Nothing New Under the Sun
One tends to consider the ancient poets as writers of something sacred and solemn that may be too heavy to read, too difficult and too far away from us. This is a sad misconception. Some poems are indeed solemn, as they were written either for religious purposes or at the behest of a political power. But these works we know, they are the ones that lit teachers talk about when introducing us to the great masterpieces of Classical literature: how Hesiod sung to the Muses, how Virgil longed for the country life, or how Horace erected an eternal monument. But the Greeks wrote a lot -- much, much more than we may presume. They wrote about everything, from how to make your skin look younger, to the lives of funny saints, to sexual positions and cumming in a girl’s hair. This is not the most poetic of subjects, granted, and it is also not the most typically “Classical,” but every savvy reader should be aware how rich and diverse literature has been from its birth, and how this richness has overflowed into contemporary literature.
Archilochus of Paros is thought to be the second poet in the history of literature. He was a mercenary and many of his poems have martial themes; however, he is mostly remembered for his more sardonic poetry. Archilochus started composing the satires and the invectives when his heart was broken, or so legend says. Supposedly, he fell in love with a girl named Neobulé, whose father, Lykambes, had promised her in marriage to Archilochus, only to take it back and marry her to somebody else. What father and daughter did was an affront to honor, and Archilochus was unforgiving. He got even not as a soldier but as a poet, writing hateful verses full of spite, meanwhile creating a new literary genre: the epode, poems written in iambic distichs with the sole purpose of attacking and insulting. The poet was so brutal that Lykambes and Neobulé were driven to suicide. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
Of course not all of his poetry is full of insults; he also has some erotic poems. He talks about a maid’s bouncing breasts, oral sex, and a penis the size of an ass’s. And reading all this can be a tad peculiar because his work is very fragmentary (after all, it’s poetry from the 7th century B.C.). In one fragment made up of only two lines he may write: “Men’s thoughts are such as the days that the father of the gods sends,” and then the next fragment might have something like: “as a man drinks beer from a straw, so she is bent forward doing her deed.” When I read this I can’t help but think: “Is this supposed to be dirty or is that just me?” I would like to think that Archilochus is the pervert and not me, but with no context everything is mere conjecture.
The longest fragment that we have of him has 53 verses and the last three are among the most pornographic in Classical Greek. In this poem, a friend tells Archilochus that if he is so urged he should go and talk to the daughter of one Amphimedo. So, he goes and tries to convince her to have him. He tells her not to worry, that he will only go as far as the garden grass and that he will reach with a tender hand. This is very subtle and erotic, and sort of sweet, but then he mentions the ex, even though he is reassuring her that Neobulé is far from his mind. How could he not be? Neobulé is a whore and old and looks like a boy. She really doesn’t have anything to worry about, right? Half of the verses that Archilochus addresses to the girl are just for speaking ill of Neobulé, an excuse to insult her and degrade her because she dared deny him.
Somehow this works, or maybe it didn’t matter to him if it didn’t. He gently lays her down on the grass with his tunic as protection against the earth and the rocks, and starts caressing her, softly. He writes these lines with a lot of tenderness and sensuality, with a sweet remembrance of his sexual encounter. At the end, he is so overcome with the roundness of her buttocks and with the beauty of her entire skin, that while he is stroking her hair, he cums. That is where the fragment ends, perhaps there was more, but if we judge from real life this is most likely the end. It is a very different poem; it really is not that common to read lines like this from ancient poets, and many teachers refuse to read verses like these because they are unbecoming to Antiquity. But Archilochus manages to do several things in these lines, he tells an erotic story, which is very realistic in its details of the affair, and offend the hated woman.
One truly pornographic poem from the Classical period is Horace’s Epode VII. In Latin class, a teacher once told us that she wanted to read this poem in class, but that she changed her mind because it was embarrassing and she didn’t want us to get the wrong idea about Horace, the great Latin poet, the poet of poets. In part this is true, Epode VII is indeed a very harsh poem, and it definitely would not make a good impression on somebody approaching Horace’s work for the first time. But, but, this a perfect example of the absurd and sometimes harmful pedestal we put Classical authors in. Horace is one the biggest poets ever to walk on this earth, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that he is also (and some would think mainly) a poet to be read on the subway, not only in a graduate classroom.
An older woman, a cougar if you please, has insinuated herself to Horace, whose lasciviousness was prodigal (Sallustius wrote that his bedroom was full of mirrors so that Horace could watch himself having sex with prostitutes). The poet is not enthused with this proposition; in fact he is repulsed and is not shy about it. The epode opens with a rhetorical question, something like: “you rotten with so many years ask why you don’t turn me on?” Then he kindly enumerates her defects: her wrinkled forehead, her saggy ass through which she farts like a cow with indigestion, her breasts worn like a mare’s, her flabby tummy and fat calves. He is unmerciful, but the end is even worse. Horace tells her that okay, if she wants to give him an erection an erection he’ll comply, but with everything said above, really “the only way is if you work it with your mouth.” It is hard to read this and not feel insulted, it really is a harsh poem and misogynistic. He does not have the excuse that his heart is broken; he is just insulting because he can, because his pen gives him that power. As I said, try not to judge Horace with only these lines, but with all of his work.