Amores 1.6 essay

“On the doorstep.”

The poet has been at dinner party, and has been drinking. In the approved mode of a Greek or Roman lover, he has gone on to the house of his mistress, where he is confronted with closed doors and a doorkeeper (ianitor) who won’t open up. The poem presents us with a long speech, mostly to the doorkeeper, and as with Amores 1.4 there is some doubt as to whether we are to see this as a real speech, or an interior monologue. Perhaps in this case, though, our decision does not matter much: one crucial aspect of the poem is the fact there are no signs that anyone is listening.

To understand the general situation it is helpful to have a mental picture of the huge defensive doors characteristic of a Roman town house, closer to the gates of a castle or a Cambridge college than to anything we know from our own domestic architecture, and accurately recreated in the HBO series “Rome.” The important thing for this poem is that a poet could declaim all night on such a doorstep without necessarily being heard by occupants other than the doorkeeper.

Discussion of the poem requires particular attention to the question of genre. Just as Roman readers of Amores 1.1 would have recognized it as a form of recusatio, Amores 1.6 would have been read within its generic context, for which classicists have yet more technical language. A character kept outside the doors of his mistress is known as an exclusus amator, and a poem on such a theme is known by the ponderous but unavoidable Greek word paraclausithyron (“next to-a closed-door”). In the typical paraclausithyron the exclusus amator sings to the door itself; Ovid offers a striking variation, singing to the ianitor instead. (The classic study of this theme is the short monograph by Copley.)

The persistence of this genre in Greek and Latin literature, especially in Roman comedy and Latin elegy, raises an important question, on which scholars seem flatly to disagree. For some, the generic elements are purely literary: there are garlands, torches, drunken lovers, and closed doors in Greek literature, and they persist in Latin, but Roman lovers in real life, however heartbroken, normally went home to bed. Others (especially Jasper Griffin) imagine that at least some Roman lovers in real life (perhaps not the poets themselves) would have done exactly what the poets show them doing: not singing poems to doors or doorkeepers, necessarily, but definitely spending part of the night in a kind of amatory vigil. The problem is similar, perhaps, to that of the serenade: presumably in real life men have in fact gone with their guitars to sing to their girlfriends, but few of us have seen it done.

The other unusual feature of this poem is its refrain: tempora noctis eunt; excute poste seram occurs at lines 24, 32, 40, 48, and 56, i.e. every 8th line for roughly the middle third of the poem. This has been seen as a reflection of the komos, the kind of song sung by drunken lovers (whether in reality or in literature) outside the doors of girls. But Lindsay Watson has argued that the refrain also reflects the language of hymns, and that part of the joke is that instead of a god the “hymn” is addressed to a humble, but for the poet all-powerful, ianitor.

There is no need to explain the poet’s various arguments, though it may be helpful to state the obvious: they are not supposed to be serious ones. He argues, for example, that the door only needs to be opened a very little, because the poet, like all unrequited lovers, has lost weight (lines 3–6). And he argues that he deserves a break, because love has made him brave; the only thing he’s defeated by is the ianitor himself (lines 7–18). He also claims that in the past he persuaded the mistress of the house not to give the ianitor a whipping (lines 19–22), though this sounds like a desperate lie; nothing in the first five poems, at least, suggests that he has that kind of relationship with the girl.

Perhaps surprisingly, the refrains do not provide much of an organizing principle; one might have expected five “verses” of seven lines, each marked off by the refrain, but instead the speaker seems to have a short attention span, moving from argument to argument as one thought suggests another. Thus after the first use of the refrain (line 24), the poet moves from pleading to a kind of argument: the ianitor is defending his door as though there were was a war on (lines 25–31). After the second refrain (line 32) the poet develops that thought: a lover’s seige is like warfare in some ways (a theme that will be explored in Amores 1.9), except that the lover is harmless (lines 33–39). After third refrain (line 40) the poet suggests two reasons why the ianitor might not be listening: he might be asleep, or he might have a girl himself (lines 41–47). The fourth refrain (line 48) is followed by a moment of wild optimism (the poet hears something: maybe the door is moving), but he’s wrong (it’s only the wind), which is followed by other thoughts about other winds (lines 49–55).

After the final refrain (line 56) the poet moves from persuasion to threats of violence (lines 57–60), but that doesn’t work either. Nothing, neither pleading nor threatening, has had any effect (lines 61–64). In defeat the poet, as dawn breaks, shifts his focus, and addresses his garland (lines 65–70), but he then returns briefly to the ianitor, and bids him farewell.

The last couplet is a puzzle. The poet shifts addressee one more time, and says goodbye to the doors themselves, in all their physicality: doorposts, threshold, and bars. But the doors have also been given an epithet far more appropriate for the ianitor: the doors are now “fellow slaves” (conservae ... fores, line 75). What is going on? The “fellow slave” joke has been hovering in the background throughout the poem: the ianitor is a real slave, and the poet is a slave of love (as we saw in Amores 1.2, esp. line 18, and lines 17–30). But what does it mean to say that doors are fellow slaves?

Part of the solution, perhaps, resides in the reader’s awareness of genre, and the expectations that come with it. For more than 70 lines Ovid has been amusing us by exploring his own unique version of the paraclausithyron: instead of addressing the doors, his exclusus amator has been talking to the ianitor. Part of the point in this last couplet, therefore, is that we have a sense of relief: we’re finally back to what we are more comfortable with. 

But what is the point, then, of putting the “fellow slave” joke here, of all places? I can only suggest that it makes us think harder about what has been going on in the poem. The poet has been talking, endlessly, to the ianitor. But has anyone, even a ianitor, been paying any attention? Has the poet not, in fact, been doing what other poets do in this situation (other exclusi amatores), namely talking only to big wooden doors—to doorposts, threshold, and bars. Calling those doors conservae, reminding us of the ianitor, reminds us that they are absolutely not listening.

Suggested reading

Copley, F. O. Exclusus Amator: A Study in Latin Love Poetry. Madison, 1956.

Griffin, Jasper. “Genre and Real Life in Latin Poetry,” Journal of Roman Studies 71 (1981): 39–49, reprinted in his Latin Poets and Roman Life, Chapel Hill, 1986.

Watson, Lindsay C. “Ovid Amores I 6: A Parody of a Hymn?” Mnemosyne 35 (1982): 92–102.