In Angustiis: An Attempt at Light Relief
By Sean Gabb
(17th June 2017)
Unless you know their languages, you have probably been led to believe that the literature of the Greeks and Romans is a treasure house of noble and beautiful sentiments – all incomparable and perhaps a little dull. If so, you are mistaken.
Below, you will see the title page of a book published in 1824 in the very conservative German State of Coburg. It is an edition of the Latin Poems of Antonio Beccadelli, an Italian of the fifteenth century. The poems are, in my view, at best mediocre. His elegiac couplets are much inferior to those of Ovid and Martial. He has less feel for the language than Milton or Martin Crusius. His dwelling on the sexual act shows a lack of variety.
What makes the book an immortal masterpiece is the long commentary added by Friedrich Forberg. He explains what might otherwise be obscure words and allusions by quoting around five hundred passages by more than a hundred and fifty classical authors. You will look up from the commentary as well-informed as you may ever need to be about homosexuality, oral sex of all kinds, prostitution, erotic dances, flagellation, depilation, bestiality, and much, much more.
For a flavour of the commentary, here is my partial translation of p.321, De Masturbando:
Should I continue with the filthy lust of those who have sex with dead women or statues? This too is not intercourse in any real sense, as it involves only one party. In Egypt, according to Herodotus (II, 89), a man was caught having sex with the body of a woman freshly dead. He says:
“It is said that a man [an embalmer] was seen having sex with a fresh female corpse, and was reported by his colleagues.”
Because of this, a law was made to forbid giving the corpses of noble and beautiful women to the embalmers till they had been dead three or four days.
And I give p.342, from De Cunnilingo. I will not translate any of this. But I will observe that these lines of Martial –
Lingis non futuis meam puellam
Et garris quasi moechus et fututor –
are of surpassing beauty in the slight roughness of the first line and the cool smoothness of the second.
I assure you that there are passages in even the schoolboy classics that would excite police attention if published in English. Given that Ovid is on the A Level syllabus, and students are advised to read him at length to practise for the unseen, I am astonished that every classics master in England has not been pilloried in The Daily Mail. See, for example, his Ars Amatoria, III, 781-2:
Cui femur est iuuenile carent quoque pectora menda
Semper in obliquo fusa sit illa toro.
(A girl whose thighs are fresh and whose bosom is perfect
Should always lie sideways in bed for intercourse.)
All this being said, my Centre for Ancient Studies provides bespoke tuition in the classical languages. If you are over the age of eighteen, you can learn to read things that will make your jaw drop. The Ancients were remarkably uninhibited in what they did and wrote about. If you are under that age, I say, for the avoidance of doubt, you will read much about how Julius Caesar marched his men up and down some rain-swept part of Kent before sending them on yet another killing spree. All in the best possible taste….