Auribus teneo lupum: Why Emperor Tiberius and President Thomas Jeffersson both held a wolf by the ears

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Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t?

Proverb for Problems

Auribus teneo lupum, i.e. holding a wolf by it’s ears, as one would express this in Latin reflects encountering a problem or a difficulty that has yet to be overcome. However whichever path you take, whatever you to, difficulties are to be met. The proverb illuminates the fact that sometimes there are no perfect solutions to a problem, sometimes there are no solutions at all.

Antipho’s alternatives

This expression is rather old and we find it already with the Roman playwright Terence who was born ni 195 or 185 B.C. He put the words into the mouth of one of his characters, Antipho, who at the same time did a great job in explaining the proverb itself:

Auribus teneo lupum, nam neque quomodo a me amittam invenio neque uti retineam scio.
— Terentius, Phormio 506

i.e. ”I've got a wolf by the ears; for I neither know how to get rid of her, nor yet how to keep her.” (transl. Riley, 1887)

And, if you’ve ever found yourself holding on to a wolf’s ears you know that you have two options: keeping your hold of the ears or letting them go. You also know that both could very well end in disaster, so you are a in a bit of a tight spot.

Tiberius' troubles

According to the Roman historian Suetonius’ work, De Vita Caesarum, written in 121 A.D, the Emperor Tiberius (reign 14-37 A.D.) often used this expression:

Cunctandi causa erat metus undique imminentium discriminum, ut saepe lupum se auribus tenere diceret. 
— Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum, Lib.III Tiberius, 25

i.e. ”The cause of his hesitation was fear of the dangers which threatened him on every hand, and often led him to say that he was 'holding a wolf by the ears'” (transl. Rolfe, 1914)

Founding Father

To the modern world, this proverb was made famous by none other than Thomas Jefferson.

In a letter to John Holms, dated the 22nd of April 1820, Jefferson discussed slavery and the Missouri question/compromise (admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state to keep the balance in Congress between slave and free states).

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrant Peale, 1800.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrant Peale, 1800.


Jeffersson wrote:

We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.
— Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Holms, April 22, 1820

The 18th of July 1824, Jefferson used the expression again in a letter to the poet Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney, regarding the rights of Native Americans. You can read a transcript of it here.

Jefferson supposedly owned a 1718 edition of Suetonius, so it’s no wonder he used such a fitting expression for his concerns.

Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney, engraving from American Women 1897

Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney, engraving from American Women 1897

So, have you ever tried to hold a wolf by the ears? Or a tiger by the tail, as a more modern version of this proverb goes? No? Good. Don’t. 

Looking for more wolves in proverbs. Learn more about Lupus in fabula here


Henry Thomas Riley, The Comedies of Terence; literally translated into English prose, New York 1887.

Suetonius. Lives of the Caesars, Volume I: Julius. Augustus. Tiberius. Gaius. Caligula. Translated by J. C. Rolfe. Introduction by K. R. Bradley. Loeb Classical Library 31. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914.

The writings of Thomas Jefferson; collected and ed. by Paul Leicester Ford vol X. New York, 1899, p.157-158.

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