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 Hannah Clements-Patrick
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Martial’s very wholesome epigram 1.109 on a good dog named Issa. Here is the original Latin along with my own translation:
Issa est passere nequior Catulli
Issa est purior osculo columbae
Issa est blandior omnibus puellis
Issa est carior Indicis lapillis
Issa est deliciae catella Publi
Hanc tu, si queritur, loqui putabis.
Sentit tristitiamque gaudiumque.
Collo nixa cubat capitque somnos,
Ut suspiria nulla sentiantur;
Et desiderio coacta ventris
Gutta pallia non fefellit ulla,
Sed blando pede suscitat toroque
Deponi monet et rogat leuari.
Castae tantus inest pudor catellae
Ignorat Venerem; nec inuenimus
Dignum tam tenera uirum puella.
Issa is more impish than Catullus’ Sparrow;
Purer than the kiss of a dove;
More alluring than any girl;
Finer than India’s pearls;
Issa is Publius’ darling lapdog.
If she whines, you will suppose that this dog is speaking.
She feels sorrow and joy.
Resting on his neck, she slumbers;
Breathing so softly he does not realise.
And when her belly compels her,
She never betrays a single drop unto the bedcover;
But coaxes and rouses him with her paw,
Warning and asking to be put to the floor,
Back on the bed when she’s done.
A chaste and modest little dog,
She is oblivious to Venus and there will never be found
A man deserving of so gentle a maiden.
When did you first come across this epigram?
I was reading the Odyssey for my A level and like many I fell in melancholic love with the Argos passage in Book 17 (Odysseus’ loyal hunting dog, Argos, sees his master for the first time in years and quietly passes away, having gained closure upon sight of him). I began some amateur research of dogs in the ancient world; Martial’s epigram was the first instance I came across which described an animal which was exclusively a pet rather than a hunting dog.
Can you tell me a bit about this poem and its context?
Martial was a poet from Hispania who wrote and published in Rome from AD 86 to 103. He is widely considered to be the creator of the modern epigram. Whilst very much satirical in nature (if a little crude) his epigrams give us unfiltered insight into contemporary Roman conditions, from false insurance claims to cruel slave owners, and, of course, pets!
What is it about this poem that appeals to you most?
I find the mere act of writing a poem for a dog essentially detailing what a good girl/boy they are to be very wholesome. Martial expresses incredibly well the pure love between dog and owner, the unspoken yet deep bond and mutual admiration. I think most who grew up with our own dogs will appreciate this. Epigram 1.109 seems even more special when contrasted with most of Martial’s other epigrams that are usually steeped in sarcasm and dry wit; perhaps Issa was his soft spot…
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Spend some time with my own dog, Amber, or my cats. Read fiction (Murakami is my favourite), listen to music, paint, walk in the country. If none of the above you’ll be sure to find me watching The Chase with a glass of moscato…
Hannah Clements-Patrick is an undergraduate Classics student at King’s College London. Her primary interests are Roman archaeology and late Republican history, as well as classical reception and access. She blogs on these matters here. You can find her on Twitter @hannah_cp_.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.