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This year’s course #CL206 is now over. This blog will remain up and accessible for anyone to use over the next year. I’ll be teaching this class again at BU in the Fall of 2018, at which point the blog posts will come down and be reinvigorated with some new material. In the meantime, take a look at some of the poems written by the students in the Fall 2017 class for #CL206.

In Spring 2018 I’ll be teaching CL 102 World of Rome, which has its own course blog. Follow along there and also on twitter with #worldofrome. Enormous thanks are due to students of CL 206 Fall 2017 and to the BU Classics department.

prof. č-b


Course evaluations

Please bring your laptop with you to class on Thursday 7th December. During the last 15 or so minutes, I will give you time to do your course evaluation. If you would like to do it before then, feel free to go to the following link. This link will be live until December 15th.

To access and submit an evaluation, use any portable smart device (phone, tablet, laptop…) and type the following URL into your internet browser’s search field:

  1. Enter your BU login name and Kerberos Password. Complete the particular evaluation assigned to you for this particular course.
  2. Your evaluations are anonymous, and instructors will not receive results until after all final grades have been submitted.
  3. Comments in the text fields are valued and encouraged. Please try to answer all questions, but if a question is not applicable to you or you do not wish to answer it then simply skip it.
  4. When you are done, please close your browser.
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Weeks 13-14: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Medea 1969

Maria Callas Pasolini Medea 1969.jpg

“For me, nothing is natural, not even nature.” Pier Paolo Pasolini

In Weeks 13-14, we’ll be spending time with a rather disturbing, mystical version of Euripides’ Medea — the Medea by the Italian poet, writer, and film-maker, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922–1975). Before we dive into the world of Pasolini, it’s important to note that between Euripides’ Medea and Pasolini’s there were numerous reinterpretations of the play and the character. Here’s a (very selective!) list of works following Euripides where Medea appeared as a character of significance, or where Medea is the prototype for its action. [List drawn from introduction to A. J. Boyle, Seneca’s Medea].

Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Greek epic, 3rd century BCE
— Ennius’ Medea, Latin tragedy, 2nd century BCE
— Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Latin epic, 1st century CE; + Heroides 12 (“Medea to Jason”)
Seneca’s Medea, Latin tragedy, 1st century CE
Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, Latin epic, 1st century CE
Albertino Mussato‘s Ecerinis, Latin drama, 1315 [1st secular tragedy since antiquity]
Giovanni BoccaccioGenealogia Deorum Gentilium and De Mulieribus Claris: Latin prose 1360-1375
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest, English drama 1610/1611
— Georg Friedrich Handel, Teseo (“Theseus”), opera 1713 [Italian language libretto]
Jean Georges NoverreMédée et Jason (“Medea and Jason”), ballet, 1763
Jean AnouilhMédée, drama, 1946
— Lars von Trier, Medea, film, 1988
Elisabeth BouchaudMédée, drama, 1993 [physicist who works on fractals, and playwright!]
Christa WolfMedea, novel, 1996
Arturo RipsteinAsí Es La Vida (“Such is life”), film, 2000 [“Garcíadiego’s adaptation of Seneca’s Medea, transposed to the lower depths of contemporary Mexico City”]
Wesley EnochBlack Medea, drama, 2000 [reflecting upon Euripides’ Medea in the context of Australian indigenous culture]
Luis AlfaroMojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, drama, 2015

The act of revivifying Medea by successive writers has always meant interacting with previous treatments of her. As we saw in weeks 4-5, the Medea myth predated Euripides’ treatment. Ennius’ Medea (now fragmentary) seems to have evoked Euripides’ somewhat closely, at least in its opening. Shakespeare’s The Tempest remodeled Medea by drawing on Ovid (Prospero’s speech draws from Ovid Metamorphoses VII). Pasolini himself drew on Euripides, Seneca, and Apollonius of Rhodes for his 1969 Medea. It’s clear that in many adaptations, Medea is taken as a character whose dramatization can express contemporary issues of social justice, such as the cultural conflicts of indigenous culture alongside modern Australia in Black Medea, or the politicization of Mexican immigration in California in Alfaro’s Mojada. Many have seen Pasolini’s Medea, informed by his Marxism, to have an anti-colonial message: Jason as colonial power, emblematized by his seizure of the Golden Fleece. Acts of interpretation and reinterpretation such as these demonstrate the ways in which classical personae can be both deeply personal, contingent upon the historical moment, while suggesting something universal. Wesley Enoch, asked why he used the ancient story in Black Medea, responded:

The Classics are the Classics because they have universal stories to tell. These universal stories are not contained in one culture but inhabit all cultures. They pose questions and provide advice so that we understand the human condition better. Humanity needs stories we can go back to over and over, retelling them so we can measure how much we’ve grown. Classics can survive through time, translation and retelling because they tap into something fundamental in our collective psyche. People will bring prior knowledge to this interpretation of Medea in a way I hope that will allow them to see this story and mark the differences and similarities.

From at least Seneca (1st century CE playwright, philosopher) onwards, the character of Medea was given a sense of self-knowledge — i.e. Medea seems often to have a sense that she herself is a character in a play called “Medea” and that there have been many restagings before. In this way, she may remind us of Helen, who “writes” the Trojan war with her weaving, and who is the only character in the poem who can see Aphrodite — i.e. see the narrative structure around her, and the web within which she is caught. According to A. J. Boyle (2014:356, screenshot in tweet below), in Seneca’s Medea (line 910) she announces this self-knowledge with the statement, “Now I am Medea” (Medea nunc sum). In later adaptations, Seneca’s phrase is recalled over and over again, including Anouilh’s “Je suis Médée, enfin, pour toujours” — “I am Medea, finally, forever.”

Last week, we spoke in class about how the modern poets, Rita Dove and Carol Ann Duffy used female figures of ancient mythology in their own poetry to model female relationships (Dove: “FOR my mother, TO my daughter“) as well as to problematize masculine visions of reality (Duffy: Frau Freud). With Pasolini’s Medea, we return to male authorship (something familiar by now). Pier Paolo Pasolini was, and remains, a controversial figure. A man whose interest in the very poor of Italy was reframed by his critics as a cover for, or manifestation, of his homosexuality (Greene 1990: 29), he was violently murdered in November 1975. Born in 1922 (the year that Mussolini came to power) into what he called “dignified poverty” at Casarsa, a small Italian region of Friuli, as he moved through his life he touched upon a variety of intellectual pursuits: he was a poet, novelist, essayist, film-maker, and an extremely controversial political commentator.

Pasolini made three films based on Greek tragedy: Edipo re (Oedipus Rex, 1967); Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana (Notes for an African Oresteia) filmed between March and October of 1969, during the pre- and post-production of Medea, but not released in Italy until shortly after Pasolini’s untimely death in 1975. Of these three, Medea is generally the least admired, with some critics even calling it a “failure.” The Medea was shot on location during June and July of 1969 in the Göreme region of Turkey. The opera singer, Maria Callas (1923-1977), who had sung Medea many times on stage, played Medea. This was her only film role. Jason was played by Italian Olympic triple jumper Giuseppe Gentile (b. 1943).

Everywhere we look in this class, we have found elements of Freudian thought — whether invoked explicitly or implicitly. Speaking of his early life, Pasolini saw an inherent tension between himself and his father. As Naomi Greene has written (1990: 4):

Pasolini himself confessed to feeling an “antagonistic, dramatic tension” between his father and himself from childhood on. His mother’s gentleness contrasted with what Pasolini deemed his father’s “violent” and “possessive” nature. And while she did not question the social order, she was anti-Fascist, unlike her authoritarian husband, who embraced Mussolini’s regime from the beginning. Speaking of the parental arguments that deeply marked his youth, Pasolini noted that his whole life was “influenced by the scenes my father made with my mother. These scenes awakened in me the desire to die…He reproached her with having her head in the clouds. The simple truth is that he was a Fascist, she was not. Being in the clouds meant, for him, being anti-conformist, in disagreement with the laws of the State, with the ideas of those in power [cited by Dacia Maraini 1973: 267-268]

In an interview with the French journalist, Jean Duflot (cited by Greene 1990: 4-5), Pasolini said:

I almost regret that you’re not a psychoanalyst because…I’m very curious about this method of investigation [i.e. Freudian analysis], and I have read enough to question the possibility of speaking about my relations in terms that are simply poetic or even in a way which is purely anecdotal…I will say simply that I experienced a great love for my mother. Her physical “presence,” her way of being, of speaking, her tact and gentleness governed my childhood. For a long time I thought that my entire emotional and erotic life was exclusively determined by this excessive passion which I even perceived as a monstrous form of love.

Earlier in the semester, we encountered several suggestions in Greek contexts that the mother was less significant in the formation of an embryo than the father. As Apollo’s judgement in Aeschylus’ Eumenides (458 BCE), “The male — who mounts — begets. The female, a stranger”:

Speaking of himself in the third person, Pasolini would write:

He sought the Authority feared by his mother
not the Authority exerted by his father — a fascist…

Therefore: his conformism — let us repeat, of maternal and
not paternal origin
— stopped him, for longer than is
normal, from understanding what liberty and rebellion were,
Because liberty and rebellion were his bread.
[Pasolini, “Coccodrillo,” in Il sogno del centauro (1983), cited by Greene 1990: 5]

The sense of matrilineality which Pasolini felt, and the sense of essential conflict with his father (archetypically Freudian), could explain some of his attraction to Medea as a vehicle. The beginning of Pasolini’s Medea sees Chiron the Centaur revealing the truth of the young Jason’s parentage:

Today you are five years old and,
I want you to know the truth about yourself.
You are not my son, nor did I find you in the deep.
I told you a big lie.
You’re not a big liar, but I am. I love telling lies.
Are you sorry now that you know you’re not my son
That I’m not your father or mother?

These opening lines of the film frame what follows as informed by the question of parentage, identity, self-knowledge. Euripides had Medea murder her children as a manifestation of her anger at her diminished reputation, and at Jason’s betrayal, and so she became the icon of the monstrous mother. But Jason is also a father. And despite his rejection of paternity for Jason at this initial insemination of knowledge at the outset of the film, the centaur nonetheless appears as a mentor-figure throughout, and the struggle that Jason has with the double centaurs midway through, is strongly suggestive of the centaur as a prototypical figure, who straddles the world of incomprehensible nature and the structural damage of civilization.

In Aristophanes’ Acharnians (425 BCE), the contemporary comic playwright pokes fun at Euripides’ tragic characters as deliberately wretched and beggarly (“And why dress in these miserable tragic rags? I do not wonder that your heroes are beggars…” lines 412-413). Of the 5th century BCE Athenian playwrights, Euripides is often considered to be the one most interested in what could be termed “realism.” Pasolini’s films are likewise known for depicting grimy characters — e.g. the emphasis on the desperately poor in his first film Accatone (1961); the prostitute of Mamma Roma (1962). In these films especially, Pasolini came closest to the Neo-realism of other Italian filmmakers, which focused on the desperately impoverished working class of post-World War II. Like the Neo-realists, Pasolini used amateurs instead of professional actors.

Pasolini’s films present a certain kind of rawness which reflect not only his background, but his politics, and his engagement with contemporary Marxist theory. He was particularly influenced by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who drew attention to the fact that the writer is not ahistorical and unsituated in his culture, but rather enmeshed in its history, its ideology, and the consequences of these. Gramsci studied the ways in which ideology coheres in style and language itself (Green 1990: 33ff.). Pasolini was also strongly influenced by the religious historian, Mircea Eliade, particularly the views expressed by him in the Myth of the Eternal Return. As Susan Shapiro has written (2013: 100):

For Eliade traditional societies (which include the so-called ‘primitive’ societies of the modern world as well as ancient cultures), share a sacred, religious and mythic worldview, which Eliade sometimes refers to as an ‘archaic ontology’. Part of this worldview involves a cyclical concept of time, according to which the world is continually renewed through annual rituals, such as the celebration of the New Year or the rituals surrounding the planting and harvesting of crops. Modern industrialized societies, by contrast, inhabit a profane or ‘desacralized’ cosmos; they have abandoned symbolic and mythic modes of thought and have embraced a linear, rational, and historical concept of time. Jason, now that he has grown to adulthood, represents this modern worldview in Pasolini’s film.

The combination of theoretical influences and his own experiences led Pasolini to find in film the ability to “realize” a vision of reality that revealed such tensions between nature and society. Life, incomplete, could to some extent be rendered “complete” by the object reality of film. Speaking of himself, Pasolini says:

“It has been said that I have three idols: Christ, Marx, and Freud. That’s only a formula. In truth, my only idol is reality. If I’ve chosen to be a film-maker as well as a writer, it is because, instead of expressing this reality by those symbols which are words, I preferred to express it through cinema: to express reality through reality” (cited by Greene 1990: 92).

Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris 1972), who began his film career as an assistant director to Pasolini, described Pasolini as “like someone who had not gone to school and was constrained to invent writing” (cited by Greene 1990: 21). (Watch this short clip on youtube of Bertolucci describing Pasolini as a “thief at the door”, “Un ladro alla porta“, the first time he meets him.)

Pasolini’s Medea is very different from Euripides’ Medea, though it clearly has ties to its ancestor. Yet, like the works of Rita Dove and Carol Ann Duffy, Pasolini uses the ancient world to reflect his own world view, and the problems of the contemporary time. In your watching of this film, look out for the following tensions: silence vs. speech, rational vs. irrational, natural vs. “realistic”, female vs. male. In the most recent scholarship, the Medea has been taken as a tale of the failure of capitalism, and the failure of modern morality in the face of the ancient and ineffable. I have prepared for you the following worksheet, for you to use in class as we watch the film. Note down your answers, and any other observations, so we can discuss them together.

[Pasolini’s Medea worksheet]

Further reading:
— Naomi Greene, Pier Paolo PasoliniCinema as Heresy (1990) [Mugar PN1998.3.P367 G74 1990]

Medea nunc sum
— Pier Paolo Pasolini
— Medea 1969
— realism

Paper topics

paper 2 topics (due 12/12 wk 15)

— What are the similarities and differences of women in ancient Greece and Rome? 

— Modern scholars generally believe that the woman described as “Lesbia” in the poetry of Catullus is the same as the Clodia Metelli who appears in Cicero’s Pro Caelio. Examining Catullus’ poetry and Cicero’s speech, what do we learn about the figure of Lesbia/Clodia? What role does she play in each genre, and what, if anything, can we learn about her and her world? 

— What does the concept of motherhood mean in antiquity? 

— How does vision, gaze, and “ways of seeing” inform our view of the ancient woman? 

— How do modern writers, poets, and/or film-makers use the stories of ancient women to describe the contemporary world? Can these modern retellings reveal anything about the ancient material? In your essay, you may use: the novels of Emily Hauser, the poems of Rita Dove, the poems of Carol Ann Duffy, Pasolini’s Medea (1969).

— OR, write your own question: please clear it with me before you begin writing.

Write a 5-7 page paper answering **one** of the above questions. Format all papers double-spaced with Times New Roman, 12-point font, 1” margins at top and bottom, 1.25” margins on sides. Papers must be printed and handed in (not emailed) in class on Tuesday 12th December. All papers must include BOTH references to primary text AND citations of scholarly works. Late papers will be subject to -5% deductionsfrom the paper grade for every day that it is late.

Essays will be graded according to the following criteria of content, style, citation. Note that I expect you to use the scholarly resources with I have assigned as part of your readings, e.g. Page duBois, Sarah Pomeroy, Women in the Classical World, etc. You may use other sources, but make sure they are appropriate scholarly resources. Although you should feel free to use the ideas we discuss in class, the best papers are those which go beyond the classroom discussion and generate original analysis upon the texts and scholarship.

Exemplary: A (95-100%), A- (90-94%)
Answers the question with a sophisticated argument and is eloquently written.
Many well chosen quotations from ancient sources, properly cited.
Supported by quotations and references to scholarly articles, properly cited.

Good: B+ (87-89%), B (84-86%), B- (80-83%)
A good argument, which may come close to answering the question.
Some contact with ancient sources, scholarly articles.
Perhaps occasional slip of grammar or spelling.

Adequate: C+(77-79%), C (74-76%), C- (70-73%)
A vague argument, does not answer question.
No contact with ancient sources, scholarly articles.
Several problems with grammar or spelling.

Insufficient: D+ (67-69%), D (65-66%)
A weak or non-existent argument.
Does not answer question.
Contains factual errors or irrelevant details.
Uses inappropriate or unattributed sources.

F (0-64%)
Does not complete assignment or inadequately completes assignment.

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Week 12: Reception of women in antiquity: Rita Dove & Carol Ann Duffy

As we head towards the end of the semester, we move from the primary evidence of ancient women towards the image of ancient women in modern literature and film. We have been paying close attention to the issues of seeing and being seen, informed by John Berger’s Ways of Seeing as well as the notion of Freudian scopophilia, by way of Laura Mulvey, feminist film theorist. Last week, we spoke with Dr Emily Hauser about how her scholarship, which examines the idea of the woman as poet in the ancient and modern worlds, coheres in her writing of fiction drawn from the stories of women of antiquity. We are therefore awakened to the importance of history as imagination, scholarship as creativity. In last week’s readings, too, we found that there is tension in this relationship: Shelley P. Haley wrote of the conflict between the research of a classicist, and the oral history of modern African Americans, and this tension, if nothing else, points to the fact that, when we try to recover ancient narratives, certain narratives and discourses have been privileged over others. All of this ultimately relates to the essential problem with which we began, of our complicity as scholars and readers of certain viewpoints, of our wish to overlay our own vision onto evidence from an alien time and place. As Gerda Lerner writes (1986: 15):

“The approach we use in interpretation — our conceptual framework — determines the outcome. Such a framework is never value-free. We ask the questions of the past we want answered in the present.” 

It is within this context, then, that we turn to the modern poets, Rita Dove (1952-) and Carol Ann Duffy (1955-), both writers who are women and who engage with figures of women from the ancient world to present a vision of women in modernity.

Rita Dove, poet, writer, professor, musician from Akron, Ohio, was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for Thomas and Beulah, and US poet Laureate from 1993-1995. In this class, we will have read excerpts from her 1995 book of thirty five sonnets, Mother Love, a modern retelling of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (which we read in week 2), which also evokes Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (1992). But before this work, she had already written the novel, Through the Ivory Gate (1992), and The Darker Face of the Earth, an adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus set on a 19th century plantation in South Carolina. For Dove, then, the myths and stories of the ancient world could be used to reflect her own contemporary experiences and the problems faced by contemporary African Americans, as well as standing metaphorically for her own poesis. Dove’s own language, while evocative of the everyday, is densely encoded with allusions to both ancient myth and modern feminist theory, with the resulting combination reflecting on modern concerns, reflections on race. Cook and Tatum write (2010: 314):

[In the poem, “Arrow” in the book of poetry, Grace Notes] “she then follows with her own version of the Medusa myth…Dove’s Medusa is the mythological creature who has often served in modern poetry as a figure for woman poet. Given Dove’s professed love for puzzles and crosswords, Therese Steffen’s suggestion seems plausible, that MEDUSA is an anagram of AMUSED and a reference to [French feminist theorist] Hélène Cixous’ 1976 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa“… Once freed from the tears they have had to shed, women will have cause for unceasing laughter, like Medusa freed from her customary role in classical mythology.

In this class, we will read excerpts from Rita Dove’s Mother Love, which reworks the 7th/6th c. BCE Homeric Hymn to Demeter that we also read. Throughout the semester, we have been trying to find ways into the world of women in antiquity, which, for the most part, relies on a structural vision which is male-female (men viewing women). Occasionally, we get glimpses into female-female relationships: Sappho’s intimacy with other women, the complicit slave-girl in Lysias 1, the cohabitation of the Vestal Virgins. Tracey L. Walters has written the following about Rita Dove’s vision of the mother-daughter relationship in Mother Love (cited by Cook-Tatum 2010: 341):

“While the maternal bond that mothers have for their daughter is unyielding, daughters do not necessarily reciprocate the same emotional attachment to their mothers. In fact, daughters often find their mothers’ love to be stifling and oppressive. Dove reveals that ultimately, either by force or by choice, all daughters leave their mothers, and unlike the mythic story, do not always return home.”

While Dove points to the rigidity of the sonnet form as a structure that reflects the order of the universe, she nonetheless breaks through that order — not all of the 35 sonnets in Mother Love conform to the model of fourteen lines. In the beginning of this work, Dove creates a dissonance between the form of the sonnet (“An Intact World”) and the disruption of a daughter torn from her mother. We should note that, since the Homeric Hymn to Demeter was composed to be performed in celebration of the goddess, and to worship her in her connection to the cult at Eleusis, the Greek poem is therefore concerned with the impact of elemental violence and regeneration on the community, and the community’s attempts to survive these immortal forces (we spoke in class about how the humans in this story are complicit in their own lack of knowledge). In Dove’s collection, however, she writes from the perspective of a mother to a daughter, and a mother in a line of mothers: her dedication is “FOR my mother, TO my daughter.” 


In this sense, Dove’s agency in the poetry creates its own rupture; likewise, a more personal perspective, in contrast to the Hymn’s omniscient narrator, draws out the specific viewpoint of the female. Since H.D.’s poems “Demeter“, “At Eleusis”, and “The Mysteries”, the story of Demeter and Persephone became one of the central myths for feminist poets (see Helen P. Foley 1994: 151-169).

Carol Ann Duffy, poet and playwright from the Gorbals, a poor part of Glasgow, Scotland, was appointed the Britain’s Nobel Laureate in May 2009: the first woman, the first Scot, and the first openly LGBT person to do so. In the secondary readings, Liz Yorke, speaks about the diversity of modern poetry from a perspective that may remind us of our discussion about Sappho. Is the category of “lesbian” in poetry important (1999: 80)?

Yorke 1999: 80.png

For class, you will have read excerpts from her 1999 collection of poetry, The World’s Wife. Evoking, to some extent, the poetry of Ovid, who in his Heroides, wrote letters from famous mythological women to their lovers, in The World’s Wife, Duffy writes from the perspective of famous literary or legendary women. Like Dove, we find Duffy using the language of the everyday to express the world of women, one that evokes a strong feeling of loss, claustrophobia, limitations, disappointment, and small moments of revenge. Both Dove and Duffy are strongly self-reflective. Take for example, these excerpts of Rita Dove’s poem Used (p60, part iv of Mother Love) and Duffy’s Thetis (p5):

Rita Dove, Used:

The conspiracy’s to make us thin. Size threes
are all the rage, and skirts ballooning above twinkling knees
are every man-child’s preadolescent dream.
Tabula rasa. No slate’s that clean…

Duffy, Thetis:

So I shopped for a suitable shape.
Size 8. Snake.
Big Mistake.
Coiled in my charmer’s lap,
I felt the grasp of his strangler’s clasp
at my nape.

Each excerpt touches upon the idea of the female body as a measure. Although evoking the dress sizes of the US and the UK (which are different – incidentally, pointing to the essentially irrationality (and tyranny) of the system), both poets refer to small sizes —

Dove: “The conspiracy’s to make us thin. Size threes | are all the rage”;
Duffy: “So I shopped for a suitable shape. | Size 8.”

In Dove’s poem, the broader context situates the desire to be small, to not take up space, at the point in the woman’s life post-childbirth (“persuaded by postnatal dread”). In Duffy’s poem, entitled Thetis (water goddess) the desire for a woman to be thin is placed within the mythological shape-shifting of the goddess to escape capture by men. Peleus, advised by Proteus, an ancient sea-god, to come across her while she was asleep and tie her up. Thetis changed into many shapes: fire, water, a lioness, and a snake (Ovid, Metamorphoses 11.221ff.) ; see the 5th c. BCE vase-painting below, Thetis turning into a lion as she’s tackled by Peleus. But Peleus subdued her, and they were married. The product of this marriage was Achilles. Zeus, who had been originally interested in Thetis, received a prophecy that Thetis’ son would be greater than his father; knowing this, and that a child of his with Thetis would lead to an overthrow of cosmic order, he contrived the marriage of Peleus to Thetis. In Duffy’s Thetis, the goddess “shrinks herself”: a small bird, an albatross, a snake, a lion. The poem features a gunshot: “But my gold eye saw | the guy in the grass with the gun. Twelve-bore.” In this poem, the point of concession is not marriage, but a bullet. Thetis continues to remake herself, until her child is born.


— Rita Dove
— Carol Ann Duffy
— Medusa
— Classical reception

blog post

week 11: Cleopatra — the Impossible Queen | reading by Dr Emily Hauser

“Cleopatra VII appears to have seduced scholars as well as Romans.” Wyke 2007: 199.

This week, we turn to one of the most evocative yet mysterious figures from the ancient world, one who has captured the imagination of generations, Cleopatra VII Philopator (69-30 BCE), the last Ptolemaic ruler in Egypt. The name “Cleopatra” itself meant “fame of the father” (κλέος, kleos + πατήρ, pater), and “Philopater” “love of father”. She would also take on the epithet “philopatris” “fatherland-loving” (Wyke p202 with n22). Cleopatra, a ruler and source of power in her own right, has been so closely associated by the literary and theatrical tradition with her Roman lovers, Julius Caesar (who placed under siege and captured Alexandria in 48-47 BCE) and Mark Antony (encounter at Tarsus in 41 BCE), that our accounts of her have been complicated by her symbol as a emblem of sex and “eastern” exoticism.

In your readings for this week, you will have encountered the fact that even modern scholars, intoxicated by the exotic picture of Cleopatra from the ancient sources to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (and beyond) have trouble extricating the reality of the Egyptian ruler from the myth. As Maria Wyke (2007: 198-199) notes:

The marked tendency of twentieth-century historians to break into Shakespearian tragic dialogue when describing the queen’s death demonstrates the pervasiveness of one particular ancient fiction, from Plutarch in a direct line of descent through his translators Amyot and North, to Shakespeare and the first 1930s edition of The Cambridge Ancient History. Similarly, when Michael Grant, at the outset of his own biography of the queen, invites his readers into the ‘story of a woman who became utterly involved, in her public and [p199] private life alike, with two men’, he borrows his narrative strategy (which allows Cleopatra only the power of sexual allure and absorbs her entirely into a history of Rome) from the ancient historian Cassius Dio [c.155–235 CE] who centres Cleopatra’s reign around her captivation of two Roman men, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and her destruction by a third, Octavian (Dio 51.15.4)…The Decadent critic Arthur Symons provided the interpretative key to such descriptions when he claimed that ‘before the thought of Cleopatra every man is an Antony’. Twentieth-century historians of ancient Rome have structured the queen as erotic object both for the male author of the narrative and for the male reader which that narrative has presupposed.

From Wyke’s perspective, every interpreter has been caught up in the Freudian scopophilia (as recoded by Laura Mulvey), or in John Berger’s words (14:52): “is sexuality within the frame, or in front of it?” Here is the account of Dio Cassius that Wyke suggests has been so influential (it’s worth reading the full version of Dio Cassius 51):

[51.5.4] Cleopatra was of insatiable passion and insatiable avarice; she was swayed often by laudable ambition, but often by overweening effrontery. By love she gained the title of Queen of the Egyptians, and when she hoped by the same means to win also that of Queen of the Romans, she failed of this and lost the other besides. She captivated the two greatest Romans of her day, and because of the third she destroyed herself.

After the death of Ptolemy XII Auletes in 51 BCE (whom we encountered in the backstory to the trial of Caelius in 56 BCE), she became the ruler of Egypt, at first alone, and subsequently jointly with her brothers, first Ptolemy XIII, then Ptolemy XIV (47-45 BCE). A joint reign with Ptolemy XV (“Caesarion”, supposed to have been the child of Julius Caesar) is recorded from 45 BCE. She also had children by Mark Antony: the twins, Alexander Helios (“the Sun”) and Cleopatra Selene (“the Moon”), and Ptolemy Philadelphus (born 36 BCE). These children ruled symbolically over territories: Caesarion ruled Cyprus (restored by Caesar to Egypt), Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus were named kings east and west of the River Euphrates, Cleopatra Selene the queen of Cyrene.



This limestone stele was dedicated to Cleopatra VII Philopator on 2 July 51 BC by Onnophris, the Greek president of the association of Isis Snonais.

The above pictured limestone stele (image from the Brooklyn Museum; original in the Louvre: copyright image here) was erected in 51 BCE (the first year of Cleopatra’s reign) by someone who calls themselves “Onnophris the Greek”. The stele shows the image of the ruler making sacrifice to a seated Isis, nursing her baby, Horus. While the images represent the traditions of Egypt, the text is in Greek, reminding us that the rulers of Egypt by this time were a Hellenistic dynasty. In this image, Cleopatra is represented in the dress of a male ruler (Wyke p201: “a stele…represents the queen as a bare-chested and kilted Pharaoh who wears the Double Crown and makes offerings to [p202] an enthroned Isis.”). Although this is in itself suggestive, the Louvre museum, alongside an image of this stele, writes:

“the traditional representation of the pharaoh was not intended as a realistic likeness, but as a kind of “pictogram.” In this context, there was nothing anomalous about the use of a male image to represent Cleopatra…The Egyptians knew nothing and cared little about the appearance of their Greek sovereigns, and continued to depict them according to the prescribed Pharaonic models. The relief’s composition and iconography are purely Egyptian, but the text is written in Greek, the language of the conquerors.”

A funerary stele erected in 29 BCE (after Cleopatra’s death) at the Bucheion (bull cemetery) at modern Armant (Egyptian: Iuni-Montu; Greek: Hermonthis, 25 km S of Thebes, W bank of Nile) gives us a view of Cleopatra from an official, Egyptian perspective. The stele (known as stele 13) is today in the Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. The inscription describes the burial of the Buchis bull, who, while alive, was venerated in the Hermonthis region of Egypt as a living god, gave oracles, cured the sick.

…He [= the bull] reached Thebes, his place of installation, which came into existence aforetime, beside his father, Nun the Old. He was installed by the King himself in year 1, Phamenoth 19  [=22 March 51 BCE]. The Queen, the Lady of the Two Lands, the Goddess Philopator, rowed him in the boat of Amen, together with the boats of the king, all the inhabitants of Thebes and Hermonthis and priests being with him. He reached Hermonthis, his dwelling place on Mechir 22… [excerpted from Tyldesley 2008: 43 cf. Tarn JRS 1936]

Although many scholars have noted that the formulaic nature of the inscription suggests that Cleopatra does not have to have been present at this cult worship, the inscription nonetheless demonstrates how she was presented to her audience in Egypt within an official capacity, near the beginning of her reign. Evidence such as this demonstrates an insistence by the Ptolemaic rulers to co-opt the ancient language of the Egyptian Pharaonic practices, and suggests to us that Cleopatra was a cunning political operative in her own right, one who understood that the generation of specific images was required to underpin her own power in Egypt.

Cleopatra + Caesarion Warwick

Cleopatra also presented herself in Egypt as mother, co-opting the visual and religious vocabulary of the goddess Isis. Coins from Cyprus show Cleopatra nursing a child in a style suggestive of Aphrodite/Isis nursing the baby Cupid/Horus (date: c.47-30 BCE), see above. Around this time, Julius Caesar placed a statue of Cleopatra in the temple of Venus Genetrix (‘the mother’) at Rome (Wyke p207). A temple was built at Hermonthis to celebrate the birth of Caesarion (Wyke p202), where the relationship of Cleopatra/Isis to Caesarion/Horus was stressed. At Dendera, we can still see a relief representing Cleopatra and Caesarion in Pharaonic dress and poses, as they make religious offerings to other pairs of mothers and sons Hathor/Harsomtus and Isis/Horus:

Cleopatra VII and Caesarion at Dendera (wikimedia)

Cleopatra’s deliberate association with Isis, and her title as nea Isis (“new Isis”, Wyke p204) gains significance for Rome when we consider that the cult of Isis had by the late Republican period grown in its power and scope. As Sarah Pomeroy (1975: 223) writes:

Women as well were strong influences in the establishment of the cult [of Isis]. Nearly one-third of the devotees named in inscriptions in Italy are female. It is likely that the establishment of the cult was promoted by the agency of Oriental slaves and freedmen, a number of whom were prosperous businessmen. Some slaves converted their owners, but even after it spread to the upper classes the Isis cult never abandoned its associations with the lowly members of society. Egypt and her deities were anathema to Rome. Five times during the late Republic the shrines of Isis were ordered torn down. In 50 B.C., when no workmen could be found to carry out the order, the consul himself took an ax and began the destruction. In 43 B.C. there was a temporary respite when the triumvirs, in a bid for popular support, ordered that a temple be built for Isis, but whether this temple was erected is not known. [p224] The hostility to Egypt was intensified by the confrontation between Cleopatra and Antony on the one hand, and Octavian on the other. Cleopatra was Isis incarnate. Octavian had seen Cleopatra, and had viewed Egypt. He recognized the lure that had turned Antony into a “slave of withered eunuchs.” In 28 B.C. the triumphant Octavian, who became Augustus, forbade the building of temples to Isis within the boundaries of the city (the pomerium), and seven years later the prohibited territory was extended to the area close to the city of Rome. He intended thus to deprive the goddess of her worshipers, of whom the urban population constituted a large part.

In class we will discuss in detail how the images of Cleopatra that we receive from Egypt are very different from the ones that appear in Latin poetry. In the works of Propertius, Horace, Virgil, and other Latin writers, Cleopatra appears as a monstrous, drunken, sex-craved queen, an orientalising force, and an affront to all things Roman. The rupture between the Cleopatra presented by Egyptian sources and her characterisation at Rome (influenced by the propaganda of Octavian) emblematizes the problem of trying to reconstruct the life of a powerful woman. In the face of narratives deriving from a Eurocentric, white vision, individuals, communities of colour, and popular culture has looked towards ancient Africa in order to recover a sense of what was lost when black and brown bodies were forcibly removed for the economic benefit of Europeans. That is to say, the visual language of ancient Africa is now useful for a statement of power in the face of racial oppression: “In the Black oral tradition, Cleopatra becomes a symbolic construction of voicing out Black African heritage so long suppressed by racism and the ideology of miscegenation” (Shelley Halley p29). See, for example, the decision by Vogue Arabia to present Rihanna as a new Nefertiti (c. 1370 – c. 1330 BCE). Placed in contrast with an image of Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963), we can see that different values are being displayed, different stories told, with the Queen of Egypt at the centre, yet not central.

For class, you will have read Shelley P. Haley’s “Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re-empowering.” In this chapter, Haley demonstrates the problem of recovering visions of the past that can cohere in one individual: the tensions of being a Black feminist, and a classicist at the same time. She writes (p24):

“Think of the possibilities in my case: feminist classicist and woman classicist, Black classicist and Black woman classicist, and Black feminist and Black feminist classicist. If oxymoronic odds came in degrees [referring to a comment made to Patricia Williams], I would be somewhere near the high end. How did I come to this location as a Black feminist classicist?”

Haley herself encountered the tension of Cleopatra as a symbol of power and as part of a traditional history (p27):

 Yet, throughout my college and graduate school experience, buried deep in the recesses of my mind was the voice of my grandmother, Ethel Clemons Haley, saying, “Remember, no matter what you learn in school, Cleopatra was black.” Now where did she get an idea like that? Schooled only as far as the seventh grade, never having learned any foreign language, just a domestic servant, a cook, she obviously had no knowledge about Cleopatra or classics or anything else intellectual. So I, the great teacher, used to tell her about the Ptolemies and how they were Greek and how Cleopatra was a Ptolemy and so she was Greek. At one point I even showed her the genealogical tables of the Cambridge Ancient History. “See,” I said, “Cleopatra was Greek!” “Oh,” she said, “and who wrote those books?” I dismissed her question with exasperation and returned to the study of the ancient sources, confident that what I had been taught to see was there to be seen.”

Ultimately, Haley concludes, there is much greater scope for the inclusion of cultural perspectives beyond those which have been traditional in the field of Classics. This kind of work is beginning to be done, but much more is needed (perhaps by one of you in this class? 🙂 ) Here are some further readings on issues of race in Classics:

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On Thursday in class, we will be visited by Dr Emily Hauser, who will speak to us about women in antiquity, the adaptation of ancient stories for modern audiences, and do a reading from one of her novels.

— Cleopatra
— Isis
— Shelley Haley
— creative writing as scholarship 




blog post

week 10: Cult & Ritual at Rome / On Being Seen

“Since a virgin belongs to no man, she can incarnate the collective, the city: she can belong to everyone.” Pomeroy 1975: 210

This week we examine the role of women in the religious life at Rome. The Vestal Virgins were a special group of women who were chosen to devote their lives to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. These women were chosen at a young age usually from elite families. They served for 30 years in chastity, wore the garments of matrons (the stola, the uittae, and a hairdo similar to that of brides). In addition to various religious rites, their principal duties were to keep the flame of Vesta alight, and to remain sexually pure. Their behaviour and purity were directly connected to the welfare of the Roman state. They lived together in the Atrium Vestae, in the center of Rome, next to her main public shrine, the circular Aedes Vestae. There was no statue of Vesta in the shrine (Ovid Fasti 295–8): it contained only the fire and, in the inner sanctum, the ‘sacred things that may not be divulged’: the Palladium (Livy, 26. 27. 14), and the fascinum, the erect phallus that averted evil.

From the historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 60 – after 7 BCE), we receive a description of the duties of the Vestal Virgins, and some of the punishments which could befall them for a perceived blemish in their performance (Roman Antiquities 2.67):

[1] The virgins who serve the goddess were originally four and were chosen by the kings according to the principles established by Numa, but afterwards, from the multiplicity of the sacred rites they perform, their number was increased of six, and has so remained down to our time. They live in the temple of the goddess, into which none who wish are hindered from entering in the daytime, whereas it is not lawful for any man to remain there at night. [2] They were required to remain undefiled by marriage for the space of thirty years, devoting themselves to offering sacrifices and performing the other rites ordained by law. During the first ten years their duty was to learn their functions, in the second ten to perform them, and during the remaining ten to teach others. After the expiration of the term of thirty years nothing hindered those who so desired from marrying, upon laying aside their fillets and the other insignia of their priesthood. And some, though very few, have done this; but they came to ends that were not at all happy or enviable. In consequence, the rest, looking upon their misfortunes as ominous, remain virgins in the temple of the goddess till their death, and then once more another is chosen by the pontiffs to supply the vacancy. [3] Many high honours have been granted them by the commonwealth, as a result of which they feel no desire either for marriage or for children; and severe penalties have been established for their misdeeds. It is the pontiffs who by law both inquire into and punish these offences; to Vestals who are guilty of lesser misdemeanours they scourge with rods, but those who have suffered defilement they deliver up to the most shameful and the most miserable death. [4] While they are yet alive they are carried upon a bier with all the formality of a funeral, their friends and relations attending them with lamentations, and after being brought as far as the Colline Gate, they are placed in an underground cell prepared within the walls, clad in their funeral attire; but they are not given a monument or funeral rites or any other customary solemnities. [5] There are many indications, it seems, when a priestess is not performing her holy functions with purity, but the principal one is the extinction of the fire, which the Romans dread above all misfortunes, looking upon it, from whatever cause it proceeds, as an omen that portends the destruction of the city; and they bring fire again into the temple with many supplicatory rites, concerning which I shall speak on the proper occasion.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus goes on (2.68f.) to refer to two cases where accused Vestal Virgins are saved via divine assistance, having to go through certain trials to prove their chastity: one, Aemilia, was suspect because she allowed to sacred fire to go out, managed to rekindle the fire following a prayer to Vesta; another, Tuccia, proved her innocence by carrying water in a sieve from the Tiber, spilling not even a drop (Roman Antiquities, 2.68):

[1] However, it is also well worth relating in what manner the goddess has manifested herself in favour of those virgins who have been falsely accused. For these things, however incredible they may be, have been believed by the Romans and their historians have related much about them. [2] To be sure, the professors of the atheistic philosophies, — if, indeed, their theories deserve the name of philosophy, — who ridicule all the manifestations of the gods which have taken place among either the Greeks or barbarians, will also laugh these reports to scorn and attribute them to human imposture, on the ground that none of the gods concern themselves in anything relating to mankind. Those, however, who do not absolve the gods from the care of human affairs, but, after looking deeply into history, hold that they are favourable to the good and hostile to the wicked, will not regard even these manifestations as incredible. [3] It is said, then, that once, when the fire had been extinguished through some negligence on the part of Aemilia, who had the care of it at the time and had entrusted it to another virgin, one of those who had been newly chosen and were then learning their duties, the whole city was in great commotion and an inquiry was made by the pontiffs whether there might not have been some defilement of the priestess to account for the extinction of the fire. Thereupon, they say, Aemilia, who was innocent, but distracted at what had happened, stretched out her hands toward the altar and in the presence of the priests and the rest of the virgins cried: [4] “O Vesta, guardian of the Romans’ city, if, during the space of nearly thirty years, I have performed the sacred offices to thee in a holy and proper manner, keeping a pure mind and a chaste body, do thou manifest thyself in my defence and assist me and do not suffer thy priestess to die the most miserable of all deaths; but if I have been guilty of any impious deed, let my punishment expiate the guilt of the city.” [5] Having said this, she tore off the band of the linen garment she had on and threw it upon the altar, they say, following her prayer; and from the ashes, which had been long cold and retained no spark, a great flame flared up through the linen, so that the city no longer required either expiations or a new fire.

Given the fact that the Vestal Virgins and their perceived purity were so closely connected to the safety and health of the Roman state, and, given the fact that girls who were chosen to become Vestals usually came from the old aristocracy (most known Vestals come from a senatorial family), the Vestals were often politicized, and embroiled in both public and private feuds. Here are the circumstances of several high profile scandals (or events) of Vestals:

  • legendary Rome: Ilia/Rhea Silvia a Vestal Virgin (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1.76); raped by Mars to become mother of Romulus + Remus.
  • 420 BCE: Vestal Virgin named Postumia  put on trial for sexual offense. Livy 4.44.11: “Actually she was innocent, but the fact that she dressed well and talked rather more freely and wittily than a young girl should, up to apoint justified the suspicion against her. She was remanded, and afterwards acquitted, with a warning from the Pontifex Maximus, in the name of the college of priests, to stop making jokes and to dress in future with more regard to sanctity and less to elegance.
  • 216 BCE: following the disaster of the Battle of Cannae (defeat of Roman army by Hannibal and Carthaginians), two Vestal Virgins were denounced and declared guilty (Livy 22.57.2).
  • 114 BCE: priests investigated and condemned one Vestal Virgin; in 113 BCE two that had been acquitted in 114 BCE were condemned.
  • 73 BCE: the Vestal Fabia (half-sister of Cicero’s first wife, Terentia) thought to have been seduced by Catiline (Cicero, In Cat. 3.9; In Tog. Cand. 91); the Vestal Licinia rumoured to have slept with her cousin, none other than Crassus (Plutarch, Crassus 1).
  • 31 CE: daughter of Sejanus (plotted against emperor Tiberius) raped and strangled to death (Tacitus, Annals 5.9).
  • 83 CE and 90 CE: Vestal Virgins condemned by the Emperor Domitian (see this week’s [handout]).

Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 CE) in his life of the legendary king Numa (10), gives us a vivid description of the gruesome execution of Vestals (as quote by Balsdon p240):

In addition to the Vestal Virgins, elite women were involved in Roman religion in a number of important ways. Bona Dea (the “Good Goddess”), an Italian goddess worshipped especially at Rome and Latium, was worshipped in Rome twice a year (Balsdon p243), once on May 1st in her Temple on the Aventine, and once in the household of a curule magistrate on an evening in early December. On this second occasion, no men were allowed to be present (and images of men and male animals such as statues, paintings, mosaics were covered or removed). The wife of the magistrate presided and was attended by elite women and the Vestal Virgins. At the ceremony, a sow was sacrificed; wine was referred to as “milk”, the wine jar as the “honey pot”. Although the rite was possibly supposed to be a secret, we nonetheless have several accounts of the rites of Bona Dea, some of which are deliberately sensational. In 62 BCE, there was the infamous Bona Dea scandal, at which P. Clodius Pulcher snuck into the female ceremonies to sleep with Caesar’s wife. We learn about this from Plutarch in his Life of Julius Caesar (9-10):

9 [1] However, there were no disturbances in consequence of Caesar’s praetorship (=62 BCE), but an unpleasant incident happened in his family. [2] Publius Clodius was a man of patrician birth, and conspicuous for wealth and eloquence, but in insolence and effrontery he surpassed all the notorious scoundrels of his time. [3] This man was in love with Pompeia the wife of Caesar, and she was not unwilling. But close watch was kept upon the women’s apartments, and Aurelia, Caesar’s mother, a woman of discretion, would never let the young wife out of her sight, and made it difficult and dangerous for the lovers to have an interview. [4] Now, the Romans have a goddess whom they call Bona, corresponding to the Greek Gynaeceia. The Phrygians claim this goddess as their own, and say that she was the mother of King Midas; the Romans say she was a Dryad nymph and the wife of Faunus; the Greeks that she was the unnameable one among the mothers of Dionysus. [5] And this is the reason why the women cover their booths with vine-branches when they celebrate her festival, and why a sacred serpent is enthroned beside the goddess in conformity with the myth. [6] It is not lawful for a man to attend the sacred ceremonies, nor even to be in the house when they are celebrated; but the women, apart by themselves, are said to perform many rites during their sacred service which are Orphic in their character. [7] Accordingly, when the time for the festival is at hand, the consul or praetor at whose house it is to be held goes away, and every male with him while his wife takes possession of the premises and puts them in due array. [8] The most important rites are celebrated by night, when mirth attends the revels, and much music, too, is heard. 10. [1] At the time of which I speak, Pompeia was celebrating this festival, and Clodius, who was still beardless and on this account thought to pass unnoticed, assumed the dress and implements of a lute-girl and went to the house, looking like a young woman. [2] He found the door open, and was brought in safely by the maid-servant there, who was in on the secret; but after she had run on ahead to tell Pompeia and some time had elapsed, Clodius had not the patience to wait where he had been left, and so, as he was wandering about in the house (a large one) and trying to avoid the lights, an attendant of Aurelia came upon him and asked him to play with her, as one woman would another, and when he refused, she dragged him forward and asked who he was and whence he came, [3] Clodius answered that he was waiting for Pompeia’s Abra (this was the very name by which the maid was called), and his voice betrayed him. The attendant of Aurelia at once sprang away with a scream to the lights and the throng, crying out that she had caught a man. The women were panic-stricken, and Aurelia put a stop to the mystic rites of the goddess and covered up the emblems. Then she ordered the doors to be closed and went about the house with torches, searching for Clodius. [4] He was found where he had taken refuge, in the chamber of the girl who had let him into the house; and when they saw who he was, the women drove him out of doors. [5] Then at once, and in the night, they went off and told the matter to their husbands, and when day came a report spread through the city that Clodius had committed sacrilege and owed satisfaction, not only to those whom he had insulted, but also to the city and to the gods. [6] Accordingly, one of the tribunes of the people indicted Clodius for sacrilege, and the most influential senators leagued themselves together and bore witness against him that, among other shocking abominations, he had committed adultery with his sister. [7] But against the eager efforts of these men the people arrayed themselves in defence of Clodius, and were of great assistance to him with the jurors in the case, who were terror-stricken and afraid of the multitude. [8] Caesar divorced Pompeia at once, but when he was summoned to testify at the trial, he said he knew nothing about the matters with which Clodius was charged. [9] His statement appeared strange, and the prosecutor therefore asked, “Why, then, didst thou divorce thy wife?” “Because,” said Caesar, “I thought my wife ought not even to be under suspicion.”

We learn from Cicero (Att. 1.13.3) that the Vestal Virgins performed some of the rites again, so as to ensure that Rome would not suffer from this sacrilege. The poet, Juvenal (1st-2nd century CE), describes the Bona Dea rites as an orgy (6.314-327):

Everyone knows the secret rites of the Good Goddess, when the pipe excites the loins and, crazed by horn and wine alike, the maenads of Priapus are carried away, whirling their hair and howling. How their minds are all on fire to get laid then, how they squeal to the dance of their desire, how abundant a torrent of undiluted lust runs over their dripping thighs! Saufeia takes off her garland and issues a challenge to the brothel-keepers’ slave girls. She wins the prize for swinging her arse, then she in turn worships Medullina’s undulating surges. The contest is between the ladies: their expertise matches their birth. Nothing there will be pretend or imitation. It’ll all be done for real. It could create a spark in the son of Laomedon, already chill with age, or in Nestor’s swollen scrotum. That’s the itch of impatience, that’s the moment of pure Woman.

In the second part of this week, we turn from the role of women in Roman religion to the depiction of women in the works of the poet Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE). From Sulmo, Ovid was one of the famous Latin poets of the Augustan era, known, to some scholars, as the most politically subversive of Rome’s poets of the early imperial period. Since Ovid speaks of himself somewhat freely, we seem to know quite a bit about him. In 8 CE Ovid was unexpectedly punished by Augustus and relegated to Tomis, on the Black Sea. We do not know exactly what the cause of this exile was (Ovid speaks of it in veiled terms in Tristia 2.107), but behind the official reason — the immorality of his poetry — Ovid seems to have had some involvement in the adultery of Julia Minor, Augustus’ granddaughter, with Decimus Junius Silanus. Ovid composed a wide range of poetry in which the themes of love and politics intertwined and reflected one another. Although previous Latin love poets had had a specific female muse around which they structured their poetry, and to some extent their world view (as Catullus with Lesbia, Propertius with Cynthia, Tibullus with Delia), Ovid’s love, “Corinna”, seems most unreal, and most like an amalgam created for poetic reasons. Besides, Ovid often writes that he cannot be satisfied by one woman: he prefers two (Am. 2.10), or that he cannot be charmed by any beautiful woman (Am. 2.4).

  • the Amores, initially in 5 books (after 20 BCE), we have a later edition in 3 books (49 elegies ranging from 20-100 verses), published many years later (perhaps 1 CE); elegiac couplet
  • a Latin version of the Medea, now lost (between 12 and 8 BCE)
  • Heroides (“The Heroines”): first set 1-15 (published c. 15 BCE), second set 16-21 (published 4-8 CE); elegiac couplet
  • Ars Amatoria: first 2 books between 1 BCE and 1 CE; 3rd book, Remedia Amoris, and Medicamina Faciei Femineae (“The Cosmetics of Women”) shortly after; elegiac couplet
  • Metamorphoses: epic poem in 15 books (between 2-8 CE); hexameter
  • Fasti: poetic calendar in elegiac couplets, 6 books for January-June (between 2-8 CE); elegiac couplet
  • Tristia: 5 books written exile: book 1, written during voyage to Tomis; book 2, 9 CE; others written from 9-12 CE and published separately; elegiac couplet
  • Epistulae ex Ponto: 4 books of 46 elegies, first 3 books published in 13 CE, 4th possibly posthumously; elegiac couplet
  • Ibis: short invective poem, 11-12 CE; elegiac couplet

In class, we will be reading a few excerpts from his vast corpus which investigate the various aspects of Ovid’s view of women, which range from the greatly idealized, to the grimy aspects of the reality of contemporary Rome:

  • Amores 1.5;
  • Amores 2.12, 2.13, 2.14;
  • Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”) Book 3;
  • Baucis + Philemon: Metamorphoses 8.629-8.724 (pp196-198);
  • Tereus, Philomela, Procne: Metamorphoses 6.495-674 (pp148-153);
  • Iphis: Metamorphoses 9.666-797 (pp221-224)

A passage of Soranus (Gynecology 1.19.60, translated by Temkin, cited by W in the C W p302) is a useful comparandum with Amores 2.13, 2.14:

For one party banishes abortives, citing the testimony of Hippocrates who says, “I will give to no one an abortive”; moreover, because it is the specific task of medicine to guard and preserve what has been engendered by nature. The other party prescribes abortives, but with discrimination, that is, they do not prescribe them when a person wishes to destroy the embryo because of adultery or out of consideration of youthful beauty; but only to prevent subsequent danger to parturition if the uterus is small and not capable of accommodating the complete development, or if the uterus at its orifice has knobbly swellings and fissures, or if some similar difficulty is involved. And they say the same about contraceptives as well, and we too agree with them.

— Vestal Virgins
 Bona Dea
— Aedes Vestae
— Ovid