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Ovid, Amores 1.8

Translation copyright © 2000 John Svarlien; all rights reserved.

        There's a certain madame - if your interests run in this direction,
     read on - I'll tell you about Dipsas,
an old bawd who lives up to her name - she's yet to be sober enough
     to see Memnon's mother and her rosy steeds.
5But she does know her magic and all the secret spells of Circe;
     she can make strong rivers run backwards.
She's an expert when it comes to herbs and the tools of sorcery;
     she distills a rare poison from a mare in heat.
The very weather obeys her will; at her command the whole sky
10     turns black as pitch or opens wide with light.
Believe it or not, I have seen the stars drip drops of blood,
     and once saw the moon a bloody ball.
I have long suspected that at night her wrinkled hide sprouts wings
     and she flies and flaps about in the dark.
15I believe what I hear: twin pupils burn in her blood-shot eyes
     and flash hot sparks of lightning.
Corpses shudder awake at her cry and come walking from ancient tombs;
     her incantations break apart solid rock.
This hag had set her mind on violating love's chaste bonds;
20     and she's eloquent when the cause is malign.
I happened to be on the other side of the double doors and overheard
     what she said. This was her advice:
"My pet, surely you noticed how you bewitched that rich young man
     yesterday. He couldn't take his eyes off you.
25And I'm not surprised either. You're as beautiful as they come.
     It breaks my heart to see you cheaply dressed.
How I wish the gods had subsidized your curves with some hard cash;
     properly outfitted, you'd draw in a fortune.
It must have been the stars and Mars ascending that worked against you;
30     but now Venus is rising in the Zodiac,
and just look how your luck has turned: you've hooked your first lover
     with the means to keep you in style.
And he's not hard to look at; in fact, his face mirrors your loveliness;
     if he weren't a buyer, he'd be bought.
35Does that make you blush? Hmm, a little color adds tone to your complexion;
     but dab on some rouge; don't rely on nature.
Keep your eyes leveled on your lap; gear your fetching glances
     to the price a customer's gift will bring.
Maybe in Tatius' time the Sabine girls went unadorned and
40      refused service to any but a husband.
Now Mars leads our boys around the world to test their courage;
     but Venus rules the city of her Aeneas.
The fun's non-stop for sexy girls; the chaste are those no one asks out.
     Only a hick wouldn't ask the man herself.
45As for prim matrons, take another look - those venerable wrinkles hide
     tales of debauchery that would shock you.
Penelope knew how to try the strength of young men: she had them
     straining to arch the bow's bone.
Time slips by unnoticed - it goes spinning along out of control;
50     a year has raced by before you know it.
Bronze is polished bright by use; a lovely dress is made to show off,
     if a house stands empty, it rots.
The same goes for beauty: you have to use it. You can't save it for rainy days.
     Don't think one lover makes a spring.
55 Diversify your amorous interests. You'll earn more and incur less envy.
     It's flocks of lambs that make wolves fat.
Now, what does that bard of yours give you besides his latest love lyrics?
     You call thousands of lines to read a gift?
The god of poets knows how to get your attention - he dresses in gold
60     and plays a gold-plated lyre.
Wise up. A rich man has far more gifts than great Homer ever had.
     Believe me, generosity takes talent.
It doesn't matter if he's an ex-slave who climbed the social ladder;
     pretend not to see his chalk-marked heel.
65Likewise, don't let the family busts in fancy homes take you in;
     If he hasn't cash, he can have his ancestors.
And I don't care how handsome he is. In this business there's no free lunch.
      Let him wheedle your price from his own lover.
At first, when you're baiting the trap, work for rates they can't refuse;
70     once hooked, milk them for all they're worth.
There's nothing wrong with canned passion - purr sweet nothings in his ear,
     say "I adore you" - all the way to the bank.
At the same time, often stop the lovemaking short; complain of a headache,
     or say you have to rush to church to worship Isis.
75But don't push the hard-to-get stuff too far or he might get used to it,
     and his fire, doused, completely sputter out.
Turn a deaf door to penniless pleading; open it wide to the generous giver;
     time it so one lover hears another leaving.
If he complains that you've hurt him, cry and scream that he hurt you first;
80     upstage his charges with countercharges.
But take care never to let his anger simmer too long in its own juices.
     Anger often can age into bitter feelings.
Make the most of your eyes; learn how to turn the waterworks on and off;
     at the least trifle let your cheeks swim in tears.
85If deception sometimes requires perjury, there's no need to worry:
     Venus can fix it so the gods won't hear.
Couch your hired help to play their supporting parts on cue;
     they can drop him a hint at what to buy you.
Let them work for tips on the side; loose change soon adds up;
90     you build a big heap grain by grain.
Bring in your sister, mother, wet-nurse - they'll help you fleece him;
     get as many hands in his pockets as you can.
When you've finally exhausted all the excuses for demanding gifts,
     bake a cake and tell him it's your birthday.
95Never let him feel secure; do little things to make him fear a rival:
     complacency drains the sap out of passion.
See that he discovers the evidence of another's pleasure in your bed;
     let him count the bruises on your throat.
But above all else, show him the gifts other admirers have sent you.
100     If you haven't any, go shopping on the Via Sacra.
After he's spent a fortune, make double-sure you get his last cent
     by asking a loan he'll never see again.
Coax and cozen him down the garden path. He won't guess what hit him
     if you honey- coat his bitter pill.
105Well, there you have the legacy of my long professional experience.
     Don't waste it. If you take my advice
you'll often find reason to thank me while I live, often remember me
     fondly when I'm dead and gone."
She was still rambling on when my shadow slipped and betrayed me.
110     I could hardly keep my shaking hands
from tearing apart her mangy white hair, her booze-shot eyes,
     her withered cheeks wrinkle by wrinkle.
If the gods hear my prayer, you'll drag out your old age homeless,
     racked by long winter, dying for a drink.

Notes by William W. Batstone

The bulk of the poem is the speech of a lena. This person, often called in translation a "procuress" or "madame," was any woman, from madame and brothel keeper to a nurse making introductions, who arranged meetings between men and women for her own profit. The figure is common in many literary genres from comedy and mime to elegy (see Propertius IV 5, Tibullus I 5, II 6, and Ovid Amores III 5), and, judging from laws relating to them, such persons apparently really existed. It is doubtful, however, that someone of Ovid's class and connections, or that any average youth at this time, would have relied on a lena, and the poem should probably be taken more as a literary fiction than as a reflection of Ovid's literal reality. It seems typical of these figures that they are old, alcoholic, greedy, and amoral and it is surely significant that Ovid places this poem at the center of Amores I. The lover overhears a lena's advice to his mistress. The lover himself is only indirectly characterized, and shows a certain gullibility in his acceptance of the lena's magical powers. It has been suggested that this self-delusion on the lover's part protects him from having to face the cynical and sordid motives upon which his sophisticated sexual game depends. By this interpretation, the lover himself is discredited by conveniently believing in the old woman's magic, while the old woman's advice accurately diagnoses and discredits the world of urban elegiac love. In its context in the Amores, this lena's speech recalls Ovid's own speech of advice in Amores I 4 and therefore makes the lena a special kind of praeceptor amoris, an anti-professor of love (from the man's point of view), or a professor of love to women. The speech also serves the ironic function of anticipating some of the tricks Corinna will play on her lover later.

2. Dipsas: The name, which means "thirsty," was the name of a small viper whose bite caused its victims a painful thirst.

4. Memnon's mother: Memnon, king of the Ethiopians, was considered to be the son of Aurora, the dawn, who in the morning rode her chariot up the eastern sky. In a poem relatively free of mythological allusion, this establishes the lover as self-conscious and sophisticated.

5. secret spells of Circe: Ancient magic was frequently, if not predominantly, used for amatory and aphrodisiac purposes. It was a fairly conventional theme in Roman poetry, and the powers here attributed to Dipsas are the standard ones.

8. poison: Traditionally, the secretions from the genitalia of a mare in heat were thought to be a love charm.

11. Believe it or not: The poet invites the reader to assess the credulity of this lover. Note below, "I believe what I hear," line 15.

20. eloquent: Dipsas is presented as a kind of immoral lawyer. The form of the speech may recall rhetorical exercises called suasoria, or speeches of persuasion. The speech has four parts: 23-34: take this rich lover; 35-68: take any rich lover; 69-104: how to take rich lovers; 105-108: final urgings.

29. Mars ascending: The common belief was that Mars, the red star, was malevolent, especially in regard to the plans of Venus, a planet who would be auspicious for lovers. This is no more learned or sophisticated than contemporary recourse to astrology. Other references to myth and history are standard and conventional.

39. Sabine girls: The Sabine women were often cited as examples of old-fashioned morality; Dipsas does not seem to accept the story without reservations.

41. Mars: The Roman god of boundaries became, naturally enough for a nation both expanding and protecting its boundaries, the god of war. In early Rome, the wars were against the Roman neighbors, the Sabines themselves.

42. Venus rules: Aeneas was the founder of the Latin people, who eventually established Rome. The logic seems to be that now, with Mars leading Roman youths to wage war at the ends of the earth, Venus controls Rome, and with Venus come many opportunities for promiscuity. Venus was also the founding goddess of the Julian family, of which Augustus was a member. See note on Amores I 1.29.

47. Penelope: The wife of Odysseus who waited twenty years for him to return from the Trojan War; she is generally cited as the model of fidelity. In Homer's Odyssey she deceives the suitors who have gathered at her home by weaving and unweaving a shroud and, when the disguised Odysseus finally arrives, she tells the suitors she will marry the one who can successfully string Odysseus's bow.

64. chalk-marked heel: At a slave auction, foreign slaves were distinguished by their chalked feet.

65. family busts: Roman aristocratic families kept on display the masks and busts of their illustrious ancestors.

68. from his own lover: A handsome young man, before puberty, was expected to have a male lover. The lena's suggestion is here pretty brutal: just as the young man becomes interested in girls, he must find a way to "wheedle" money from his male lover.

74. Isis: An Egyptian goddess whose worship was forbidden within the old city walls of Rome but who is mentioned often enough in love elegy because her worship entailed ritual abstinence from sexual intercourse.

86. Venus can fix it: It was a commonplace that lover's oaths meant nothing and that the gods did not punish their perjuries.

100. Via Sacra: On the Via Sacra, or "Sacred Way," one could find jewelry shops and prostitutes.

108. when I'm dead: Like most poets and lovers, and especially like Propertius, the lena closes her speech/poem and imagines her success validated at her grave.

This translation first appeared in Diane J. Rayor and William W. Batstone (edd.), Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations. New York: Garland, 1995. It has been republished in Diotima with permission.

Permission is hereby granted to distribute for classroom use, provided that both John Svarlien and Diotima are identified in any such use. Other uses not authorized in writing by the translator or in accord with fair use policy are expressly prohibited.

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