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20: Amores 1.14- Bad hair

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    This poem, like Amores 1.7, is hard to like. Here the poet is not violent, but he seems to be conspicuously unsympathetic. There are moments of wit and cleverness, but taken at face value the poem is unpleasant, and it is difficult to see any satisfactory point in the end. I will suggest a reading that makes the poem more appealing (perhaps), and reads the poet as a less (or at least differently) annoying character.

    If we take the first couplet literally, we have to believe that the poet’s girlfriend (we may assume she is Corinna) has, thanks to some combination of curling iron and dyes, lost all her hair. If so, we have to conclude that our poet is astonishingly heartless: a major cosmetic disaster of this sort is no time to be saying “I told you to leave it alone.” But what if he’s exaggerating? He didn’t want her to get her hair done, and now that there’s a slight problem she overreacts. Could it be that she simply got it cut shorter than either one of them had expected?

    Our poet goes on to talk at length about how much he liked Corinna’s hair in its natural state: very long, very delicate, with a beautiful color (lines 3–12). It was also easy to manage, needing no pins or combs, which could hurt anyone who messed with it (lines 13–18). In fact Corinna had looked wonderful with her hair left loose, like a Bacchante (lines 19–22). Again, if her hair really fell out, this is pretty tactless. But comparison with a Bacchante points in a very different direction: for a girl to have long and messy hair, as we saw with Amores 1.5 and 1.7, suggested that she was (or had been) ready for sex.

    This leads to a more explicit discussion of the process that has done so much harm (lines 23–26). The emphasis is on the use of hot curling irons, which are perhaps the instruments most immediately responsible for any hair loss. The poet had warned quite explicitly about their use, on the grounds that he liked Corinna’s hair the way it was (lines 27–30). Tellingly, his interest in her turns out, again, to be sexual: her hair had been as nice as that of Apollo and Bacchus (Dionysus), but it was also as nice as that of the wet and naked Venus (lines 31–34).

    At this point our poet returns to his initial and problematic proposition of “It’s all your fault.” There’s no point in Corinna’s complaining about the lost hair, and no point in her looking in the mirror. The only remedy is to forget about her appearance; indeed she should stop thinking about herself entirely (lines 35–38). Is this because she should be thinking about him?

    Moreover, it wasn’t some external force such as witchcraft or illness that caused the hair loss: Corinna put the “poison” on herself (lines 39–44). So now she has to wear a wig, and she feels sad when people praise her fake hair instead of the real thing (lines 45–50). In fact she’s in tears (the poet is now sympathetic), just sitting there with the old hair on her lap (lines 51–54).

    The poet ends with words of encouragement: everything will be alright in the end (lines 55–56). This makes sense, at some level, if we take the story at face value: hair usually does grow back, even if it all falls out. We can also, on this reading, see the final couplet as to some extent redeeming the poet: Corinna, he says, will look great when her real hair grows back, and, we infer, he will be supporting her during the long months before that happens.

    But I want to suggest that the point is somewhat different. Corinna is sad because she doesn’t like her new cut, and she will be wearing a wig to compensate. Her long messy hair had been sexy, and now it’s shorter and covered up by a wig, and thus not sexy at all. But wigs are easy to remove, and he is hoping to remove it soon: postmodo (line 56) can mean “presently” as well as “later.” She will be back in his bed, and her hair will still be the way he likes it: nativa conspiciere coma (line 56).

    Suggested reading

    Boyd, Barbara Weiden. Ovid’s Literary Loves: Influence and Innovation in the Amores. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. See pp. 117–122.

    Amores 1.14

    Dīcēbam “medicāre tuōs dēsiste capillōs”;

    tingere quam possīs, iam tibi nulla coma est.

    at sī passa forēs, quid erat spatiōsius illīs?

    contigerant īmum, quā patet, usque latus.

    quid, quod erant tenuēs, et quōs ornāre timērēs,     5

    vēla colōrātī quālia Sēres habent,

    vel pede quod gracilī dēdūcit arānea fīlum,

    cum leve dēsertā sub trabe nectit opus?

    nec tamen āter erat neque erat tamen aureus ille,

    sed, quamvīs neuter, mixtus uterque color,     10

    quālem clīvōsae madidīs in vallibus Īdae

    ardua dēreptō cortice cedrus habet.

    adde quod et docilēs et centum flexibus aptī

    et tibi nullīus causa dolōris erant.

    nōn acus abrūpit, nōn vallum pectinis illōs;     15

    ornātrix tūtō corpore semper erat;

    ante meōs saepe est oculōs ōrnāta nec umquam

    bracchia dēreptā saucia fēcit acū.

    saepe etiam nondum dīgestīs māne capillīs

    purpureō iacuit sēmisupīna torō;     20

    tum quoque erat neglecta decens, ut Thrācia Bacchē,

    cum temerē in viridī grāmine lassa iacet.

    cum gracilēs essent tamen et lānūginis instar,

    heu, mala vexātae quanta tulēre comae!

    quam sē praebuerunt ferrō patienter et ignī,     25

    ut fieret tortō nexilis orbe sinus!

    clāmābam: “scelus est istōs, scelus, ūrere crīnēs!

    sponte decent: capitī, ferrea, parce tuō.

    vim procul hinc removē: nōn est, quī dēbeat ūrī;

    ērudit admōtās ipse capillus acūs.”     30

    fōrmōsae periēre comae, quās vellet Apollō,

    quās vellet capitī Bacchus inesse suō;

    illīs contulerim, quās quondam nūda Diōnē

    pingitur ūmentī sustinuisse manū.

    quid male dispositōs quereris periisse capillōs?     35

    quid speculum maestā pōnis, inepta, manū?

    nōn bene consuētīs ā tē spectāris ocellīs:

    ut placeās, dēbēs immemor esse tuī.

    nōn tē cantātae laesērunt paelicis herbae,

    nōn anus Haemoniā perfida lāvit aquā,     40

    nec tibi vīs morbī nocuit (procul ōmen abestō),

    nec minuit densās invida lingua comās:

    facta manū culpāque tuā dispendia sentīs;

    ipsa dabās capitī mixta venēna tuō.

    nunc tibi captīvōs mittet Germānia crīnēs;     45

    tūta triumphātae mūnere gentis eris.

    ō quam saepe comās aliquō mīrante rubēbis

    et dīcēs “emptā nunc ego merce probor.

    nescioquam prō mē laudat nunc iste Sygambram;

    fāma tamen meminī cum fuit ista mea.”     50

    mē miserum! lacrimās male continet, ōraque dextrā

    prōtegit ingenuās picta rubōre genās;

    sustinet antīquōs gremiō spectatque capillōs,

    ei mihi, nōn illō mūnera digna locō.

    collige cum vultū mentem: reparābile damnum est;     55

    postmodo nātīvā conspiciēre comā.

    Listen to the Amores 1.14

    Notes on Amores 1.14

    1–2: dīcēbam: notice the tense: the poet kept saying it, but she didn’t listen. Now he has his opportunity to say “I told you so!” medicāre tuōs dēsiste capillōs: Roman love elegists seem to prefer the “natural look” in their mistresses, complaining of their reliance on makeup, perfumes, dyes, overly elaborate hair ornamentations, and the like. Ovid follows in this tradition by demanding that his puella stop dying her hair. possīs: potential subjunctive (AG §445–447). tibi: dative of possession.

    3–4: passa forēs < patior, patī, passus, “leave alone, let be”; passa forēs is a poetic equivalent of passa essēs (AG §170a). erat: a mixed condition (AG §517b): in the apodosis of a contrary to fact condition, the use of an imperfect indicative instead of the imperfect subjunctive expresses that the action was intended to happen, likely to happen, or already begun. Cf. eram (6.34). illīs: capillīs. contigerant … latus = (capillī) contigerant usque latus īmum, quā patet: “your hair had reached all the way the bottom of your side, where it widens out,” i.e. it reached all the way to her hips. īmum < īmus -a -um, “the lowest part of.” quā = “where.” patet < patēō patēre, patuī here “extends in space” (OLD 7a). latus is singular for plural.

    5–6: quid, quod: “what of the fact that”; an idiomatic expression, short for quid dē hōc dīcendum est quod. erant tenuēs: understand capillī as the subject. quōs … timērēs: relative clause of characteristic, “the sort (of hair) you would be afraid to….” vēla colōrātī quālia Sēres habent: “like the fabrics that the colored Chinese wear,” i.e., like silk; the Chinese are colōrātī because they produce brightly colored silks (transferred epithet).

    7–8: vel … quod … fīlum: “or the filament which”; the odd word order allows for the placing of filum in last position for emphasis.

    9–10: ille: clarified by color in line 10. mixtus: supply erat.

    11–12: quālem: supply colōrem, “the sort of color which.” Īdae < Īda, -ae. f. “Mt. Ida.”1 There are two mountains named Ida, the one in Crete on which Jupiter was born, and the one near Troy on which the Judgment of Paris took place; Ovid is probably referring to the Trojan one. dēreptō cortice: “when its bark has been stripped.” Cedars do not grow on Mt. Ida near Troy, so the tree in question here is probably in fact the juniper, which when stripped of its bark reveals an auburn wood. Dark-haired Roman women seemed to favor a reddish tint, achieved in early times through a concoction of ashes and later through dyes from Gaul and Germany (Barsby).

    13–14: adde quod: “not to mention the fact that…” docilēs: “teachable,” “responsive (to styling),” with capillī (understood). flexibus: “curls” (literally the “act of bending or curling”). nullīus … dolōris: objective genitive; your hair never caused you any distress.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Roman hairpins, from Chichester, Sussex. Wikimedia,

    15–16: acus < acus, -ūs, f., “hairpin.” vallum pectinis: “the palisade of the comb,” a humorously grand phrase for a humble object. The vallum was a fortification made of sharpened stakes and placed on top of an earthwork; acus and vallum are both subjects of the verb, abrūpit. ōrnātrix < ornātrix, -īcis f. “hairdresser, lady’s maid” (rare); literally a female slave who assisted her mistress in getting dressed and adorned. tūtō corpore: ablative of description, used predicatively. The ornātrix was safe because the hair of her mistress did not get badly tangled, and thus did not provoke an angry response.

    17–18: est … ōrnāta: “she had her hair done.” bracchia: understand ornātricis. dēreptā … acū: “with a snatched hairpin,” i.e., snatched out of the hand of the ōrnātrix.

    19–20: nondum digestīs … capillīs: ablative absolute. The poet recalls with admiration the times when his mistress lay half-reclined in bed early in the morning before her hair had been done up. He found this to be quite becoming (decens, 21).

    21–22: Bacchē: “a Bacchante”; a Greek nominative singular. The Bacchantes were particularly famous for their wild hair. temerē: “at random, casually.”

    23–24: cum … essent tamen: “nevertheless, though they were”; a concessive cum clause. lānūginis instar: “like down.” instar is a neuter noun, found only in the nominative and the accusative singular, meaning “the equivalent” or “just like”; it often takes a genitive. heu, mala vexātae quanta tulēre comae! mock-tragic in tone. “Alas! What great evils your troubled hair has endured!”

    25–26: quam: with patienter, “how patiently.” sē praebuerunt: “they submitted (themselves) to”; the second e should be long (praebuērunt) but is shortened for the sake of the meter. ferrō … et ignī: the reference here is to the use of hot curling irons, although more frequently these nouns are used in a military context to describe destruction by fire and sword. ut … sinus: “so that tight ringlets in coiled spirals might be created.” sinus can mean merely something that is curved. nexilis -e = “plaited, intertwined.” tortō means “twisted” ( < torqueō), but with the nuance “tortured.” Many busts of Roman women depict the type of hairstyle alluded to here, especially those with rows of little curls piled up high and encircling the face.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Bust of Agrippina the Younger (15–59 AD). Pula, Croatia, Archaeological Museum. Wikimedia,

    27–28: clāmābam: note the tense, suggesting repeated action. ūrere: subjective infinitive. sponte decent: “they are appealing in their natural form,” literally “of their own free will.” capitī … tuō: dative object of the verb parce. ferrea: vocative case, addressed to Corinna, who is hard-hearted like iron because she does not have compassion for her hair.

    29–30: vim: vīs here means “violence.” nōn est, quī = nōn est (capillus) quī, “It is not the kind of hair that should be burned”; relative clause of characteristic. ērudit … acūs: “the hair itself instructs the hairpins that have been applied to it.” The conceit is that her hair’s natural inclinations (sponte, 28) are better than any hairdresser.

    31–32: Apollō / … Bacchus: both Apollo and Bacchus (Dionysus) were famous for their beautiful long hair. periēre = periērunt. vellet / … vellet: potential subjunctive; “hair that Apollo, (and) that Bacchus would want.” capitī … suō: dative with the compound verb inesse.

    33–34: illīs contulerim, quās: “I would compare them to those (hairs) which.” contulerim is potential subjunctive (perfect tense), see AG §447.1, used in first person singular expressions of cautiously saying, thinking or wishing. Diōnē < Diōnē, -ēs, f. Dione was the mother of Aphrodite, but the name is often used for Aphrodite/Venus herself. pingitur: the 4th-century Greek painter Apelles painted a famous picture of “Aphrodite Anadyomene” (“Aphrodite Rising from the Sea”), which showed her wringing sea water out of her hair; the painting was brought to Rome by Augustus (Pliny, Natural History 35.36.91). Aphrodite Anadyomene was often depicted in sculpture as well. sustinuisse: the infinitive depends on pingitur, treated as a verb of speaking: “which naked Dione was painted as having held up.”

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Venus Anadyomene (“Venus Rising from the Seas”) copy of a lost original by Apelles (4th century BC), 3rd–4th century AD. Paris, The Louvre. Wikimedia,

    35–36: quid = cūr. male dispositōs: “(which you considered to be) badly ordered”; it is the puella who had this opinion of her lost hair; Ovid seems to have liked the messiness. maestā: transferred epithet; though the adjective agrees with manū, it more logically describes the puella who has just looked at herself in the mirror. pōnis: “lay aside, put down.” inepta: “foolish”; here the adjective is best translated as an adverb.

    37–38: nōn bene … ocellīs: “it’s wrong for you to be looked at by yourself with your usual eyes.” i.e. it’s a bad idea to look at yourself with eyes accustomed to the way you looked before this disaster. The grammatical awkwardness makes sense once we realize that the poet is talking about an image in a mirror. ut placeās: supply tibi. tuī: objective genitive (AG §348); “of your (former) self.”

    39–40: cantātae: “bewitched”; modifies herbae. paelicis < paelex, -icis, f., a mistress who was a rival to a wife or lover. lāvit: “has washed up.” Haemoniā < Haemonius, -a, -um “Haemonian, Thessalian”; Thessaly2 was traditionally associated with witchcraft.

    41–42: tibi: dative with the verb nocuit. procul ōmen abestō: “may illomen be far away,” “may ill-omen not attend my words.” Abestō is future imperative, third person singular; the form is typical of formal prayers. invida lingua: “jealous tongue,” i.e., a curse or evil spell.

    43–44: facta: supply esse for a perfect passive infinitive in indirect discourse, “you perceive that your loss was produced.” venēna < venēnum, -ī, n. “magic potion” or “poison.” When modified by certain proper adjectives the word can also mean “dye.”

    45–46: captīvōs mittet Germānia crīnēs: wigs made from hair imported from Germany3 were particularly desirable; the military imagery is appropriate in view of the Germans’ custom of cutting their hair as a sign of surrender. mūnere: “thanks to the gift”; ablative of means or cause.

    47–48: emptā … merce: merce < merx, -cis, f. “a commodity”; ablative of cause (AG §404). probor: “I will be approved of” i.e. “people will think well of me.” The point is that this approval will come not from Corinna’s natural beauty, but because of something she has bought.

    49–50: nescioquam: modifies Sygambram, “some Sygambrian woman, I know not who”; note the bracketing of the line with the adjective and its modified noun. iste: the male admirer of line 47. Sygambram < Sygamber, -bra, -brum “of the Sygambri” (a tribe of Germans recently subjugated by Augustus); here a woman of that tribe. fāma … cum fuit ista mea: “when that glory was my own.”

    51–52: mē miserum: accusative of exclamation (AG §397d). lacrimās male continet: “she scarcely contains her tears.” This and the gestures that follow are signs of Corinna’s regret and shame, as if she has taken Ovid’s words to heart. ōraque < ōs, ōris, n. here “face” as often; plural for singular, object of prōtegit. dextrā: supply manū; ablative of means. ingenuās picta rubōre genās: “painted with redness in respect to her delicate cheeks” i.e. she is blushing. picta: nominative femine singular, agreeing with the subject of continet. The metaphor of painting is unusual. McKeown suspects an allusion to the fact that barbarians, especially Britons, used warpaint, but the allusion could perhaps be to women’s makeup generally: Corinna is “painting her face” with her blushes. ingenuās … genās: the so-called Greek accusative (also called accusative of part affected, accusative of specification, and accusative of respect), AG §397b; ingenuus here means “tender, delicate” (cf. Amores 1.7.50) but also “free-born,” i.e. authentically Roman, unlike the German wig. rubōre < rubor, -ōris, m. here perhaps both “redness of face” and “a feeling of shame.”

    53–54: sustinet: “holds up.” gremiō < gremium, -(i)ī, n. “lap”; ablative of place means or ablative of place where; in poetry prepositions with the ablative of place where can be omitted (AG §429.4). nōn illō mūnera digna locō: “a gift that does not deserve that place”; in apposition to antīquōs … capillōs in the preceding line. ei mihi: “woe is me!”; ei (a monosyllable) is an interjection, followed by a dative of reference (AG §379a). nōn illō mūnera digna locō: “gifts that do not deserve that place”; in apposition to antīquōs … capillōs in the preceding line.

    55–56: collige cum vultū mentem: “compose your mind along with your face”; zeugma, in which the verb collige applies to both nouns but has different meanings in respect to each. postmodo “later, presently”; adverb. nātīvā … comā: i.e., your natural-born hair; it was taken for granted by the erotic poets that a girl’s natural beauty was preferable to artifice; there may also be an implied contrast between “home-grown” hair and that imported from Germany (see on line 45 above). conspiciēre = conspiciēris (future tense, 2nd singular passive); conspiciō here means “to notice, attract attention”; “you will soon catch the eye” (Barsby).


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