Thursday 9 February 2017

Five Latin Love Poems by Caroline Lawrence

Cupids play music with Apollos instruments
As an excuse to do a bit of Latin translation I thought I’d post five Latin love poems in the run-up to Valentine’s Day. 

The first Latin poem I ever fell in love with is one of the simplest and one of the most famous. It is by Gaius Valerius Catullus who lived in the first century BCE. He’s the one who famously asked Lesbia to give him a thousand kisses and then a thousand more in order to confound the old men. And he wrote about the sparrow. But the poem I fell in love with is this one. In twelve words he sums up a certain type of love affair that every one of us has probably experienced. 

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, nescio. Sed fieri sentior et excrucior. 

I love you and I hate you. 
Why I do this, I have no idea. 
But I feel it happening and I’m in agony. 
[Catullus 85]

Bust of Virgil from his so-called tomb in Naples
My favourite Latin author is Virgil. I especially love his use of colour, sound and movement. Publius Vergilius Maro lived in the late first century BCE but if he were alive today, he’d be making movies. Here’s a bit of love poetry from his masterpiece, the Aeneid. This is the famous scene where beautiful Queen Dido and the handsome Trojan refugee Aeneas are out hunting when a sudden hailstorm drives them to shelter in a cave. As they consummate their relationship the thunder crashes and the nymphs cry out in a tableau that makes me think of the famous scene in From Here to Eternity where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kiss in the crashing surf. 

Like the others this is a fairly free translation:

Speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem
deveniunt. Prima et Tellus et pronuba Iuno
dant signum; fulsere ignes et conscious Aether
conubiis, summoque ulularunt vertice Nymphae. 

Dido and the Trojan leader come together
In the same cave. First Earth and then 
Juno the goddess of marriage
Give permission. Heaven watches the act of love
And illuminates the scene with lightning
And from the highest peak the Nymphs shriek. 
[Virgil Aeneid IV. 165-168]

Fresco from Lake Albano, Italy
Publius Ovidius Naso brings us into the first century CE. Born a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar, he lived during the reign of the first Emperor, Augustus. When he was about fifty, that emperor sent him into exile. Some people think a love poem was what got him in trouble. Or it may have been an adulterous love affair. Or perhaps both. All his surviving poetry is sublime but I chose these first lines of a poem addressed to his friend Atticus because of a wonderful fresco I once saw in a modern palazzo on the shores of Lake Albano near Rome. 

Militat omnis amans, et habet sua castra Cupido: 
Attice, crede mihi, militat omnis amans. 

Every lover does battle, Cupid has his own camp
Believe me, Atticus, every lover does battle.
[Ovid, Amores I.9]

My friend Matt dressed as a Roman
The Latin author I love to hate (and most enjoy reading) is Marcus Valerius Martialis. Martial was writing in the late first century CE, during the reign of Domitian. Many of his poems put me in mind of Sex in the City, Roman-style. He was a loathsome anti-Semitic misogynist, but he could also be funny, perceptive and sensitive. The thing I love most about him is his attention to detail. Nobody else describes the concrete world of ancient Rome as well as he does, certainly not that old sourpuss Juvenal. Many of Martial’s poems are X-rated, but this one is beautiful. It reminds us that at this period of Roman history it was normal for men to desire boys as well as women.

Quod spirat tenera malum mordente puella,
Quod de Corycio quae venit aura croco; 
Vinea quod primis floret cum cana racemis,
Gramina quod redolent quae modo carpsit ovis; 
Quod myrtis, quod messor Arabs, quod sucina trita, 
Pallidus Eoo ture quod ignis olet; 
Gleba quod aestivo leviter cum spargitur imbre,
Quod madidas nardo passa corona comas: 
Hoc tua, saeve puer Diadumene, basia fragrant.
Quid si tota dares illa sine invidia?

Like an apple when a tender girl bites into it, 
Like the perfume that wafts from saffron crocus, 
Or a bright vineyard flowering with new clusters,
Like grass newly nibbled by a lamb,
Like crushed myrtle 
Or the fingers of an Arabian spice collector, 
Like rubbed amber or flaming frankincense,
Like light summer rain on earth
Or a garland resting on hair dripping with nard…
Your kisses, cruel boy, smell of all these. 
Just imagine what they would be like 
If you gave them without holding back. 
[Martial III.65]

bedroom of the Hotel Europeo, Naples
Finally, I want to end with a couple of rare lines written by a female poet. We know of two Roman poetesses named Sulpicia. The later one lived during the reign of Domitian at the end of the first century CE. She was praised by her contemporary Martial as a model Roman wife: sensual but chaste. Two tentatively restored lines survive, here freely translated by me. 

Si me cadurci restitutis fasciis
nudam Caleno concubantem proferat

If you were to untangle the sheets of my marriage bed
You would find me lying nude with my husband Calenus…

And on that sensual but chaste note of conjugal love I wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day!

Caroline writes historical mysteries for kids set in Ancient Rome and the Wild West but has recently retold two stories from Virgil's Aeneid for reluctant or dyslexic teen readers. Try Queen of the Silver Arrow for a tragic love story.


Penny Dolan said...

A fine collection of Roman poems to bring warmth to the heart and the days until the 14th February. Thank you, Caroline.

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