Lust Thrust Thursdays: Imagining an Ancient Party

I: Deciphering a pinned butterfly

Luxorius’ Epigram #77, written in Roman North Africa in the sixth century A.D.  – just as the dark ages were gathering – has had a tough time of it.

Along with most of his other ninety-odd poems, it languished in monkish archives, labeled and forgotten until only a single manuscript containing  his collected poems remained. That manuscript didn’t surface until the 1600s and Luxorius has since been more the object of obscure scholarship than a vital poet. A pinned butterfly. A curiosity preserved under the glass of a dead language.

In many cases, including  epigram #77, the curious find themselves smirking at what classicist scholars oftentimes dismiss as crude ancient pornography. Poems best kept in Latin. Poetry, that – except for our occasional cultural jailbreaks – would never be allowed in mainstream anthologies.

And when you stumble upon some of these poems and read the learned commentary, you have to ask whether the classicists who act as our docents are any more sympathetic to what might be going on in the poem than a Victorian or Eisenhower era editor might be.

It was the question Yeats asked in his poem, The Scholars:

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink …

Did their Catullus walk that way?

With Luxorius, the situation is compounded by the titles affixed by the respectable,  tonsured heads of their day – medieval copyists. For these clerics, the old world had changed, mankind was saved. One didn’t throw antiquity and one’s ancestors away, but these were artifacts of a bankrupt age, as irrelevant as childhood souveniers. Most simply needed to be labeled and stored.

And so, in some monastery library, Epigram #77 acquired a title. No need to actually read the  poem, the label is enough to warn you that it’s trivial and – by the way – filthy.

In ebriosam et satis meientem.
To a drunken woman who urinates plenty

Even so, the poem is short enough to warrant a quick look.

Quod  bibis et totum dimittis  ab inguine Bacchum,
  Pars tibi superior debuit  esse femur.
Potatis recto  – poteris, Follonia, – Baccho,
  Si parte horridius inferiore bibas.

Morris Rosenblum, Luxorius’ only comprehensive modern English commentator, provided a prose translation in 1960 as follows:

Because you drink wine and discharge all  of it from  your loins, your upper region should have  been your thigh.
You will drink holding  your wine in (you will be able to do this, Follonia), if you should grossly  imbibe with your lower part.

A reasonable first reaction is probably not much different than that of the monks – why bother to translate this childish bathroom joke? A 12 year old could do better. But then, you have to ask – is this really what Luxorius was saying? He did write some other fairly sophisticated poems. And look at the structure with the rhythms and the backward dancing, echoing internal touch-rhyme schemes.

totum/Bacchum …bibis/dimittis….superior/femur… tibi/debuit…recto/Baccho…Potabis/poteris…horridius/bibas…parte./inferiore.

It took some bother to write these four lines. And while prose can sometimes rise to poetry, poetry refuses to make sense in prose. Maybe – with a little imagination – there’s something more subtle worth translating here.

On a first pass, brainstorming trip, this is what I came up with:

Quod bibis et totum dimittis ad inguine Bacchum,
Whenever you drink you let go of all the wine- craziness from your groin (private parts),

Pars tibi superior debuit esse femur.
and so your upper part owes debt to your thighs.

Potabis recto – poteris, Follonia – Baccho,
Quench your thirst. Guide/control/correct – and you can do it, Follonia – wine booze up.

Si parte horridius inferiore bibas.
suppose parts shaggily lower drink. (squirt, soak up? swallow/taste?)-  or maybe:

Let’s give your bristly? bottom a little swallow?

There are a couple of  choices that guide where this poem might go in translation. The first is how to treat “Bacchum” and “Baccho.” Whatever else is murky, I don’t think the poem is a religious invocation of the ancient god of wine. Society was largely Christian and the secondary meaning of “wine”  and “partying” rather than “the divine Bacchus”  is what should apply. There is, of course, a holy-drinker, sacred-weekend aspect to the use of the term – but we’ve lost the sacrosanct connotation that invoking the wine-god’s name would have had. One choice would be to not invoke Bacchus directly, but to look for his wild abandon elsewhere in the poem.

Another key word is the adjective “horridius”: –which Rosenblum converts to an adverb – in the last line. Rosenblum translates this as “grossly” – but I think horridius (or the adverb horride) can be one of those false friends. The Oxford Latin Dictionary has seven variants in meaning and most of them are closer to wild, rough and disheveled than “horrid.” In this poem, I think it might be stretched to convey both an element of crudity and an element of  emotional wilderness – raw, messy nature. And, in modifying  drinking and thirst, an element that might be used to invoke Bacchus in English without quite using his name.

II: So let’s imagine a party.

A gathering, perhaps, at one of those lost seaside villas. The company is mellow. The wine is good, perhaps too good. A man and woman – maybe they’ve just met, maybe they’ve known each other casually but, somehow, now find themselves connecting. In any case, they’re a bit tipsy and both know it.

He suggests a stroll through the garden, maybe out to the beach. The weather’s perfect, the evening clear, just growing dark and starry. Somewhere, along their uncertain path, she smiles and giggles. Would he mind waiting, while she slips behind this rock or that bush to pee?

Is Follonia just drunk, or is there an element of flirtation, maybe seduction? Are both of them drinking and flirting with that sacred weekend where everything’s permitted and every little naughtiness smiles with seduction?

And perhaps, later that night, or another night remembering their first night, they might find a silly poem in their banter. (And if you’re going to translate it into English some fiteen hundred years later, why not take a clue from the monks and give it a  lead in title line,)

Quod bibis et totum dimittis ab inguine Bacchum,
   Pars tibi superior debuit esse femur.
Potabis recto – poteris, Follonia, – Baccho,
   Si parte horridius inferiore bibas.

When you booze like this
and need to pee, you always say you’re going
  to let some of the wildness out. It flows
between your legs, Follonia – so your cleared mind
owes a certain debt to your thighs.
Pay it back, Follonia – you know how. Let’s
quench your wild bottom’s boozy thirst.

(Acknowledgment: An earlier version of this essay appeared in the, Otis College, print journal or  issue #3,  2010. )


Three Luxorius Epigrams

De sigillo Cupidinis aquas fundentis

Igne salutifero Veneris pur omnia flammans
 Pro facibus propriis arte ministrat aquas.

About those little statues
of Cupid squirting water.
  You know – Venus’ son –
the one who ignites all creation
  with essential fire. See how
through the wonder of art
  he wets it down.

De statua Veneris in cuius capite violae sunt natae

Cypris candidulo reddita marmore
Veram se exanimis corpore praebuit.
Infudit propriaa membra caloribus,
Per florem in statuam viveret ut suam.
Nec mendax locus est. Qui violas forent
Servabit famulas inguinibus rosas.

The Flowering Venus

A smooth marble Cyprian returns to blush
and reveal her truth through a breathless
body. She pours her own special heat
into every part of the statue until
it comes alive with flowers.
No need to lie about where.
A violet doorway whose delicay’s
guarded by a swell of handmaiden roses.

De muliere Marina vocabulo

Quidam concubitu futuit fervente Marinam;
 Fluctibus in salsis fecit adulterium.
Non hic culpandus, potius se laude ferendus,
 Qui memor est Veneria quod marfe nata foret.


A certain person lay down to dinner with
  and ended up fucking boiling Marina.
Now the adultery is making some salty waves.
  Not only should this affair not be
condemned. If possible, it should,
  in fact, be commemorated.
Because it reminds us that Venus,
  the daughter of the sea, somehow, still lives.

Art Beck’s Luxorius Opera Omnia, or a Duet for Sitar and Trombone (Otis College /Seismicity Editions) won the 2013 Northern Calofornia Book Award for poetry in translation.  A further sampling of Luxorius epigrams with some background on this long neglected and obscure Roman poet can be found here.

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