Latin Proverb # 23 – Auribus teneo lupum

Latin proverb: Auribus teneo lupum – Terentius, Phormio 506

English equivalent: To have a tiger by the tail.

Translation: I hold a wolf by the ears.

Meaning & use: This proverb reflects a situation where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Grabbing a wolf’s ears or letting go of them could both end in disaster, so you are in a bit of a tight spot. You use this proverb when you have encountered a problem or a difficulty, but not overcome it. When difficulties are to be encountered whichever way you take.

Terentius himself explains this rather well as he puts these words into the mouth of his character Antipho:

Auribus teneo lupum, nam neque quomodo a me amittam invenio neque uti retineam scio. 

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.”*

Curiosities: According to Suetonius, Caesar Tiberius often used this proverb:

Cunctandi causa erat metus undique imminentium discriminum, ut saepe lupum se auribus tenere diceret

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””** (Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum, Lib.III Tiberius, 25)


* Translation by Henry Thomas Riley. The Comedies of Terence.

** Translation by J. C. Rolfe. Loeb Classical Library. 

Ever held a wolf by the ears? Leave a comment!

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