Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Ovid on His Mistress's Abortion


In view of the Supreme Court's recent draft of an opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, I have reposted an adapted version of one of my former posts on Ovid's poems about abortion. 

Ovid wrote two poems about abortion (Amores 13 & 14); he was the first Roman poet, to my knowledge,  to write elegies about abortion.  The first poem in Ovid’s diptych is sympathetic to his ailing mistress Corinna, whose abortion has gone drastically wrong.  He begins the first poem (I cannot write poetry; this is very effective in Latin verse, but we have no comparable meters in English, so this is my quick, literal translation):  

While she rashly is overthrowing the burden of her womb,
Weary Corinna lies in danger of her life.
Having attempted so great a danger without telling me
She deserves my anger, but my anger dies with fear.
But indeed she had conceived by me, or  so I believe.
It is often for me a fact because it can be.

In the next lines Ovid writes a formal prayer to Isis, a maternal goddess and healer who had a cult in Rome, and assures her that Corinna honors her and has participated in her rites on the designated days. Then  he prays to Ilithia, the Greek goddess of childbirth. He promises to bring gifts and incense.  “I will add the inscription, "Naso has given this for Corinna’s recovery.”  (Ovid's full name is Ovidius Publius Naso.)

He is frantic about Corinna’s illness.  He wants above all for her to live.  But he ends the prayer - and poem - with a gentle rebuke to Corinna.

If it is right to have warned in such great fear,
let it be enough for you to have struggled in this combat once.

The second elegy in the diptych is a furious attack on abortion. He begins with a reference to Euripides’s Medea, who said, “I would rather stand in front of the shield three times than give birth once.”  He argues that Medea’s killing her children was comprehensible ble because she wanted revenge on Jason;  but he says the tearing of an embryo from the womb is wrong, because it must naturally grow first and why deprive it of its life?

 He attacks women who have abortions, saying that the first to do so should have died as a punishment. He accuses women who are exempt from military service of taking their own weapons and using them against themselves, rather than taking up those of Mars. And he argues that Corinna, the Roman population, mythological heroes, and he himself  would not have been born if their mothers had had abortions.   (N.B. He does not mention the cruel ancient practice of exposing babies, especially female babies, on a hillside.)    

But in the last two lines he relents somewhat, praying for her safety and echoing the last two lines of the first poem.

Gods, concede that safely she has sinned once.
and it is enough: let her bear the punishment a second time.

But which poem does Ovid mean?  The first is gentler than the second.  The points of view seem different.   The name Corinna is not mentioned in the second poem.  Only the last couplet seems to link it to the first poem.

 Fascinating to read two contradictory views. 


  1. Hi Kat -- For some reason, my system isn't letting me log-in normally. This is Will (Peter Saucer)....

    I first found your blog when I was seeking ideas about what translations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina people might prefer or recommend.

    So it makes me wonder if you have a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses that you prefer over others, or like different translations for different reasons, as you did with Tolstoy.

    I now you read Ovid in Latin, but do you enjoy translations, as well?

    I have spent time with the translations by Charles Martin, A. D. Melville, Horace Gregory, Mary Innes (prose version) and Rolfe Humphries... and probably a few others that I don't own. I wish I'd bought the Mandelbaum when it was $10 at a used book shop!

    I have gotten different things from each of them, but the Rolfe Humphries has stuck with me the most. I enjoy his introduction and something about his rhythm and meter, word choice and style... I connect with it the most. And that might be just because on a winter morning before work some years ago I was reading his version of the flood section and couldn't believe how vivid and modern and brilliant Ovid felt. When I compare translations, I read Philemon and Baucis to see how they describe the meal preparation.... for this, Melville and Humphries have been my favorites.

    Depends on the day, because I really like some aspects of Martin's translation, too.

    Any thoughts, opinions, reflections, etc?

    Thanks as always for your blog!!

    1. There's an o.o.p. Penguin, Ovid in English, which has a selection of different translators so you can taste and compare. There were other books in the series - Horace, Catullus, Homer etc. - and though they're all they're easy to find second-hand and worth finding.

      One aspect of Ovid's hostility to abortion was surely the fact that abortio ,ay have been more dangerous than childbirth at that time.

    2. I'd love to find this series. It is always fun to compare, and there are, bizarrely, very few translations of some of these authors' more obscure works.

    3. I can't remember all the titles, but Ovid, Horace, Catullus, Homer, Virgil were some. Look on Bookfinder under "....... in English" in title and Penguin in keyword or publisher and vary according to choice.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. I did a check with Ovid - https://www.bookfinder.com/search/?ac=sl&st=sl&ref=bf_s2_a1_t1_1&qi=blRSNXevdIRWX003p,59KdFhghc_1653126224_1:11:33&bq=author%3Dovid%26title%3Dovid%2520in%2520english - and the price has risen alarmingly, They're obviously in demand.

      Rawdon Crawley (above) is a name I used as a joke on a blog about Victorian literature, but he keeps rising from his grave,

    6. Roger, I just now found your comment. I do remember Rawdon Crawley from Vanity Fair!

  2. There is sometimes a comment glitch here. Let's hope it clears up soon!

    I have collected many translations over the years. The Rolfe Humphreys translation is the liveliest and most enjoyable ( to me), . I used to have Horace Gregory's, and he is a great Ovid scholar. I bought Charles Martin's 2004 translation because it was "new" to me, and I do like what I've read.

    So really you can't go wrong! Everybody has his or her favorites. But I have spent the most time with the Latin. I tend to dip into translations now and then. I have a soft spot for Rolfe, whose tone seems most similar to Ovid's.

  3. Thank you! I appreciate your opinion and experience, especially as a classical scholar, and that your reflections on Tolstoy translations were so helpful.

    And glad to hear that you like Rolfe's translation as well. He has some nice words in his introduction on how he arrived at his approach. To me, the voice was clear and easy, speaking to me. I have his translation of The Aeneid, as well.

    I have also enjoyed Amores, Tristia and The Black Sea letters -- (the latter two translated by Peter Green, whose discussion in my intro to Amores, about the reasons behind Ovid's banishment, is fascinating.

    Thanks! Hope you are enjoying spring's magical arrival. Every year it is like being enchanted and coming back to life! Not that I don't love the dark solitude of winter, but spring always arrives right on time!

  4. Oh, Peter Green is my hero! What a great scholar and translator. You can't go wrong with Green.