In Horace's Odes 1.8, Horace criticizes his ex's new boyfriend by saying, among other things, that:

...olivum sanguine viperino cautius vitat...

which, roughly, means

He avoids olive oil more cautiously than the blood [venom] of a serpent

I'm assuming it's a metaphor, but I don't know what for. Why would avoiding olive oil be seen as a negative quality in a boyfriend?

NB: The rest of the poem is dedicated to saying what an awful boyfriend this new guy is, saying things like "he's weak and pasty", "he's a coward", and "he's an abusive boyfriend". I don't see how tending to avoid olive oil is on par with those things, though.


2 Answers 2


In the classical period, olive oil was considered a must-have piece of equipment for an athlete. The exact details of its use aren't known perfectly, but it appears that it was coated on an athlete's body and then covered with fine sand, in preparation for competition (especially wrestling). This would protect the body, especially from heat.

Athletes in Greece (yes, the original Olympians) were especially common users of the mixture, in a variety of events. Thus, if a person shied away from olive oil like this, it implied that they were cowardly, and not ready for competition. This practice was carried over the Latin-speaking Romans (this history of garlic and olive oil mentions to Roman use) - but Horace may still have been alluding to the Greek practice.

After the competition, special instruments were used to clean off the mixture (one being a strigil, and another being a common sponge). Olive oil use has even made its way into art, as A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity notes (see also the points of general use by Eutruscan athletes).

Source: The Olympic Games in Antiquity

Another important detail is that other translations of that verse exist. One version instead goes

Like poison loathes the oil

Indeed, looking at the passage as a whole, we see many context clues that point out the central idea of sport - some, interestingly enough, references to Greece:

  • What change has made him shun
    The playing-ground, who once so well could bear the dust and sun

  • He who erewhile was known
    For quoit or javelin oft and oft beyond the limit thrown?

    Looks like the boyfriend isn't too manly.

  • WRT context clues -- That's why I assumed it was a metaphor, but I didn't see how it related to anything in the poem.
    – anon
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 23:14

It is easy to forget how different cultural assumptions can be. Nowadays, a bath is for hygienic purposes, and private. For the Romans, though, a visit to the baths was social and cultural; the actual ablutions consisted of rubbing olive oil on the skin and then scraping it off (together with the accumulated dirt and sweat) using a strigil.

So this may be the equivalent of "He's not very fond of soap."

  • Hi, Tim. This is cool; I didn't know Romans used olive oil in the baths. Do you have a source for further reading?
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 0:31
  • @HDE226868: Few of my references are online, I am afraid, even those that are not written on papyrus rolls. But the Wikipedia entry for strigil is a good start (assuming that 'dirt and perspiration' were not applied before bathing). Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 17:56

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