Love and Death in Ancient Rome

Last Monday I studied the Latin poem “ad Lesbiam” in class with Dr. Steven L. Jones. On first translating the poem, which fits within the familiar carpe diem motif, I thought it looked and sounded like it was written by a high-school boy. Here is the original Latin along with my translation of the poem:

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,

rumoresque senum severiorum

omnes unius aestimemus assis!

soles occidere et redire possunt:

nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,

nox est perpetua una dormienda.

da mi basia mille, deinde centum,

dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,

deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.

dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,

conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,

aut ne quis malus invidere possit,

cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

[Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,

And let us consider all the rumors of severe old men

To be worth a penny!

Suns are able to rise and set:

When once our brief light dies,

Night must be a perpetual sleep.

Give me a thousand kisses, and then a hundred,

Then give another thousand, and a second hundred,

Then a thousand kisses more, then a hundred.

Then, when we will have made many thousands,

We will mix them up, lest we know,

Or lest any evil man is able to envy,

When he knows that there are so many kisses.]

The last seven lines sound a bit like the fantasy of a desperate boy seducing a girl whose parents are disapproving. But Dr. Jones asked his class to look past the apparently puerile aspects of the poem and consider the philosophical nature of lines 3-6. Indeed, these lines express a familiar pagan lament about the inability of man to participate in the eternal cycles of nature. We have but one “brief light,” and once the night comes, we must sleep forever. The paraphrastic construction of line six underscores the unavoidable necessity of the eternal sleep.

As Dr. Jones discoursed on the poem, I had a sudden realization about Catullus’s turn at the beginning of line seven. In defense of Catullus, I remarked, “A meditation on death should be followed by love,” by which I meant that the pagan poet made a profound connection between love and death. Yes, Catullus wanted nothing more than the embraces of his beloved Lesbia and advanced his case by reminding her of approaching death, but I believe that he had more in mind than “getting some.” These human loves, after all, hold glimpses of eternity, even if they fall back to earth.

Catullus is enchanted with his lover Lesbia. Her kisses provide a temporary escape from the reality of death. And as escapes go, it’s not a bad one! Catullus is having a great time losing himself in the thousands and hundreds and thousands of kisses. Those of us over eighteen years old laugh at this exaggerated enchantment with the lover. Yet there is something true in the promise contained within an earnest romantic love, and that truth pulls the death-conscious poet towards his lover. It is, after all, love that we all seek in the face of death. It’s just that Catullus’s love could never transcend death. The love of Lesbia was not stronger than death. But the notion that love is the only force that could possibly be stronger than death could not be truer.

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