Amores 1.5 essay

“The Siesta”

This short poem is important as the one in which we “meet” the main object of all the poet’s attention; Amores 1.1 raised questions about the girl who prompted his shift to elegiac poetry, and now we learn her name. We also get a detailed description, indeed almost an inventory, though it is a description of her body rather than of her appearance as a whole, much less of her as a person. The poem is unique in Roman poetry in being erotic in the modern sense of the word: it is about the physicality of love rather than love itself.

Readers will perhaps differ on the appeal of this poem, depending not least on their reaction to an eroticism that is so unapologetically male.  But even if we set aside as purely modern our concerns about the treatment of Corinna, the poem presents a problem, precisely because it does seem so straightforward. It is not easy to see the poem as a satisfactory artistic whole, when its conclusion is anything but obvious.

The poem begins with an elaborate description of the setting (lines 1–8). It is midday, the poet is having his siesta, and the room is dark and tranquil (Roman shutters were very effective). The light is beautiful for its own sake, even magical, but it is also particularly suitable for girls who are “modest” (lines 7–8). Girls and their modesty suggest that there is more to the siesta than meets the eye; it may be that for the Romans, as supposedly in modern Italy, the siesta was the ideal time for adultery. 

Then Corinna suddenly appears (line 9). The language of procession (Ecce, Corinna venit, line 9) associates her with divinity, as does her name: the Greek poet Corinna, like the more famous Sappho, was associted with the muses. Amores 1.1 invited us to expect a girlfriend who inspired the poet to write, and here she is: the poet’s new muse, all ready for bed.

She is wearing only a tunic, and an unbelted one at that, and her hair is down (a more dramatic signal of intimacy in days of elaborate hairdos than it is today). The poet, rhetorical training at the ready, cannot resist two literary allusions (lines 9–12): Corinna is queen Semiramis, an allusion with at least latent sexual allusion, and Lais, with whom the connection with sex is obvious. Lais was a famous name for a courtesan. 

So we are prepared, to some extent, for the abrupt transition to sex, though perhaps not for the violence (deripui tunicam, line 13). The poet describes Corinna as resisting, but the resistance was not serious (lines 13–16). The trope is disturbing to modern readers, for whom no means no, but we should remember that, at least in Roman poetry, there was a place (rightly or wrongly) for pretend sexual violence. And in the context of the poem, certainly, Corinna is no innocent: after all she came into the room without many clothes and joined the poet in bed.

The poet goes on to describe Corinna’s naked body in minute detail, starting with shoulders and moving down to the thighs (lines 17–22). Here too modern readers will probably be offended by the egregious objectification. But since Lady Chatterley’s Lover we have grown used to descriptions with far more explict sexual detail. And it is important to remember that the “catalog of body parts,” as in Marvell’s beloved “To His Coy Mistress,” mocks the observer more than the observed.

The poet’s obsessive focus makes the most sense, I think, if this is their first time in bed together. Of course this reading works only if we accept that Amores 1.4 is fantasy rather than “reality,” with the poet only imagining that the girl cares about him at all. But this reading gives some point to what follows. The poem ends abruptly; unlike D. H. Lawrence and his successors, Ovid can leave the crucial facts to our imaginations (cetera quis nescit, line 25). The happy couple rest, and perhaps even doze off, and the poet says he hopes there will be many more such siestas (line 26).

So what is the point here? One possibility is that we are to focus on the fact that at long last the poet is willing to talk of Corinna, however briefly, as if she mattered too (lassi requievimus ambo, line 25). Another possibility (not excluded by the first) is that our focus is on the hope for the future (line 26); he’s finally gotten her into bed, they had a great time (or at least he did), and he wants the affair to continue. Is it possible that we are to be struck, even at this point, by the pure physicality? All our poet wants from the affair, at least so far, is uncomplicated sex in the afternoon.

Suggested reading

Nicoll, W. S. M. “Ovid, Amores I 5,” Mnemosyne 30 (1977): 40–48.

Papanghelis, T. D. “About the Hour of Noon: Ovid, Amores 1,5,” Mnemosyne 42 (1989): 54–61.