Love and the Romans, I

(This is the text of the talk I gave on St Valentine’s Day at the McManus, Dundee, to accompany their marvellous exhibition of Roman artefacts. I’ve divided it into three parts.)

In the play, ‘The Invention of Love’, Tom Stoppard has AE Houseman’s friend Alfred Pollard remark, ‘Like everything else, like clocks and trousers and algebra, the love poem had to be invented. After millenniums of sex and centuries of poetry, the love poem as understood by Shakespeare and Donne… – the true-life confessions of the poet in love, immortalizing the mistress, who is actually the cause of the poem – that was invented in Rome in the first century before Christ.’

It’s an extraordinary claim, but one which goes a long way toward explaining why we’re here tonight. It is, undeniably, a strange thing to do: gather over a drink to listen to a poet talk about other poets two thousand years dead, and on a night devoted, surely, slightly more to love than to poetry. But what if the former were, as Stoppard suggests, actually dependent on the latter?

That is one of the tasks of the poet, after all, to question and perhaps to change our perspective on things we think absolutely stable, even eternal; to jostle the verities. Why exactly is it we celebrate romantic love in February – a rather chilly month for it, after all? And what has it to do with the Roman poets? In this talk, I’m going to look briefly at the lives, loves and literary output of the five poets we associate with the period that Pollard, and through him, Stoppard, refers to: Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, Horace and Ovid.

But first, St Valentine. Despite the best efforts of scholars, no-one really knows very much about him, or why we associate him with love. Pope Gelasius, at the end of the 5th century, rather grudgingly admitted him to the canon, but as one of those ‘whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are only known to God’ – which is pope-speak for someone we know nothing about.

Vigorous hagiography created the legend of a bishop martyred and buried on the Via Flaminia for getting between the Emperor Claudius and a law preventing young men from marrying before they’d joined the army, by clandestinely performing marriage ceremonies. It’s not clear which Emperor Claudius this is, or what law it refers to, or indeed which bishop called ‘Valentinus’ was interfering with recruitment.

But it doesn’t matter much, as the first significant appearance of the idea of a ‘valentine’ is not till almost nine hundred years later in Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Parliament of Fowls’, when the poet writes, ‘For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.’ Blessed are the chese-makers! Yet another damn poet, then, popularises the idea of a day devoted to love, though it’s by no means clear this was in February. And, as so often in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, all such ideas lead back to Rome.

Not only is Chaucer reading a work of Cicero at the outset of his poem – and like many readers of Cicero, he promptly falls into a deep sleep – but scholars for many years tried to relate Valentine’s Day back to the Roman feast of Lupercalia, referred to by Horace in his third book of odes: in honour of the god Faunus, or Lupercus, ‘A goat shall die…/at the year’s end, the ancient shrine/smoke with thick incense, and the wine,/liberally poured, keep filling up/Venus’ friend, the drinking cup.’

Sounds great, as does the habit of cutting thongs from the sacrificed animals’ hides, then running through the streets, whipping people. Women in particular, in a prophecy of Fifty Shades of Grey, required whipping to increase fertility – a belief alluded to in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in relation to Caesar’s wife: ‘The barren, touched in this holy chase,/Shake off their sterile curse…’ Horace, in another ode, specifically asks Venus, ‘Whose whip bends proud girls’ knees -/one flick for Chloe, please.’ – though I’m not sure that had quite as much to do with fertility.

This rite was still so popular in Christian Rome, that the same pope, Gelasius, had to ban it, offering the Roman senators of his day the alternative, ‘run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery.’ (The fact Gelasius banned Lupercalia and acknowledged Valentinus in the same year may or may not be of significance.)

There is, I’d suggest, something in this nexus of new beliefs and ancient rituals, of wine and whips, which takes us back to another weird mix, of principles and passions, that lies at the heart of the Roman love elegy, the paradoxes of which continue to affect or afflict us as we sit here. Are our deepest emotions innate or social constructs? What has love to do with lust and vice versa? Can or should such impulses be contained within the structures of conventional morality?

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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