The final poem of a Greek or Roman poetry book typically offered some kind of closure (for details see McKeown’s discussion of this poem). A sphragis (Greek for “seal”) would say something about who the poet was (Propertius 1.22), or about the nature of the poetry (Horace, Odes 3.30). Such poems were typically short—more epilogues than formal conclusions— but they did not have to be. And such poems often proclaimed that the poetry in question would survive long after the poet’s own death: in Odes 3.30 Horace claims that he “built a memorial” (exegi monumentum), which would survive as long as Rome did.
Ovid’s readers would have come to this poem with the sphragis and its various possibilities in mind. They might, at first, have thought the poem was going to be about who the poet is and how he leads his life. The poem begins with an address to a personified Livor (“envy, malice, spite”), who has supposedly been complaining about his avoidance of more patriotic careers, specifically the army, jurisprudence, and (closer to poetry) public speaking (lines 1–6). But at lines 7–8 it becomes clear that the focus is on poetry and immortality.
The bulk of the poem consists of a long list of poets, Greek and Roman, who have achieved immortality (lines 9–30). The conclusion is simple: things of this world are impermanent (lines 31–34), and they are valued only by the common crowd (vulgus). But our poet has been favored by Apollo, will wear (as a love poet) a garland of myrtle, and will be read by lovers in difficulty (lines 35–38). Livor operates only on the living; when people die they receive their just deserts, so Livor is no longer possible (lines 39–40). And so our poet will live on even after his body is burned on his funeral pyre, and a large part of him (parsque … multa) will survive (lines 41–42).
One reaction, reading these lines some 2000 years after they were written, might be simply to note that what they say is true, at least so far. But should we encounter similar claims by a contemporary poet, even a successful one, we might be more skeptical. It is true that Amores 1.15 dials the claim down a little: we end up with Tibullus and Gallus, to whom even the youthful Ovid could probably be compared favorably, but that long list of poets, from Homer down to Ovid’s own day, is surely meant to seem excessive (see Vessey 1981). We might also wonder if it is not supposed to be conspicuously pedestrian. Pleasant though they are, those twenty lines on other poets lack much of the verve of Ovid’s preceding fourteen poems, which makes the claim for immortality all the more jarring. Our poet, in short, has delusions of grandeur.
On top of that, our poet is (again) strikingly self-absorbed. This is the only poem in the book that is not about the poet’s relationship with his puella. Of course a shift to the poet’s identity and output is exactly what we would expect in a sphragis. But the focus on the immortality of the poet himself, alone, contrasts sharply with his insistence, especially in Amores 1.3, that his poems will bestow immortality on the puella. Thus the poet’s focus on himself seems downright inconsistent (in toto semper ut in orbe canar, line 8), or at least forgetful. And it is at least tactless to end his long list of immortal poets with the claim that it is one of their girlfriends, Gallus’ famous Lycoris, who will be famous (line 30). In Amores 1.1 the poet ended up promising a garland of myrtle (sacred to Venus) to his muse, his inspiration, his Corinna. Here, selfishly, he’s planning to wear it himself (line 37). Lovers will be reading about him, not her (line 38).
Even if we read the poem as self-mockery, the final couplet at first seems disappointing, merely summing up the basic proposition about poetic immortality. But it is worth suggesting that there is a literary joke at work here, consistent with our picture of a poet at once self-important and self-absorbed. The two poets most conspicuously absent from the list of immortals are Horace and Propertius, older contemporaries who had an enormous influence on Ovid. And both poets are invoked, I suggest, in the final couplet. When Ovid speaks of the funeral pyre that will finally consume him (cum me supremus adederit ignis, line 41) we are to remember that Propertius was obsessed with his own funeral and his own ashes, and obsessed with the contrast of his ashes with the immortality of his poems (e.g. Prop. 3.1.35–36: “Rome will praise me among its later generations, and I predict that that day will come after my ashes”). And Ovid’s last line alludes unmistakably to Horace’s famous poem about his own poetic immortality (Hor. Carm. 1.30.6–7): “I will not die completely (non omnis moriar) and a large part of me (multaque pars mei) will escape Death.”
This, I argue, is self-mockery with a vengeance. Our poet has made a pretentious claim for the immortality of his own poetry, comparing himself to a long list of poets that omits two of his most immediate influences. But the last couplet shows that it is the poetry of Propertius and Horace that will survive, despite Ovid’s clumsy attempt to write them out of his story, prompted by none other than Līvor edax. We wonder whether Ovid’s poetry will be equally resilient.
Vessey, D. W. T. “Elegy Eternal: Ovid, Amores 1.15,” Latomus 40 (1981): 607–617.
Quid mihi, Līvor edax, ignāvōs obicis annōs
ingeniīque vocās carmen inertis opus,
nōn mē, mōre patrum, dum strēnua sustinet aetās,
praemia mīlitiae pulverulenta sequī
nec mē verbōsās lēgēs ēdiscere nec mē 5
ingrātō vōcem prostituisse forō?
mortāle est, quod quaeris, opus; mihi fāma perennis
quaeritur, in tōtō semper ut orbe canar.
vīvet Maeonidēs, Tenedos dum stābit et Īdē,
dum rapidās Simoīs in mare volvet aquās; 10
vīvet et Ascraeus, dum mustīs ūva tumēbit,
dum cadet incurvā falce resecta Cerēs.
Battiadēs semper tōtō cantābitur orbe:
quamvīs ingeniō nōn valet, arte valet.
nulla Sophoclēō veniet iactūra cothurnō; 15
cum sōle et lūnā semper Arātus erit.
dum fallax servus, dūrus pater, improba lēna
vīvent et meretrix blanda, Menandros erit.
Ennius arte carens animōsīque Accius ōris
cāsūrum nullō tempore nōmen habent. 20
Varrōnem prīmamque ratem quae nesciet aetās,
aureaque Aesoniō terga petīta ducī?
carmina sublīmis tunc sunt peritūra Lucrētī,
exitiō terrās cum dabit ūna diēs.
Tītyrus et frūgēs Aenēiaque arma legentur, 25
Rōma triumphātī dum caput orbis erit.
dōnec erunt ignēs arcūsque Cupīdinis arma,
discentur numerī, culte Tibulle, tuī.
Gallus et Hesperiīs et Gallus nōtus Eōīs,
et sua cum Gallō nōta Lycōris erit. 30
ergō, cum silicēs, cum dens patientis arātrī
dēpereant aevō, carmina morte carent:
cēdant carminibus rēgēs rēgumque triumphī,
cēdat et auriferī rīpa benigna Tagī.
vīlia mīrētur vulgus; mihi flāvus Apollō 35
pōcula Castaliā plēna ministret aquā,
sustineamque comā metuentem frīgora myrtum
atque ā sollicitō multus amante legar.
pascitur in vīvīs Līvor; post fāta quiescit,
cum suus ex meritō quemque tuētur honōs. 40
ergō etiam cum mē suprēmus adēderit ignis,
vīvam, parsque meī multa superstes erit.
Listen to the Amores 1.15
Notes on Amores 1.15
1–2: Quid = Cūr. mihi … obicis: “bring up as criticism for me,” “throw in my teeth” the o is long by position (obicis = objicis). Līvor < līvor, -ōris, m. “envy.” The personification is a purely literary device; there was no Roman cult of Līvor. Ovid views Envy as signifying criticism of poetry as an unworthy pursuit. edax < edax, -ācis, adj. “voracious, greedy.”
3–4: mē … sequī: indirect statement, dependent on obicis in line 1; “that I do not follow.” mōre patrum: “like my ancestors”; for the idiom see OLD mōs 7b) strēnua < strēnuus, a, um “vigorous.” sustinet < sustineō, sustinēre, sustinuī, here “support, keep from failing” (see OLD 3).
5–6: mē…ēdiscere…mē…prostituisse: also indirect statement dependent on obicis in line 1. The references are to the two forms of specialist legal activity, that of the iūris consultus who studied the substance of the law (verbōsās lēgēs) and that of the rhētor who made speeches in court (forō); see on 1.13.21. prostituisse: aorist (AG §473); prostituō is a strong word, having much of the flavor that “to prostitute” a talent has in English.
7–8: mihi: dative of agent.
9–10: Maeonides < Maeonidēs, -ae, m., patronymic for “Homer,” Maeon reputedly being his father’s name; Maeonia was also the Homeric name for Lydia,1 one of the poet’s possible birthplaces; “the Lydian.” Tenedos < Tenedos, -ī, f. Tenedos2 is the small island that lies off the Trojan shore where the Greek fleet infamously anchored immediately before the sack of Troy. Īdē: Īdē, Īdēs is an alternate form for Īda, -ae. f. As in 1.14.11, the reference is to the Mt. Ida3 overlooking the plains of Troy, where the Judgment of Paris took place. Both Tenedos and Īdē are part of the setting of Homer’s great work, the Iliad. Simoīs < Simoīs, -entis, m., a small river4 near Troy, flowing into the Scamander.
11–12: Ascraeus < Ascraeus, -a, -um “belonging to Ascra”; Ascra,5 a village in Boeotia, was the birthplace of the poet Hesiod, here associated with his didactic poem Works and Days about the farmer’s year and about justice. In it he discusses wine (ūva, 11) and the harvesting of grain (Cerēs, 12). mustīs < mustum, -ī, n. “must,” new and unfermented wine; ablative of source or material (AG §403). incurvā falce: “with the curved sickle.” Cerēs < Cerēs, -eris, f., “wheat.”
13–14: Battiadēs < Battiadēs, -ae, m. “son of Battus,” the founder of Cyrene,6 i.e., “the Cyrenian,” referring to the third-century B.C. Hellenistic poet Callimachus; his poetry had a significant influence on later Roman poets, and for this reason Ovid elevated him to a prominent position, third only to Homer and Hesiod. ingeniō nōn valet, arte valet: Callimachus, like the Alexandrian poets in general, laid great stress on the need for poetic technique (ars) as well as natural talent or inspiration (ingenium). Ovid points to Callimachus’ polished artistry (arte valet), but says that when it comes to inspiration Callimachus was not as strong.
15–16: Sophoclēō < Sophoclēus -a -um, “Sophoclean, of Sophocles,” the fifthcentury B.C. Greek tragedian. iactūra: iactūra, ae, f. “loss” (see OLD 4); the loss is one of prestige. cothurnō < cot(h)urnus, -ī, m. “buskin,” a special kind of high, thick-soled boot worn by actors in tragedy to increase their height on stage. Cothurnus commonly serves as a metonymy for “tragedy.” Note the golden line (adjective A, adjective B, verb, substantive A, substantive B) emphasizing Sophoclean grandeur. Arātus < Arātus, -ī, m. Aratus of Soli was the 3rd century Hellenistic author of an extant poem in Greek on astronomy, the Phaenomena. It was widely read in the ancient world, rivaling Homer’s epics in popularity; it was translated by (among others) Ovid himself, thought the translation does not survive. erit: “will be (associated with).”
17–18: fallax servus … meretrix blanda: the deceitful slave, the stern father, the nasty brothel-keeper, and the lovable prostitute were all stock figures of Attic New Comedy, of which Menander (342–291 BC) was the most famous exponent. Menandros = Menander, a Greek nominative masculine singular form.
19–20: Ennius: Q. Ennius (239–169 BC) was a famous early writer of Latin historical epic. arte carens: “lacking artifice”; arte is ablative of separation (AG §400). Ennius wrote verse that was later seen as awkward and unsophisticated, but here that roughness is seen as a positive quality. animōsī … ōris: “of the spirited tongue” (Barsby); genitive of quality(AG §345). Accius: L. Accius (b. 170 BC) was the most famous of the Latin tragedians of the Republic; his style was later considerated high-flown and bombastic (animōsī … ōris, 19). cāsūrum: “(that is) going to fall (into oblivion)”; < cadō, cadere, cecidī, cāsum, “fall.”
21–22: Varrōnem < Varrō, Varrōnis m. Varro of Atax (b. 82 BC, not the better known Marcus Terentius Varro), who wrote a lost Latin translation of the Argonautica (the story of Jason and the Argonauts) of Apollonius Rhodius. prīmamque ratem < ratis, -is, f., “ship”; according to Greek legend the first ship was the Argo. Aesoniō … ducī: periphrasis for Jason, < Aesonius -a –um, “of or descended from Aeson” (Aeson was the father of Jason); dative of agent. terga < tergum, -ī, n., “skin, hide” referring to the Golden Fleece; plural for singular.
23–24: Lucrētī < Lucrētius, -a, -um. The philosopher-poet Titus Lucretius (b. 94 BC) wrote his didactic poem De Rerum Natura, based on Epicurean philosophy, to prove that the gods were a dangerous illusion and that all things were composed of atoms and would sooner or later decompose into atoms. exitiō … dabit ūna diēs: i.e., when the world comes to an end. This is a quotation from Lucretius, 5.95).
25–26: these lines allude to the great Roman epic poet Vergil. Ovid mentions neither his name nor patronymic nor place of birth (as he has done with the previous poets), but makes brief reference only to his three great works: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid. Tītyrus: one of the shepherds in Virgil’s Eclogues and actually the first word of Eclogue 1. frūgēs: the reference is to Virgil’s Georgics, written in praise of farming. Aenēiaque < Aenēius, -a, -um (four syllables), “of Aeneas.” arma: famously, the first word in the Aeneid. triumphātī is a more vivid equivalent of victī. dum caput orbis erit: “as long as Rome is the capital”; for dum + future indicative = “as long as,” see OLD 1a.
27–28: dōnec: “as long as.” ignēs arcūsque Cupīdinis arma: “torches and bows, the weapons of Cupid,” i.e. as long as love and lovers exist. arma could also be predicate nominative (Ryan and Perkins), i.e. “as long as torches and bows are the weapons of Cupid.” numerī: “verses.” culte Tibulle: apostrophe; Albius Tibullus, along with Propertius and Gallus, was a famous elegist of the generation preceding Ovid.
29–30: Gallus: i.e. C. Cornelius Gallus (born c. 70 BC), whose elegies are almost entirely lost. nōtus: supply est. Hesperiīs … Eōīs: both words are dative masculine plural (“those dwelling in”); Ovid is probably alluding to a line from Gallus himself, as at Ars Amātōria 3.537: Vesper et Eōae nōvēre Lycōrida terrae. sua: reflexive, referring to Gallō. Lycōris < Lycōris, -idis or -idos, f. Lycoris is the poetic name Gallus gave to the lover who broke his heart; she was a well-known actress named Cytheris, and had been the mistress of (among others) Marc Antony.
31–32: cum: introduces a concessive clause. silicēs < silex, -icis, f. “flint” (actually any hard stone). dēpereant < dēpereō, dēperīre, dēperiī, “be completely destroyed.” aevō: ablative of means or instrument (AG §409). carmina morte carent: this line has taken on a proverbial life of its own; “poetry is immortal.” morte = ablative of separation (AG §400).
33–34: cēdant … rēgēs: “let kings yield”; hortatory subjunctive, as are the verbs in the following lines. Tagī < Tagus, -ī, m. The river Tagus7 (in Lusitania; Tajo in Spanish, Tejo in Portuguese) produced much gold and provided Rome with great wealth.
35–36: Castaliā < Castalius, -a, -um “Castalian,” i.e., associated with the spring8 on Mt. Parnassus, sacred to Apollo and the Muses, all metaphors for poetic inspiration. aquā: ablative of source and material (AG §403).
37–38: sustineamque: ministret in the preceding line suggests that this is present subjunctive, not future indicative. comā: ablative of means or place where; see on 1.14.53. myrtum: the myrtle was sacred to Venus, therefore more appropriate for a love poet than laurel; it is also intolerant of cold weather (metuentem frīgora). sollicitō < sollicitus, -a, -um “troubled.” multus: adverbial. legar: present subjunctive, like sustineamque.
39–40: pascitur in vīvīs Līvor: “Envy feeds on the living”; pascitur < pascō, pascere, pāvī, pastum, here “graze on, feed on” (passive in middle sense, OLD 6b). fāta < fātum, -ī, n., “death.” cum … honōs: “when each man’s fame protects him as he deserves,” “in accordance with what he deserves.” Literally, “his own honor protects each man.” For cum + indicative introducing a circumstance which supports the main verb (“seeing that”), see OLD 6a. quemque < quisque, quaeque, quidque “each.”
41–42: adēderit < adedō, adedere, adēdī, adēsum, “to consume”; future perfect. meī: partitive genitive.