Ovid and Romanness in War and Metre

Llewelyn Morgan

Albinovanus Pedo was a friend of Ovid, and this article isn’t really about him. However, Albinovanus Pedo represents something typical about Romans, or maybe about Roman poets, so he’s where I’m going to start.

Albinovanus was indeed a poet, and by all accounts a versatile one. He is cited more than once by Martial as a model for his own books of short epigrams (AD 86–103), but Ovid also mentions an epic poem by him on the subject of the hero Theseus (Epistulae ex Ponto 4.10.71–84) – epic being, both in length and aspiration, an undertaking on the opposite end of the literary spectrum from epigram. The only poetry by Albinovanus that actually survives comes from another epic that was probably concerned with the wreck of a Roman fleet in the North Sea under the command of Germanicus, heir to the throne, in AD 16. This 23-line fragment, an early poetic expression of how very rubbish British weather can be, is preserved for us by Seneca the Elder (Suasoriae 1.15), while from Tacitus we have a historical account of this same storm and its aftermath (Annales 2.23–4), and elsewhere a record of somebody who’s almost certainly the same “Pedo” serving under Germanicus as a cavalry commander in the previous year (Annales 1.60.2), a campaign that would take Germanicus’ army back to the site of the catastrophic defeat of Varus by Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9.

What happens in the Teutoburg Forest, …

But Albinovanus’ greatest claim to fame was his reputation as Rome’s wittiest raconteur. Seneca the Younger, philosopher and son of the Elder, recalls hearing him (fabulator elegantissimus, he calls Albinovanus, “a storyteller of uncommon skill”) telling a story about living above a man who slept during the day and stayed awake all night (Epistulae Morales 122.15–16). In Quintilian (Institutiones Oratoriae 6.3.61) we get a glimpse of another anecdote about a gladiatorial contest in which it appears that the normal order of things, the retiarius or netman chasing the murmillo (whose helmet bore the image of a fish), had been reversed.

A bronze statuette of the murmillo gladiator, late 1st cent. BC (National Archaeological Museum, Florence, Italy).

Albinovanus’ most famous story concerns his friend Ovid, and we owe this again to Seneca the Elder, who in this instance is recalling Ovid’s performance as a declaimer of rhetorical exercises, an important element of elite Roman education, when Seneca the Elder was young and Ovid even younger:

[Ovid] deployed words not at all over-freely except in his poetry, in which he was not unaware of his faults but in fact cherished them (non ignoravit vitia sed amavit). This can be illustrated by the fact that, when on one occasion he was asked by his friends to remove three verses, he requested in turn that he could make an exception of three to which they could do nothing. It seemed a fair condition. His friends privately wrote down the verses they wanted removed, and Ovid the ones he wanted to keep. On each tablet the verses were the same, and Albinovanus Pedo, who was among the witnesses, said that the first had been semibovemque virum semivirumque bovem, “the half-bull man and half-man bull”, and the second et gelidum Borean egelidumque Notum, “both the freezing North Wind and the unfreezing South Wind.” From this it is abundantly clear that this superlatively creative man lacked not the judgement but the will to suppress the excesses of his poetry. He used sometimes to say that a face was more beautiful if it bore a mole.”

This is a great story, and a very perceptive assessment of Ovid, although it’s frustrating that Seneca doesn’t give us the third line, and mildly so also that we can’t tell where Albinovanus’ anecdote stops and Seneca’s editorialising takes over. (Albinovanus’ narratives tended to end with a concluding bon mot, though, so I suspect that it’s his right up to the mole at the end.)

Mythological Minotaur, bronze sculpture by Stuart Wolfe, 2018 (Hermann Noack foundy, Berlin).

The lines that Ovid’s friends hated, and to which Ovid was devoted, are from Ars Amatoria 2.24 (the handbook to love affairs that contributed to Ovid’s later exile), describing the Minotaur, and Amores 2.11.10, from his slightly more conventional love poetry. Both lines are “dactylic pentameters”, and we’ll come back to their metre, but I’ll use Albinovanus Pedo to make one further point before we do. Albinovanus’ life shows us a literary man, a poet and raconteur, who was also – indeed who was simultaneously – a competent military officer, violently suppressing people resisting Roman domination in what is now the Netherlands and Germany. He is part of Ovid’s circle, and these friends are intensely sophisticated in their literary tastes; and he tells amusing stories about gladiatorial bouts. As such, Albinovanus exemplifies the strange character of the Roman elite in its literary Golden Age, its high culture combined with political and military ruthlessness, cultural wealth and sophistication built always upon the efficient application of extreme violence.

Historically there’s really nothing so abnormal about this. The Duke of Monmouth, beheaded on Tower Hill in 1685 after a failed military uprising against the Catholic King, was a connoisseur of ballet and a talented dancer himself; the poetry composed by members of the Afghan Taliban has a book devoted to it. But we feel an impulse to conflate aesthetics and ethics, to want good literature to be written by good people, people we would like if we met them, and one thing spending time with the Romans brings home is that it’s all a lot less straightforward than that.

The Duke of Monmouth, Willem Wissing, c. 1683 (National Portrait Gallery, London).

Well, the remainder of this article will delve a bit further the literary sophistication of people like Albinovanus Pedo. A few years ago I wrote a book on the metres of Roman poetry, and one thing I argued in it was that, to achieve an appreciation of Roman poetry which approached that of its contemporary readers in Rome, we had to bring to it, alongside other things, a grasp of poetic metre, at any rate as those ancient readers perceived it. In what follows I’ll be adding one more thing to the accomplishments of Albinovanus and the rest of Ovid’s friends: an unusually refined taste in metrical composition.

Seneca the Elder treats these lines as evidence of Ovid’s addiction to his own poetic weaknesses, the literary vices he indulged in full awareness of how wrong they were: a face, analogously, is more becoming for its blemishes. Intriguingly, though, the problem with these two lines seems to be that they’re a little too perfect.

Both lines, as I’ve indicated, are “pentameters”, the metrical form adopted by every second line in Ovid’s favourite metre, elegiac couplets. Elegiacs combine a dactylic hexameter, the metre of epics like Homer’s Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid, with a shorter dactylic length (a “dactyl”, δάκτυλος, “finger” in Greek, is a metrical foot divided into long-short-short syllables, kind of like a finger). You may at this point want to exploit David Butterfield’s free, online lecture series on Greco-Roman metre, but really all that needs to be understood for my purposes are two simple principles related to the dactylic pentameter.

Graffiti from 1st-century AD in Pompeii, Italy, which quotes an elegiac couplet from Ovid Amores 1.8.77–8 (CIL IV 1893).

The first is that the pentameter is divided into two seemingly equal halves, divided by a strong break. Greco-Roman metres are governed by syllable length, long and short, and the pentameter runs long-short-short long-short-short long—pause—long-short-short long-short-short long. You may discern some string of dactyls in this “dactylic pentameter”, but the important point is that the pentameter line is in its essential form inclined toward balance.

The second and equally critical point, though, is that it’s clear from the practice of ancient elegiac poets that they worked very hard to resist this impulse toward a perfectly balanced line. It was a rule of the form, for instance, that in the first half of the pentameter each long-short-short (dactyl) could instead become long-long (a spondee: this replacement of two short positions with one long is known as contraction). But in the second half of the line no such substitution was allowed. The mnemonic I teach my students – after which they never take me seriously again – is that an English pentameter is “Strawberry, strawberry jam; strawberry, strawberry jam”, but that the first two strawberries can become “strawb’ries”, just two syllables, spondees, while the last two must remain “strawberries”, three syllables, dactyls. A line such as ad dominam propero – siste parumper aquas (Amores 3.6.2), repeats “strawberry strawberry jam” twice in succession, whereas et tangunt magnas tristia fata deas (Amores 3.9.2) exhibits the rhythm “straw’bry strawb’ry jam, strawberry strawberry jam.”[1]

What this all means is that by varying the metre of the first half of the line, and varying also the shape and position of words between the first and second half, and perhaps above all by not repeating words on either side of the pentameter, elegiac poetry avoided the natural symmetry of the pentameter form, and we can easily imagine why: indulging the natural balance of the line would quickly become facile, predictable and monotonous. But we’re still dealing here with a highly refined poetic sensibility about how a particular verse length should properly be handled.

When we do find balanced pentameters, and they are very rare in the many thousands of lines we possess, they tend to fill the special roles we’d expect of unusual forms: they are more common at the ends of poems, for example, and sometimes they provide a repeated refrain. Maurice Platnauer, author of a book (1951) all about elegiacs, refers to a variety of symmetrical pentameters as “jingles”; Jesús Luque Moreno, author of another (1994), calls them “llamativo”, “showy, flamboyant”. But what we have in Albinovanus Pedo’s anecdote is a similarly negative judgement from Ovid’s friends, since one thing displayed by both the lines that they objected to – and that Ovid loved too much to be parted from – is an unusually marked balance between the two sides of the pentameter.

The line about the Minotaur, semibovemque virum semivirumque bovem is the more egregious example, a brilliant (or appalling, depending on your taste) exercise in shuffling exactly the same elements between each half of the line, with identical metre and word-shapes on each side. Try remembering which comes first, semibovemque or semivirumque: that is truly interchangeable, and since he is trying to express the nature of a mysterious man/bull hybrid, we can see what he’s aiming for. Et gelidum Borean egelidumque Notum isn’t quite so perfectly symmetrical, but again in content and language and to a lesser extent metre, it is an unusually balanced pentameter.

Mosaic of the 2nd century AD discovered in 1830 at Cormérod, NW of Fribourg, Switzerland (Miséricorde Building, University of Fribourg).

So a large part of the objection to Ovid’s lines was apparently that they managed the dactylic pentameter in a “showy” way, and I think we can agree that this displays some pretty refined tastes among Ovid’s literary chums, always bearing in mind that in at least one case they combined firm views about how a dactylic pentameter should be composed with advanced skills in killing Frisians from horseback. In any case a more fun way of pinning down how excessively symmetrical pentameters were perceived takes us to an epigram of Martial.

In epigram 2.7 Martial skewers a dilettante called Atticus (my translation is indebted to Shackleton Bailey’s Loeb edition of Martial):

Declamas belle, causas agis, Attice, belle;
   historias bellas, carmina bella facis;
componis belle mimos, epigrammata belle;
   bellus grammaticus, bellus es astrologus,
et belle cantas et saltas, Attice, belle;                            5
   bellus es arte lyrae, bellus es arte pilae.
nil bene cum facias, facias tamen omnia belle,
   vis dicam quid sis? magnus es ardalio.

You’re a nice declaimer, Attalus, a nice pleader,
   you write nice histories and nice poems,
you compose mimes nicely, and epigrams nicely,
   you’re a nice grammarian and a nice astronomer,
and you sing nicely, Atticus, and dance nicely;                             5
   you’re nicely versed in the art of the lyre, nicely versed in the art of the ball.
Seeing that you do nothing well, but do everything nicely,
   would you like me to say what you are? A total trifler.

The opening of a Martial epigram (14.1 = Apophoreta 1) in a 15th-century Italian manuscript (Oxford Canon. Class. Lat. 85, 180r, which can be viewed in more detail here).

Martial appears to praise Atticus’ multiple  talents, but the sting is in the word bellus that he applies to everything Atticus does, which means “pretty”, “agreeable”, “pleasant”, “nice” – and is a decidedly faint form of praise. The punchline of the poem drives Martial’s message home: Atticus is nothing more than a dabbler, an ardalio. He does everything superficially well: he’s a jack of all trades, but an expert at none of them.

The sixth line of this poem, bellus es arte lyrae, bellus es arte pilae, “you’re nicely versed in the art of the lyre, nicely versed in the art of the ball,” is a pentameter as perfectly symmetrical, in its way, as Ovid’s line about the Minotaur, and Martial, as alert to metre as any Roman poet, knows what he’s doing here. A symmetrical pentameter is “llamativo”, we recall – “showy” – an outward display of virtuosity which fails the test of the true afficionado. It expresses on a metrical level the speciousness of Atticus’ talent. A regular criticism of Ovid, meanwhile, is that his poetry is brilliant but frivolous, concerned for the superficialities of poetic composition without any deeper significance. A particularly striking thing about Ovid is his eery capacity to anticipate the criticism that his poetry will draw. Those friends identified in his too-clever-by-half pentameters the perfect encapsulation of Ovid’s scintillating flippancy – the trouble is, so did he.

Ovid ruminates a hundred metres from the Black Sea: the Piața Ovidiu in the Romanian port of Constanța (ancient Tomis), to where he was exiled in AD 8.

A postscript to all of this. The poetic letter that Ovid sent to Albinovanus Pedo is preserved in the very last book of Ovid’s exile poetry: the fourth book of his Epistulae ex Ponto is generally assumed to be a posthumous collection undertaken by someone unknown of a few of his unpublished poems after Ovid’s death in AD 17 or 18. This poem (Ex Ponto 4.10), dating to AD 14, is a communication between friends about friendship in trying conditions, but the Letters from the Black Sea often trade in quite intimate details about the addressees and their relationship to Ovid.

Here I note two details. One is that after a long account of what makes his place of exile so unpleasant, Ovid stops and anticipates an objection to this long narration (haec… cur sint narrata Pedoni) to which he has subjected his addressee (4.10.65–70), and I’m inclined to take this as an allusion to Albinovanus’ own fame as an expert narrator. But within his narration Ovid also brings his account of the inclement conditions of Tomi around, in a somewhat undermotivated way, to the North and South Winds, Boreas and Notus (4.10.41–4). And it’s an arresting fact that, if Ovid was consciously setting out to give an account of them as far removed stylistically as possible from his notorious line et gelidum Borean egelidumque Notum, he could hardly have done better. Not a single word is repeated from the account of one wind to the other, there is no parallel in thought or phrasing, and in particular the term gelidus is nowhere to be found. I do wonder if this expression of friendship carries a private joke about Ovid’s appearance in Albinovanus’ book of anecdotes.

Maybe, maybe not. But Albinovanus Pedo and his stories are as good a place as any, all the same, for understanding what made those odd people called the Romans tick.

Llewelyn Morgan is Professor of Classical Languages and Literature and Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford. Some of his most recent contributions to Ovidian studies can be found here and here and here.

Further Reading:

J. L. Moreno, El Dístico Elegíaco. Lecciones de Métrica Latina (Ediciones Clásicas, Madrid, 1994).

M. Platnauer, Latin Elegiac Verse: a Study of the Metrical Usages of Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid (Cambridge UP, 1951).

E. Siedschlag, Zur Form von Martials Epigrammen (Mielke, Berlin, 1977).

A. S. Hollis, Fragments of Roman Poetry, c.60 BC – AD 20, edited with introduction, translation and commentary (Oxford UP, 2007).

E. Courtney, The Fragmentary Latin Poets (Oxford UP, 1993).

C. A. Williams, Martial, Epigrams Book Two, edited with introduction, translation and commentary (Oxford UP, 2004).


1 For more on the practice of “scanning” lines of Latin poetry – of working out the long/heavy and short/light character of each syllable – try this piece.