How I Rediscovered Ovid Through Mary Beard’s Eyes and Through Llewelyn Morgan’s Voice

by Lucia Daramus 

    Cheltenham Literary Festival, 2018. Lots of people in love with the books. Lots of literary sections. But, for me the interest is in classics. So, I put myself in a long, long queue. And it is so, so hard for me as a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome to stay in a queue to enter the hall. But I am determined to say hello to Professor Mary Beard, and actually to be part of one hour of Latin like in my past, like all of my life as a classicist. Mary Beard read Ovid, Amores, and Professor Llewelyn Morgan read Archpoet (Archipoeta). Actually both of them had statements about Ovid and also Archipoeta.

I will refer here just to Ovid.

Ovid was one of the most prolific Roman poets. He wrote about mythological transformations, about love, about women as lovers, about exile, about sadness, etc. He had and has a strong influence in European art and literature, influencing  Dante Alighieri, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and in contemporaneity influencing Bob Dylan.

Publius Ovidus Naso was born in 43 BCE in Sulmo. He and his brother were educated in Rome. He studied law and politics, but after his brother’s death, he chose to travel in Athens, Asia Minor, and Sicily. He became a friend with poet Horace. He married three times and he had a daughter.

In 8 BCE the Emperor Augustus exiled Ovid to the city of Tomis (modern-day Constanța – Romania) on the Black Sea, for an unknown political reason or because of his poems.

Ovid himself described the cause  as ”carmen et error” (a poem and a mistake – Confer. Epistulae ex Ponto)

In this part of the world he wrote because of his sadness, because of loss of his wealthy life, because of melancholy, losing everything, even his ability to express himself because when he arrived at Tomis he did not know the language of the place. That place was a small town in that time, built by Greeks, in the sixth century. This place is for Ovid, when he arrived at Tomis, like an infinite sea – et iterra est altera forma maris and this piece of land (Tomis) seems to be an endless wilderness – mare portibus orbis. But after a while he learns the language of Getae (Gets)  and, it seems, he wrote some poems in this new language. Today these works, unfortunately,  are lost. He also wrote Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, books which remain in the history of Latin literature. These poems are full of sadness and desolation.

It seems that Ovid died at Tomis. But the historians did not find his grave in the land of Tomis. Some literary sources from the Renaissance period talk about a possible grave of Ovid near the gates of the city.

Giovanni Boccaccio suggests that Ovid’s grave there is on a island on  Pontus – Sea ( ”Sulmona niun’altra cosa pianse lungamente, se non che l’isola di Ponto tenga incerto il suo Ovidio” – G. Boccacci , Vita di Dante Aleghieri, Roma, 1884, 43-44 ).

His exile trip begins at Brundisi or Ravenna, in winter time, with strong thunderstorms on the sea. His itinerary is indicated by Ovid himself in Tristia , Elegy number XI.

The Augustus’ edict changes the destiny of the poet’s life and even the content of his work. Despite of this, we don’t know where is in reality his grave, after his death his  fame became glorious all over the world.

In the middle of Ovid’s Square in Tomis (Constanta – Romania) there is a very big and beautiful statue of Ovid, realised by Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari in 1887.

On the funeral stone there is the famous epitaph,  written by Ovid himself in one of his poem:

Hic ego qui iaceo tenerorum lusor amorum

ingenio perii Naso poeta meo

at tibi qui transis ne sit grave quisquis amasti

dicere Nasonis molliter ossa cubent

 

(”Here I lie, playful composer of tender love stories

Naso the poet ruined by my own genius

but for you, who pass by and have loved, may it

not be hard to say Naso’s bones may softly rest”)

 

But, Ovid’s first major work was Amores published between 20 and 16 BCE as a five-book collection. The topic in this poem is love because is a ”sex poem” according to Mary Beard.  The subjects of this major works are the poet abjures war in favour of love; the poet regrets beating his mistress; the poet compares love and war; the poet confesses that he loves all sorts of women, etc.

The first poem of the collection begins with the word ”arma” (arms) as in Aeneid of Vergilius.

Ovid intended to write his first collection of poems in dactylic hexameter as an epic poem.

Professor Llewelyn Morgan talks especially about the form of the meter.

”In this poetry important is the metric. The most important consideration with classical poetry is the need to organise in terms of the length of syllables”.

His Amores ( ‘The loves’ ) represent a collection of erotic poems, based on imaginary or real woman. Even today the scholars speculate about Corinna’s identity. The most strong idea is that Corinna could be Julia, the Augustus’ daughter.

The poem is a confession which celebrates the promiscuity of lovers.

I will transcribe here just a few fragments from what Mary Beard proposed and read and translated, because she and Llewelyn Morgan suggested some Latin words and expressions as being very interesting for Ovid’s poem.

 

Ovid – ‘Amores’, 2,4
sive procax aliqua est, capior,  quia  rustica non est,

(”or if forward one is,  I’m hooked, because prudish she is not)

spemque dat   in molli     mobilis   esse   toro.

(and hopes gives on the soft  lithe to be  bed)

(…………………………………………………….)

 

illa   placet   gestu      numerosaque bracchia ducit

(that one pleases by movemnent & rhythmic arms she moves)

et tenerum       molli      torquet ab arte latus—

(& her tender with soft she twists skill side – )

 

The English explication for each Latin word, in brackets, belongs to Mary Beard.

Both Professors have warned us of the word molli. I thought about it. And it is so interesting in the poem, relating with the subject. The poem is not a confession, but it celebrates the promiscuity of lovers. We have a strong expression about the character of the girl –  quia rustica non est.

And after this, Ovid says that type of Sabine intrigues him –  aspera si visa est rigidasque imitata Sabinas. This line is referring to Horace’s Ode, where this kind of woman is about the type of moral rigidity.

In this context of Ovid’s poems, one of the most interesting word is ‘‘molli”- Ablative, singular.

Mollis (neuter molle ) third declension. Molli , earlier molduis has a Proto-Indo-European origin – moldus (soft, weak), from Proto-Indo-European mel ( soft, tender).

We discover this Indo-European root in some linguistics branches: Old Prussian – ”moldac”, Old Slavonic – ‘mladu’ , Sanskrit – ‘mrdu’, old Armenian – ‘melk’ , and also in ancient Greek βλαδύς – (bladus) – weak .

Glossarium Mediae et Infimae Latinitatis talks that we also discover the Indo-European root in Romance languages, the children of Latin language:

Old French – mol; middle French -mol ; Proto-Romanian – mole; Romanian – moale; Aromanian – moali; Spanish – muelle ; Old Portuguese – mole; Portuguese – mole; Catalan – moll

What is so, so exciting is that this interesting word is in relation with the same root of mulier (woman).

Lat. mullier from mollior (softer) – comparative of mollis (soft).

The word is kept in Romance language’s words which are related with the Latin (Indo-European) root molduis, moldus:

Aromanian – muljari ; Catalan – muller; Romanian – muiere; Istro-Romanian- mulere; Old French – moillier; Italian – moglie ; Old Portuguese – moller; Portuguese – mulher; Spanish – mujer.

What is to say about this, maybe that the softness, the weakness is characteristic to women. But what the Ovid’s poems – ‘Amores’ – transmit? He, Ovid, loves all sorts of women. And , as a final conclusion the term mollis in Ovid’s poems has also meaning of ”sexually unrestrained”.