Ovid’s Reminder to Love in the Midst of War (“Amores” 1.9)

Concern about the end of the world is as old as sapient man. No doubt the trauma of the Romans who lived through the brutal sack of their city in 410 A.D. led them to believe the sky had fallen and the sun would not rise the next day. Even the early Christians, followers of Jesus, expected an end within their lifetimes. St. Paul has to remind them, in the Letter to the Thessalonians, not to become idle in expectation of the Second Coming and ensuing Armageddon.

Ovid, that magnificent poet of a Rome in transformation from what seemed to be the end of the old world and birth of the new, reminds us of what really matters in life amid the chaos that always lurks over the horizon. While I have written an essay concerning the interpretation of the Metamorphoses here, I think it duly appropriate in the midst of our “war on the coronavirus” and a world undergoing epochal transformation that we be reminded of Ovid’s call to loving serenity and sanity despite it all:

Every lover serves as a soldier, also Cupid has his own camp;
Believe me, Atticus, every lover serves as a soldier.
The age which is apt for war, is also suitable for Love:
Disgraceful [is] an old man as a soldier, disgraceful [is] an elderly lover.
Those spirits which leaders look for in a brave soldier,
A beautiful girl seeks these in a man as her companion:
Both keep watch at night; each rests on the ground;
That one guards the doors of his mistress, that one his general’s.
The duty of the soldier is the long road: send the girl away,
The vigorous lover will follow with boundary removed;
He will go onto hostile mountains and rivers doubled
By a rainstorm, he will tread his way through piled up snows,
Nor [when] about to press the seas, will he plead the swollen Southeast Wind
Nor seek stars suitable for sweeping across the waters.
Who, if neither a soldier nor a lover, will endure the frosts
Of the night and snow mixed with dense rain?
One is sent among the hostile foes as a spy,
The other keeps his eye upon his rival, as his enemy.
That one besieges mighty cities, that one the threshold of
A harsh girlfriend; one breaks down gates, the other doors.
Often it has been beneficial to attack sleepy enemies
And to slaughter an unarmed crowd with an armed hand;
Thus the fierce troops of Thracian Rhesus fell,
And you, captured horses, deserted your master:
Certainly lovers use the sleep of husbands
And move their weapons after the enemies sleep.
To pass through the bands of guards and troops of watchmen.
It is always the work of a soldier and a wretched lover
Mars is doubtful nor is Venus certain; and the conquered rise again,
And those whom you say never could be brought down, fall.
Therefore whoever called love idleness,
May he stop: love has an active nature.
Sad Achilles burnt against the abducted Briseis
(While you may, break the Argive strength, Trojans);
Hector went from the embrace of Andromache to war,
And she who gave him a helmet for his head, was his wife;
The greatest of leaders, son of Atreus, having seen Priam’s daughter is said
To have been stupefied by her flowing Maenad’s hair.
Mars, also having been caught, felt the chains of the blacksmith:
No story was more famous in heaven.
I myself was lazy and born for loose-clad leisure;
The couch and shade had softened my spirit;
Love for a beautiful girl urged on idle [me],
And ordered me to earn wages in his camps.
Then you see me agile and waging nocturnal war:
He who does not want to become idle, let him love.

Amores, 1.9


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