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12. Amores 1.6: On the doorstep

© William Turpin, CC BY

The poet has been at dinner party, and has been drinking. In the approved mode of a Greek or Roman lover, he has gone on to the house of his mistress, where he is confronted with closed doors and a doorkeeper (ianitor) who won’t open up. The poem presents us with a long speech, mostly to the doorkeeper, and as with Amores 1.4 there is some doubt as to whether we are to see this as a real speech, or an interior monologue. Perhaps in this case, though, our decision does not matter much: one crucial aspect of the poem is the fact there are no signs that anyone is listening.

To understand the general situation it is helpful to have a mental picture of the huge defensive doors characteristic of a Roman town house, closer to the gates of a castle or a Cambridge college than to anything we know from our own domestic architecture, and accurately recreated in the HBO series “Rome.” The important thing for this poem is that a poet could declaim all night on such a doorstep without necessarily being heard by occupants other than the doorkeeper.

Discussion of the poem requires particular attention to the question of genre. Just as Roman readers of Amores 1.1 would have recognized it as a form of recusatio, Amores 1.6 would have been read within its generic context, for which classicists have yet more technical language. A lover kept outside the doors of his mistress is known as an exclusus amator, and a poem on such a theme is known by the ponderous but unavoidable Greek word paraclausithyron (“next to a closed-door”). In the typical paraclausithyron the exclusus amator sings to the door itself; Ovid offers a striking variation, singing to the ianitor instead. (The classic study of this theme is the short monograph by Copley.)

The persistence of this genre in Greek and Latin literature, especially in Roman comedy and Latin elegy, raises an important question, on which scholars seem flatly to disagree. For some, the generic elements are purely literary: there are garlands, torches, drunken lovers, and closed doors in Greek literature, and they persist in Latin, but Roman lovers in real life, however heartbroken, normally went home to bed. Others (especially Jasper Griffin) imagine that at least some Roman lovers in real life (perhaps not the poets themselves) would have done exactly what the poets show them doing: not singing poems to doors or doorkeepers, necessarily, but definitely spending part of the night in a kind of amatory vigil. The problem is similar, perhaps, to that of the serenade: presumably in real life men have in fact gone with their guitars to sing to their girlfriends, but few of us have seen it done.

Fig. 12 François-Adolphe Grison (1845–1914), “The Serenade.” Image from Sothebys. Wikimedia,

An unusual feature of this poem is its refrain: tempora noctis eunt; excute poste seram occurs at lines 24, 32, 40, 48, and 56, i.e. every 8th line for roughly the middle third of the poem. This has been seen as a reflection of the komos, the kind of song sung by drunken lovers (whether in reality or in literature) outside the doors of girls. But Lindsay Watson has argued that the refrain also reflects the language of hymns, and that part of the joke is that instead of a god the “hymn” is addressed to a humble, but for the poet all-powerful, ianitor.

There is no need to explain the poet’s various arguments, though it may be helpful to state the obvious: they are not supposed to be serious ones. He argues, for example, that the door only needs to be opened a very little, because the poet, like all unrequited lovers, has lost weight (lines 3–6). And he argues that he deserves a break, because love has made him brave; the only thing he’s defeated by is the ianitor himself (lines 7–18). He also claims that in the past he persuaded the mistress of the house not to give the ianitor a whipping (lines 19–22), though this sounds like a desperate lie; nothing in the first five poems, at least, suggests that he has that kind of relationship with the puella.

Perhaps surprisingly, the refrains do not provide much of an organizing principle; one might have expected five “verses” of seven lines, each marked off by the refrain, but instead the speaker seems to have a short attention span, moving from argument to argument as one thought suggests another. Thus after the first use of the refrain (line 24), the poet moves from pleading to a kind of argument: the ianitor is defending his door as though there were was a war on (lines 25–31). After the second refrain (line 32) the poet develops that thought: a lover’s siege is like warfare in some ways (a theme that will be explored in Amores 1.9), except that the lover is harmless (lines 33–39). After third refrain (line 40) the poet suggests two reasons why the ianitor might not be listening: he might be asleep, or he might have a girl himself (lines 41–47). The fourth refrain (line 48) is followed by a moment of wild optimism (the poet hears something: maybe the door is moving), but he’s wrong (it’s only the wind), which is followed by other thoughts about other winds (lines 49–55).

After the final refrain (line 56) the poet moves from persuasion to threats of violence (lines 57–60), but that doesn’t work either. Nothing, neither pleading nor threatening, has had any effect (lines 61–64). In defeat the poet, as dawn breaks, shifts his focus, and addresses his garland (lines 65–70), but he then returns briefly to the ianitor, and bids him farewell.

The last couplet is a puzzle. The poet changes addressee one more time, and says goodbye to the doors themselves, in all their physicality: doorposts, threshold, and bars. But the doors have also been given an epithet far more appropriate for the ianitor: the doors are now “fellow slaves” (conservae  fores, line 75). What is going on? The “fellow slave” joke has been hovering in the background throughout the poem: the ianitor is a real slave, and the poet is a slave of love (as we saw in Amores 1.2, esp. line 18, and lines 17–30). But what does it mean to say that doors are fellow slaves?

Part of the solution, perhaps, resides in the reader’s awareness of genre, and the expectations that come with it. For more than 70 lines Ovid has been amusing us by exploring his own unique version of the paraclausithyron: instead of addressing the doors, his exclusus amator has been talking to the ianitor. Part of the point in this last couplet, therefore, is that we have a sense of relief: we’re finally back to what we are more comfortable with.

But what is the point, then, of putting the “fellow slave” joke here, of all places? I can only suggest that it makes us think harder about what has been going on in the poem. The poet has been talking, endlessly, to the ianitor. But has anyone, even a ianitor, been paying any attention? Has the poet not, in fact, been doing what other poets do in this situation (other exclusi amatores), namely talking only to big wooden doors—to doorposts, threshold, and bars. Calling those doors conservae, reminding us of the ianitor, reminds us that they are absolutely not listening.

Suggested reading

Copley, F. O. Exclusus Amator: A Study in Latin Love Poetry. Madison: American Philological Association, 1956.

Griffin, Jasper. “Genre and Real Life in Latin Poetry,” Journal of Roman Studies 71 (1981): 39–49, reprinted in his Latin Poets and Roman Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Watson, Lindsay C. “Ovid Amores 1.6: A Parody of a Hymn?” Mnemosyne 35 (1982): 92–102.

Amores 1.6

Iānitor (indignum) dūrā religāte catēnā,
difficilem mōtō cardine pande forem.

quod precor exiguum est: aditū fac iānua parvō
oblīquum capiat sēmiadaperta latus.

longus amor tālēs corpus tenuāvit in ūsūs 5
aptaque subductō pondere membra dedit;

ille per excubiās custōdum lēniter īre
monstrat, inoffensōs dērigit ille pedēs.

at quondam noctem simulācraque vāna timēbam;
mīrābar, tenebrīs quisquis itūrus erat: 10

rīsit, ut audīrem, tenerā cum mātre Cupīdō
et leviter “fīēs tū quoque fortis” ait.

nec mora, vēnit amor: nōn umbrās nocte volantēs,
nōn timeō strictās in mea fāta manūs;

tē nimium lentum timeō, tibi blandior ūnī: 15
tū, mē quō possīs perdere, fulmen habēs.

aspice (utī videās, immītia claustra relaxā)
ūda sit ut lacrimīs iānua facta meīs.

certē ego, cum positā stārēs ad verbera veste,
ad dominam prō tē verba tremente tulī. 20

ergō, quae valuit prō tē quoque grātia quondam,
heu facinus! prō mē nunc valet illa parum?

redde vicem meritīs: grātō licet esse, quod optās.
tempora noctis eunt; excute poste seram.

excute: sīc umquam longā relevēre catēnā, 25
nec tibi perpetuō serva bibātur aqua.

ferreus ōrantem nēquīquam, iānitor, audīs:
rōboribus dūrīs iānua fulta riget.

urbibus obsessīs clausae mūnīmina portae
prōsunt: in mediā pāce quid arma timēs? 30

quid faciēs hostī, quī sīc exclūdis amantem?
tempora noctis eunt; excute poste seram.

nōn ego mīlitibus veniō comitātus et armīs:
sōlus eram, sī nōn saevus adesset Amor;

hunc ego, sī cupiam, nusquam dīmittere possum: 35
ante vel ā membrīs dīvidar ipse meīs.

ergō Amor et modicum circā mea tempora vīnum
mēcum est et madidīs lapsa corōna comīs.

arma quis haec timeat? quis nōn eat obvius illīs?
tempora noctis eunt; excute poste seram. 40

lentus es, an somnus, quī tē male perdat, amantis
verba dat in ventōs aure repulsa tuā?

at, meminī, prīmō, cum tē cēlāre volēbam,
pervigil in mediae sīdera noctis erās.

forsitan et tēcum tua nunc requiescit amīca: 45
heu, melior quantō sors tua sorte meā!

dummodo sīc, in mē dūrae transīte catēnae.
tempora noctis eunt; excute poste seram.

fallimur, an versō sonuērunt cardine postēs
raucaque concussae signa dedēre forēs? 50

fallimur: impulsa est animōsō iānua ventō.
ei mihi, quam longē spem tulit aura meam!

sī satis es raptae, Boreā, memor Ōrīthyiae,
hūc ades et surdās flāmine tunde forēs.

urbe silent tōtā, vitreōque madentia rōre 55
tempora noctis eunt; excute poste seram,

aut ego iam ferrōque ignīque parātior ipse,
quem face sustineō, tēcta superba petam.

nox et Amor vīnumque nihil moderābile suādent:
illa pudōre vacat, Līber Amorque metū. 60

omnia consumpsī, nec tē precibusque minīsque
mōvimus, ō foribus dūrior ipse tuīs.

nōn tē formōsae decuit servāre puellae
līmina: sollicitō carcere dignus erās.

iamque pruīnōsōs mōlītur Lūcifer axēs, 65
inque suum miserōs excitat āles opus.

at tū, nōn laetīs dētracta corōna capillīs,
dūra super tōtā līmina nocte iacē;

tū dominae, cum tē prōiectam māne vidēbit,
temporis absumptī tam male testis eris. 70

quāliscumque valē, sentīque abeuntis honōrem:
lente nec admissō turpis amante, valē.

vōs quoque, crūdēlēs rigidō cum līmine postēs
dūraque conservae ligna, valēte, forēs.

Listen to the Amores 1.6

Notes on Amores 1.6

1–2: Iānitor … religāte: vocative. The doorkeeper is a slave, chained (religāte) to his door, a custom that was apparently common but not universal (Suetonius would later call the practice “old fashioned,” On Rhetors 3). Ovid, as the excluded lover (exclūsus amātor), begins a paraclausithyron, a song sung in front of the locked door of a mistress, a genre with a long tradition among both Greek and Roman writers. The author will plead his case to the stern doorkeeper to win admittance to his mistress’s home. (indignum): a parenthetical accusative of exclamation (AG §397d), “for shame!” difficilem: the door is almost personified. forem: one half of a double door; the word is more often found in the plural.

3–4: exiguum: “a tiny thing” (predicate nominative). aditū fac iānua parvō…capiat fac ut iānua parvō aditū  capiat; ut is omitted from the indirect command, as we have seen before (AG §565a). The word order is intentionally difficult (hyperbaton, see on 1.5.24), to emphasize the difficulty of the act in question. iānua, in contrast to foris or forēs, refers to the doorway as a whole. capiat: “receive.” sēmiadaperta < sēmiadapertus, -a,- um “half-open” (rare); the i is treated here as a consonant (i.e. sēmjadaperta). latus = latus meum.

5–6: tālēs  in ūsūs: “for such purposes”; in + acc. can mean “for the purpose of,” as in 1.3.19 aptaque  membra dedit: sc. tālēs in ūsūs. subductō pondere: ”since weight has been lost,” i.e., “since I have lost weight,” ablative absolute (AG §420). dedit: “has made”; with a noun and an adjective in the accusative can mean “make X (noun) Y (adj.).”

7–8: ille = amor (or Amor), now more obviously personified. custōdum: genitive plural. īre: the infinitive depends on monstrat. monstrat: sc. mihi; monstrō can mean “show the way” (see OLD 6). inoffensōs: “unhindered.”

9–10: simulācraque vāna: i.e., ghost-like forms that (he now knows) were figments of his imagination. mīrābar: supply eum or illum. tenebrīs: ”through the darkness”; the ablative of place where (without a preposition) is used freely in poetry (AG §429.4); another possibility is that the ablative here indicates time when, i.e., when the night is casting shadows. See AG §423. itūrus erat: “was about to go” or “intended to go”; the future active periphrastic, constructed from the future active participle and forms of sum, AG §194.

11–12: ut audīrem: purpose clause.

13–14: nec mora: “nor (was there) a delay,” i.e., without delay, a common idiom. nōn umbrās: understand timeō from the following line. nōn timeō: note the asyndeton (the lack of conjunction) and anaphora (repetition of nōn), which emphasize the speaker’s new-found bravery. strictās  manūs < stringō, stringere, strinxī, strictum often means “to unsheathe” (a sword, etc.); here that meaning is transferred to very different weapons, the hands. in mea fāta: in + acc. here means “in order to cause, produce, obtain” (OLD 21a); fātum,, n. here means “death,” here plural for singular. With his newly acquired bravery the narrator is not afraid of being assaulted and possibly killed at night.

15–16: tē  tibi  tū: emphatic repetition (anaphora). “You’re the one I fear”: gross and comic flattery of the slave. lentum: “immovable”; modifies , which is emphatic. quō possīs perdere: potential subjunctive (AG §447.3). fulmen: “thunderbolt”; McKeown suggests a pun, since fulmen might be thought of as the equivalent of fulmentum, “prop, support” and thus “the bar of a door.”

17–18: utī = ut; introduces a purpose clause. relaxā: imperative. ūda sit ut lacrimīs iānua facta meīs = ut iānua facta sit ūda lacrimīs meīs. ut here means “how” and introduces an indirect question. lacrimīs  meīs: ablative of means or cause.

19–20: positā = depositā. stārēs ad verbera < verber, -eris, n. “whip” or “blows”; stāre ad verbera = “stand at the whipping post.” dominam: another pun, since the ianitor’s “mistress” is also the speaker’s mistress in the sexual sense. prō tē: “on your behalf.”

21–22: quae valuit  grātia: the antecedent (grātia), “favor, influence,” lies within the relative clause itself (AG §307b); in such cases the antecedent is usually reinforced by a demonstrative pronoun, in this case illa in the next line. prō tē quoque: i.e., the poet had formerly (quondam) had plenty of grātia with his mistress: enough (it is implied) for himself, and for the iānitor as well (quoque). heu facinus!: “what a crime!” parenthetical. The speaker affects to find the doorkeeper’s lack of reciprocity shocking. illa: grātia, the favor that the poet thinks he has with the doorkeeper. parum: “too little, not enough” (adverb).

23–24: redde vicem meritīs: “give me back a return for my services,” i.e. return the favor. grātō  optās: either “you have the chance you want to show your gratitude” (Barsby); or “it is possible for you, (if you are) grateful, to get what you want,” namely freedom (McKeown). The premise here is that the doorkeeper is ungrateful, so the second option seems preferable; and the carrot of freedom is dangled at 25–26. Either way, tibi is assumed with grātō. quod: the relative pronoun, = id quod. tempora noctis eunt; excute poste seram: this line is repeated four more times, at eight-line intervals; the use of a refrain suggests the singing of the kōmos (κῶμος), the song of the party-going lover. seram: the sera was a removable bar that could be fitted into the doorposts from the inside.

25–26: sīc: “thus,” but also “on these terms, in this way” (adverb). The word is often used in making requests. A speaker expresses a willingness to pray or hope for something, on condition that his own request is granted, e.g., “If you get me out of this mess, then (sīc) may your praises be sung for ever more.” In this case the poet hopes that the iānitor will be free some day, on condition (sīc) that he responds to the word excute: “Open the door (please)! If you do (sīc) then may…” umquam: “at some time in the future,” a very rare sense. Normally this word means “ever.” longā  catēnā: ”long-suffered chain” (Barsby), or simply “long chain”; ablative of separation (AG §400). relevēre: present subjunctive = relevēris (AG §184), in an optative sense (AG §441), “may you be released.” tibi: dative of agent (AG §375a). perpetuō: “permanently.” serva: “of slavery, servile.”

27–28: ferreus ōrantem: understand and . ferreus used figuratively, “hard-hearted, unfeeling” (OLD 4a), but also reminds us that the doorkeeper is in chains. nēquīquam: “to no avail”; construe with ōrantem. rōboribus durīs: “hardwood bars” < rōbur, -oris n. “oak”; thus anything made out of oak or other hardwood; here = the sera and postēs of line 24. fulta: “bolstered, reinforced by.”

29–30: mūnīmina  prōsunt: “are useful as fortifications,” i.e., for defense; mūnīmina is in apposition to clausae  portae, subject of prōsunt. portae: portae are city gates rather than doorways. quid: “why” (OLD quis 16).

31–32: quid faciēs hostī, quī: “what will you do to an enemy, if….” For quid faciēs (and the like) + dat. in exasperated questions, see OLD 22b. The antecedent of quī is the doorkeeper, subject of faciēs.

33–34: mīlitibus  et armīs = mīlitibus armātīs (hendiadys, for which see on 1.4.53). eram, sī nōn … adesset: a mixed contrary to fact condition (AG §517b): use of the imperfect indicative instead of the imperfect subjunctive in the apodosis indicates that the action was intended to happen, likely to happen, or already begun.

35–36: hunc: referring to Amor. sī cupiam, nusquam … possum: a mixed condition: cupiam is probably present subjunctive (as opposed to future indicative), and thus the protasis of a future less vivid condition, with the change to present indicative in the apodosis indicating a shift in the point of view (AG §516b).  = etsī with a concessive force; nusquam here means “never.” ante: adverb, not preposition, “first,” i.e., “sooner.” vel: “even,” used to introduce what might be thought an extreme or unlikely possibility. dīvidar: potential subjunctive (AG §447.3).

37–38: Ovid lists the lover’s “equipment” and companions—not weapons and fellow hooligans, as would be the case if he were a robber, but Cupid, some wine, and a garland of flowers askew on his hair, which has been anointed with perfume—indications that he has come from a party. circa mea tempora: tempora are the temples of the head, i.e. the wine has “gone to his head.” madidīs  comīs: ablative of place (or cause).

39–40: timeat … eat: potential subjunctives (AG §447.3). obvius: obvius īre (+ dat.) = “go out to meet (in battle).”

41–42: lentus: “unyielding” (see 1.6.15). an: introduces an alternative question. quī tē male perdat: parenthetical; perdat is optative subjunctive (AG §441): “who I hope will…” amantis goes with verba in the next line. verba dat in ventōs: “to give” a thing “to the winds” is to render them useless or meaningless. aure  tuā: ablative of separation (AG §400).

43–44: tē cēlāre: “to keep (a secret) from you (acc.),” “to elude you.” Ovid knows from experience that the doorkeeper does not sleep on the job. in mediae sīdera noctis: in + acc. here means “up to (a point in time)” (OLD 13b).

45–46: quantō: ablative of degree of difference (AG §414). sorte mea: ablative of comparison (AG §406).

47–48: dummodo sīc = dummodo sīc (rēs sē habeat) means “on this condition,” “provided that this is the case,” referring to the situation of line 45, i.e. tēcum tua nunc requiēscit amīca. transīte catēnae: i.e., on this condition (only) Ovid is willing to trade places with the iānitor; note the apostrophe (direct address) to the catēnae (vocative).

49–50: fallimur: 1st plural for 1st singular. ‘Am I deceived?’ ‘Is it just my imagination, or?’ In line 51 the narrator answers his own question with fallimur. dedēre = dedērunt.

51–52: ei: one syllable, an exclamation of misery, esp. common with mihi: “Woe is me.” quam: with longē, “how far!” tulit: ferō can mean “to take away, carry off”; note the tense.

53–54: Boreā < Boreās, -ae, m. the god of the North Wind; here in the vocative (for the forms of Greek nouns in the third declension, see AG §81). Ōrīthyiae < Ōrīthyia, -ae f. Orithyia was a daughter of Erechtheus, king of Athens, abducted by Boreas (Ovid tells the story at Metamorphoses 6.675 ff.). The word has four long syllables, with yi as a dipthong (= Greek υι); the hexameter line with a spondaic fifth foot is unusual in the Amores. satis  memor: “sufficiently mindful of.” The poet hopes that Boreas, a former lover himself, will swoop in and help a fellow sufferer. ades: second person singular imperative of adsum, adesse.

55–56: silent: the subject is tempora noctis. The connection to the previous line is not stated. The absence of a connective (asyndeton) can indicate “but” or “however” (adversative asyndeton); Boreas might have come to blow down the doors, (but) all is quiet.

Fig. 13 The Abduction of Orithyia by Boreas, after a 1701 painting by Francesco Solimena (1657–1747). Baltimore, Walters Art Museum. Wikimedia,

57–58: “Or else I myself, now quite ready, will attack the arrogant house with sword and fire, which I carry in my torch.” Humorously empty bluster, given that he has earlier admitted to being unarmed. “Sword and fire” are the traditional weapons of a rampaging army. aut picks up on the refrain, i.e. “excute poste seram or else….” parātior ipse: either we have to understand quam Boreās, or the comparative means simply “quite prepared” (for the use of the comparative as a kind of positive without an object of comparison, see AG §291). quem: the antecedent is ignīque. petam: petō often means “to attack.”

59–60: nihil moderābile suādent: “suggest/urge no restraint” < moderābilis “controllable” (rare); suādeō can take a direct object, i.e., “suggest” a particular course of action. illa: refers back to nox; remember that ille, illa, illud are often used to mean “the former,” while hic, haec, hoc can mean “the latter” (AG §297a-b). vacat: “is devoid of,” “lacks” + abl. of separation. Līber is the Roman Bacchus; = vīnum by metonymy. The god’s alternate name hints at the “freeing” effect wine has.

61–62: omnia consumpsī: “I have tried everything,” i.e., “those are all the arguments I have” (uttered in exasperation); consūmō can mean “to use up” resources, money etc., or even “waste, squander.” foribus  tuīs: ablative of comparison (AG §406). ipse: understand .

63–64: nōn tē  decuit servāre: “it was not fitting that you protect,” i.e., you do not deserve to protect. The past tenses of decuit and erās in the next line are equivalent to presents, but emphasize that Ovid can do nothing about the situation. sollicitō carcere dignus: dignus can be construed with the ablative (“deserving of a thing,” AG §418b); sollicitus here means “associated with trouble,” i.e. “troubling.”

65–66: mōlītur: “is setting in motion.” Lūcifer < Lūcifer, -erī, m. Lucifer is the morning star; in myth he was the son of Aurora (Dawn) and Cephalus. axēs: literally “axles,” (plural for singular) but by metonymy “chariot.” inque suum … opus: in + acc. expressing purpose,”for their work”; the reflexive refers not to the subject (āles), but to an implied quemque, in apposition to miserōs. miserōs: adjective, used as a noun. āles: a rooster.

67–68: at tū: apostrophe; Ovid addresses his garland (corōna) in the vocative case. nōn laetīs = miserīs (litotes). capillīs: dative with dētracta. super: governs dūra līmina. tōtā … nocte = per tōtam noctem; the ablative of time (time within which) can be used to express duration of time (AG §424b).

69–70: dominae: dative of reference/advantage (AG §376) removed from its logical complement (testis eris) and foregrounded for emphasis. māne: (indeclinable neuter) “morning; in the morning.”

71–72: quāliscumque valē: “goodbye (doorkeeper), such as you are,” (vocative); i.e., “no matter what your attitude towards me is.” sentīque abeuntis honōrem: “and listen to the compliment of a departing man.” The disappointed lover grudgingly admits that the doorkeeper has done his job well. Honōrem = “courtesy, compliment” is very rare. lente: “unyielding” (vocative). nec admissō turpis amante: “and not disgraced through granting a lover admission”; turpis is vocative. conservae … forēs: in apposition to dūra … ligna, but also to crūdēlēs rigidō cum līmine postēs in the previous line. See for example Frank Olin Copley, “Servitium amoris in the Roman Elegists,” TAPhA 78 (1947): 285–300.