This is an easy poem to like. Part of the appeal is that, for once, we can place it within a specific literary tradition without the aid of commentaries. We all know that “all is fair in love and war,” and poets have understood that young men in war and young men in love have much in common (see above all Henry Reed’s Lessons of the War). Part of the appeal, too, is that the poem is so self-consciously rhetorical. But the poem also presents problems of coherence. I will argue that this, too, is part of the appeal: we have a ponderous rhetorical discussion of something that turns out to be very physical and basic.
Greek and Latin poets often compared lovers and soldiers. Often, too, the two professions are regarded as polar opposites: on the comic stage the hapless young lover is regularly confronted with the miles gloriosus, and a life of love is stereotypically one of laziness, contrasted with the exertions of a military career. The paradoxical claim that lovers are like soldiers is usually made rather delicately, as in Horace’s famous Ode 3.26 (vixi puellis nuper idoneus, et militavi non sine gloria). But Ovid is taking the paradox and running it into the ground: we are, I think, supposed to be irritated by his obsession with this one point.
Ovid’s poetry, as we have observed more than once already, often reflects the rhetorical techniques that were the foundation of a Roman literary education. In this poem he seems to be going out of his way to put his rhetorical skills on display, almost as though that were the real point. The poet speaks directly, in the vocative, to an unknown “Atticus” (line 2), serving notice that he now needs to be persuasive. The address to Atticus also invites us to wonder, at least in the backs of our minds, what it is the two men have been talking about.
The first thirty lines present almost a caricature of a formal speech in defense of a particular proposition: militat omnis amans. The phrase is repeated word for word, to underscore that it is a proposition (lines 1–2). There follows a long list of comparisons, which are clever but unconvincing; it is not actually true, after all, that every lover is a soldier, or even very similar (see Murgatroyd 1999). Lovers and soldiers are alike, supposedly, in eight different ways: they’re young men (lines 3–6), they keep watch at night (lines 7–8), they travel (lines 9–14), they go on scouting expeditions (lines 15–18), they conduct sieges (lines 19–20), they conduct night maneuvers (lines 21–26), they evade guards (lines 27–28), and they have both successes and failures (lines 29–30). The poet uses a variety of verbal formulations to maintain our interest, but also to show us just how clever he can be. The high point of his rhetorical creativity is with the sudden direct address (apostrophe) to, of all things, the horses of Rhesus captured in the Iliad (line 24). It is soon followed by what we might regard as a conspicuous rhetorical failure, when the poet, offering the last of his eight arguments, stumbles into a sexual double entendre (lines 29–30).
The list of comparisons is followed by a tentative conclusion (ergo, line 31): people should not say that love is lazy, because it’s not. This is a dramatically different claim from the one we thought we were dealing with, and it forces us to re-evaluate what has been going on. Our poet has been comparing soldiers and lovers, it turns out, only to support a more general proposition about lovers being lazy. He will return to this issue at the end of the poem.
A more difficult problem is what comes next, a sudden shift to Homer: Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, and Mars all had love interests (lines 33–40). The logic is simply not obvious, and part of the explanation may be that, as we have seen, our poet is conspicuously bad at rhetoric. But even if this is right, we would like to understand better than we do what is going on in our poet’s head.
One problem is that it is not clear what the Homeric examples are supposed to illustrate. McKeown takes the discussion of Homer as following directly from the claim that lovers are not lazy. But, as he says (in his commentary, ad loc.), “To point out that great warriors have been lovers is of only limited relevance to the thesis that lovers are active.” It seems preferable, therefore, to take the discussion of Homer as an amplification of the central proposition about lovers and soldiers. There is still a problem: the fact that Homeric warriors were also lovers does not prove that lovers are also warriors (Murgatroyd 1999). But our speaker has spent most of his poem desperately trying to make the case that lovers are soldiers; that he should resort with climactic desperation to a logical fallacy seems to me to make a certain psychological and comic sense. Groucho Marx, examining a patient in A Day at the Races, famously says “Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.”
Part of the solution, too, may reside in a feature of Roman rhetorical structure, the refutatio (also called confutatio). Orators, after laying out their main arguments, sometimes mention an objection: “But you will say, I suppose, that my client has a long criminal record, and to that I say….” But the objection is often unstated: the audience is primed to expect an objection, usually about four-fifths of the way through the speech, and is thus prepared for an abrupt change in direction: “My client’s criminal record is irrelevant, because ….” It is easiest to spot a refutatio in an actual speech, but similar shifts of direction occur quite often in other prose works, and in some poetry. Thus in Amores 1.9 our poet has for 30 lines been insisting to “Atticus” that lovers are like soldiers. Once we see that the discussion of Homeric warriors is a refutatio, we can guess at Atticus’ objection: “Don’t be silly; soldiers and lovers are totally different,” or, perhaps “So, give me some examples.”
The last six lines change everything. The argument that has been unfolding since line 1 is “Lovers are soldiers, Atticus; so they’re not lazy.” But this, we now learn, has been a response to a personal attack: “I used to be lazy, but now I’m not, because I fell in love. Love is an excellent remedy for laziness.” The poem is not really about lovers and soldiers at all; it’s about the poet himself (ever self-absorbed), and about being in love.
Even more fundamentally, the poem is about energy; lovers need it, others don’t. And it is this, perhaps, that provides the point at the end of the poem. The “lover as soldier” theme returns one last time. His girl’s beauty made him enlist in her service (line 44). In particular, he is now an energetic participant in the “wars” that happen at night (nocturnaque bella gerentem, line 45). Sex emerged as a preoccupation at the end of his long list of comparisons (lines 29–30), and here too what really interests our poet are his night moves.
Murgatroyd, P. “The Argumentation in Ovid Amores 1.9,” Mnemosyne 52.5 (1999): 569–572. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156852599323224680
Mīlitat omnis amans, et habet sua castra Cupīdō;
Attice, crēde mihī, mīlitat omnis amans.
quae bellō est habilis, Venerī quoque convenit aetās:
turpe senex mīles, turpe senīlis amor.
quōs petiēre ducēs animōs in mīlite fortī, 5
hōs petit in sociō bella puella virō:
pervigilant ambō, terrā requiescit uterque;
ille forēs dominae servat, at ille ducis.
mīlitis officium longa est via: mitte puellam,
strēnuus exemptō fīne sequētur amans; 10
ībit in adversōs montēs duplicātaque nimbō
flūmina, congestās exteret ille nivēs,
nec freta pressūrus tumidōs causābitur Eurōs
aptave verrendīs sīdera quaeret aquīs.
quis nisi vel mīles vel amans et frīgora noctis 15
et densō mixtās perferet imbre nivēs?
mittitur infestōs alter speculātor in hostēs,
in rīvāle oculōs alter, ut hoste, tenet.
ille gravēs urbēs, hic dūrae līmen amīcae
obsidet; hic portās frangit, at ille forēs. 20
saepe sopōrātōs invādere prōfuit hostēs
caedere et armātā vulgus inerme manū.
sīc fera Thrēiciī cecidērunt agmina Rhēsī,
et dominum captī dēseruistis equī.
nempe marītōrum somnīs ūtuntur amantēs 25
et sua sōpītīs hostibus arma movent:
custōdum transīre manūs vigilumque catervās
mīlitis et miserī semper amantis opus.
Mars dubius, nec certa Venus: victīque resurgunt,
quōsque negēs umquam posse iacēre, cadunt. 30
ergō dēsidiam quīcumque vocābat amōrem,
dēsinat: ingeniī est experientis Amor.
ardet in abductā Brīsēide magnus Achillēs
(dum licet, Argēās frangite, Trōes, opēs);
Hector ab Andromachēs complexibus ībat ad arma, 35
et galeam capitī quae daret, uxor erat;
summa ducum, Ātrīdēs vīsā Priamēide fertur
Maenadis effūsīs obstipuisse comīs.
Mars quoque dēprensus fabrīlia vincula sensit:
nōtior in caelō fābula nulla fuit. 40
ipse ego segnis eram discinctaque in ōtia nātus;
mollierant animōs lectus et umbra meōs;
impulit ignāvum fōrmōsae cūra puellae,
iussit et in castrīs aera merēre suīs.
inde vidēs agilem nocturnaque bella gerentem: 45
quī nōlet fierī dēsidiōsus, amet.
Listen to the Amores 1.9
Notes on Amores 1.9
1–2: amans = amātor. castra: “warfare,” by metonymy. Attice: Ovid addresses a friend (not otherwise known) by name; note the chiastic structure of the first couplet (ABBA).
3–4: quae: the antecedent is aetās; “the (same) age which.” bellō est habilis, Venerī … convenit: the adjective habilis (“suited”) is linked to a dative of reference (bellō), and the verb convenit (“befits”) takes a dative object (Venerī). turpe: neuter predicate nominative, supply est; “is a shameful thing.” senīlis amor = senex amans.
5–6: petiēre = petiērunt; gnomic perfect (AG §475); see note on 8.71. quos … animōs: “the (same) courage which”; the antecedent (animōs) has been drawn into the relative clause. sociō: note that socius can have military overtones: “ally.” bella < bellus, -a, -um “pretty.”
7–8: forēs: Roman lovers supposedly conducted long vigils outside their mistresses’ doors, as in Amores 1.6. servat: “guards.” ducis: “of his general”; understand forēs servat from the previous clause.
9–10: via = iter; soldiers often had to travel long distances to reach the field of battle. mitte puellam: imperative as the equivalent of a protasis in a condition (AG §521b). exemptō fīne: “with end removed,” i.e. “endlessly”; ablative absolute (AG §420).
11–12: ībit: the subject is the lover; Amores 3.6 is addressed to a stream swollen with rain that kept the poet from getting to his mistress. nimbō < nimbus, -ī, m. “rain-cloud” hence “cloud-burst, downpour”; ablative of cause/means. ille: the soldier.
13–14: freta < fretum, -ī, n. “strait” but also, in both plural and singular, “the sea”; freta pressūrus = “about to set sail.” tumidōs: “swollen,” i.e. “causing the sea to swell,” or perhaps in the developed sense of “raging, angry.” causābitur < causor (1) “plead as an excuse”; the subject is primarily (I think) the lover. Eurōs: “winds”; Eurus is technically the east or southeast wind, but the word is used of winds generally. verrendīs … aquīs: “for skimming the water,” i.e., for sailing. The dative of the gerundive is used with certain adjectives (like apta), especially those expressing fitness or adaptability (AG §505a). sīdera: someone considering a sea voyage might claim to be waiting for weather in which he could see stars to steer by. quaeret: understand nec from line 13.
17–18: alter … alter: “the one … the other,” “the soldier … the lover.” speculātor: “as a spy,” in apposition to alter.
19–20: ille … hic: “the soldier … the lover.” gravēs: “hard to capture.” hic … ille: “the soldier … the lover.”
21–22: sopōrātōs = dormientēs. prōfuit: gnomic perfect (AG §475). caedere et = et caedere. armātā … manū: presumably an armed hand, rather than an armed band of men.
23–24: fera Thrēiciī cecidērunt agmina Rhēsī: in Book 10 of the Iliad Odysseus and Diomedes kill Rhesus, a Thracian1 ally of the Trojans, steal his horses, and escape. < cadō, cadere, cecidī, cāsum “fall” (not caedō, caedere, cecīdī, caesum “strike; kill”). captī dēseruistis equī: in an apostrophe with mock tragic effect, the author now addresses the horses of Rhesus in the vocative.
25–26: nempe: “certainly,” introducing a statement confirming what has just been said, with the expectation that it will not be contradicted. somnīs: ablative with ūtuntur, “take advantage of the sleep.” sua … arma movent: “wield their weapons,” in this context a sexual double entendre. sōpītīs hostibus: ablative absolute (AG §420).
27–28: transīre: the subject of opus [est] in line 28. manūs: here “band, troop.” miserī: agrees with militis and with amantis. opus: supply est, “it is the task of.”
29–30: Mars … Venus: supply est for both clauses. By metonymy, Mars = bellum, Venus = amor. The outcome of both war and love is uncertain. quōsque negēs: “and those whom you would deny,” followed by indirect statement. negēs: potential subjunctive (AG §447.2). iacēre: “lie prostrate, be brought low.”
31–32: dēsidiam: “idleness, inactivity”; part of a double accusative with vocābat, “whoever used to call love ‘idleness.’” ingeniī … experientis: “of an enterprising nature”; genitive of quality/description (AG §345).
33–34: ardet: historical present for vividness (AG §469). It represents both the anger of Achilles at Agamemnon (for taking away Briseis) and his passion for Briseis, the first of several famous examples of love mixing with war. in abductā Brīsēide: Briseis was the concubine of Achilles. Her appropriation by Agamemnon provoked the “wrath of Achilles” on which the Iliad hinges. Brīsēide is ablative singular; for the forms of Greek nouns in the third declension, see AG §81. in + abl., here “over/because of/in the matter of.” dum licet: Achilles’ anger about his loss of Briseis led him to withdraw from the fighting, allowing the Trojans their best chance of defeating the Greek army. Argēās < Argēus, -a, -um “Argive, of Argos,” used (as in Homer) as an equivalent of “Greek.” Trōes: “Trojans, men of Troy”; vocative. opēs: “military strength, troops.”
35–36: Andromachēs: Greek genitive singular. Andromache was the wife of Hector; for their famous farewell see Iliad 6.369–502. complexibus: “embrace.” galeam: “helmet”; Hector’s helmet figures prominently in his parting from Andromache, when its plume frightens their little boy Astyanax. galeam capitī … daret = “put the helmet on his head.” quae: “she who,” postponed to emphasize galeam. uxor erat: “was his wife.”
37–38: summa ducum: “head of the leaders”; Agamemnon was the paramount Greek king. Atrīdēs < Atrīdēs, -ae m. “son of Atreus” (patronymic), Agamemnon. Priamēide < Priamēis, -idos f. “daughter of Priam” (patronymic), Cassandra, see on 1.7.17 above. For the forms of Greek nouns in the third declension, see AG §81. fertur: “is said.” ferō is often used, especially in the passive, to mean “relate, tell.” Maenadis: Cassandra was actually not a Maenad, but since her hair was always messy she is compared to one of the Maenads, who were notoriously unkempt. obstipuisse: “to have been stunned at” + dat
39–40: Mars quoque: Hephaestus (Vulcan) made a snare (fabrīlia vincula) and caught Ares (Mars) in the act of adultery with his wife Aphrodite (Venus) (Odyssey 8.266–366). nōtior in caelō fābula nulla fuit: Hephaestus (Vulcan) then summoned all the Olympian gods to laugh at the captured adulterers.
41–42: discinctaque in ōtia: “for easygoing leisure.” discinctus means “wearing a tunic without a belt, wearing loose clothes,” hence “easygoing, undisciplined.” discincta ōtia is a striking phrase (transferred epithet), since logically the adjective applies to ipse ego, not ōtia. lectus et umbra = lectus umbrōsus (hendiadys, on which see 1.4.53).
43–44: ignāvum: understand mē. fōrmōsae cūra puellae: “love of a beautiful girl” but Ryan and Perkins note also a military allusion, since cūra could also mean “command” (of an army, see OLD 7). puellae: objective genitive (AG §348). iussit et = et iussit. merēre: supply mē as the subject. in castrīs … suīs: “in her camp,” the same metaphor as in line 1. aera: “(military) pay.”
45–46: vidēs: understand mē as direct object; remember that the poem is an address to Atticus (line 2). agilem < agilis, e here “energetic, busy.” dēsidiōsus: “idle, lazy.” The final point is perhaps a sexual one: in British English “get busy” can refer to sex.