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.

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