Writing from the perspective of a famous person – mythical or historical, was common practice in Latin literature. Famous are the Ovid’s Heroides, in which Ovid wrote letters in the name of famous heroines, but other writers too used this literary device. Ausonius (310-395) for instance has written a number of epigrams from the perspective of women. Now I come to think about it: I can’t remember that this device is used for famous men. Probably there are some, but is seems that male poets felt for more comfortable using the perspective of a woman. Maybe – and I say it with some hesitation – it is because the mind of women was seen as more fickle and hence more interesting.
In the first of the following epigrams we hear Niobe speaking. She once boasted that she with her fourteen children had far more offspring than Leto, who had only Apollo and Artemis. True, but Apollo and Artemis killed her children and Niobe herself fled to mount Sipylus, where she turned into a stone constantly weeping. There was a famous sculpture of Niobe and her children at Rome, brought there by C. Sosios around 66 BC. Contemporary writers were in doubt about the sculptor: Praxiteles or Scopas? The point of this epigram is clear: both as living person and as sculpture I had no sense.
In the second epigram the famous prostitute Lais is talking. There were actually two famous courtesans with that name, but in literature they often merged into a single person. Lais was said to have innumerable lovers during her long life – supposed to be long because of all her lovers of which the number can’t be handled in just a few years. This is perfect example of circular reasoning. After her death she kept the imagination of men, or more precise: male poets. I think Freud had a point about the mind of men.
Ausonius imagines her as an old woman looking in a mirror: too old now for seducing lovers.
Ausonius, Epigrams, 57 and 60. The texts are those given by N.M Kay, Ausonius, Epigrams (2001)
Vivebam: sum facta silex, qua deinde polita
Praxiteli manibus, vivo iterum Niobe.
Reddidit artificis manus omnia, sed sine sensu;
hunc ego, cum laesi numina, non habui.
Lais anus Veneri speculum dico: dignum habeat se
aeterna aeternum forma ministerium.
at mihi nullus in hoc usus, quia cernere talem,
qualis sum, nolo, qualis eram, nequeo.
silex silicis (m. and sometimes f.): stone
qua deinde polita: abl. abs. `which subsequently being polished’
polio (-ire) polivi politum: to polish, smooth
Praxiteli: Latin genitive of a Greek name
vivo iterum Niobe: I, Niobe, live (now) a second time
reddo (-ere) reddidi redditum: to restore, give back
artifex artificis (m.): artist
hunc (sensum): as for insulting gods (numina) one must be out of his (and her!) senses
laedo laesi laesum: to wound, offend
anus anus (f.): old woman (a derogatory term)
dico (-are): to dedicate (Veneri speculum dico: dear items were dedicated to gods when they were no longer used. Lais dedicates her mirror to Venus, as she realizes she has become unattractive.)
dignum habeat se aeterna aeternum forma ministerium = aeterna forma habeat aeternum ministerium dignum se (habere): let eternal beauty have eternal service (to Venus), worthy it (i.e. forma) having (i.e. only eternal beauty is worthy of the eternal service to Venus.)
in hoc (speculum)
cerno (-ere) crevi certum: to see, distinguish
nequeo (-ire) nequivi: not be able to