The thing I love the most about studying an ancient language is the humbling amusement of relating to an actual person from millennia ago. Almost all of these amusements have occurred while reading, with happily decreasing levels of difficulty, through the work of Ovid – the exiled poet who inspired Shakespeare (he claimed that “Naso was the man”) among many others with his defining epic The Metamorphoses, wrote a poetic manual for adultery, portrayed himself in equal part as a genius and a pitiful wretch, and, conveniently, was the featured verse author on OCR’s 2019 A-Level Latin translation paper.
I read, and haphazardly translated, swathes of Ovid’s work in preparation for this paper (a flop!) and thus it happened that, in the humid Latin jungle of the Perseus Digital Library, I stumbled upon Ibis. This poem was in elegiacs (the romantic meter, as opposed to the warlike hexameters of the Metamorphoses) and had no linked translation – apparently not even Arthur Golding, my favourite Elizabethan Ovid devotee, had dared touch it. With no idea about its subject matter whatsoever, I began my usual routine of panicked, scrawled translation, only to realise that, dozens of lines later, I still had no idea about its subject matter whatsoever. The poem was clearly not based in Ovid’s romantic triumphs and downfalls, nor his favourite theme of myths with moving parts: I found instead curses that echoed like prayers, interwoven with euphemistic descriptions of exotic methods of torture. I was in love.
A Wikipedia search revealed that Ibis was a ‘curse poem’ (I didn’t know that this genre of Latin literature existed! Why wasn’t this on the A-Level specification? Are there more surviving examples? Can I read them immediately?) and that an eminent scholar called Herman Frankel had referred to it as failing to make “pleasant reading” (Lies!). But perhaps most interestingly, it explained that the identity of Ibis, the object of Ovid’s elaborate threats, was a mystery. It even used the phrase ‘no scholarly consensus has been reached’, at which point I like to imagine lots of classicists throwing things at each other, adjusting their ‘one day without an incident’ sign accordingly afterwards. There’s nothing I love more than an academic mystery! A long poem by my favourite Latin author in which he wishes the worst upon someone whose true identity is unknown is practically a recipe for exultant glee where I’m concerned.
I possess neither the detective skills nor the ancient history knowledge (yet!) to solve the mystery of Ovid’s hatred; I’d guess it’s about the Emperor Augustus, who expelled him from Rome, due to the references to ‘meo exilio’, but I’m sure there are convincing cases for the other suspects. But I can (somewhat) translate the thrills and spills of the poem in a handy condensed list. Perhaps you can use his most cleverly-written insults in conversation or over text to a Latin speaker who’s been angering you lately, mould them into cryptic acronyms for your new secret society, or create a threatening (but authentically Roman) motto for a school or college near you.
- ‘noxque die gravior sit tibi, nocte dies’
‘And may you have a night harsher than the day, a day harsher than the night.’ I love this line! The mirrored vocabulary of ‘nox’ and ‘dies’ is so effective in conveying the never-ending misfortune Ovid wants his foe to suffer.
2. ‘da iugulum cultris, hostia dira, meis.’
‘Give your throat over to my sword, dreadful enemy.’ What a threat! Ovid really highlights the pliability of the Latin language here – we have all the information we need from the noun and verb endings, and thus are free to emphasise anything and even create pictures with the word order. He takes full advantage, moving the imperative ‘da’ to the start of the line and ending with ‘meis’ to highlight to his ‘hostia dira’ exactly who’ll cause his grisly end. Isn’t it cool how the words for ‘my sword’ wrap around ‘dreadful enemy’, as if they themselves are trapping him? I texted this line to my friend from Latin class as soon as I’d read it.
3. ‘sisque miser semper, nec sis miserabilis ulli: gaudeat adversis femina virque’
‘And may you always be miserable, and may you not be miserable for anyone else: woman and man shall rejoice against you.’
4. ‘luctatusque diu cruciatos spiritus artus deserat, et longa torqueat ante mora‘
‘And, having mourned for a long time, the breath of life shall leave your tortured limbs, and beforehand, a long delay shall pain you.’ I wish I had access to this kind of Latin while composing curses for people I didn’t like in my Year 8 diary.
5. ‘dedit ipse mihi modo signa futuri Phoebus, et a laeva maesta volavit avis’
‘Apollo himself gave me the signs of what’s to come, and a mournful bird flew in from the left’. So foreboding! These lines link to a) Ovid seeing himself as a vates, a poet-prophet receiving orders from Apollo, and b) the unlucky sight (to ancient Romans) of birds on the left – a synonym for ‘left’ in Latin is where we get the English ‘sinister’.
6. ‘speque tuae mortis, perfide, semper alar’
‘And I’ll always be nourished, treacherous one, by the hope of your death.’ Gasp!
7. ‘…robora dum montes, dum mollia pabula campi, dum Tiberi liquidas Tuscus habebit aquas, tecum bella geram’
‘…I’ll wage wars with you while the mountains are hard, while the fields have soft pastures, and while the Tiber and Tuscan river have clear waters’. This metaphor goes on for quite a bit in the real thing; he references two tribes, the Ganges and the river Hister too.
8. ‘nec mors mihi finiet iras. saeva sed innocuis manibus arma dabit.’
‘Nor shall death be the end of my rage, but it will give savage weapons to my harmless hands.’
9. ‘his vivus furiis agitabere, mortuus isdem, et brevior poena vita futura est.’
‘These furies shall shake you while alive all the same as in death, and your life will be shorter than the punishment.’
10. ‘unguibus et rostro crudus trahet ilia vultur et scindent avidi perfida corda canes.’
‘A bloodstained vulture shall drag your abdomen with its claws and mouth, and greedy dogs will slash through your treacherous heart.’ Obligatory ‘these animals shall eat you when you die’ description – a classic!
11. ‘in loca ab Elysiis diversa vocabere campis, quasque tenet sedes noxia turba, coles’
‘Places different from the fields of Elysium shall call you, and you’ll inhabit those seats which the unsavoury crowd presides over’ . Ibis won’t do very well in the underworld, for short.
12. ‘ille ego sum vates. ex me tua vulnera disces, dent modo di vires in mea verba suas, carminibus meis accedant pondera rerum, quae rata per luctus experiare tuos.’
‘I’m that poet. From me you shall learn about your wounds – let the gods give power to my words in this way, so they fire up the weight of my poem’s consequences, which are thought to last through your sorrows.’
13. ‘utque ferox periit et fulmine et aequore raptor, sic te mersuras adiuvet ignis aquas.’
‘And as a fierce attacker dies both by lightning and at sea, thus fire shall help you, submersed in water’
14. ‘vulnera totque feras, quot dicitur ille tulisse, cuius ab inferiis culter abesse solet.
‘And you’ll bear so many wounds, which he’s said to have brought on, he whose knife is accustomed to be away from the shades of the dead’
15. ‘et tua dente fero viscera carpat equus’
‘And a horse shall pluck out your innards with its sharp teeth’
16. ‘utque repertori nocuit pugnacis iambi, sic sit in exitium lingua proterva tuum.‘
‘And just as he hurt the author of these warlike couplets, may his crooked tongue reside in your ruin.’
17. ‘utque Agammemnonio vulnus dedit anguis Oresti, tu quoque de morsu virus habente cadas’
‘And as the snake of Orestes wounded Agammemnon, you also shall fall from a poison-bearing bite.’ Here Ovid is using mythological examples to sensationalise his hatred.
18. ‘inque tuis … noxia luminibus spicula condat apis.’
‘And a bee shall bury its harmful stinger in your eyes.’ Ouch?
19. ‘quodque dolore necis patriae pia filia fecit, vincula per laquei fac tibi guttur eat.’
‘And as a pious daughter did from the pain of her father’s death, bind your throat, make it go through a noose’ Is this the original ‘kys’?
20. ‘sic tua coniectis fodiantur pectora telis, sic precor auxiliis impediare tuis’
‘As your heart is dug up by frantic shafts, I pray for your assistance to stop’
I conclude my listicle-style reading of Ovid’s Ibis with the realisation that human insults have not changed. The anonymous messages I received as a controversial blogger are mirrored in these threats from millennia beforehand. Take from that what you will.
I hope the night is better than the day for you, and the day better than the night,