Navigation banner for Diotima (6k)

Ovid, Amores 2.4

Translation copyright © 2000 Diane Arnson Svarlien; all rights reserved.

        You won't catch me making excuses for my vice-ridden lifestyle
     or using lies to fortify my faults.
If confessing one's sins is good for anything, then I confess -
     I scourge my failings like a man deranged!
5I hate what I am, and want to change, but still I am what I hate;
     this oppresses me beyond belief.
You see, I lack the strength of will to control myself;
     I'm swept along, a helpless skiff at sea.
It's not that there's any one type of woman I can't resist -
10     a hundred motives incite my perpetual lust.
If a girl casts her eyes shyly downward, her modesty
     inflames me: how I love a quiet girl!
But if she's forward, I find her sophistication quite compelling;
     the knowing depths of those soft bedroom eyes!
15The austere Sabine type intrigues me; I suspect she wants it,
     but hides her feelings very skillfully.
And you, my lovely reader, your refinement and taste are rare indeed.
     But if you don't read ... ah! you're so unspoiled!
One woman says that compared to me, Callimachus sounds rustic;
20     what could be more provocative than praise?
Another finds fault with my verses, says I'm an awful poet -
     I'd like to get my hands around her thighs!
This girl walks softly - I'm captivated. That one seems harsh,
     but could be softened by a lover's touch.
25Here's a girl who sings beautifully, flexing her supple voice;
     I'd like to steal kisses from that mouth.
And here's one who plucks the plaintive strings with practised thumb:
     who could help but love such learned hands?
That dancer is fantastic: the rhythmic way she moves her arms, the way
30     she twists, and undulates her silky sides ...
Never mind my response (I'm easily moved) - one look at her
     would turn Hippolytus into Priapus.
You're wonderfully tall; your body is as long as a bed! Your stature
     is equal to the ancient heroines';
35this girl is small and compact: I'm equally corrupted by you both.
     Both long and short conform to my desires.
She's not dressed up, but just think how good she'd look if she were!
     She's stylish - she knows how to show herself off!
I'm a pushover for fair-skinned women; I'm crazy for yellow hair;
40     and dark girls can be really sexy, too.
Let's say a woman has coal-black hair around a snow-white neck:
     Leda was stunning with her raven hair.
Let's say she's a blonde: Aurora's saffron tresses were exquisite.
     My love embraces all mythology.
45A young girl attracts my attention, an older woman moves me;
     the one has looks, the other savoir-faire.
In short, any passable girl in Rome - all of the above! -
     is just the kind of girl I'd love to love.

Notes by William W. Batstone

The poem is not a confession at all, but a celebration of the lover's promiscuity in which women are merely extensions of male fantasies (see on lines 24 and 26). The poem's theme recalls Propertius II 22.

5-6. The speaker's protests here recall Catullus 85. In that famous poem, however, Catullus was torn by his attraction and revulsion for Lesbia; here the Catullan ambivalence has been reflected back on the speaker himself.

10. a hundred motives: The speaker begins a kind of catalog which in the philosophical tradition is used to represent the irrationality of the lover. Lucretius, the Roman poet of Epicurus's philosophy, says in his indictment of erotic passion, "Men, blind with desire, generally make and attribute advantages which are not really advantages to them.... The dark-skinned girl is like honey, the ugly and rank is unadorned,...." (The Nature of Things, IV 1153ff).

15. Sabine type: Here as in Horace's Odes, the conservative and austere Sabine farmer is taken as an archetype of upright moral rigidity.

17. my lovely reader: Readers and appreciators of sophisticated verse like Ovid's were thought to enjoy his sophisticated life-style as well, but here the writer's game deserves attention, for the text leers at its imagined female reader.

19. Callimachus sounds rustic: For an urbane Callimachean poet from Catullus on, the unlearned and unsophisticated life was epitomized by the farm.

27. plaintive strings: Ovid refers to playing the lyre, a stringed instrument without frets. Neither playing a musical instrument nor accompanying oneself on a musical instrument was considered a respectable accomplishment for a lady in Rome.

29. The dancer: Like musical performance, dancing, especially like this, was considered decadent and indecent.

32. Hippolytus into Priapus: Hippolytus, son of Theseus, refused the advances of his stepmother, Phaedra, while Theseus was absent. Phaedra committed suicide, but left a note accusing Hippolytus, and when Theseus returned, he banished his son and had him killed. Hippolytus thus became a symbol of chastity. Priapus, on the other hand, was the god of fertility, traditionally represented by a figure with a large, erect phallus.

37. just think: This is the only example in Ovid's catalog of a flaw remedied; elsewhere Ovid portrays the particular characteristic as attractive (to him) in itself.

42. Leda: Leda, the wife of Tyndareus, king of Sparta, was seduced by Jupiter disguised as a swan and became the mother of Helen and of Castor and Pollux. Like Helen, she was a paradigm of beauty, but is not elsewhere attested as having black hair. See Amores I 10.3.

43. Aurora: The goddess of dawn. Goddesses in ancient mythology are conventionally blond; however, Aurora's hair color is meant to recall the colors of the dawn sky. See also Amores I 13 and I 8.4

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 Diane Arnson 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.

www.stoa.org/diotima