Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Ausonius to his wife.

Decimus Magnus Ausonius (310 Bordeaux – 393/4) was the most famous poet and teacher of rhetoric of his time. He was summoned to Rome to become the teacher Gratian, son of Valentian 1 and spent the years between 365 and 388 mostly at Rome or at campaign with Gratian. His final years he spent at his home town Bordeaux, writing poems and enjoying his estate.
He is best known from his poem Mosella, which he wrote around 370, in which gives an idyllic picture of the river Moselle.  Apart from this poem he wrote lots of other poems amongst them this epigram for his wife in which he imagines that at old age they will still be youthful. Alas, she died when she was 28, leaving him three children of which one died in infancy.  Though in later life he married a girl captured from the Alamanni,  the loss of his first wife would cast a shadow over the rest of his life.
This epigram was probably written a year before her death:


Ad Uxorem

Uxor, vivamus quod viximus et teneamus
nomina quae primo sumpsimus in thalamo ;
nec ferat ulla dies, ut commutemur in aevo,
quin tibi sim iuvenis tuque puella mihi.
Nestore sim quamvis provectior aemulaque annis
vincas Cumanam tu quoque Deiphoben,
nos ignoremus quid sit matura senectus,
scire aevi meritum, non numerare decet.

quod: most manuscripts read quod and one family ut. quod has been suspected and the emendation ceu by Heyne is accepted by most editors. However N. M. Kay has defended quod, pointing out that quod in Late Latin is used for sicut.
nomina: names showing affection, cuddling names
thalamus: bedroom  and by extension: marriage
in aevo: in old age
quin = ut non
Nestore provectior: more advanced (in age) than Nestor
aemulus: rivalling
Cumana Deiphobe: The Cumaean Sybille, proverbial for old age of women
matura senectus: old age
scire aevi meritum, non numerate decet: It is proper to know the merits of the years, not to count them

Translation by Helen Waddell:

To his Wife

LOVE, let us live as we have lived, nor lose
The little names that were the first night's grace,
And never come the day that sees us old,
I still your lad, and you my little lass.
Let me be older than old Nestor's years,
And you the Sibyl, if we heed it not.
What should we know, we two, of ripe old age?
We'll have its richness, and the years forgot.


  1. Resonat Catullus. Gratias tibi, delicatissimum carmen! Condivido!

  2. A beautiful little poem, but unless I'm mistaken, the first line doesn't scan as you're presented it. I just picked up a beautiful copy of H.W. Gerrod's Oxford Book of Latin Verse from 1912, and the first line is given there as "Uxor, vivamusque ut viximus et teneamus". The -que doesn't make much sense, but it does make the scansion work. Many other collections have "vivamus quod viximus", which also works. This seems to be the current consensus version.

  3. Hi Grant, critical readers are always a pleasure. I can't remember which edition I have used, but tomorrow I will sort this problem out at the university library here at Groningen.

  4. For what it's worth, I've found yet a fourth version of that line, with "ceu" in place of "ut", "-que ut", or "quod". I'd be interested in knowing what the textual history of the poem is and where all these variants come from. It almost looks like a bunch of different attempts to cope with the scansion problem presented by an original "ut". On the other hand, unless I'm scanning line 3 wrong, it looks to me like there's a similar issue there, after "dies". Is it possible that Ausonius is allowing the caesura to make position and lengthen the final vowel of "dies"? I don't remember ever learning of such a practice, but then I studied Latin poetry about 40 years ago so there are probably some things I've forgotten. It's interesting that there don't seem to be any variants of line 3, as compared with the four variants of line 1 that I've seen. The situations may be different; the caesura in line 3 seems like a much more significant break than the one in line 1, which hardly exists at all so far as the sense of the line is concerned.

    By the way I think you have a typo in the last line, with "numerate" instead of "numerare".

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  6. Hi Grant, quod is defended by Kay in his 2001 edition of the epigrams. It is also the reading of the majority of the manuscripts, only one branch reads ut. Ceu is an emendation by Heyne and accepted by many editors.
    Numerate is the work of the auto correction: an often very helpful tool, but it also wants to make English out of Latin.
    Thank you very much for your critical remarks and I will alter my post on these points.

    1. Leo, many thanks for doing this research. I very much appreciate it and the work you do on this blog in general.

      Still feeling uncomfortable about line 3, I did some research of my own and found that Califf's "A Guide to Latin Meter and Verse Composition" does mention the practice of lengthening a naturally short final vowel followed by a single consonant at a caesura, even if the next word starts with a vowel. He cites examples from Vergil, Ovid, and Catullus. This sets my mind at ease; certainly what's good enough for them is good enough for Ausonius, and I'm also reassured that I wasn't making a total hash of the scansion.

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