epic disaster of men’s impotence: Encolpius in the Satyricon

portrait of Virgil from the Vergilius Romanus manuscript

The retired gladiator Encolpius caught the eye of Circe. She was a wealthy woman with maids, and she was young and beautiful, too. She sent a maid to buy a tryst for her with Encolpius.

The maid spoke knowingly with Encolpius. When she implied that he was a prostitute and scum, he responded as learned seducers do, “So you’re the one who loves me {numquid illa, quae me amat, tu es}?” He was the sort of suave rogue that bored, lonely, upper-class women love.

Encolpius’s newly experienced impotence ruined his tryst with Circe. She had hungered for sex with him. She despairingly asked him:

What is it? Do you find some offense in my kiss? Is there something in my breath, which is growing faint from hunger? Have I been negligent about the perspiration of my armpits?

{ Quid est? Numquid te osculum meum offendit? Numquid spiritus ieiunio marcens? Numquid alarum sum negligens sudor puto? }

Encolpius felt as if his whole body had gone limp, as if he had just learned about laws suppressing men’s sexuality. He explained, “Witchcraft has affected me {Veneficio contactus sum}.”

Later that day, Encolpius received a letter from Circe. Encolpius’s failure to perform for her had deeply shaken her self-esteem. She expressed concern about Encolpius’s well-being:

I am writing to inquire about how you are, and whether your own two feet were able to carry you home from our love-making. Doctors say that men who lose their sexual power are unable to walk. I warn you, young man, be wary of paralysis. I have never seen a sick person in such grave danger. I swear you are already dead. If the same mortal chill gets to your hands and knees, you should send for the funeral trumpeters.

{ Quid tamen agas, quaero, et an tuis pedibus perveneris domum; negant enim medici sine nervis homines ambulare posse. Narrabo tibi, adulescens, paralysin cave. Nunquam ego aegrum tam magno periculo vidi; medius fidius iam peristi. Quod si idem frigus genua manusque temptaverit tuas, licet ad tubicines mittas. Quid ergo est? Etiam si gravem iniuriam accepi, homini tamen misero non invideo medicinam. }

Circe then suggested that Encolpius rest for three days without penetrating his boyfriend. To boost her wounded self-esteem, Circe declared to Encolpius that she is beautiful. She told him that, before him, she had had many men who performed well for her. She told him that she could surely find a more responsive lover than him.

Encolpius responded to Circe with the self-abasement of a courtly lover. All his seductive learning, all his charisma as a suave rogue, vanished. He wrote to Circe a letter of apology:

I admit, my lady, my many faults, for I am human and still young. But never before this day have I committed deadly wrongdoing. You have the one who confesses guilt: whatever you will order, I deserve. I have committed betrayal, I have killed a person, I have profaned her temple. Devise a penalty for these crimes. If execution would please you, I will come with my sword. If you are content with a whipping, I will run naked to my lady. Remember this one thing: not I but my tool is at fault. I was ready as a soldier, but I had no weapon. Who upset me, I don’t know. Perhaps my will outran my body’s behavior, perhaps I wasted all my pleasure in delay in desiring too much. I cannot account for what happened.

{ Fateor me, domina, saepe peccasse; nam et homo sum et adhuc iuvenis. Nunquam tamen ante hunc diem usque ad mortem deliqui. Habes confitentem reum: quicquid iusseris, merui. Proditionem feci, hominem occidi, templum violavi: in haec facinora quaere supplicium. Sive occidere placet, ferro meo venio, sive verberibus contenta es, curro nudus ad dominam. Illud unum memento, non me sed instrumenta peccasse. Paratus miles arma non habui. Quis hoc turbaverit, nescio. Forsitan animus antecessit corporis moram, forsitan dum omnia concupisco voluptatem tempore consumpsi. Non invenio, quod feci. }

Men blame themselves for their impotence. That’s blaming the victim. Compassionate women can and should help to empower men.

The next day Circe’s maid brought to Encolpius an old woman named Proselenus. With different-colored threads twisted together, saliva, and small stones, Proselenus ministered to Encolpius. Then, without first asking for his affirmative consent, she placed her hands on his groin. His penis responded with a prodigious uplifting. Joyfully exultant, Proselenus declared Encolpius potent.

Encolpius returned to Circe to redeem his promise. She was languidly lying on a couch and fanning herself. She greeted him:

“How’s it with you, paralytic?” she asked. “Have you come today with all working?”

{ “Quid est” inquit “paralytice? ecquid hodie totus venisti?” }

Regaining some of his former rogue charm, Encolpius responded, “Are you inquiring rather than testing {Rogas, potius quam temptas}?” Then they passionately embraced and kissed.

Encolpius was struck again with impotence. Circe was furious. She ordered him to be hoisted and flogged. Then she had her servants spit on him. Men are commonly disparaged as dogs. Yet even just performing in accordance with that dehumanizing characterization isn’t always possible for all men.

Falling into a pit of despondency and self-hate, Encolpius embraced castration culture. Sotadean meter is associated with cinaedus, a Latin term for a man who actively enjoys being penetrated by another man’s penis. So Encolpius sought to shape his future:

Three times I took in hand the fearsome, two-edged blade,
three times my arm in weakness failed, and so remade
with less strength than a cabbage-stalk, I feebly banned
the weapon cruelly serving my trembling hand.
No longer could I execute my earlier will.
My fearful penis, colder than the winter’s chill,
shrank on my belly, within a thousand wrinkles hidden.
Its head would not be raised for punishment, though bidden:
the rascal’s deadly fear made me a baffled plaything.
I fled for solace, finding words that hurt much more.

{ Ter corripui terribilem manu bipennem,
ter languidior coliculi repente thyrso
ferrum timui, quod trepido male dabat usum.
Nec iam poteram, quod modo conficere libebat;
namque illa metu frigidior rigente bruma
confugerat in viscera mille operta rugis.
Ita non potui supplicio caput aperire,
sed furciferae mortifero timore lusus
ad verba, magis quae poterant nocere, fugi. }

Encolpius then “erected himself on his elbow {erectus igitur in cubitum}” and castigated his penis:

What do you have to say for yourself, you shame of all gods and men? Even your name is a sacrilege to cite among worthy matters. Have I deserved this from you, that you should raise me to the heavens and then drag me to the fiery depths? That you should betray me in my prime age, in the flower of my vigor, and reduce me to the weakness of extreme senility? I request of you, give me the conventional show of your worth.

{ Quid dicis, inquam, omnium hominum deorumque pudor? Nam ne nominare quidem te inter res serias fas est. Hoc de te merui, ut me in caelo positum ad inferos traheres? ut traduceres annos primo florentes vigore, senectaeque ultimae mihi lassitudinem imponere? Rogo te, mihi apodixin defunctoriam redde. }

Virgil, who understood well men’s weakness in relation to women, formed the penis’s response:

It turned away and kept its eye fixed on the ground. My
harangue, only begun, aroused no more its look
than a pliant willow, or a poppy with a drooping head.

{ Illa solo fixos oculos aversa tenebat,
nec magis incepto vultum sermone movetur
quam lentae salices lassove papavera collo. }

The penis hears indifferently what’s said to it. Betrayed and scorned, men commit suicide nearly four times more frequently than women do. The penis living flaccidly in the underworld reflects men’s impotence. Impotent men can do no more than kiss women’s feet. That’s an epic disaster for all.

man adores Circe's feet

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The above story adapts the story of the encounter of Encolpius (Polyaenus) with Circe in Satyricon 125-132. Most classical scholars now think that Petronius Arbiter wrote the Satyricon about 65 GC.

In the Odyssey, the goddess Circe threatened to make Odysseus impotent. Hermes intervened to save Odysseus from that fate. Hermes gave him a magic herb to retain his potency. Odyssey 10.275-300.

Gladiators were known for their sexual allure to women in ancient Rome. Circe’s maid Chrysis thought that Encolpius was a slave. She scorned him:

I have never given myself to a slave yet. God forbid that I should throw my arms around a man destined for the gallows. Married women go for those; they kiss the scars on flogged slaves. I may be just a lady’s maid, but as that I never sit in the lap of anyone lower than a knight.

{ Ego adhuc servo nunquam succubui, nec hoc dii sinant, ut amplexus meos in crucem mittam. Viderint matronae, quae flagellorum vestigia osculantur; ego etiam si ancilla sum, nunquam tamen nisi in equestribus sedeo. }

Satyricon 126. Chrysis, however, subsequently developed a burning sexual passion for the gladiator-slave Encolpius. Satyricon 138.

The quoted texts above are my English translations from Satyricon 125-132. My translations draw upon those of Heseltine & Rouse (1913), Allinson (1930), and Walsh (1996). The Latin text is from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), with some non-substantive adaptions. Here’s an online Latin text of the Satyricon. The Latin text has not been well-transmitted, hence lacunae and textual uncertainties exist.

The first poem quoted above is in the Sotadean meter. That meter is associated with the poet Sotades writing in the third-century BGC. Sotades wrote earthy, licentious verse such as “It’s an unholy hole he’s shoving his prick in {εἰς οὐχ ὁσίην τρυμαλιὴν τὸ κέντρον ὤθει }.” From Kwapisz (2009), quoting Alan Cameron’s English translation. While the meter of the first poem above is Sotadean, its tone is Virgilian epic.

Cinaedus is a Greek term transliterated into Latin. Too often cinaedus is misandristically described as “applied to men who fulfill the role of passively providing sexual pleasure to a man.” See, e.g. Connors (2006) p. 31, n. 37. The dichotomy of “active” and “passive” is narrow-minded gender ideology. Cf. Tiresias’s important insight.

The second poem quoted above is a Virgilian cento. Its first two verses are from Aeneid 6.469-70. The third verse’s first half is a modified version of Eclogues 5.16; the second half is Aeneid 9.436. Schmeling commented:

The result uses Virgil’s words but not in the order in which the poet wrote them. Had E. {Encolpius} continued with A. {Aeneid} 6. 471, instead of a comparison with soft plants, he would have got quam si dura silex aut stet Marpesia cautes. E. is impotent and the words dura silex, instead of lentae salices, would have been ashes in his mouth. And P.’s {Petronius’s} literate audience, knowing their Virgil as South Carolina Baptists once knew their New Testament, recognizes that the three lines are not continuous, knows that v. 471 described flint and rocks, and enjoyed a twofold literary joke: (i) a misuse or parody of Virgil’s words about Dido’s eyes to describe E.’s penis and (ii) chopping up and reassembling lines from Virgil so that the text reads the opposite of what Virgil meant; the omission of the line about silex and cautes calls added attention to E.’s mentula languida.

Schmeling (2011) pp. 508-9. The fundamental sexual issues are more important than Schmeling’s comment indicates. Connors explained:

Petronius juxtaposes Encolpius’ erotic failures with the Aeneid’s representations of terrible grief and loss, evoking not just Dido but Nisus and Euryalus too: the valiant self-sacrifice of Virgilian heroes has been parodically debased into Encolpius’ histrionic outburst.

Connors (2006) p. 32. Debasement can serve a higher purpose. The penis’s response has epic significance today.

[images] (1) Portrait of Virgil from folio 14r of the fifth-century illustrated manuscript known as the Vergilius Romanus (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3867). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Man adores Circe’s feet. Monochrome image of painting by Émile Lévy, displayed in Parisian salon in 1889. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Allinson, Alfred R, trans. 1930. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. New York: Panurge Press.

Connors, Catherine. 2006. Petronius the Poet: verse and literary tradition in the Satyricon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kwapisz, Jan. 2009. “A lesson for the King: Sotades’ Invective against Ptolemy (fr. 1 and 16 Powell) and Callimachus’ Epigram 1 Pfeiffer.” Symbolae Philologorum Posnaniensium Graecae Et Latinae. 19: 85-94.

Schmeling, Gareth L. 2011. A Commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, Patrick G, trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

celebrating marriage: Ausonius loved his wife Sabina

In the fourth-century Roman Empire, Ausonius wrote his Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis} at the command of the emperor and to challenge the brutalization of men’s sexuality. That poem met the emperor’s request, but the broader error it ironically addressed has scarcely been corrected. Ausonius of his own volition wrote about his wife Sabina. Juvenal would be scandalized by Ausonius and Sabina’s marriage. Sabina apparently wasn’t afraid that her husband would rape her. As difficult as it is to believe today, Sabina and Ausonius loved each other.

male and female duck mates: mosaic from Pompeii

When he was about sixty, Ausonius apparently received a slave girl. Fighting against the Alamanni Germans in 368, the Roman soldiers of Emperor Valentinian killed many men. Among their spoils of war was a Swabian girl. She was given to Ausonius for accompanying the emperor on the German campaign. Her name was Bissula. That’s according to Ausonius’s poem that tells all that’s known of her.

Ausonius found Bissula delightful. He immediately freed her and called her “my foster-daughter {alumna}.” He hadn’t had a wife for about thirty years. Bissula had blue eyes and blonde hair. He taught her Latin. She took up rule over his home. The poem that tells all that’s known of Bissula includes this descriptio:

My darling, plaything, love, my joy and delight,
barbarian foster-girl better than Roman women,
Bissula, a rustic name for a tender girl,
raw to strangers, that name so charms her master.

{ Delicium, blanditiae, ludus, amor, voluptas,
barbara, sed quae Latias vincis alumna pupas,
Bissula, nomen tenerae rusticulum puellae,
horridulum non solitis sed domino venustum. } [1]

Ausonius jested about old men’s failures in sexual desire. Bissula may have been merely the poetic imaging of an old man who should have known better. In any case, what would Ausonius’s wife have thought?

Ausonius appreciated the complexities of women and men’s intimate relations. He understood that women could be wicked, and men, stupid:

I wish I had a mistress such as this:
one that carelessly starts a fight,
and doesn’t strive to talk demurely,
beautiful, pushy, petulantly ready to slap,
who takes blows and returns them, too;
and beaten, makes defense with kisses.
If she not be of that hard way,
but chaste, modest, bashful in life —
horror to say — then she will be a wife.

{ Sit mihi talis amica velim,
iurgia quae temere incipiat
nec studeat quasi casta loqui,
pulchra procax petulante manu,
verbera quae ferat et regerat
caesaque ad oscula confugiat.
Nam nisi moribus his fuerit,
casta modesta pudenter agens,
dicere abominor, uxor erit. } [2]

The last line could also be translated, “horror to say — then she will be my wife.” Ausonius’s wife Sabina was, according to him, modest and sober. Did Ausonius actually wish for a mistress radically different from his own wife?

Ausonius wrote licentious epigrams. In one, he noted a woman prostitute who would masturbate for men and sexually serve them with three orifices. He wrote a clever and socially significant description of men engaged in a threesome. He also wrote epigrams about his love for Crispa (“curly-haired girl”) and Galla (“girl from Gaul”). Ausonius’s wife Sabina wasn’t concerned about such poems:

Laïs and Glycera, names of lascivious fame —
when my wife read of them in my songs,
she said I was playing and jesting about fictitious loves.
Such is her confidence in my uprightness.

{ Laidas et Glyceras, lascivae nomina famae,
coniunx in nostro carmine cum legeret,
ludere me dixit falsoque in amore iocari:
tanta illi nostra est de probitate fides. } [3]

Flesh-and-blood love is far more real than love poetry.

Sabina understood that Ausonius’s amatory poems were not like his real presence in her life. She herself was skilled at weaving beautiful fabric, and doing so economically. Ausonius wrote:

Let the proud East extol its ancient looms;
O Greece, you weave soft gold for women’s robes;
may fame celebrate no less the West’s Sabina,
who sparing large cost, equals them in skill.

{ Laudet Achaemenias orientis gloria telas,
molle aurum pallis, Graecia, texe tuis,
non minus Ausoniam celebret dum fama Sabinam,
parcentem magnis sumptibus, arte parem. } [4]

The phrase “Ausoniam Sabinam,” translated as “the West’s Sabina,” could also be translated as “Ausonius’s Sabina.” Ausonius, who rose to be a Roman consul, represented Sabina’s weaving as not just a domestic matter. He poetically placed her weaving among the great politics of the ancient world: rivalry among Achaemenid Persia, Alexander’s Greece, and Aeneas’s Italy. Sabina herself associated weaving and writing poetry:

Some weave cloths and poems: poems for Muses,
the cloths for you, most chaste goddess Minerva.
But I, Sabina, won’t sunder this group.
I have embroidered cloths with my own lines.

{ Licia qui texunt et carmina, carmina Musis,
licia contribuunt, casta Minerva, tibi.
Ast ego rem sociam non dissociabo Sabina,
versibus inscripsi quae mea texta meis. } [5]

Sabina and Ausonius weaved cloths and poems as a couple. Sabina’s insistence on the unity of this work evokes her unity with Ausonius. Her own lines may be his lines, and his clothes, her cloths. Sabina wasn’t worried about finding in Ausonius’s poetry a second sun, another woman that truly warmed him in love.

Ausonius wanted to grow old together with his wife Sabina. He wrote:

Dear wife, as we have lived, so let us live, and keep
the names we took when first together in wedding bed.
Let no day make us change, though change in time the age.
I’ll live as your lad, and you’ll be my loving girl.
Though I might rival Nestor in boasting of wisdom’s years,
and you surpass the Cumaean Sibyl famed at Delphi,
let us ignore what age’s ripeness means in body.
Knowing the worth of age, not counting years is best.

{ Uxor, vivamus ceu viximus et teneamus
nomina quae primo sumpsimus in thalamo,
nec ferat ulla dies ut commutemur in aevo,
quin tibi sim iuvenis tuque puella mihi.
Nestore sim quamvis provectior aemulaque annis
vincas Cumanam tu quoque Deiphoben,
nos ignoremus quid sit matura senectus:
scire aevi meritum, non numerare decet. } [6]

Ausonius wanted their wedding night to be their life forever. It could be in quality of heartfelt love.

It was not to be. Sabina and Ausonius had three children. She subsequently died at age twenty-seven. Her death devastated Ausonius. After writing of many dead family members, he declared:

Thus far our dirges their proper tasks fulfilled,
mourning of family so dear in measured end.
But now, grief and torment, a wound I cannot touch:
I must recall my wife’s untimely death.
Noble from birth, a bright Senator’s daughter,
good morals made Sabina always brighter.
Young and weeping for you, stolen early,
I’m still alone, mourning, after nine Olympics.
I can’t dull my sadness in tired age,
always it rages, a fresh pain to me.
Others in sickness through time permit solace;
my wounds weigh more with length of days.
I tear my gray hair, which mocks me unwed.
The more I live alone, the more the gloom
feeding my wound: my house silent, my bed frigid —
of that I share nothing, neither good nor bad.
I grieve for men with good spouses, grieve for men
with bad: your image is always here with me.
You torture me both ways. If his is bad,
unlike her, you were. But, if good, like you.
I bewail not useless wealth, nor hollow joy,
but you, snatched in youth from youthful me.
So cheerful, modest, sober, famed of clan and face,
the glory, the grief that husband Ausonius held.
Before completing twenty-eight Decembers,
you left our two living children, our hopes.
By God’s grace, they flourish, just as you prayed,
with goods abundant, as you desired for them.
And still I pray they thrive, until at last
may my embers so announce to your ashes.

{ Hactenus ut caros, ita iusto funere fletos,
functa piis cecinit nenia nostra modis.
Nunc dolor atque cruces nec contrectabile fulmen,
coniugis ereptae mors memoranda mihi.
Nobilis a proavis et origine clara senatus,
moribus usque bonis clara Sabina magis,
te iuvenis primis luxi deceptus in annis
perque novem caelebs te fleo Olympiadas.
Nec licet obductum senio sopire dolorem;
semper crudescit nam mihi poena recens.
Admittunt alii solacia temporis aegri:
haec graviora facit vulnera longa dies.
Torqueo deceptos ego vita caelibe canos,
quoque magis solus, hoc mage maestus ago.
Volnus alit, quod muta domus silet et torus alget,
quod mala non cuiquam, non bona participo.
Maereo, si coniunx alii bona, maereo contra,
si mala: ad exemplum tu mihi semper ades.
Tu mihi crux ab utraque venis, sive est mala, quod tu
dissimilis fueris, seu bona, quod similis.
Non ego opes cassas et inania gaudia plango,
sed iuvenis iuveni quod mihi rapta viro:
laeta, pudica, gravis, genus inclita et inclita forma,
et dolor atque decus coniugis Ausonii.
Quae modo septenos quater impletura Decembres,
liquisti natos, pignera nostra, duos.
Illa favore dei, sicut tua vota fuerunt,
florent, optatis accumulata bonis.
Et precor ut vigeant, tandemque superstite utroque
nuntiet hoc cineri nostra favilla tuo. } [7]

Sabina and Ausonius have been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. Marriage is now more like the affair that Martianus Capella described. But the way that Ausonius and Sabina loved, you can still love, too.

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[1] Ausonius, Bissula 4, Latin text from Green (1991), my English translation benefiting from those of Evelyn-White (1919) and Warren (2017).

In the final line, horridulum and venustum grammatically apply to nomen, but they also poetically evoke how other Romans and Ausonius responded, respectively, to Bissula herself. Echoing the diminutive of horridulum, Bissula is called a virguncula in Bissula 2.2.

Recent study of Bissula has highlighted its metapoetics. Pucci argued:

The emphasis at the poem’s conclusion on mimetic failure allows readers to view the ending of De Bissula as sensible. If the point of the collection is to worry the ability of mimesis to offer a copy that is essential, and if, more specifically, verbal mimesis fails Ausonius here, then nothing more need, or can, be said. Ausonius thus cuts his losses, presumably preferring the rich and abiding pleasures of Bissula’s real-time allurements to the sterile articulations of poetry’s fictions. … In this regard, too, Ausonius would seem to question the importance that Catullus would attach to lyric, especially Catullus’ seeming insistence on lyric’s ability to copy experience successfully, for there is always a sense in Catullus that he, if no one else, has succeeded in inscribing emotion in language.

Pucci (2016) pp. 130-1. On the social metapoetics of Bissula, Knight (2006). On mirroring of the self in Mosella, Taylor (2009). On Ausonius’s concern with naming, titling, and self, Rebillard (2015). With respect to these concerns, Bissula (as in Green (1991)) seems to me a better name for the poem than De Bissula.

How Ausonius imagined his long-dead wife Sabina seeing Bissula is a relatively neglected metapoetic issue. With no appreciation for the complexities of poetry and a particular visceral sense, Sivan declared:

Bissula, the pretty Suebian whom Ausonius won as ‘booty’, prompted a number of verses in which Ausonius, who had avowed eternal fidelity to this dead wife, expressed his delight in the young German.66 To say the least, the Bissula and the epigrams in honour of Sabina offer a fascinating psychological insight into Ausonius’ character. He seemed not in the least disturbed by the incongruity of his feelings. Perhaps, after all, in an age which fervently extolled and practised sexual renunciation, Ausonius’ sheer happiness with the successor to his wife comes as a relief.67

Sivan (1993) p. 105. Sivan’s note 66 points to the epigrams discussed subsequently above and notes that they, like Bissula, echo Catullus. Sivan’s note 67 merely cites Peter Brown, The Body and Society (1988). In Sivan’s reading, “Ausonius’ sheer happiness … comes as a relief” to persons recently taught a grand master narrative of emotions. Sabina, I think, would have viewed Bissula / Bissula with more poetic sophistication and more humane understanding.

Ausonius referred to Bissula as “my foster-daughter {alumna}” in Bissula, Ausonius to {Axius} Paulus (praef. 1) l. 5. On Bissula having blue eyes and blond hair, and that she ruled over Ausonius’s house, Bissula 3.3-5, 10-12. Ausonius is reasonably thought to have been born about 310. Booth (1983) p. 329, n. 4. Bissula apparently was captured in Emperor Valentinian I’s German campaign in 368. She “was probably captured in 368 (see on 3. 2), but the poems may not have been completed until some time later.” Green (1991), Bissula, introduction. Joseph Pucci agrees that she was captured at that date. Warren (2017) p. 11. “Since the heroine is represented as already thoroughly Romanized, the composition cannot well be earlier than c. 371-2 A.D.” Evelyn-White (1919) v. 1, p. xvii. Ausonius thus would have received Bissula when he was about sixty. She was probably then in her teens. Ausonius’s wife Sabina died before 350, perhaps in the early 340s. Green (1991), Parentalia 9, note to title; Pucci in Warren (2017) p. 4.

[2] Ausonius, Epigrams 89 (89 EW), “What type of girlfriend he would like to have {Qualem velit habere amicam},” Latin text from Green (1991), my English translation benefiting from those of Evelyn-White (1919), Kay (2001), and Warren (2017). The Latin epigram is in dactylic trimeter hypercatalectic, an unusual meter. Green (1991). Lake (2011c) provides online textual notes to the Latin. All subsequent quotes from Ausonius are similarly sourced.

Primary epigram numbers are those in the numbering of Green and Kay. Evelyn-White’s numbering is indicated as (# EW). Here’s an online Latin text of Ausonius’s epigrams.

I use the epigram titles from Evelyn-White. Green states:

The evidential value of headings in these matters is nil: the occasional title may be Ausonian, but most are certainly later, and so they do not appear in my text.

Green (1991) Epigrammata, introduction.

Roman love elegy privileged mistresses above wives. Propertius wrote:

I would sooner allow my head to be severed from my neck
than I’d bear wasting torches at some bride’s command
or passing your bolted gate, a married man,
looking back with wet eyes at what I’d lost.
Ah, then what dirges my flute would sing for you,
flute, even sadder than the funeral bugle!

{ nam citius paterer caput hoc discedere collo
quam possem nuptae perdere more faces,
aut ego transirem tua limina clausa maritus,
respiciens udis prodita luminibus.
a mea tum qualis caneret tibi tibia somnos,
tibia, funesta tristior illa tuba! }

Propertius, Elegies 2.7, Latin text and English translation from Katz (2004) pp. 104-5. Torches were used in wedding celebrations.

For Ausonius’s characterization of his wife Sabina, see his Parentalia 9, quoted subsequently above. Ausonius described “the procreative unions of legitimate sexual intercourse {legitimi genitalia foedera coetus}.” Epigrams 75 (79 EW), “Written under the portrait of a lewd woman {Subscriptum picturae mulieris impudicae},” l. 1. Baehrens emended genitalia to genialia {joyful}, and Evelyn-White followed, but Green and Kay reject that emendation. That emendation does, however, capture the sense of Ausonius’s relationship with his wife.

[3] Epigrams 19 (39 EW), “Of the opinion his wife held of him {De opinione quam de illo habebat eius uxor}.” Laidas and Glyceras are generalizing plurals. Green (1991). Laïs is the name of a famous courtesan in fifth-century BGC Corinth. Glycera is the name of a mistress in Horace.

On the woman prostitute serving customers with her three orifices, Ausonius, Epigrams 75 (79 EW). Her name was Crispa. Ausonius expressed love for Crispa (perhaps a different woman) in Epigrams 85 (88 EW), “To Crispa, said by some to be deformed {Ad Crispam quae a quibusdam dicebatur deformis}.” For Gallus, Epigrams 14 (34 EW), “To a maid, Galla, now growing old {Ad Gallam puellam iam senescentem}.” That epigram parallels the epigram Greek Anthology 5.21. Martial’s epigrams refer repeatedly to Galla. Green (1991).

[4] Epigrams 27 (53 EW), “Lines woven in a robe {Versus in veste contexti}.” Lake (2011b) provides textual notes for this and the subsequent three epigrams quoted above. Ausonia is an ancient region of Italy. It can refer poetically to Italy or to the West (relative to Greece).

[5] Epigrams 29 (55 EW), “On the same Sabina {De eadem Sabina}.” It’s possible that Sabina wrote this epigram, but unlikely. Poets commonly write in other than their own voices. No other evidence exists that Sabina wrote poetry. Epigrams 28 (54 EW) tells of Sabina both weaving cloth and embroidering verses.

[6] Epigrams 20 (40 EW), “To his wife {Ad uxorem}.” A love elegy that a man poet writes to his wife is highly unusual. Sklenár (2005). Joseph Hutchison provides a translation in a more familiar, intimate voice. I think Ausonius was warmly intimate with his wife, but that’s not quite the voice I hear in this poem.

[7] Parentalia 9, “Attusia Lucana Sabina, my wife {Attusia Lucana Sabina uxor}.” Lake (2011a) provides an online Latin text with textual notes. My English translation benefited from that of Scott McGill in Maas (2010) pp. 280-1.

Sabina and Ausonius were born and lived near Bordeaux, part of Gaul in present-day France. On Sabina’s parents and sisters, Lake (2011b). Ausonius’s father was Julius Ausonius, who died in 377 or 378. Green (2011) 5, Epicedion In Patrem. Ausonius’s maternal uncle, Aemilius Magnus Arborius, was a learned tutor to Ausonius. On Ausonius’s network of family, teachers, students, and friends, Sivan (1993).

Sabina died not later than 350 GC, probably in the early 340s. Green (1991); Warren (2017) p. 4. An Olympiad (Olympics) occurred every four years. Hence Ausonius was writing thirty-six years (9 times 4 years) after Sabina’s death.

Sabina and Ausonius had three children:

Their son Ausonius died in infancy (Parentalia 10). Their second son, Decimus Hilarianus Hesperius, became a prefect in 378 CE; he married and had three children, the third of whom, a son Pastor, died young (Parentalia 11). Sabina’s {and Ausonius’s} third child was a daughter, whose name has not been preserved; she married Valerius Latinus Euromius, who died after she bore him a child (Parentalia 14); she then married Thalassius, by whom she had two children, Censorius Magnus Ausonius and Paulinus.

Lake (2011a), references omitted. Both Hesperius and Thalassius both rose to the positions of proconsul of Africa. Like many other men, they probably transferred much money and goods to women. Writing about Ausonius’s Parentalia 9 in the excellent but resolutely gynocentric World of Marriage, Lake complains:

While it is a testimony to the constancy of his affection, it obsesses on his suffering and continuing sorrow and reveals little about the young woman who inspired him to write the passionate love elegy above.

Lake (2011a). Cf. a Thessalonian woman’s epitaph for her husband in 1481.

Krynicka summarized the female characters in Ausonius’s Parentalia:

Parentalia is a collection by Ausonius made of 30 works dedicated to 33 of his deceased relations. 15 out of 33 were Gallo-Roman women, living somewhere between the mid-3rd and the late 4th century. … The poems are individual portraits of mothers, wives, virgins – both elderly ladies and maidens who passed away young. Of all the women he speaks with nothing but immeasurable respect.

Krynicka (2012), from abstract.

The Parentalia was a nine-day festival in ancient Rome during which persons honored their ancestors. The Parentalia occurred annually from February 13 to February 21. Ausonius regarded celebrating the Parentalia as consistent with his Christian beliefs. On Ausonius and honoring dead family members, Dolansky (2011).

[image] Male and female duck mates. Detail from mosaic in the House of Faun, Pompeii, first century GC. Preserved as inv. 9993 in Naples National Archaeological Museum (Italy). Here’s the full mosaic image by the wonderfully generous Marie-Lan Nguyen on Wikimedia Commons.


Booth, Alan D. 1983. “The Academic Career of Ausonius.” Phoenix. 36 (4): 329-343.

Dolansky, Fanny. 2011. “Honouring the Family Dead on the Parentalia: Ceremony, Spectacle, and Memory.” Phoenix. 65 (1-2): 125-157.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G., ed. and trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1Vol. 2.

Green, R. P. H., ed. 1991. The Works of Ausonius. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (review)

Katz, Vincent, trans. 2004. The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kay, N. M., trans. 2001. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius, Epigrams: text with introduction and commentary. London: Duckworth.

Knight, Gillian R. 2006. “Ausonius to Axius Paulus: Metapoetics and the Bissula.” Rheinisches Museum Für Philologie. 149 (3): 369-385.

Krynicka, Tatiana. 2012. “Sylwetki kobiet w zbiorku Parentalia Decimusa Magnusa Auzoniusza.” Roczniki Humanistyczne. 58-59 (3): 133-150.

Lake, Keely. 2011a. “Decimus Magnus Ausonius, Epigrammata 20, Parentalia 9: Sabina.” Web page in Ann R. Raia and Judith Lynn Sebesta, The World of Marriage.

Lake, Keely. 2011b. “Decimus Magnus Ausonius, Epigrammata 19, 27, 28, 29: Sabina.” Web page in Ann R. Raia and Judith Lynn Sebesta, The World of Marriage.

Lake, Keely. 2011c. “Decimus Magnus Ausonius, Epigrammata 89: Amica.” Web page in Ann R. Raia and Judith Lynn Sebesta, The World of Flirtation.

Maas, Michael. 2010. Readings in Late Antiquity: a sourcebook. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.

Pucci, Joseph. 2016. “Ausonius on the Lyre: De Bissula and the Traditions of Latin Lyric.” Pp. 111-131 in McGill, Scott, and Joseph Pucci, eds. Classics Renewed: Reception and Innovation in the Latin Poetry of Late Antiquity. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter.

Rebillard, Suzanne Abrams. 2015. “‘The Dead With Me’: Ausonius’s Parentalia as Memorial to the Poet.” Arethusa. 48 (2): 219-251.

Sivan, Hagith. 1993. Ausonius of Bordeaux: genesis of a Gallic aristocracy. London: Routledge.

Sklenár, Robert. 2005. “Ausonius’ Elegiac Wife: Epigram 20 and the Traditions of Latin Love Poetry.” Classical Journal. 101 (1): 51-62.

Taylor, Rabun. 2009. “Death, the Maiden, and the Mirror: Ausonius’s Water World.” Arethusa. 42 (2): 181-205.

Warren, Deborah, trans. 2017. Ausonius: Moselle, Epigrams, and Other Poems. London: Routledge.

put woman on top for matriarchy and to dissolve marriage

In early fifteenth-century Italy, a young man was engaged to a widow’s daughter. He visited her frequently at her home where she lived with her mother. One day her mother wasn’t there. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the engaged couple had sex.


When the mother returned, her daughter’s new radiance raised suspicion. Under questioning, the young woman confessed that she and her fiancé had sex. The mother “bitterly scolded her for having disgraced herself and her family {jurgare acriter illam coepit quae se domumque deshonestasset}.” The mother declared that her daughter being married to that man wasn’t just a matter of time until the formal wedding ceremony, as they had apparently rationalized. The mother ordered her daughter to break the engagement.

As soon as her mother again left the home, the young man returned to his beloved. She was mournful. She told him what her mother had ordered. The man respected the woman’s own choice of whether to marry him. He asked her, as men often ask the women they love, “What do you want {Quid tu}?” The woman responded, “I want to obey my mother {Matri obsequi volo}.” That’s the way matriarchy functions.

The shattered man quickly recomposed his mind and made the best of life under matriarchal oppression. Taking advantage of a common misconception of marriage, the man declared that they could easily obey mother. The woman asked how exactly they could do that:

“The first time you were on the bottom,” he said. “Now shift to being on top, and so the contrary action will dissolve our marriage.” She consented, and thus their marriage was dissolved.

{ “Antea,” ait, “inferiores partes egisti; nunc superior evadas oportet, ut per contrarium actum dissolutio matrimonii fiat.” Consensit illa, et matrimonium dissolvit. }

The woman being on top dissolves a marriage. That’s a lesson all newlyweds should be taught.

The lovers estranged under matriarchy found other spouses. They remained friends. At the man’s wedding, they exchanged warm, knowing smiles in remembering their past relationship. The bride became suspicious. She insisted that her husband tell her of his relationship with that woman. So he told her the whole sad story of matriarchal oppression. She exclaimed:

May God have saddened her who was so insane as to make that known to her mother! What is the need for foolishly telling your mother of your sexual intercourse? In fact more than a hundred times our family servant had sex with me, and not even one word of it did I tell my mother.

{ Contristetur, illam Deus quae tam fuit amens, ut id notum fecisset matri! Quid enim opus erat, ut matri vestrum concubitum referret stulta? Me quidem noster famulus amplius centies cognovit, neque ullum unquam verbum a me innotuit matri. }

The husband said nothing in response. Any man getting married should understand that women aren’t angels. Gyno-idolatry is delusional. With truthful understanding and a bride strong enough to defy the matriarchy, this couple had an auspicious future.

Women and men, unite! Defy the matriarchy!

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The above story and quotes are from Poggio, Facetiae 157, “Of a Florentine betrothed to a widow’s daughter {De Florentino qui filiam viduae desponsaverat},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 55-7, my English translation. Here’s the Latin text in a machine-readable form.

[image] Old woman. Oil painting (cropped slightly) by Hans Memling, made between 1470 and 1475. Held as accession # RF 1723, in Louvre Museum (Paris). Via Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

on first looking into Slavitt’s Ausonius: prolegomenon to prosaic studies

expansive ocean vista

Much of classics study, building upwards to a theory of reception in Late Antiquity, has produced goodly reams of publications in Mnemosyne, Philologus, and Classical Quarterly. Yet study of Ausonius’s prosody in Cento nuptialis has been relatively neglected. The publication of Slavitt’s Ausonius in a fine edition from the University of Pennsylvania Press provides a foundation for exploring a wide expanse of prosaic studies concerning Cento nuptialis.

Scholars as of yet haven’t fully studied Slavitt’s Ausonius and its translation of the Cento nuptialis. Peter Burian in The American Journal of Philology, 121/2 (2000) at 305, briefly described it as a “real tour de force.” In Papers of the British School at Rome, 68 (2000) at 176, n. 33, Jaś Elsner labeled it “brilliant,” but provided no analysis of its prosody. Garth Fowden in his important work on contexualizing and periodicizing Late Antiquity, Before and After Muhammed, Princeton (2014) at 52, n. 6, listed Slavitt’s Ausonius as an English translation paired with Green’s critical edition, Oxford (1991) at 145-54. That suggests the critical importance of Slavitt’s Ausonius, but Fowden didn’t elaborate. Martha Malamud, who edits Arethusa and provided a blurb for Slavitt’s Ausonius, cursorily and ambiguously described its Cento nuptialis as a “recreation.” Writing in the Classical Outlook, 76/4 (1999) at 157, Robert Colton more forthrightly declared:

This book will be very useful in a course in Latin literature in translation, and will serve as a fine introduction to the work of an important late Latin poet.

Jan Dierckx, a verified purchaser, gave Slavitt’s Ausonius a five-star review, dated August 13, 2009, on Amazon and wrote:

I like this book because it gives some insight into social life near the end of Antiquity.

The scope for interpreting and evaluating Slavitt’s Ausonius is far broader than these commentaries indicate.

Slavitt’s Ausonius includes an apparatus of citations to the verses that comprise his translation of Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis. Ausonius, of course, worked in the dactylic hexameters of Virgil’s verse. Ausonius added to Virgil’s quantitative meter particular rules for stitching together verses to form a cento. Ausonius himself explicitly indicated the importance of these cento rules: quae si omnia ita tibi videbuntur, ut praeceptum est, dices me composuisse centonem. With the apparatus of Slavitt’s Ausonius, analysis of quantitative meter can be extended to the hypotext of the cento.

While I cannot offer here a full analysis of the Cento nuptialis of Slavitt’s Ausonius, some measures of its Imminutio might contribute to achieving the heights of surveying all its hypotextual prosody. The issue of poetic periodization must first be addressed. The Imminutio of Slavitt’s Ausonius has the great poetic merit of containing exactly the same number of verses as Ausonius’s Imminutio: thirty-one. Since thirty-one is a prime number, partitioning the Imminutio’s verses into equal, whole-number components isn’t possible. Going beyond formal structure to recognize the meaning of the poem, a reasonable partition can be made. It consists of 9, 7, and 14 verses, seriatim.

What do you here alone? O God of battles!
steel their soldiers’ hearts. His purity
of manhood stands upright, whose dreadful sword
was never drawn in vain. “Naked as I am,
I will assault thee.” Look down. The purple pride,
and jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones…
They are dangerous weapons for maids. She takes the staff
in her mouth and guides it, that his puissance holds.
The hand’s more instrumental than the mouth.

{ Postquam congressi sola sub nocte per umbram
et mentem Venus ipsa dedit, nova proelia temptant.
Tollit se arrectum: conantem plurima frustra
occupat os faciemque, pedem pede fervidus urget,
perfidus alta petens: ramum, qui veste latebat,
sanguineis ebuli bacis minioque rubentem
nudato capite et pedibus per mutua nexis,
monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum
eripit a femine et trepidanti fervidus instat. }

Slavitt’s Ausonius treats half-verses and full verses rather differently from the Latin. Enjambment of a single hypotextual Shakespearean verse occurs in the very first line and frequently recurs. The Latin Virgilian lines are never enjambed. In verse 5, Slavitt daringly innovates. He combines three hypotextual segments with a 2-1-2 beat structure to form the full verse of iambic pentameter.

For centos, an important meter is the pattern in the distance in syllables between the hypertext and the hypotext across verses of hypertext. For example, the first line of Slavitt’s Ausonius agrees perfectly with serial syllables taken from Shakespeare’s Othello 3.3.309 and Henry V 4.1.370. To create pleasing variety and to avoid a robotic invocation of readers’ memory of Shakespearean verse, Slavitt immediately modulated the perfect correspondence in his verse 2. Henry V 4.1.370 has “steel my soldiers’ hearts,” which Slavitt changed to “steel their soldiers’ hearts” (syllable distance = 1). The syllables after the caesura “His purity” are at one syllable distance from Timon of Athens 4.3.1677, “In purity.” So the total hypertext-hypotext syllabic distance for the verse is 2. The next verse moves back to a distance of 1. The subsequent triplet of lines all have a distance of zero, which persons familiar with Shakespeare would readily sense. Then, in a ingenious chiasmus of prosody, Slavitt reverses the previous movement to conclude the section with a 1-2 climb in syllable distance to a verse providing more abstract wisdom on entering into oral sex.

Of all thy sex, most monster like, one eye
thou hast to look to heaven for grace. The doors,
being shut against his entrance, with instruments
upon them fit to open, be the ram
to batter such an ivory wall. Are ye
undone? No, ye fat chuffs. On bacons, on!
The ruddiness upon her lip is wet.

{ Est in secessu, tenuis quo semita ducit,
ignea rima micans: exhalat opaca mephitim.
Nulli fas casto sceleratum insistere limen.
Hic specus horrendum: talis sese halitus atris
faucibus effundens nares contingit odore.
Huc iuvenis nota fertur regione viarum
et super incumbens nodis et cortice crudo }

The second section of the Immunitio continues the prosaic patterns that Slavitt established in the first. It repeats the quartet-singleton (Bush-thrust) pattern of enjambment that the first section displays. Perhaps contributing to the sense of delay in the poetic consummation, Slavitt introduces and ends the second section with a 0-1 / 1-0 pattern of hypertext-hypotext syllabic distance. The alert reader naturally wonders whether the poem is flattening. Yet Slavitt shows poetic daring in his lines 14 and 15. Ausonius in describing the rules of the cento declared: duos iunctim locare ineptum est, et tres una serie merae nugae. Slavitt’s Ausonius, lines 14 and 15, uses syllables from lines 826-828 of Henry IV, Part 1, 2.2! Slavitt seems to have deliberately interrogated the boundaries of the cento form.

Not an inch further? He sticks deeper, grows
with more pernicious root to shake the bags
and make the coming hour o’erflow with joy
and pleasure drown the brim, for one to thrust,
his hand between his teeth. And mark the moan
she makes. Most resolutely snatched, he is
far gone, far gone, to the profoundest pit,
where the dribbling dart of love doth melt and pour
froth and scum, hot and full, to shake
their frames, his hair uprear’d, his nostrils stretch’d
with struggling. Look on the sheets, his hair, you see
is sticking. But soft! See how busily she turns.
He doth revive again: madam, be patient.
Why these balls bound. There’s noise in it. ‘Tis hard
and will he not come again? Spit, fire! Spout, rain!

{ intorquet summis adnixus viribus hastam.
Haesit virgineumque alte bibit acta cruorem.
Insonuere cavae gemitumque dedere cavernae.
Illa manu moriens telum trahit, ossa sed inter
altius ad vivum persedit vulnere mucro.
Ter sese attollens cubitoque innixa levavit,
ter revoluta toro est. Manet imperterritus ille;
nec mora nec requies: clavumque affixus et haerens
nusquam amittebat oculosque sub astra tenebat.
Itque reditque viam totiens uteroque recusso
transadigit costas et pectine pulsat eburno.
Iamque fere spatio extremo fessique sub ipsam
finem adventabant: tum creber anhelitus artus
aridaque ora quatit, sudor fluit undique rivis,
labitur exsanguis, destillat ab inguine virus. }

In terms of prosody, the third section of the Immunitio has both continuity and change, like most in-depth historiography. It begins with a protruding enjambment, then has a quartet of enjambed verses leading to “he is / far gone, far gone.” The syllabic distance reflects the initial struggle, with the unique structure of three successive verse with a hypertext-hypotext syllabic distance of 1. But when the couple becomes one, the syllabic distance stays closer to identity, varying only for a line or two from identity (zero) to retain poetic interest. The imminent consummation is signaled with a syllabic distance of 2 from the hypertextual verse “where the dribbling dart of love doth melt and pour” to the hypotextual “that the dribbling dart of love” (Measure for Measure 1.2.290) and “I melt and pour” (Antony and Cleopatra 2.5.1088). The Immunitio ends with a triplet of identity: three verses with hypertext-hypotext syllabic distance of zero. Virgil, Ausonius, Shakespeare, and Slavitt understand deeply the flesh-and-blood complications of human intimacy.

Much further study needs to be done so that Slavitt’s Ausonius is well-covered in publications in classics journals. Even this preliminary climb has revealed a vast, fertile domain for further prosaic studies. Just as for meninist literary criticism, those who have eyes to see can only be filled with wild wonder at the new world spread out before them.

*  *  *  *  *

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Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis raises important social issues not discussed above. For those who would prefer to examine closely my analysis of prosody in Slavitt’s Ausonius, here’s a workbook containing details (LibreOffice Calc version). Ausonius, like Proba, probably had memorized Virgil’s Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues. For those today who don’t hold in memory all of Shakespeare’s verses, OpenSourceShakespeare provides helpful tools. For additional insight into the above analysis, see John Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816).

[image] Expansive ocean vista. From image released CCO Public Domain on pxhere.


Slavitt, David R. 1998. Ausonius: three amusements. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.