Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Ruthless Conquerer

Omnia vincit amor has a place alongside veni vidi vici and cogito ergo sum as one of the Latin phrases that everyone knows. Which isn’t surprising: “Love conquers all” is, after all, a joyous thought. By the popular understanding, it suggests that no matter what obstacles the world throws up, relationships founded on true love will always succeed. Think Romeo and Juliet, whose protagonists go to the grave together in happy defiance of society. Or Pride and Prejudice, in which Darcy and Elizabeth take a saw to the musty conventions of the Regency gentry.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with interpreting the sentence this way; it just happens not to be what it originally meant. In its proper context, it’s awfully disquieting. It comes from Virgil’s tenth Eclogue, in which Gallus, an Arcadian shepherd, sings about Lycoris, a woman who has married someone else and gone away to frozen Germany. He says (Ecl. X.57ff.):

Iam mihi per rupes videor lucosque sonantis
Ire; libet Partho torquere Cydonia cornu
Spicula; tamquam hæc sit nostri medicina furoris,
Aut deus ille malis hominum mitescere discat!

Iam neque Hamadryades rursus nec carmina nobis
Ipsa placent; ipsæ rursus concedite, silvæ.
Non illum nostri possunt mutare labores…
Omnia vincit Amor: et nos cedamus Amori.

And in my prose translation:

I seem to wander through rocks and whistling groves,
and to enjoy shooting Cydonian arrows from a Parthian bow,
as if these were cures for my madness;
as if this god could be persuaded to soothe human ills!
Nor wood-elves, nor songs themselves
are pleasant to me anymore: farewell, ye woods!
My sufferings can never sway Him,
for Love conquers everything: let us yield to Love. 

For one reason or another, people don’t tattoo all eight of these lines onto their skin. But if they did, it would be clear to them that Virgil is not mouthing the comforting platitude that they’re familiar with. He is, to be sure, stating a platitude, but it’s an ancient, not a modern platitude, which makes it far more interesting. A little bit of exposition is required to make what Virgil meant clear.

Gallus is not talking about reciprocated love, a theme that comes up only rarely in ancient poetry. His beloved is beyond the known world, and she is obviously gone forever. But love for her still holds him fast: no activity can distract him from his sorrow. In the same way Polyphemus languishes in doomed love for the sea-nymph Galatea: born as a hideous cyclops, there is nothing that he can ever do to sow affection into her heart. The same goes for Corydon in the second Eclogue.

This sort of love was as pointless in the 1st century BC as it is now, because it always leads to nothing. But where the experience is sublime to us, it was literally divine to the Greeks and Romans. The ancients, that is, saw love as an attack by a heavenly being. This is not a metaphor: Love was in fact a god, or at least a numinous creature of some sort, whom the Greeks called Erôs and the Latins Amor or Cupido. (A “great demon” is what the priestess Diotima calls Love in the Symposium.) The point is that love was not a strictly internal affect. It was an encounter with an external, cosmic force. By no means was this a benevolent force—just like the rest of the cosmos’ real rulers, it was by turns blind, indifferent, strangely beautiful, and evil.

It’s tricky to know sometimes when the ancients are talking about amor the feeling and Amor the god. (Making it trickier, the Latins and Greeks made no distinction between capital and small letters, so it’s hard in general to tell when they’re referring to a concept or its divine personification.) And certainly, even the atheists of Virgil’s day were capable of appropriating old religious language to lend pathos to their prose or poetry. But the fact that this religious language was available in the first place is a mark of the ancient mind’s tendency to see gods and demons behind every phenomenon. This instinct lingered far into the Christian era—and still exists in pockets today.

“Love conquers everything,” sings Gallus: “let us yield to Love.” This is not an encouragement to lay other business aside in order to enjoy true love. It is a statement of fatalist resignation. To Virgil’s shepherd, Love is an unmovable, unpitying god: and instead of opposing that god, he resigns himself to enslavement. The only alternative is a life haunted by false hope.

The comedian Cæcilius Statius is our last spokesman for the ancients:

“Whoever thinks that Love is not the highest god
is either stupid or knows nothing of life.
For Love can drive anyone he lists mad
and make one wise, another insane, and another sick.
He decides who will be loved, who longed-for, who sought.”

[Amorem] deum qui non summum putet,
Aut stultum aut rerum imperitum existum[o].
Cuius in manu sit quem esse dementem velit,
Quem sapere, quem insanire, quem in morbum injici,
Quem contra amari, quem expeti, quem arcessier.

Eros Farnese MAN Napoli 6353.jpg
The Eros Farnese, discovered in Pompeii.
Not a friend.

Monday, November 9, 2015

To Anacreon in Heaven

Three translations. For the title, cf. this video.

Mimnermus (7th century BC), Fr. 1

What life, what joy without the golden goddess
Venus? I’d die before I lost these things:
my secret loves, my gentle gifts, my bed.
These sweetly luring flowers of youth burst forth 
in men and women.
                                      But in painful age,
the handsomest succumbs to ugliness,
and bitter worries dig into his heart.
The light of the sun is no more joy to him.
He’s hated by fair boys, and scorned by maids:
so cruelly does the god torment the old.


τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσέης Ἀφροδίτης;
τεθναίην, ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,
κρυπταδίη φιλότης καὶ μείλιχα δῶρα καὶ εὐνή,
οἷ᾿ ἥβης ἄνθεα γίνεται ἁρπαλέα
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν· 

                                       ἐπεὶ δ᾿ ὀδυνηρὸν ἐπέλθῃ
γῆρας, ὅ τ᾿ αἰσχρὸν ὅμως καὶ καλὸν ἄνδρα τιθεῖ,
αἰεί μιν φρένας ἀμφὶ κακαὶ τείρουσι μέριμναι,
οὐδ᾿ αὐγὰς προσορέων τέρπεται ἠελίου,
ἀλλ᾿ ἐχθρὸς μὲν παισίν, ἀτίμαστος δὲ γυναιξίν·
οὕτως ἀργαλέον γῆρας ἔθηκε θεός.

Anacreon (5th century BC) 360

You, whose glance has a virgin’s grace,
You don’t know that I burn for you.
Don’t you know that your chariot
holds my soul by a bridle?
ὦ παῖ παρθένιον βλέπων
δίζημαί σε, σὺ δ᾿ οὐ κοεῖς,
οὐκ εἰδὼς ὅτι τῆς ἐμῆς
ψυχῆς ἡνιοχεύεις.

Horace (1st century BC), I.38

Boy, I hate gilt and sickly things from Persia.
Don’t bind me either with a linden garland,
Nor stop to wonder where the autumn roses
          Bloom out of season.

Don’t strain to please me, but bring simple myrtle:
That I command you. For a little myrtle
Suits you just fine, just like me the drinker
          Under the trellis.


Persicos odi, puer, apparatus;
Displicent nexæ philyrâ coronæ.
Mitte sectari, rosa quo locorum
          Sera moretur.

Simplici myrto nihil allabores
Sedulus curo: neque te ministrum
Dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
          Vite bibentem.