Amores 1.11 essay

"Sending a Message"

This poem and the one after it form a matching pair, much like the writing tablets (tabellae) that are central to each poem. The tabella was the normal medium in Rome for taking notes. It consisted of a wooden board with a frame on each side, and within each frame was a layer of hardened wax (cera); the tabella looked a little like an Etch-A-Sketch except that we should imagine a ‘screen’ and frame on both sides. Writing was done with a sharp stylus that made grooves in the wax in the shapes of letters, and the end of the stylus provided a flat blade for rubbing out mistakes. Tabellae could be bound together, typically in pairs, with the outside surfaces exposed and the inside surfaces private.

For our poem two functions of tabellae are important. In the first place, a tabella was an obvious medium for sending a simple message. But it was also a medium used regularly by poets, who would typically write drafts (not necessary rough drafts) on such tabellae. This would allow the poems to circulate in a more informal mode than would be expected in a liber, typically a roll of papyrus used when books were “published” formally. The relationship between tabella and liber is perhaps analogous to the relationship (in precomputer days) to the relationship between a poet’s spiral notebook and a published volume. 

The nature and poetic functions of tabellae are central to an understanding of Amores 1.11 and 1.12. At the most immediate level, the tabellae in question are simply the medium for our poet to send a note to his girlfriend, and for her to reply. But scholars have suggested that we are also supposed to think of the tabellae that poets would typically use for their poetry: what our poet offers in Amores 1.11, and gets rejected in 1.12, are poems.

In Amores 1.11 the poet begins by flattering Nape, Corinna’s hairdresser, and asking her to take tabellae that he wrote that morning (lines 1–8). Nape has had a love life of her own, and should be sympathetic (lines 9–12). The poet then gives detailed instructions: Nape should give Corinna a message in person, but the tabellae will say most of what needs to be said (lines 13–14). Nape should observe Corinna’s reaction, and insist (iubeto) that she write a long message in reply (lines 15–22). But, no, why should she bother: all Corinna has to say is “come!” (lines 23–24). If that happens the poet will dedicate the tabellae to Venus, in thanksgiving, complete with dedicatory inscription (lines 25–28).

There are a number of inconsistencies in all this. Why two messages, oral and in writing? Why does the poet need to be told about Corinna’s reaction? How can Nape really give her mistress orders? And why does he change his mind about what she should write? But this simply enhances our picture of the poet; he is so excited that he talks nonsense (see McKeown on lines l7–18 and 19–20).

The problem with this poem, in my view, has always been that it is hard to see anything more. The poet’s excitement is perhaps endearing, and so perhaps is his imagined success. But those things really only matter as preliminaries to the disappointment of Amores 1.12, whereas we want the poem to be successful as a poem in its own right. Moreover, the conclusion of Amores 1.11 seems flat: dedicating a writing table to Venus is a striking conceit, perhaps, but we want more. The final couplet is devoted to the poet’s inscription, but it doesn’t seem to add much: he dedicates the tabellae to Venus, because they were loyal helpers in his love-affair, but they used to be just cheap maplewood.

The solution, I suggest, lies in that ambiguity about tabellae. What the poet is sending to Corinna is not just a message, but a poem. He just wrote it that morning (line 7), and the situation is urgent (line 15). Of course that urgency could simply be the ardor of youth, but we might wonder if there is not a more specific reason. In Amores 1.10 the poet, after that insulting tirade against mercenary women, concluded that he would give her a poem. And the tabellae of Amores 1.11 contain precisely that, the poem to win her back.

We can imagine, too, that the earlier poem, complete with tirade, was also written on tabellae. And when we remember that one feature of tabellae is that they could be used more than once, we have an interesting possibility for reading the final couplet. It isn’t just the maplewood of the tabellae that until recently (nuper) was vilis. It is also the previous poem, inscribed on these same tabellae, that the poet now insists was “worthless.” 

Suggested Reading

Meyer, E. “Wooden wit: tabellae in Latin poetry,” in Essays in Honor of Gordon Williams: Twenty-Five Years at Yale, edd. E. Tylawski and C. Weiss, 201–212. New Haven, 2001.

Photo: Wax tablet from Dura-Europus (2nd-3rd c. AD). Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. DPm 1.