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Selections from Ovid's Amores
John Porter, translator


Notice: This translation is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.


On Ovid, see the Course Notes on Ovid (Porter). Links in the following passages are to that discussion.

Amores 1.4

Your husband will be coming to the same dinner party as the two of us:
let it be, I pray, his last!
Am I, then, only to look at my beloved girl, merely another guest?
Is another to delight in your touch?
Will you snuggle in and warm another man's lap? 5
Will he place his hand on your neck, at his will?
No longer marvel that the fair-skinned Thessalian girl [FN 1] led those half-men [FN 2]
to lay down their wine and pick up arms;
My home's not in the woods, I'm not half man, half horse,
yet I feel that I can scarcely keep my hands off you. 10

All the same, learn what you are to do; don't let my words
be borne off by the winds in vain:
Come before your husband does — I've no idea what we might do
if you come before him, but come before him all the same.
When he lies down on the couch and you, his discreet companion, 15
proceed to join him, secretly touch my foot.
Watch me — my nods and my expression will speak reams.
Receive my secret signs and return others of your own.
I'll speak eloquent words with my voiceless eyebrows;
you'll read words in my hand-gestures, others written with wine. 20

Whenever the thought should come to you of our past erotic frolics,
touch your flushed cheeks with your tender thumb.
If there should be anything in my behavior of which you silently disapprove,
let your soft hand dangle from your earlobe.
When what I'm doing or saying shall please you, light of my life, 25
twist your ring around your finger.
Touch the table with your hand the way people praying do
whenever you're wishing ill luck on your all-too-deserving husband.
If he mixes any drinks for you, be prudent and sober: bid him to drink them;
gently ask the serving-boy for any drink you might want. 30
When you return the cup, I'll be the first to take it up
and, where your lips touched, from that part I'll drink.
If by chance he gives you a tid-bit that he has tasted first,
toss it away — it's been sampled by his mouth.
Don't let him put his arms about your neck, 35
and don't place your soft head on his rock-hard chest.
Don't let your lap or your yielding breasts admit his fingers,
and, in particular: no kisses!
If you give him any, I'll openly declare my rights as lover
and will shout, "Those are mine!" and will place legal claim. 40

Such things I can see — but what the covers hide all too well,
that will be a cause of blind terror.
Don't place your leg next to his, or cling to him with your thigh;
don't join your tender foot with his.
— Ah, my fears are many, since I myself have done many such things in the heat of passion:
I'm tormented by my own example. 46
Many a time a hurried delight has worked its sweet magic for
my mistress and me under the coverlet.
You won't do such things... but just so they'll be no misunderstandings,
remove the guilty cloak from off your back. 50
Keep urging your husband to drink (just don't press your pleas with kisses!)
and while he's drinking, secretly add more wine to the mixture if you can.
Once he's well out with sleep and wine,
we'll play it by ear, as the place and circumstances allow.
When you get up to start home and all the other guests are rising, 55
mind that you pass into the midst of the crowd:
In that crowd you'll find me, and I you —
there, whatever of me you can touch, touch.

Ah, wretched me! All my admonitions can avail only for the space of a few hours!
At night's biding I must be separated from my mistress. 60
At night her husband will lock her in while I — miserable, tears flowing —
will follow as far as I can, up to the cruel doorway.
Soon he'll be taking those kisses, and, then, not kisses only;
what you give to me in secret you'll yield to him compelled by law.
But give it against your will (that much you can do) and like one who is forced: 65
let there be no sweet pillow-talk — let your Venus be stingy and ungracious.
If my prayers have any force, I pray that he find no pleasure in it;
or, at the very least, that you find none.
But nevertheless, whatever fortunes the night might bring,
tomorrow deny you gave him anything — and be convincing! 70

[To Course Notes on Ovid]


Amores 1.5

It was hot, and the day had passed its middle hour;
I lay my limbs on the couch, seeking rest.
The window was half open, half closed —
the light was like that which one finds in the woods
when they gleam in half shadow as Phoebus flees before the twilight 5
or when night has departed but day has yet to rise.
Such light is de riguer for girls of a bashful nature:
in it their timorous modesty can hope to find some friendly shadows.

And behold! Corinna comes, veiled in a loosened tunic,
her hair covering her gleaming neck in twin braids. 10
She was like shapely Semiramis [FN 3] entering her bridal chamber,
or Lais, [FN 4] loved by many men.
I ripped off the tunic: it was quite thin and put up little resistance —
all the same, she kept struggling to maintain its shielding cover.
But since she fought like one who has no desire to win, 15
she was defeated without difficulty, betrayed by her own side.
As she stood before my eyes, her clothes cast off,
no blemish appeared in all her body:
What shoulders, what arms did I perceive (and touch!).
The shape of her breasts — so fit for fondling! 20
How flat a stomach below her slender chest!
How long and beautiful a flank! How youthful a thigh!
Why should I mention individual details? I saw nothing not worthy of praise
as I pressed her, nude, up against my body.
As for what followed — who doesn't know that? Worn out, we both sought rest. 25
May many an afternoon turn out for me like that one!


Amores 1.9 [FN 5]

Every lover serves under arms, and Cupid has his own encampments;
Atticus, believe me: every lover serves under arms.
That age that most befits a soldier also is well-suited for Venus:
an old man makes a disgraceful soldier; disgraceful, too, is a senile lover.
Those years that commanders seek in a stout soldier 5
are sought as well by a beautiful girl in the man who is to be her "ally."
Both lie awake nights on watch, both seek repose on the ground:
the one guards the doorway of his mistress, [FN 6] the other that of his commander.
The office of soldier requires lengthy marches; send away his girl,
the hearty lover will follow to the ends of the earth. 10
He will confront opposing mountains and rivers risen high
with rains; he'll wear a way through piled up drifts of snow,
Nor, when required to cross seas, will he plead off, using the turgid storm-winds as excuse,
and await a season more fit for scouring the seas.
Who, other than the soldier and the lover, will endure both 15
the chill of night and snows mixed with sleet?
One is sent amid the hostile enemy as a spy,
the other keeps his eyes fixed on his rival, as an enemy.
That one besieges mighty cities, this one the doorway of his
hard-hearted mistress. That one smashes down city gates, this one doors. 20
Often it is to the soldier's advantage to attack an enemy who is asleep
and with armed hand to slaughter the unarmed throng:
thus did the savage troops of Thracian Rhesus fall,
and you, his horses, captured, deserted your master. [FN 7]
Indeed, lovers take advantage of husbands' sleep 25
and put their own weapons to use while the enemy slumbers!
The soldier's and the wretched lover's task often entails passing through
bands of guards and throngs of watchmen.
War is an uncertain undertaking; no less uncertain is Venus: the vanquished rise again
and those whom you would never think could meet defeat, fall. 30

Therefore, those of you who were wont to equate love with sloth,
cease; love is an undertaking for the enterprising spirit.
Grieving Achilles burns for his stolen Briseis
(shatter while you can the Argive troops, Trojans);
Hector was wont to go to battle out of the embrace of Andromache 35
and it was his wife who would hand him the helmet for his head;
the greatest of commanders, the son of Atreus, [FN 8] is said to have been struck dumb with love
at the sight of Priam's daughter [FN 9] with her hair flying out like that of a Bacchante; [FN 10]
Mars, too, was caught in the act and knew the smithy-god's chains [FN 11]
(no bit of gossip in the heavens was better known). 40
I myself used to be idle, born for careless sloth;
time spent on the couch, beneath the shade, had rendered my spirit soft and flabby.
Now, care for my gorgeous girl has given my idleness a push
and has commanded me to earn my pay in Love's ranks.
Thus you see me, the nimble lover, waging my nightly battles: 45
he who wants to avoid idle sloth, let him fall in love.

[To Course Notes on Ovid]


Amores 1.14

I kept saying, "Quit doctoring your hair!"
Now you have no hair left to doctor!
If you had just left it alone, whose hair was more luxurious,
reaching, as it did, all the way down to your flank?
Yes, and it was fine, so fine that you feared to dress it, 5
fine as the thread in the fabrics the dark-skinned Chinese wear,
or as the web the spider spins with graceful foot
when it weaves its work under a deserted beam.
It was neither dark nor, indeed, golden,
but, although neither, a mixture of both, as it were — 10
the color of the towering cedars in the damp vales
of hilly Ida when their bark is stripped off.
Moreover, it was so pliant, could be trained to hold a hundred curls,
and never caused you any grief whatsoever.
No pin tore it out, no comb's tine, 15
your hairdresser never suffered injury for a mistake:
often, before my eyes, my girl's hair was adorned, nor ever
did she snatch the pin away and wound her beautician's arms.
Often, indeed, in the morning she lay half-reclining on a purple
couch, her hair not yet arranged: 20
even then, in a state of disarray, she was gorgeous, like a Thracian Bacchante [FN 12]
when, worn out, she lies on the green grass, all heedless.

Although her locks were delicate and graceful, like soft down,
still, what tortures they endured, poor things!
How patiently they submitted to the fire and the iron 25
in order that some spiralling series of coils could be contrived!
I kept shouting, "It is criminal — criminal, I say — to burn those locks!
They're pleasing just as they are. Woman of iron, spare your head!
Apply no violence there! It does not deserve to burn!
Your hair itself trains the very pins applied to hold it, not vice-versa!" 30
Now those locks have perished — locks that Apollo,
that Bacchus himself might have wished to adorn his own head.
I would compare them to those in the paintings which Diana, [in her bath,]
is portrayed as lifting in her dripping hands.

Why these complaints, now, that you have lost your hair if it was so intractable? 35
Why, foolish girl, set aside your mirror with sorrowing hand?
It's because your eyes aren't yet accustomed to the reflection they now see:
to find yourself attractive now, you must forget what once you were.
No rival's magic herbs have done you in,
no treacherous old woman has bathed you in Thessalian waters, [FN 13] 40
no disease has laid you low (may my words bring no ill omen!),
nor did some envious tongue cast a spell against your lush locks:
you are confronting a loss caused by your own fault, your very hand —
you yourself kept applying the poison potion to your head.

Now Germany sends to you its captive locks: [FN 14] 45
you'll be whole, but only thanks to the agency of a conquered race.
O, how often you'll blush when someone admires your hair,
as you say to yourself, "I win people's praise by means of bought goods!
Instead of me, he's praising some unnamed Sygambrian [FN 15] woman!
Yet I remember when such praise was mine!" 50

Ah me! She barely can restrain her tears and with her right hand
she hides her face, her unadorned cheeks stained with a blush.
In her lap she holds what once was her hair, staring at it.
Ah me! — it deserves a fitter setting.
But collect yourself, stop your blubbering: the loss is repairable. 55
In a while you'll once again be gazed at and admired for your own hair.

[To Course Notes on Ovid]


Notes

[FN 1] Hippodameia. [Return to text]

[FN 2] The centaurs: a reference to the battle of the Lapiths and the centaurs. At the marriage of Hippodameia and the Lapith king Pirithous, the centaurs got drunk and attempted to molest the bride. The resulting battle was frequently portrayed in ancient Greek and Roman art. [Return to text]

[FN 3] Semi-legendary Assyrian queen, famous for her beauty. [Return to text]

[FN 4] One of two Greek courtesans of the 4th-3rd century, famous for beauty and for her political machinations. [Return to text]

[FN 5] For a recent discussion of this poem see J.C. McKeown, "Militat Omnis Amans," Classical Journal 90 (1995) 295-304. [Return to text]

[FN 6] A reference to the "exclusus amator" — the lover lying woefully before the barred doors of his mistress. (This motif is common in Roman love poetry and is alluded to often in the following lines.) [Return to text]

[FN 7] Rhesus and his men came to join the Trojans against the Greeks. A prophecy foretold that Troy would never fall once Rhesus' horses had grazed on the plain of Troy and drunk from its rivers. On the night of Rhesus' arrival, the Greeks Ulysses (Odysseus) and Diomedes sneaked into the enemy's camp, slaughtered Rhesus and his men as they slept, and stole Rhesus' horses. (Compare the Nisus and Euryalus episode in Aeneid 9.) [Return to text]

[FN 8] Agamemnon. [Return to text]

[FN 9] Cassandra. [Return to text]

[FN 10] A female follower of Bacchus (Dionysus), commonly associated with a state of divine frenzy. [Return to text]

[FN 11] In Homer's Odyssey: Mars (Ares) and Venus (Aphrodite) were detected in an affair by Venus' husband, the smithy-god Vulcan (Hephaestus). The latter set a trap, caught the two of them while in bed together, and invited all the gods to come and enjoy their discomfort. [Return to text]

[FN 12] See above, FN 10. [Return to text]

[FN 13] Thessaly was famous as the center for witchcraft. [Return to text]

[FN 14] I.e. she is wearing a wig made of hair imported from Germany. [Return to text]

[FN 15] A Germanic people. [Return to text]


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Copyright John Porter, University of Saskatchewan, 1995.
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