Reading Ovid – The Lover is Not a Fighter

{First in a Series}

Ovid is a Comedian. That’s the best way to read him. Taking him seriously will wear on you after a while. It’s impossible to wind yourself up, in text, to the extent he does, without at least a notion of self-overhearing. Someone does not spend that much time arguing that it’s all Cupid’s fault that he’s a crying simp, without intending that it be found funny.

I was about to sing, in heroic strain, of arms and fierce combats. ‘Twas a subject suited to my verse, whose lines were all of equal measure. But Cupid, so ’tis said, began to laugh, and stole away one foot.

Ovid, Elegy I

This is how he begins, and what I want to draw your attention to is how meta it is. The first sentence is an obvious reference to the Aneid. The second and third are primarily about the kind of verse that is used in epic poetry. Greek Roman epics were usually written in dactylic hexameter, that is to say, six dactyls in a line. Dactyls have a long syllable and two short syllables. But elegaic couplets, supposedly introduced by Quintus Ennius in the 3rd Century BC, shaved one of the dactyls off every other line. That’s what “stole away one foot” refers to.

So he’s starting with clever references. Which, who could blame him. We all sprinkle allusions into our writing and even everyday speech. This is no one-off, however, he runs through this for an entire chapter lamenting the surrender of all other gods to Cupid, and ending with the same joke.

Farewell fierce War, Farewell the Measure too. Only with the myrtle of the salt sea’s marge shalt thou bind thy fair head, my Muse, who needs must tune thy numbers to eleven feet.

Ovid, Elegy I

It’s a callback, and for all its poetic formality, it reeks like the salt sea’s marge of irony (“marge” is an old way of saying “margin” or “edge”, and myrtle is a plant or flower sacred to Venus). Ovid embraces his un-Roman subject knowingly, with a frisson of stagey passion barely masking a sly wink. You want to roll your eyes at him, and you will, but you’ll know that he’s in on the joke his making of himself.

Worth the study.

Ovid, Virgil, and Lucretius Walk Into a Palace…

Back when I first conceived The Meditations of Caius Caligulia, I had a list of books I wanted to read to give me inspiration and background. Writers have to be readers, and I had the broad strokes of what I wanted to do, without the details. Details are key.

So I needed to read, at the very least, Suetonius’ chapter on Caligulia, and I, Claudius by Robert Graves (I was familiar with the BBC miniseries). I wanted to have a go at Camus’ play of Caligulia, because I’d been reading some Camus anyway, and because the “ennui-into-tyranny” line intrigued me.

These were the books that gave me the narrative structure of the project: Who Caligulia was, and why he acted that way. The novella is now finished, or at least, drafted. What does it need now?

I greatly enjoy the voice of the character: how he dances between flights of theophanic fancy and rigorous political meditations. However, I need a certain level of climax for the ending, and to do that, I will have to deep dive into some of the literature current in Little Boots’ time. These are:

  • Ovid’s Love Books. Ovid was a poet of the creeping epicureanism of Rome’s upper class. A kind of window on the Satyricon (which I also might read).
  • Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. A Hellenized Roman, a philospher of the capital-E Epicurean school. He’s already mentioned in the existing first Chapter, when Caligulia refers to him as “that atomist”
  • The aforementioned Aeneid

I pick all of these because they were current to the time, i.e., the late 1st century BC-early 1st century AD. Caligulia might have actually read them. And they speak to the culture of that time: the dawn of Rome’s Imperial Age and the concomitant cultural syncretism. I need to feed a blend of them into my not-quite-mad emperor, so that he can rise to his fullest. I do not know when I’ll have finished this process, but I’ve already had fun doing it.