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17. Amores 1.11: Sending a message

© William Turpin, CC BY

This poem and the one after it form a matching pair, much like the writing tablets (tabellae) that are central to each poem. The tabella was the normal medium in Rome for taking notes. It consisted of a wooden board with a frame on each side, and within each frame was a layer of hardened wax (cera); the tabella looked a little like an iPad, except that we should imagine a “screen” and frame on both sides. Writing was done with a sharp stylus, and the end of the stylus provided a flat blade for rubbing out mistakes. Tabellae could be bound together, typically in pairs, with the outside surfaces exposed and the inside surfaces private.

Fig. 24 A tabula, with stylus. Wikimedia,

For our poem two functions of tabellae are important. In the first place, a tabella was an obvious medium for sending a simple message. But it was also a medium used regularly by poets, who would typically write drafts (not necessary rough drafts) on such tabellae. This would allow the poems to circulate in a more informal mode than would be expected in a liber, typically a roll of papyrus used when books were “published” formally. The relationship between tabella and liber is perhaps analogous to the relationship (in pre-computer days) to the relationship between a poet’s spiral notebook and a published volume.

The nature and poetic functions of tabellae are central to an understanding of Amores 1.11 and 1.12. At the most immediate level, the tabellae in question are simply the medium for our poet to send a note to his girlfriend, and for her to reply. But scholars have suggested that we are also supposed to think of the tabellae that poets would typically use for their poetry: what our poet offers in Amores 1.11, and what gets rejected in 1.12, are poems.

In Amores 1.11 the poet begins by flattering Nape, Corinna’s hairdresser, and asking to take tabellae that he wrote that morning (lines 1–8). Nape has had a love life of her own, and so she should be sympathetic (lines 9–12). The poet then gives detailed instructions: Nape should give Corinna a message in person, but the tabellae will say most of what needs to be said (lines 13–14). Nape should observe Corinna’s reaction, and insist (iubeto) that she write a long message in reply (lines 15–22). But no, why should she bother: all Corinna has to say is, “Come!” (lines 23–24). If that happens the poet will dedicate the tabellae to Venus, in thanksgiving, complete with dedicatory inscription (lines 25–28).

There are a number of inconsistencies in all this. Why two messages, oral and in writing? Why does the poet need to be told about Corinna’s reaction? How can Nape really give her mistress orders? And why does the poet change his mind about what she should write? But this simply enhances our picture of the poet; he is so excited that he talks nonsense (see McKeown on lines 17–18 and 19–20).

The problem with this poem, in my view, is that it is hard to see anything more. The poet’s excitement is perhaps endearing, and so perhaps is his imagined success. But those things are only preliminaries to the disappointment of Amores 1.12, whereas we want the poem to be successful as a poem in its own right. Moreover, the conclusion of Amores 1.11 seems flat: dedicating a writing tablet to Venus is a striking conceit, perhaps, but we want more. The final couplet is devoted to the poet’s inscription, but it doesn’t seem to add much: he dedicates the tabellae to Venus, because they were loyal helpers in his love-affair, but they used to be just cheap maplewood.

The solution, I suggest, lies in that ambiguity about tabellae. What the poet is sending to Corinna is not just a message, but a poem. He just wrote it that morning (line 7), and the situation is urgent (line 15). Of course that urgency could simply be the ardor of youth, but we might wonder if there is not a more specific reason. In Amores 1.10 the poet, after that insulting tirade against mercenary women, concluded that he would give her a poem. And the tabellae of Amores 1.11 contain precisely that, the poem to win her back.

We can imagine, too, that the earlier poem, complete with tirade, was also written on tabellae. And when we remember that one feature of tabellae is that they could be used more than once, we have an interesting possibility for reading the final couplet. It isn’t just the maplewood of the tabellae that until recently (nuper) was vilis. It is also the previous poem, inscribed on these same tabellae, that the poet now insists was “worthless.”

Fig. 25 Relief from the tomb of a scribe, with stylus and writing tablets. Early 4th century AD. From Flavia Solva (ancient Noricum, modern Austria). Graz, Archaeological Museum. Wikimedia,

Suggested reading

Meyer, E. “Wooden Wit: Tabellae in Latin Poetry,” in Essays in Honor of Gordon Williams: Twenty-Five Years at Yale, eds. E. Tylawski and C. Weiss, 201–212. New Haven: Henry R. Schwab, 2001.

Amores 1.11

Colligere incertōs et in ordine pōnere crīnēs
docta neque ancillās inter habenda Napē

inque ministeriīs furtīvae cognita noctis
ūtilis et dandīs ingeniōsa notīs,

saepe venīre ad mē dubitantem hortāta Corinnam, 5
saepe labōrantī fīda reperta mihi,

accipe et ad dominam perarātās māne tabellās
perfer et obstantēs sēdula pelle morās.

nec silicum vēnae nec dūrum in pectore ferrum
nec tibi simplicitās ōrdine maior adest; 10

crēdibile est et tē sēnsisse Cupīdinis arcūs:
in mē mīlitiae signa tuēre tuae.

sī quaeret quid agam, spē noctis vīvere dīcēs;
cētera fert blandā cēra notāta manū.

dum loquor, hōra fugit: vacuae bene redde tabellās, 15
vērum continuō fac tamen illa legat.

aspiciās oculōs mandō frontemque legentis:
et tacitō vultū scīre futūra licet.

nec mora, perlectīs rescrībat multa iubētō:
ōdī, cum lātē splendida cēra vacat. 20

comprimat ōrdinibus versūs, oculōsque morētur
margine in extrēmō littera rāsa meōs.

quid digitōs opus est graphiō lassāre tenendō?
hoc habeat scriptum tōta tabella “venī.”

nōn ego victrīcēs laurō redimīre tabellās 25
nec Veneris mediā pōnere in aede morer.


Listen to the Amores 1.11

Notes on Amores 1.11

1–2: colligere … pōnere: the infinitives depend on docta in line 2, “taught to gather up … and to arrange,” i.e. skilled in hairdressing. Nape was Corinna’s ornātrix. incertōs: “disarrayed, errant, wayward.” docta neque  habenda: vocatives; the gerundive shows necessity or worthiness; “(you who) should not be considered.” ancillās inter = inter ancillās (anastrophe, the inversion of the usual word order), “among (ordinary) maidservants”; i.e., Nape stands out from the throng of normal maids. Napē: the name of the servant means “woodland glen” in Greek; vocative. Several grave inscriptions survive for Roman slave hairdressers.

3–6: the next two couplets indicate that hairdressing is not Nape’s only skill; she is also adept at serving as a go-between for her mistress and her secret lover. cognita, ūtilis, ingeniōsa, hortāta, and reperta are vocative.

3–4: furtīvae: transferred epithet; though in agreement with noctis, it more properly describes the ministeriīs. ūtilis: predicate adjective (esse understood), with cognita in line 3, “known (to be) useful.” dandīs  notīs: “at giving signs.” For this meaning of nota see OLD 8; the dative can be used with adjectives (here, ingeniōsa) to indicate “that to which the given quality is directed” (AG §383).

5–6: saepe venīre … hortāta Corinnam = saepe hortāta Corinnam, dubitantem ad mē venīre, ut venīret. In poetry hortor can take an accusative and infinitive instead of an indirect command. dubitantem: the participle has a concessive force, “even though she may be hesitant.” labōrantī … mihi: dative of reference with fīda. labōrantī means “anxious, in trouble, having difficulty.” fīda reperta: supply esse; fīda is a predicate nominative with reperta.

7–8: perarātās: “incised” with a stylus. māne: “in the morning”; adverb. Construe with perarātās. perfer: “carry straight through, deliver.” sēdula: vocative; an adjective translated with adverbial force, “carefully, cautiously.”

9–10: vēnae … ferrum: understand tibi sunt (dative of possession). silicum < silex, icis, m.(f.) “flint”; genitive of material (AG §344). nec tibi simplicitās ōrdine maior adest = nec simplicitās, maior simplicitāte ordinis (tuī), adest tibi, i.e., “you’re no more unsophisticated than the average ancilla.” maior: the a is long by position (as with maius at Amores 1.7.30); see AG §11d: “a syllable whose vowel is a, e, or or u, followed by the consonant i, is long whether the vowel itself is long or short.” ordō here means “rank, station, social standing,” and is ablative of comparison (AG §406).

11–12: arcūs: more logically, sagittās, but that would not fit the metrical requirements of the line. in mē: “for me, on my account,” i.e., by helping me. signa: here “legionary standards.” For the use of military imagery in erotic contexts see Amores 1.9. tuēre: imperative, “protect” (especially in a military sense). The point is that Nape has also been in love, so she should fight on the poet’s side.

13–14: quaeret: supply Corinna as the subject. quid agam: “how I’m doing”; indirect question. spē noctis vīvere: understand me as the subject of vīvere: Nape will say that the only thing keeping the poet going is the anticipation of a night with Corinna. dīcēs: the future indicative can be used as the equivalent of an imperative (AG §449b). fert: “reports, tells”; its direct object is cētera (n. pl.). blandā  manū: transferred epithet, with blandā more logically describing the tablet’s wax (cēra).

15–16: vacuae: dative; understand dominae; vacuus here means “free from other occupations,” “at leisure”; for the dative with a verb implying motion see AG §363.2. bene: construe with vacuae. redde < reddō, reddere, reddidī, redditum: here “hand over, deliver” (see OLD 12). vērum: “but, however”; as at 1.4.65. continuō: “forthwith, immediately”; adverb. Construe with legat. fac  illa legat: for the omission of ut with verbs of commanding, see AG §565.

17–18: aspiciās  mandō: ut is again omitted with a verb of commanding. legentis: “of her as she reads.” et: “even.” tacitō vultū: ablative of source (AG §403) or cause (AG §404).

19–20: nec mora: supply sit as a jussive subjunctive, “let there be no delay, let no time be lost.” The expression is used parenthetically. perlectīs: understand tabellīs; ablative absolute (AG §420). rescrībat  iubētō: “tell her to write back” iubētō is future imperative (AG §449). lātē splendida cēra: “broadly shining wax,” i.e., the wax of the tabella is shiny and bright on its entire surface because nothing has been written on it.

21–22: comprimat: jussive subjunctive, with the softer form of command now directed to Corinna, understood as the subject. ōrdinibus: “in lines” (ablative of place where, AG §421). littera: singular for plural. “Let letters inscribed on the edge of the margin detain my eyes” (Barsby). meōs: modifies oculōs in the preceding line. The distance between the words emphasizes the way his eyes will linger (morētur) over the message.

23–24: quid  opus est: “what need is there.” graphiō < graphium, (i)ī, “stylus.” lassāre < lassō (1) “tire out, wear out.” The infinitive is the subject of opus est. venī: imperative, in apposition to hoc.

Fig. 26 Portrait of a young woman with stylus and writing tablets. Fresco from Pompeii, c. 50 AD. Naples, National Archaeological Museum. Wikimedia,

25–26: redimīre < redimiō, redimīre, redimiī, redimītum “to encircle” (with a garland). Roman generals announced victories by sending to Rome dispatches wreathed with laurel (litterae laureātae). Redimīre and pōnere (26) are both infinitives with nec morer (26). Veneris  in aede: inscribed votive tablets were often placed in the temple of a deity as a thank offering. Here, of course, the deity is Venus, the goddess of love. nec morer: potential subjunctive, “I would not delay (to).”

27–28: subscrībam: future. VENERĪ: dative with DĒDICAT. FĪDĀS  MINISTRĀS: earlier in the poem (line 6) the narrator referred to Nape as a loyal servant; now he makes the same assertion, only in reference to the tabellae. SIBI: dative with FĪDĀS. NĀSO: the poet himself, P. Ovidius Naso. The final o of NĀSO is short, by “systole,” a rarely used kind of poetic licence. FUISTIS: 2nd person plural, addressed to the tabellae. acer: acer, acris, n. “maple”; both the scansion and agreement with vīle distinguish this word from ācer, “harsh.”