, 109). Horace’s refined urbanity, exemplified by his thorough knowledge of the wine-cask, is marred by fits of regression into ‘debauchery’: he is all-to-ready to quaff the contents of said cask! Horace is apparently an anomaly among Roman poets, an alcohol-obsessed over-indulgent lush, who brags about the proper amounts for drinking (Connor, 144). After demanding three times the normal amount of wine (ternos ter cyathos –3.19.15), the poet exclaims in a fit of convivial swashbuckling: “insanire iuvat”—‘it’s good to go nuts’ (Minadeo, 92). Wine brings oblivion. In the pia testa ode, Horace praises, with blasphemous reverence, the ‘powers’ of the holy wine-jar: wine may bring querelas… iocos… rixam…insanos amores…facilem somnun (3.21.2-4). He mentions his notable friend Massala Corvinus, but only with respect to Corvinus’ obedience to the bottle of wine (3.21.9-10), an obedience that Horace shares with relish. His immediate reaction to a piece of good news or the arrival of a friend is to lay out a party with plenty of wine and laughter (Harrison, 109). Ode 2.27 provides a most explicit example:
The throw of the dice will decide who is to see to the wine. I intend to rave like a Bacchante. Now that I’ve got my friend back, I’m all for an orgy.
(2.27.25-28, as quoted by West, 132)
Horace was an extrovert who enjoyed life to the fullest!

It would be a mistake, however, to attempt to understand Horace and his wines solely from this libidinous perspective. There are noticeable cracks in his hedonistic fa├žade. Keep in mind that Horace (who lived 65-8 B.C.), was approaching middle age at the time of the Odes (book III was published in 23 B.C—he would have been forty-two). Though a reveler in his youth, he was mellowing, just like Corvinus’ languidiora vina (3.21.8). While he does order up the usual celebration upon Augustus’ return from Spain, he won’t cause a fuss if his girl Neaerae won’t come; should there be a problem in procuring her, his slave is given instructions to leave (“abito” 3.21.20). After all, sighs Horace, “lenit albescens animos capillus/ litium et rixae cupidos protervae” (3.21.21-26). In ode 8 at the gathering between Horace and Maecenas, there is a similar air of moderation. Though the party will last till dawn, Horace bids “procul omnis esto/ clamor et ira” (3.8.15). Sellar comments that Horace “in his maturer years had no greater enjoyment than that of honest talk and wholesome wine with an old friend” (Sellar, 173). There is no ‘insanity-provoking mechanism’ ascribed to the enjoyment of wine here.

Horace actually deplores undue excess. There is an instinct for moderation about Horace that raises him above the level of the lowly pleasure-seeker (Chapman, 134). Most notable in Odes III is his treatment of that vetula Chloris, whom he admonishes: poti…faece tenus cadi (3.15.16) are not appropriate a woman of her age. Horace paints a “hideous picture” of Chloris, “devoid of any sympathy” (Connor, 187). In the sixth Roman Ode, attacks the adulterous immorality of women at drinking-parties (inter mariti vina--3.6.24) as an emblem of the general breakdown of order. Readers may feel it is hypocritical of Horace, he a bachelor and veteran of many love-affairs (“militavi non sine gloria”—3.26.2), to take such a stance. As Harrison points out, however:

his affairs with [Greek] courtesans…don’t prevent him from honestly
deploring the fact that Roman matrons should imitate such women (Harrison, 13)

Horace was Poet Laureate of Rome. It is hard to imagine Augustus entrusting the role of moral mouthpiece for the reformed Roman State to a mere libertine. Horace said “rectius vives”—‘may you live more correctly’. While he dabbled in Stoicism and especially in Epicureanism—whose highest good is the absence of pain—Horace above all believed in the Golden Mean of Aristotle, that the best path to take in life is the one between two extremes. Excessive recklessness and ostentation are to be avoided. The weak hedonism of the party ethos becomes stronger when emphasis is put on death and the uncertainty of life (Williams-1972, 73), but even precious Falernian wine will not soothe a man who is troubled at heart (3.1.43). So Horace’s most famous phrase, “carpe diem” (1.11) is not an alcohol-soaked carte-blanche.

Having given credit to Horace for his ethical scruples, the reader must abandon the narrowly-conceived formula that, in his poetry, wine equals joyous revelry. The equation has more variables. This results in a very complicated situation for the critic. For surely there are some traces of Horace’s mad playful youth in the Odes—ode 28, a joyous exhortation to symposiastic preparation, seems to affirm this alone. And yet, Sellar claims Horace was “neither an ardent lover nor an intemperate reveller” (Sellar, 168), and that he was the least serious of all the love poets. He certainly does lack the passion of, say, a Catullus, who said to his lover “odi et amo”—‘I love you and I hate you’. As a rule, Horace does not go to extremes. Love, like wine, is to be enjoyed, but not overdone. Horace mentions so many girls—Chloe, Lydia, Lycus, Phyllis, etc.--that “it is doubtful if he was deeply attached to any of his girlfriends” (Harrision, 62). As he is a connoisseur of wine, so is Horace a connoisseur of women.

Horace obviously had other reasons for making so many references to wine, apart from the fact that he was a wine-connoisseur. Sellar explains the ubiquity of wine in the Odes via the influence of the Greek poets: “love and wine were favourite themes of Horace’s prototypes” (Sellor, 168). Fraenkel agrees: songs about “banquets…prayers, and invocations” are Greek in derivation (Fraenkel 168). For example, there is Alcaeus, who was a particularly important model for Horace:
The convivia and the drinking of wine are important for the composition of
[Horace’s] poems. His model in his lyric poetry is Alcaeus, and Alcaeus
sang constantly of wine. (Griffin, 76)
Eleven of the thirty poems in Odes III are in the Alcaic metre. Odes 8, 14, 17, 19, 21, 28, 29 are all symposium poems (Williams-1972, 25), based at least partially on the Greek style.
Horace truly admired the Greeks; he longed to take their poetic conventions and make them his own. The pia testa ode, in all its irreverence, is an imitation of a Pindaric invocation in a form “instantly recognizable” (West, 93) to the Romans and Greeks. Horace brags that he is princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos deduxisse modos, the ‘first to spin Aeolian poetry to Italian rhythms’ (3.30.13-14, as translated by Williams-1972, 150). Drinking was an important factor in Greek poetry; therefore wine takes on a stylistic role in Horace, above and beyond Horace’s own purported hedonism. Wine provides a welcome ‘stage prop’ for Horace to use in giving advice to Maecenas in odes 8 and 29, to discuss political themes in ode 14 (as well as odes 8 and 29), and to talk of love-making in ode 28. Food is noticeably absent from the Odes, though most would agree food is just as necessary to a life of pleasure. Though Horace is known for his love of wine, the fact that drinking (and not eating) is the chosen poetic fashion to broach upon themes such as the shortness of life, love, friendship, and politics is not his invention: “the higher genres, not only lyric but also elegy, were happy to accept mention of drinking, but would not allow discussion of food” (Griffin, 81-82). Wine is an objective poetic entity. Whether the theme is serious or not, everything the poet has to say, both his private and public utterances, can be versified in relation to how they impinge upon the setting of music and drinking (Griffin, 78). Wine is part of the Greek style, and Horace adopts it into his own style.

In accordance with this, Horace deals with the theme of his poetic inspiration in conjunction with wine. If Horace lacked passion (and albescens…capillus certainly supports this view), then what about the Dionysian fervour of ode 25 (Dionysus is the Greek equivalent of Bacchus)? What does it mean when Horace invokes the Wine-God (Lenaee means ‘God of the Winepress’ –3.25.19) for inspirational help? Horace claims that he sees Bacchus; that he is mad with poetic frenzy: “quo me, Bacche, rapis tui/ plenum” (3.25.1-2). Is he being literal? Fraenkel is quite credulous: “I think Horace means what he says. He did see Dionysus” (Fraenkel, 200). This stance, however, does not fit the portrait of Horace in the Odes. The Odes are “the mature and deliberate work of a man whose locks were turning grey” (Chapman, 97). The statement that (in a supposed inspirational frenzy) he had seen the Wine-God must have been the result of a calculated poetical motive. The Dionysian vision is a clear case--unusual for Horace--where the poet and the man, Q. Horatius Flaccus, seem to be starkly separate people. Typically, it would seem Horace’s 'own personality' burns through his verses: Horace is so adept at portraying a believably autobiographical character in his poems, that lazy critics are apt to always interpret his verse in this way. Horace the man was a wine-lover, and he wrote a lot about wine. From one perspective this is unsurprising; from another perspective, this is a happy but completely unnecessary coincidence, and the Odes reaps the benefits of it. Unfortunately, the poet sometimes has to use a little bit of creative exaggeration, to say the least, and this is the case with the Dionysian vision. Was Horace really serious about Bacchus’ ability to inspire him to write great and original poetry (“dicam insigne recens adhuc/ indictum ore alio” –3.25.7-8), all via the wine grape? Probably not. Otherwise there would be a Horace in every dumpster, not begging for change but writing verse instead.

Horace may have been too moderate to take much of life (including Bacchic frenzies) seriously, but he was dead set on one issue: his own poetic greatness. Horace believed, after the fashion of the Epicureans, that the only thing capable of surviving death and possessing immortality is fame (Harrison, 7). In the first line of the last ode of book III he claims with bravado “exegi monumentum aere perennius” (3.30.1)—alas, it’s not bragging if it’s true. Horace gives a nod to the Greeks for their help, but Greek metres carry him only so far; despite their influence, Horace’s poetry will be totally original. Horace is sacerdos musarum (3.1.3), and he claims that he can only fulfill his poetic role with divine inspiration. Bacchus was the god to hear his requests, the god not only of wine, but of poetic fever and originality (Williams-1969, 130), the Muse whose inspiration is like madness. Only in the extraordinary frame of mind that is akin to drunkenness, Horace writes, will he do justice to the grand and perilous theme of Augustan poetry. The image of Bacchus is a figurative link to Horace’s impassioned claim (perhaps his only impassioned claim) of supreme poetic status:
…it is a metaphor, sanctioned by long literary usage, for something which
the poet was anxious to say: that he really was a great lyric poet; an
Alcaeus, a Pindar. (Griffin, 75)
Thus, poetic greatness does indeed go hand in hand with drunkenness.

Horace squeezes a tremendous amount of poetry of out his wine-press, both in quantity and in quality; book III is another classic vintage. If every nuance of drinking and appreciation of wine could flow through a poet’s oeuvre, Horace is the prime example in Roman poetry. Yes, Horace was an extrovert hedonist in his youth and even into his old age. The role that wine plays in his verse is nonetheless subtle, and understated, in spite of its prevalence. In Odes III, Horace, after the manner of the Greek symposium, uses the forum of drinking as a framework for poems of any flavour: “an invitation to a friend can promise a party…rational hospitality can rebuke the vices of age...its reverse brings…the orgy” (Griffin, 77). Whether he uses down-to-earth directness or stylized allusion, the poet meets with and expresses his themes over a cup of wine, poem after poem. Hence it is really no surprise that Horace (in 3.21) sings an entire prayer to a wine-jar as though it were a god: wine has helped Horace become famous, and one should always thank the gods when they are propitious.


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