Antiquities, Publications

“I Mean to Box with Love”—Classical Verse for National Poetry Month

Love, ancient Roman style: Cupids cook up perfume (love potion?) in this fresco fragment from the first century A.D."

Love, ancient Roman style: Cupids cook up perfume (love potion?) in this fresco fragment from the first century A.D.

Love, in all its glory and frustrations, its heady emotions and sheer physicality, comes alive in Classical Love Poetry, a refreshing dip into the verse of the past for National Poetry Month.

Think classical poetry is stale and stuffy? Quite the opposite—these poems are loose and lively, even at times lascivious. Translated into English, they seem entirely contemporary.

Take this poem by Petronius—it’s about 2,000 years old.

Sex is but brief, degrading fun,
And quickly palls when it is done.
So let’s not, like livestock filled with carnal greed,
Rush blind and headlong at the deed;
Such love goes stale, the flame is burned.
But thus, with business evermore adjourned,
Let’s lie together and just kiss.
There’s no toil, no cause for shame in this.
It pleased, it pleases, it long will please;
It ever starts and knows no cease.

That’s all very human. But for many of these poets, there could be no love—nor its pains and pleasures—without the gods. In the book’s introduction, editor Jonathan Williams writes, “The love gods that so fascinated the poets of Greece and Rome invaded the mind, took possession of the body, distracted the senses, and goaded the heart into sexual obsession and physical madness.” Like love itself, “They were an irresistible force of nature, as destructive as they were delightful.”

Propertius wrote:

I was free, and had no mind to share my bed;
But peace broke out and I was snared by Love
Jupiter, your ancient transgressions are forgiven!
Her hair is auburn, her hands are long, her stature
Tall; she bears it worthily of Jupiter’s own sister,
Or like Athena, striding to the Ithican altars….

Apparently, Pat Benetar wasn’t the first to see love as a battlefield. In these poems, the men are ready to engage. Like this short piece from Anacreon:

Bring water, bring wine, boy, and bring us
Wreaths of flowers. I mean to box with Love.

Yet for all their tough talk, they willingly submit. There are poems to women (and men) praising their beauty, their body parts, their likeness to the gods. It’s the kind of book where you might find just the right thing to say to a lover—or a sparring partner.

Tagged , , , , , , Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Comment

  1. Eusebia
    Posted January 14, 2014 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    Awesome post.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

  • Facebook

  • Twitter

  • Tumblr

    • photo from Tumblr

      Olympian Census #4: Aphrodite

      Get the stats on your favorite (and not-so-favorite) gods and goddesses on view at the Getty Center.

      Roman name: Venus

      Employment: Goddess of Love and Beauty

      Place of residence: Mount Olympus

      Parents: Born out of sea foam formed when Uranus’s castrated genitals were thrown into the ocean

      Marital status: Married to Hephaestus, the God of Blacksmiths, but had many lovers, both immortal and mortal

      Offspring: Aeneas, Cupid, Eros, Harmonia, Hermaphroditos, and more

      Symbol: Dove, swan, and roses

      Special talent: Being beautiful and sexy could never have been easier for this Greek goddess

      Highlights reel:

      • Zeus knew she was trouble when she walked in (Sorry, Taylor Swift) to Mount Olympus for the first time. So Zeus married Aphrodite to his son Hephaestus (Vulcan), forming the perfect “Beauty and the Beast” couple.
      • When Aphrodite and Persephone, the queen of the underworld, both fell in love with the beautiful mortal boy Adonis, Zeus gave Adonis the choice to live with one goddess for 1/3 of the year and the other for 2/3. Adonis chose to live with Aphrodite longer, only to die young.
      • Aphrodite offered Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman, to Paris, a Trojan prince, to win the Golden Apple from him over Hera and Athena. She just conveniently forgot the fact that Helen was already married. Oops. Hello, Trojan War!

      Olympian Census is a 12-part series profiling gods in art at the Getty Center.


  • Flickr