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11. Amores 1.5: The siesta

© William Turpin, CC BY

This short poem is important as the one in which we “meet” the main object of all the poet’s attention; Amores 1.1 raised questions about the girl who prompted his shift to elegiac poetry, and now we learn her name. We also get a detailed description, indeed almost an inventory, though it is a description of her body rather than of her appearance as a whole, much less of her as a person. The poem is unique in Roman poetry in being erotic in the modern sense of the word: it is about the physicality of love rather than love itself.

Readers will perhaps differ on the appeal of this poem, depending not least on their reaction to an eroticism that is so unapologetically male. But even if we set aside as purely modern our concerns about the treatment of Corinna, the poem presents a problem, precisely because it does seem so straightforward. It is not easy to see the poem as a satisfactory artistic whole.

The poem begins with an elaborate description of the setting (lines 1–8). It is midday, the poet is having his siesta, and the room is dark and tranquil (Roman shutters were very effective). The light is beautiful for its own sake, even magical, but it is also particularly suitable for girls who are “modest” (lines 7–8). Girls and their modesty suggest that there is more to the siesta than meets the eye; it may be that for the Romans the siesta was the ideal time for adultery.

Then Corinna suddenly appears (line 9). The language of procession (Ecce, Corinna venit, line 9) associates her with divinity, as does her name: the Greek poet Corinna, like the more famous Sappho, was associated with the Muses. Amores 1.1 invited us to expect a girlfriend who inspired the poet to write, and here she is: the poet’s new muse, all ready for bed.

She is wearing only a tunic, and an unbelted one at that, and her hair is down (a more dramatic signal of intimacy in days of elaborate hairdos than it is today). The poet, rhetorical training at the ready, cannot resist two literary allusions (lines 11–12): Corinna is like queen Semiramis, an allusion with at least latent sexual allusion, and Lais, with whom the connection with sex is obvious. Lais was a famous name for a courtesan.

So we are prepared, to some extent, for the abrupt transition to sex, though perhaps not for the violence (deripui tunicam, line 13). The poet describes Corinna as resisting, but the resistance was not serious (lines 13–16). The trope is disturbing to modern readers, for whom no means no, but we should remember that, at least in Roman poetry, there was a place (rightly or wrongly) for pretend sexual violence. And Corinna did, after all, come into the room without many clothes to join the poet in bed.

The poet goes on to describe Corinna’s naked body in minute detail, starting with shoulders and moving down to the thighs (lines 17–22). Here too modern readers will probably be offended by the egregious objectification. But since Lady Chatterley’s Lover we have grown used to descriptions with far more explicit sexual detail. And it is important to remember that the “catalog of body parts,” as in Marvell’s beloved “To His Coy Mistress,” mocks the observer more than the observed.

The poet’s obsessive focus makes the most sense, I think, if this is their first time in bed together. Of course this reading works only if we accept that Amores 1.4 is fantasy rather than “reality,” with the poet only imagining that the girl cares about him at all. But this reading gives some point to what follows. The poem ends abruptly; unlike D. H. Lawrence and his successors, Ovid can leave the crucial facts to our imaginations (cetera quis nescit, line 25). The happy couple rest, and perhaps even doze off, and the poet says he hopes there will be many more such siestas (line 26).

So what is the point here? One possibility is that we are to focus on the fact that at long last the poet is willing to talk of Corinna, however briefly, as if she mattered too (lassi requievimus ambo, line 25). Another possibility (not excluded by the first) is that our focus is on the hope for the future (line 26); he’s finally gotten her into bed, they had a great time (or at least he did), and he wants the affair to continue. But is it possible that we are to be struck by the pure physicality? All our poet wants from the affair, at least so far, is uncomplicated sex in the afternoon. It is not easy, as we have seen, to defend the sexual violence, and the objectification of Corinna. Is it possible that we are not supposed to? We see the poet’s “love” for Corinna for exactly what it is: masculine, physical, and shallow.

Suggested reading

Nicoll, W. S. M. “Ovid, Amores I.5,” Mnemosyne 30 (1977): 40–48.

Papanghelis, T. D. “About the Hour of Noon: Ovid, Amores 1.5,” Mnemosyne 42 (1989): 54–61.

Amores 1.5

Aestus erat, mediamque diēs exēgerat hōram;
apposuī mediō membra levanda torō.

pars adaperta fuit, pars altera clausa fenestrae,
quāle ferē silvae lūmen habēre solent,

quālia sublūcent fugiente crepuscula Phoebō 5
aut ubi nox abiit nec tamen orta diēs.

illa verēcundīs lux est praebenda puellīs,
quā timidus latebrās spēret habēre pudor.

ecce, Corinna venit tunicā vēlāta recinctā,
candida dīviduā colla tegente comā, 10

quāliter in thalamōs fōrmōsa Semīramis īsse
dīcitur et multīs Lāis amāta virīs.

dēripuī tunicam; nec multum rāra nocēbat,
pugnābat tunicā sed tamen illa tegī;

cumque ita pugnāret tamquam quae vincere nollet, 15
victa est nōn aegrē prōditiōne suā.

ut stetit ante oculōs positō vēlāmine nostrōs,
in tōtō nusquam corpore menda fuit:

quōs umerōs, quālēs vīdī tetigīque lacertōs!
fōrma papillārum quam fuit apta premī! 20

quam castīgātō plānus sub pectore venter!
quantum et quāle latus! quam iuvenāle femur!

singula quid referam? nīl nōn laudābile vīdī,
et nūdam pressī corpus ad usque meum.

cētera quis nescit? lassī requiēvimus ambō. 25
prōveniant mediī sīc mihi saepe diēs.

Listen to the Amores 1.5

Notes on Amores 1.5

1–2: aestus < aestus, -ūs, m. “tide; heat”; here “a hot spell, hot season.” This could simply be describing the weather, or it could have sexual connotations. exēgerat < exigō, -ere, -ēgī, -actum, “to drive out”; here (of a period of time) “to bring to an end.” levanda < levō -āre, “to lighten, relieve”; membra levāre means “to rest”; the gerundive is used as a simple participle to express purpose (AG §500.4), “I had laid my limbs to rest.” membra, especially in the singular, can also have a sexual connotation. torō: dative of direction with a verb of motion (AG §428h).

3–4: pars adaperta … pars … clausa: adaperta means “open.” The window was a double one, with one side open and the other closed; the structure of the line reflects the double nature of the window. quāle  lūmen: “like the light which”; this is in apposition to all of line 3.

5–6: quālia … crepuscula: “like the twilight which”; subject of sublūcent, also in apposition to line 3. Note the languid l, u, and a sounds. fugiente  Phoebō: “as Apollo is fleeing,” i.e., “as the sun is setting,” ablative absolute. Apollo was the god of the sun, which his steeds and chariot pulled across the sky from east to west. nec  orta: understand est, “has not risen.”

7–8: quā  spēret: relative clause of characteristic (AG §535); quā (its antecedent is lux) is an ablative of means (AG §409); “the kind of light in which.”

9–10: Corinna: here the poet’s lover is finally introduced by name. Corinna was the name of a real-life Greek poet, just as the name Lesbia, which Catullus gave to his lover, was an allusion to the poet Sappho. “Corinna” may be based on the Greek word κόρη (“maiden”), the Greek equivalent of puella. vēlāta < vēlō -āre, “to cover, clothe”; the juxtaposition of vēlāta and tunicā recinctā produces an ironic oxymoron: “clothed in an unfastened tunic.” dīviduā < dīviduus, a, um “divided”; we thus infer that Corinna had long hair, and that her hairdo was undone, with her hair hanging over each shoulder. colla: plural for singular (as in 1.4.35).

11–12: quāliter: “in which way, so” (adverb). Semīramis < Semīramis, -idis, f. the legendary queen of Assyria; she was famous for her regal nature, her beauty, and lust. Lāis < Lāis, -idis or -idos, f. the name of two famous Greek courtesans. virīs: dative of agent, as often with perfect participles (AG §375).

13–14: multum: “much” (adverbial), modifying nocēbat. rāra: modifies an understood tunica; here “thin” or possibly “scanty.” nocēbat < noceō, nocēre, nocuī, nocitum “harm” but here “detract,” i.e., the tunic didn’t present much of an obstacle. pugnābat tunicā sed tamen illa tegī = sed tamen illa pugnābat tunicā tegī; the postponed conjunction (sed) highlights the words placed in front of it (pugnābat, tunicā). tegī is an infinitive of purpose with pugnābat (AG §460).

15–16: cumque ita pugnāret tamquam quae vincere nollet = cum ita pugnāret tamquam (aliquis pugnāret) quae vincere nollet. The cum clause is perhaps causal, or concessive (AG §549). For relative clauses of characteristic, see AG §535. nōn aegrē: both “with no difficulty” (on the part of the speaker) and “with no reluctance” (on the part of Corinna).

17–18: nostrōs = meōs. menda: “fault, blemish.” Ovid is the only poet to use this word to mean a physical blemish; in other authors it refers to literary faults.

19–22: quōs  quāles … quam … quantum: anaphora. Ovid here describes Corinna’s charms, starting with her shoulders and working his way down.

19–20: quōs umerōs: exclamatory quis, “what!” quam: exclamatory quam, “how!”, modifying an adjective (apta). apta: “suitable, proper,” here construed with premī (passive infinitive).

21–22: castīgātō < castīgātus -a -um “tightly drawn, controlled.” Notice that this line is entirely spondaic except for the fifth foot, presumably suggestive of the poet’s careful admiration. quantum et quāle latus < latus, lateris n., “side”; accusative of exclamation (AG §397d). In referring to the human body latus most often refers to the upper trunk (OLD 1a), but since the poet seems to be working his way down Corinna’s body it perhaps here means “hip”; this would explain why he admired its size, since the Romans seem to have preferred big hips on women.

23–24: quid = cūr. referam: deliberative subjunctive (AG §444a). nūdam pressī: “I clasped her, naked as she was” (Barsby). corpus ad usque meum = usque ad meum corpus; hyperbaton (a violent disruption of the natural word order for dramatic effect).

25–26: proveniant: optative subjunctive, “I hope that middays may turn out.” Ryan and Perkins suggest a double entendre, since prōveniō, when referring to plants, can mean “spring up, arise.”