This poem, as we have said, forms a pair with Amores 1.11. In the first poem we learned about the tabellae the poet sent to his girl, and in this one we learn that he has failed.
The most immediate point of the poem is to show that the poet takes this rejection hard. We are treated to a display of invective, humorously directed at the innocent vehicles of this communication, with particular attention to the tabellae themselves. The poet attacks the hairdresser Nape for letting him down; she seems now to be a drunkard, like Dipsas in Amores 1.8 (lines 3–6). He then directs his wrath at the tabellae themselves, which he hopes will come to a disgraceful end (lines 7–14). He supplements this with an attack on the man who cut the wood for the tabellae (lines 15–16) and on the tree that produced the wood (lines 17–20). He was, in fact, crazy to entrust his amores to tabellae, which are really only suitable for legal and financial documents (lines 21–26). The tabellae are “two-faced,” in both senses of the word (lines 27–28). And he hopes they will grow old and gray, and waste away.
It is human nature to curse an inanimate object when we lose our temper, and the literary version of such an attack was a recognized form of literary humor, exemplified most famously in Latin in Horace’s Ode 2.13, attacking a tree. (Horace’s poem, along with Propertius 3.23 on tabellae, are two important predecessors for Ovid’s poem.) But this does not mean that our poet is being reasonable. The girl has turned him down, and instead of facing facts he lashes out at innocent intermediaries.
It is also worth suggesting that, as with Amores 1.11, the tabellae refer not just to simple messages, but also to poetry. The poet tells us, after all, that the tabellae have been entrusted with “his amores” (line 21); even if this is not quite his Amores, the word had been associated with love poems from the time of Cornelius Gallus (for the title of Ovid’s collections see McKeown vol. 1, 103–107).
Moreover, this double sense of tabellae provides, again, a much-needed point to the final couplet. On the face of it, the poem ends simply with a final curse: I want you, tabellae, to be ground down with a burdensome old age, and I want your wax to whiten with an ugly disuse (Dipsas was cursed in similar terms, Amores 1.8.113–114). The personification is striking, but is not in itself enough to provide the poem with much punch. But if the tabellae refer to poetry, things get more interesting. The poet relied on his poetry to work its magic on the girl: poetry could bestow immortality on a poet and his girlfriend because good poetry is immortal. That was the premise of Amores 1.3, and the poet reverted to it in Amores 1.10; the girl could reasonably ask for a poem. In Amores 1.11 the poet has sent her tabellae: a note, but also a poem. We now see why the poet is so upset: the poem he sent didn’t actually do the job, because it wasn’t good enough. Far from claiming that it will be immortal, the poet in the final couplet says the opposite: he wants it to disappear without a trace.
Flēte meōs cāsūs: tristēs rediēre tabellae;
infēlix hodiē littera posse negat.
ōmina sunt aliquid: modo cum discēdere vellet,
ad līmen digitōs restitit icta Napē.
missa forās iterum līmen transīre mementō 5
cautius atque altē sobria ferre pedem.
īte hinc, difficilēs, fūnebria ligna, tabellae,
tūque negātūrīs cēra referta notīs,
quam, puto, dē longae collectam flōre cicūtae
melle sub infāmī Corsica mīsit apis. 10
at tamquam miniō penitus medicāta rubēbās:
ille color vērē sanguinulentus erat.
prōiectae triviīs iaceātis, inūtile lignum,
vōsque rotae frangat praetereuntis onus.
illum etiam, quī vōs ex arbore vertit in ūsum, 15
convincam pūrās nōn habuisse manūs.
praebuit illa arbor miserō suspendia collō,
carnificī dīrās praebuit illa crucēs;
illa dedit turpēs raucīs būbōnibus umbrās,
volturis in rāmīs et strigis ōva tulit. 20
hīs ego commīsī nostrōs insānus amōrēs
molliaque ad dominam verba ferenda dedī?
aptius hae capiant vadimōnia garrula cērae,
quās aliquis dūrō cognitor ōre legat;
inter ephēmeridas melius tabulāsque iacērent, 25
in quibus absumptās flēret avārus opēs.
ergō ego vōs rēbus duplicēs prō nōmine sensī:
auspiciī numerus nōn erat ipse bonī.
quid precer īrātus, nisi vōs cariōsa senectus
rōdat, et immundō cēra sit alba sitū?
Listen to the Amores 1.12
Notes on Amores 1.12
1–2: tristēs: “unhappy in their outcome,” “grim,” because they have failed in their mission. The tabellae are personified with this modifier. rediēre = rediērunt, perfect tense. infēlix: “ill-fated”; again, this adjective personifies the littera. littera: singular for plural. posse negat: “says that she cannot” (meet).
3–4: ōmina < ōmen, inis, n. “omen, augury.” aliquid: “something important”; the omens mean something and must be given due consideration. modo: “only recently, just now.” discēdere vellet = discessūra esset. digitōs … īcta: “having been struck with respect to her toes,” i.e., having stubbed her toe; digitōs is accusative of part affected (Greek accusative, AG §397b). The Romans believed that stumbling over a threshold portended misfortune.
5–6: mementō: “remember to”; future imperative, regular with this verb. sobria: the poet apparently believes that Nape has been drinking.
7–8: hinc: “hence, from here”; adverb. difficilēs: difficilis can be used of persons (here of a personified object) to mean “difficult, obstinate.” fūnebria ligna: vocative, in apposition to difficilēs … tabellae. negātūrīs … notīs: ablative of means with referta; the future active participle negātūrīs indicates intention (“intending to deny”). referta < refertus, a, um “crammed, crammed full with.”
9–10: quam: the antecedent is cēra in the preceding line; object of mīsit. puto: from the time of Ovid onwards a final ō of a verb is often shortened, as here, for metrical convenience; see AG §604g, and Raven, Latin Metre, p. 13. longae … cicūtae < cicūta, ae, f. “hemlock,” a long stalked plant from which was derived poison. melle sub infāmī = sub infāmī melle. Wax in the ancient world was usually beeswax, made from the honeycomb; in this case the honey was Corsican and famously bitter. Thus the wax had been gathered from “underneath the notorious honey.” Corsica mīsit apis: i.e. the wax had been sent to Rome by “the Corsican bee.”
11–12: tamquam miniō penitus medicāta: “as if deeply dyed with cinnabar.” minium, -(i)ī, n. “cinnabar” (sulphide of mercury, which produces a bright red pigment). rubēbās: the poet continues speaking directly to the wax of the tablet. ille color: i.e. the color of the wax in the writing tablet. sanguinulentus: in this case the wax was clearly red, seen now as ill-omened.
13–14: triviīs: “in crossroads,” i.e. “in the gutter.” iaceātis: hortatory subjunctive (AG §439). inūtile lignum: vocative. vōs: the 2nd person plural pronoun refers back to the plural addressee tabellae (line 7). onus: “weight” of a cart or other passing vehicle.
15–16: illum: accusative subject of the infinitive habuisse (16) in an indirect statement. vōs … vertit in ūsum: “converted you into an object of use” (Barsby). vertō can mean “transform” or “undergo physical change,” here in the perfect tense. convincam: “I will prove that,” governing an indirect statement. The tone is legalistic. pūrās … manūs: “clean hands,” i.e., the craftsman himself must have done something to bring this “bad mojo” to the wood of the tabellae.
17–18: praebuit: “supplied.” suspendia < suspendium, -(i)ī, n. “the act of hanging oneself, a hanging,” here “gallows”; plural for singular (unless miserō … collō is singular for plural). dīrās … crucēs: “terrifying crosses”: for crucifixion.
19-20: būbōnibus < būbō, -ōnis, m./f. “owl”; specifically the horned or eagle owl, a bird of ill omen. volturis < vultur (voltur), vulturis, m. “vultur.” strigis < strix, strigis, f. “screech-owl,” also ill-omened.
21–22: hīs: i.e. hīs tabellīs; dative indirect object with commīsī. commīsī < committō, committere, commīsī, commissum here “entrust” (see OLD 14). insānus: adjective used adverbially: “was I insane enough to?” ferenda: gerundive expressing purpose or intention, “words to be delivered.”
23–25: aptius…/ melius: comparative degree adverbs; the narrator suggests ways in which the tabellae could be used “more appropriately” and “better” than as a love missive.
23–24: capiant: “would contain”; potential subjunctive. The present subjunctive means that the reference is to the future (AG §447.3). vadimōnia: “guarantees”; the vadimōnium was a written agreement to appear in court for trial, and (like many legal documents) was typically written on wax tablets. garrula < garrulus -a -um, “talkative, chatty, babbling.” Legal documents such as vadimōnia typically seemed wordy. cērae = tabellae. dūrō … ōre: ablative of manner; “with an unfeeling expression.” cognitor: “attorney, learned counsel.” legat: subjunctive in a relative purpose clause (AG §531.2) or characteristic (AG §535).
25–26: ephēmeridas < ephēmeris, -idis or -idōs, f., Greek accusative plural; “day-book, account-book.” tabulāsque: tabula is regularly used in plural to mean “account-books, ledgers.” iacērent: potential subjunctive; the imperfect subjunctive means that the reference is to present (AG §447.3). flēret: “would be weeping over” (+ acc.), another relative purpose clause or clause of characteristic; the avārus weeps (supposedly) whenever he has to spend money. Wax tablets are well-attested in business contexts, especially from Pompeii, where a famous set of 153 tablets was found documenting the business affairs of the banker Lucius Caecilius Iucundus.
27–28: ergō … sensī: “And so, I have realized (sēnsī) from the circumstances (rēbus) that you are ‘double’ in fact (rēbus) as well as in accordance with your name.” rēbus: “circumstances, the march of events,” see OLD rēs 17b. duplicēs: wax tablets were typically bound in pairs. duplex, duplicis has precisely the same double meaning as our “two-faced.” auspiciī … bonī: “was not of good omen”; genitive of quality (AG §345). numerus…ipse = duo.
29–30: nisi = nisi ut. vos: accusative. cariōsa < cariōsus, -a, -um, “decayed,” though the original meaning of “rotten” (used of wood etc.) is also important. senectus: the tabellae are personified as going through the ravages of old age. alba: white (with age). sitū < situs, sitūs, m. “neglect” or “physical deterioration.”