Saturday, May 22, 2021

A Staying Hand When I Yearned for Death: Ovid, Ex Ponto I.9

 TRIGGER WARNING: suicide, self harm

***If you are in crisis and need help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 ***

Roman men often had deep, loving and affectionate friendships with their peers; there was no shame or stigma in expressing love and support to one another. In the following poem, Ovid expresses his love and appreciation for his deceased friend Celsus  as he faces a terrifying personal crisis (his exile in  8 CE).


 Quae mihi de rapto tua venit epistula Celso

       protinus est lacrimis umida facta meis,

quodqve nefas dictu fieri nec posse putavi,

       invitis oculis littera lecta tua est.

Nec quicquam ad nostras pervenit acerbius aures,                    5

       ut sumus in Ponto, perveniatque precor.

Ante meos oculos tamquam praesentis imago

       haeret et extinctum vivere fingit amor.

Saepe refert animus lusus grauitate carentes,

       seria cum liquida saepe peracta fide.                    10

Nulla tamen subeunt mihi tempora densius illis

       quae vellem vitae summa fuisse meae,

cum domus ingenti subito mea lapsa ruina

       concidit in domini procubuitque caput.

Adfuit ille mihi, cum me pars magna reliquit,                    15

       Maxime, Fortunae nec fuit ipse comes.

Illum ego non aliter flentem mea funera vidi

       ponendus quam si frater in igne foret.

Haesit in amplexu consolatusque iacentem est

       cumque meis lacrimis miscuit usque suas.                    20

O quotiens vitae custos invisus amarae

       continuit promptas in mea fata manus!

O quotiens dixit: 'Placabilis ira deorum est:

       vive nec ignosci tu tibi posse nega!'

Vox tamen illa fuit celeberrima: 'Respice quantum                    25

       debeat auxilium Maximus esse tibi.

Maximus incumbet, quaque est pietate, rogabit

       ne sit ad extremum Caesaris ira tenax,

cumque suis fratris vires adhibebit et omnem,

       quo levius doleas, experietur opem.'                    30

Haec mihi verba malae minuerunt taedia vitae:

       quae tu ne fuerint, Maxime, vana cave.

Huc quoque venturum mihi se iurare solebat

       non nisi te longae ius sibi dante viae.

Nam tua non alio coluit penetralia ritu                    35

       terrarum dominos quam colis ipse deos.

Crede mihi, multos habeas cum dignus amicos,

       non fuit e multis quolibet ille minor,

si modo non census nec clarum nomen avorum,

       sed probitas magnos ingeniumque facit.                     40

Iure igitur lacrimas Celso libamus adempto,

       cum fugerem, vivo quas dedit ille mihi;

carmina iure damus raros testantia mores,

       ut tua venturi nomina, Celse, legant.

Hoc est quod possum Geticis tibi mittere ab arvis;                    45

       hoc solum est istic quod licet esse meum.

Funera non potui comitare nec ungere corpus

       atque tuis toto diuidor orbe rogis.

Qui potuit, quem tu pro numine vivus habebas,

       praestitit officium Maximus omne tibi.                    50

Ille tibi exequias et magni funus honoris

       fecit et in gelidos vertit amoma sinus

diluit et lacrimis maerens unguenta profusis

       ossaque vicina condita texit humo.

Qui quoniam extinctis quae debet praestat amicis,                    55

       et nos extinctis adnumerare potest.

 --Ovid, Ex Ponto I.9

To Maximus Cotta:

Your letter that came to me about Celsus’ death

was immediately drenched in my tears.

I thought it wouldn’t be possible to do so,

But as much as it shames me to say this,

I didn’t want to read your letter.

Nor did any news come to my ears more bitterly than this

Since I’ve been in Pontus,

And hopefully nothing worse will come.

Celsus’ image appears before my eyes

And my love for him deludes me into thinking the dead man still lives.

Often I think about his playful nature;

He lived his life in utter transparency.

Nothing eases my pain more than the time

when, as I wished to end my life,

when my whole world collapsed around me suddenly

and fell down upon my head,

*He* was there by my side,

when all my other friends had abandoned me;

he chose to share my pain.

I saw him mourning my death

As if he mourned the loss of his own brother.

He held me, and comforted me as I lay fallen,

And his tears mixed with mine.

Time and again he protected me from ending my bitter life

Holding my hands from ending it all.

Time and again he told me,

“The gods’ anger does not last forever:

Live and don’t deny yourself an opportunity for redemption!”

His voice rings in my ears so clearly:

“Look at how much Maximus can help you,

 Maximus will use the love he holds for you

To check Caesar’s anger, and keep him from executing you,

Performing a brother’s duty, he will use his resources

and do whatever he can to lessen your grief.”

His words alleviated my hatred for life.

See to it, Maximus, that his promises are not in vain.

He used to promise that he would come visit me here,

But only if you would allow such a long journey,

For he worshiped your day-to-day schedule

The way that you revere the gods’ management of the earth.

If what mattered wasn’t social class or ancestry

But rather if it were kindness and talent that make men great,

then he would be greatest of all your friends, --trust me!--

despite the fact that you are worthy of many other friends.

So it’s appropriate for me to shed tears over the death of Celsus,

to return the tears that he gave to me as I was exiled.

It’s appropriate for me to write poetry praising his character,

So that future readers can read your name, Celsus.

This is all I can send from Getan territory,

This alone is what I can do.

I’m not permitted to attend your funeral,

Or anoint your body,

An entire globe keeps me from your funeral pyre.

Maximus, whom you worshipped as a god,

Has completed every funeral rite for you as best he could.

He provided you with a funeral and a wake

And sprinkled the flowers over your cold body.

 Grieving, he anointed you with unguents mixed with his tears,

And covered your bones in a land close to home.

Since he performed the rite due to dead friends,

He can now add me to that number as well.



Name: Publius Ovidius Naso  

Date:  43 BCE – 18 CE

Works:  Ars Amatoria


              Tristia, etc.



Region 1: Peninsular Italy; Region 2: Western Europe; Region 3: Western Coast of Africa; Region 4: Egypt and Eastern Mediterranean; Region 5: Greece and the Balkans



Ovid was one of the most famous love poets of Rome’s Golden Age. His most famous work, the Metamorphoses, provides a history of the world through a series of interwoven myths. Most of his poetry is erotic in nature; for this reason, he fell into trouble during the conservative social reforms under the reign of the emperor Augustus. In 8 CE he was banished to Bithynia, where he spent the remainder of his life pining for his native homeland.



Early Roman Lit: through 2nd c BCE: Republican Rome: through 1st c. BCE; Golden Age: 70 BCE to 18 CE; Silver Age: 18 CE to 150 CE; Age of Conflict: 150 CE - 410 CE; Byzantine and Late Latin: after 410 CE


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