BMCR 1992.02.05

Games of Venus: An Anthology of Greek and Roman Erotic Verse from Sappho to Ovid

, , Games of Venus : an anthology of Greek and Roman erotic verse from Sappho to Ovid. The New ancient world. London: Routledge, 1991. xiii, 279 pages. ISBN 9780415902601

In response to the lack of a collection of poetry suitable for “courses on traditions of erotic poetry” (vii), Peter Bing and Rip Cohen have assembled a wide ranging sample of verse beginning not with Sappho, as the subtitle avers, but from Archilochus and extending to Ovid. What connects the poems is, of course, Venus. The editors preface the collection with an introductory essay in which they discuss the sociological and literary background of Greek and Roman erotic verse. The poems and fragments of poems follow. On the Greek side, the editors include selections from the extant works of Archilochus, Alkman, Mimnermos, Sappho, Ibycus, Anacreon, Theognis, and Hipponax (Archaic); Pindar, Bacchylides, Miscellaneous Lyric and Inscriptions (Classical); Hermesianax, Asclepiades, Callimachus, Theocritus, Herodas, Machon, Meleager, as well as the Grenfell Papyrus (Powell 177-179), the Anonymous song from Marisa (Powell 184) and a few miscellaneous epigrams (Alexandrian); the spellings are those of the editors. On the Roman side, there are selections from Catullus, Vergil, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid, and a poem by Sulpicia. The book concludes with suggestions for further reading.

The authors divide the introduction into three parts: the first deals with sexual practices among the Greeks; the second, with sexual practices among the Romans; in the third they offer suggestions on how to read ancient texts that take up erotic themes. What one encounters in the first two parts is a distillation of the prevailing views on Greek and Roman attitudes toward sex. In Greece, we are told, adult men by and large did not express erotic feelings toward their wives but toward hetairai and adolescent boys; the thoroughly Hellenized Romans imitated Greek attitudes, a significant difference between Greeks and Romans being the greater freedom accorded to Roman women. The editors make it clear, however, that the Greek and Roman poetry in their collection reflects for the most part the views of men of the upper classes (p. 11).

In the third section of the introduction, Bing and Cohen provide useful advice to the novice on how to read “the utterances of the ancient erotic poets” (19). Before turning to this advice, I would point out that the designation of “erotic poets” as a category is somewhat misleading. For instance, someone unfamiliar with these writers would look at the Table of Contents and conclude that Pindar and Bacchylides were erotic poets. Erotic poetry would comprise at best a subset of several different genres (erotic elegies, erotic iambs, erotic epyllia or erotic sections of epics, erotic lyrics, etc.). But I quibble. By examining several Theognidean elegies as well as Catullus 11, Vergil Ec. 10, Horace C. 1.5, Tibullus 1.8, Propertius 3.6, Ovid Am. 3.7, and finally Archilochus P. Colon. 7511, the editors instruct the reader on how to see behind the “speech-action” explicitly or implicitly expressed in the poem (p. 20). In essence, they point out that many poems on erotic themes defy immediate comprehension because the reader, overhearing only a portion of a monologue or dialogue, must read in between the lines in order to figure out the subtext—personal or literary—of the situation that he/she breaks in on. A good example of this difficulty is Tibullus 1.8. The elegist, in admonishing Pholoe to give in to Marathus, is really trying to seduce his young boy friend indirectly (p. 41). The inexperienced reader desperately needs such instruction prior to reading much of the verse contained in this anthology, and Bing and Cohen are to be commended for supplying it.

Yet, although the lengthy and systematic introduction is helpful, it may prove confusing or unintelligible at times to its targeted audience. For example, the editors equate what they call “speech-action” with Aristotelian praxis (p. 20 and n. 36). Few of the situations in the poems presented here, however, constitute a praxis in the Aristotelian sense of the word. The collection for the most part contains vignettes, poignant moments, expressions of temporary despair or angry abuse—not praxeis complete with beginning, middle, and end. On a different note, the poems are often referred to in ways familiar only to a specialist (e.g., directing the reader to what they call “boy, be nice” speeches in the Theognidean corpus, the editors write: “The seven poems are: 1235-1238, 1295-1298, 1299-1304, 1305-1310, 1319-1322, 1327-1334, 1365-1366” [p. 22]). It would have been better had they created their own system of references and buried unfamiliar scholarly identifications in notes or in parentheses. Similarly, many of the notes in the introduction, as well as in the main text, are addressed to a more advanced audience (e.g., “Cf. Vetta, ad loc.“; “But there is a textual problem in this line, cf. Page, Sappho and Alcaeus, ad loc.“; “Cf. Callimachus’palin oikhetai in Epig. 41.3 (Pf.)”).

This uncertainty of audience also affects their style of presentation. In their attempt to reach the college undergraduate they employ such colloquial expressions as “in the Theognis” (p. 26 and passim) and “in the Horace” (p. 32); their exegesis of Catullus 11 begins “The situation is apparently this …” (cf. ad Ovid, Amores 3.7: “Here’s the story …”; ad Vergil Ec. 10 they conclude “We leave it to the reader to wrestle with the details”; ad Archilochus, P. Colon. 7511 they state “Let’s backtrack for a moment”); at the same time, however, they quote Latin verse without translating and refer to articles and books in German. Their choice of an informal style may be responsible for the rather unappealing sentence “Further into the generic murk we encounter Theognis 1263-1266.” I noted only a few inconsistencies or errors in the introduction; e.g., the plural of hetaira is given both as “hetairas” (p. 12) and “hetairai” (p. 18); the “First Book” of Theognis (29) is also called “Book One” (p. 30), a confusion which continues in the text (cf. pp. 93 and 105); ad Catullus 11 they state “Because, as we know from many classical sources, exile was a regular and recommended way of getting over a failed love affair” (p. 37). Clearly the editors mean “foreign travel,” and not “exile” which for a Roman was not a particularly desirable option under any condition.

In their “Note on the Translation” (xi), the editors specify three goals sought in their translations: 1) to make them compelling and vigorous in English in order to engage and delight the reader; 2) to stay close to the spirit and the letter of the original; and 3) retain the structure, line-division, and diction of the original. Moreover, they have prefaced the selections of each poet with a brief and helpful introduction (dates, place of birth, relevant information on their lives and works), supplemented with the occasional reference to further discussion in the secondary literature. In general, I would say that the translators have fullfilled their first and third goals admirably; it is in their second goal that I find that they have often missed the mark. I cite a few of the problems that I encountered while reading the book.

Anacreon Elegy 2 W (p. 87): Bing and Cohen translate οὐ φιλέω ὅς … ἀλλ’ ὅστις … as “I do not kiss the guy who … but the one who …” While in their note (pp. 87-88, n. 1) they make it clear that scholars usually translate φιλέω in its more neutral sense of “like,” they suggest that in this instance the verb carries its secondary meaning of “kiss.” They offer as their rationale the following: “We feel, however, that the Greek, ou phileo, hos…, can sustain the more erotic translation we have given it. If we are correct, this may be one of the rare instances in which we hear the voice of the eromenos…” Although φιλέω can mean “kiss,” I do not think that it carries that meaning here for two reasons: 1) φιλέω in its secondary sense among Archaic and Classical writers is often accompanied by some other word or words (especially the part kissed, e.g., τῷ στόματι) which makes the sense clear (e.g., Hdt. 1.134, Aesch. A. 1559, Soph. OC 1131); and 2) two parallels, both dealing with the rejection of certain military types, come to mind which suggest that Anacreon’s statement should be read as kind of a mini-priamel (“I do not like x, but y”): Archilochus 114 W (OU) φιλέω ME/GAN STRATHGON … ἀλλά μοι σμικρός τις …) and [Euripides] Rhesus 132 ff. (σφαλερὰ δ’ οὐ φιλῶ στρατηγῶν κράτη. τί γὰρ ἄμεινον ἢ …). Moreover, the osculatory recusatio the translators suggest seems somewhat flaccid.

The translation of Theognis 1353-56 (p. 101) does not capture, to my ear, the tone of the original couplet: “’cause if you get, it gets sweet; but if you pursue / and don’t get, it’s the painfullest thing of all.” Aside from the overly informal cast of the sentence, the superlative “painfullest,” though found in archaic English usage, would be deemed today, I suspect, winsome or affected. Neither tone, however, suits πάντων τοῦτ’ ἀνιηρότατον, the very same phrase which Tyrtaeus employed in a somber poem on the glories of dying for the fatherland (Tyrtaeus 4.10 W). Even if Theognis wanted his reader to recall the earlier poem in order to invert the militaristic sentiment, the serious tone of the Tyrtaean passage would accompany its later literary incarnation. The editors’ suggestion that the phrase under consideration might be “an early reference to ‘blue balls'” (p. 101, n. 5) does not convince.

I also question the translation of Callimachus Ep. 25.5 Pf (p. 135) νῦν δ’ ὁ μὲν ἀρσενικῷ θέρεται πυρί which they render “For now he’s flaming with homoerotic fire.” The adjective ἀρσενικός in no way connotes sexual orientation. Callimachus simply states that Callignotus has left Ionis because he fell in love with a man. Given the acceptance of bisexuality among Callimachus’ audience, ἀρσενικός would not call attention to itself in the same way that “homoerotic” does. I would find it equally odd if a woman were the subjext of θέρεται and someone were to translate this phrase “for now she was burning with heterosexual fire.”

Among the translations of the Roman poets I observed here and there similar problems of tonal inconcinnity between the original and the translation. For example, the translation of reflagitare in Catullus 42.6 and 10 as “reflagitate,” a word they coin for this poem (see the note ad loc.), in one sense neatly parallels the rarity of the Latin verb which occurs only here. The verb in Latin, however, does not sound as strange and forbidding as “reflagitate” in English. The meaning of the apparent neologism in Latin is immediately clear; the English analogue requires comment. Even more discordant is the translation of Tibullus 1.8.3: “It’s not that I’ve got lots, or guts that know about the gods” ( nec mihi sunt sortes nec conscia fibra deorum). Aside from confusing the reader unfamiliar with Roman haruspical lore (the translation prompts the question, lots of what?), the translation is much too colloquial for what is after all technical language. Parce, precor, tenero in the same poem (line 51) is rendered “But please, go easy on the kid.” The secretion hippomanes in 2.4 is described as that which “drips from a hot mare’s cunt” ( stillat ab inguine equae). Adams ( The Latin Sexual Vocabulary [Baltimore 1982] 47) cites inguen as an example of a word without sexual significance that replaces a more explicit word. “Cunt” then adds a harshness and vulgarity not at all present in the original. Translations such as these do not evoke, to my ear at least, the qualities that characterize Tibullus and his verse—tersus atque elegans. In general, translations such as “Come on, pal” (Theocritus 1.62), “Give me what you offered, pops” (Machon 17.14 [Gow]), “No way, you wimp” ( ibid. 68), “O lover’s friend, buzz off” (Meleager GP 50.5-6), and “That gets me off” (Ovid Am. 2.19) are not in keeping with the formal syntax and vocabulary of high, aristocratic Greek and Roman poetry.

I was prepared at first to say nothing about the selections since the choice of what to include in any anthology, and especially a heterogeneous collection such as this, is personal and rarely attains universal approval. Moreover, I happen to like the editors’ choice of texts. Still, there is one poem I miss very much, especially given the title of the book; namely, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite celebrating the naughty game played on Aphrodite by Zeus whereby she fell desperately—or at least temporarily desperately—in love with Anchises and thereafter engaged in her own amorous game. The restraint shown by the archaic poet in describing the seduction and prelude to love-making sets this among the most erotic scenes to survive classical antiquity .

I prefer to end on a more positive note and acknowledge my appreciation and enjoyment of the translators’ occasional witty turns of phrase, three of which I cite by way of conclusion: CEG 400 (p. 123), an inscription on a phallus-shaped stone, reads “I’m thrilled to be the staff (literally “servant”) of the goddess, holy Aphrodite; may Kypris return the favor to those who have erected me.” Hermesianax 7.47-48 Powell (p. 127): “You know how often Lesbian Alkaios went reveling, harping on (φορμίζων) his lusty yen for Sappho.” Callimachus Ep. 28.5-6 Pf (p. 136): “But you, Lysanias,—oh, brother!—you’re handsome, handsome—but before the words / are out, an echo says ‘Another has his hands on him’.”