The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Crom
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
There are a few actually, but it rather depends on my mood and what mood I want to get to. If I want reassurance that posterity will out, then I turn to Tacitus’ ‘Histories’. But I suppose the author I keep going back to is Ovid. He’s like an addiction. I was translating the ‘Ibis’ last year, this year I’m working on a commentary of ‘Fasti’ Book 2. But I’d tend towards the ‘Amores’ more than anything else. I still remember a comment in the Introduction to the Loeb edition of the ‘Amores’: “The reader will not look to the Amores for profundity of any sort, whether of thought or emotion.” Now, to be fair the editor goes on to say that this is what gives the poems their peculiar charm, but I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe it is just me patting myself on the back for seeing all the literary fun Ovid is having in writing these poems, or maybe it’s because I hear a note of sarcastic opposition to Augustus’ hypocritical puritanism throughout, but for me the ‘Amores’ are very much a regular re-read.
When did you first come across the ‘Amores’?
Well, I’d always been aware of them, but I only started looking at them seriously about 13 years ago as they were among the first texts I had to teach as part of the IB Diploma poetry allocation. I got very pissed off at how sanitised everyone else seemed to be in their delivery of them, so I just jumped in to full-blown ‘nequitia’ with both feet and haven’t really looked back since.
Can you tell me a bit about the poems and their context?
They survive as the second edition of the ‘Amores’ which you can date pretty firmly to ca. 14 BC, based on some references to wigs made from the hair of captured Germans, with Ovid adding in a little prologue to say that he reduced the first edition from five books to three, so he’s giving us a slimmed-down and tightened-up version. So they’re written in the opening decade or so of Augustus’ reign as the first emperor and so give us a pleasing insight into the literary and sexual predilections of Roman society at that time. This is even more interesting when one considers the Leges Juliae of 18 BC, with Augustus doing his best to curtail marital infidelity.
What is it about the ‘Amores’ that appeals to you most?
Where to start? The sheer exuberance of the poetry? The fact that Ovid’s love affair with love-elegy was so potent that he effectively killed off the genre, rendering all subsequent efforts moot? The fact that they are laced with inter-textuality and borrowings/homages/piss-takes of other poets’ work?
These are all great… But for me it’s also that Ovid is decidedly thumbing his nose at Augustus. For me there is no doubt that the “rusticus” of Amores 3.4, who “is smarting from his wife’s adultery” and “does not know well-enough the customs of this city, wherein not even those sons of Ilia – Romulus and Remus – were born without a nudge-and-a-wink”, is Augustus – desperately and hypocritically trying to stem the tide of adultery. I think Ovid would have afforded himself a sly chuckle in AD 9 when Augustus had to re-issue his adultery laws as the Lex Papia Poppaea, notably removing his own name from this unpopular legislation.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I guess that when I’m not on lockdown I can usually be found in a restaurant eating tremendous food and quaffing a cocktail or two (mine’s a ‘Morning Glory Fizz’). But also I coach Rugby, Netball, and Javelin; I used to be a carpenter, so I keep my hand in with a bit of wood-working; some old comic collecting brightens the day; and I’m a sucker for a good quiz or cryptic crossword.
Dr Rob Cromarty is a Classics Teacher writing books for Bloomsbury Classics, with the current one being a Commentary on Ovid, Fasti Book 2. He can be found on Twitter @DocCrom.
Durham University: B.A. (Hons.) Dunelm – Ancient History and Archaeology: Undergraduate Dissertation on Harappan Culture.
Durham University: M.A. Classics – Master’s Dissertation on Trade and Cultural Exchange Patterns in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean.
Durham University: PhD Classics – Research Title: Burning Bulls, Broken Bones: Sacrificial Ritual in the Context of Palace Period Minoan Religion.