Greek and Roman love poetry - In Our Time

Greek and Roman love poetry provides many metaphors of love that survive in our time. Melvyn Bragg begins by introducing Sappho, the greatest love poet of Ancient Greece, who said about love, "against you there is no defence.” Love poetry was  most fashionable in 7th and 3rd centuries BC in Greece, and was taken up by the Roman poets in the 1st century BC. Catullus, especially, developed the form, and concentrated on love metaphors based on violent conflict like slave torture and gladitatorial combat.


Nick Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London

Edith Hall, Professor of Classics and Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London

Maria Wyke, Professor of Latin at University College London

Programme sketch

Melvyn Bragg: Why did Greek poetry move from heroism to love around the 7th century BC? 

Nick Lowe: A century on from the Iliad and Odyssey, the city state and trade allowed the lyric form to develop. Greek lyric poetry got its name from being sung to a lyre. Epic poetry is limited in various aspects. It could not be sung. Also, it is good on the past, but not on the present. Lyric poetry can depict the epic, but can also sing of personal things and current events.[Nick recites some Sappho in Ancient Greek]

Melvyn Bragg: Sappho is key, tell us about her

Edith Hall: Sappho was avant garde, a woman in a profession that was completely dominated by men. Aphrodite was worshipped, so the gender politics of love poetry was different the epic. It allowed a woman to gain prominence. Sappho had the advantage of coming from an aristocratic family, with plenty of leisure, and access to rich courts that she wanted to impress. Everyone loved her, from critics to courtiers, and she was written down and quoted at all the best (exclusively male) gatherings. A significant number of her poems were about lesbian love--she did not mention married love. her poems are all about sex and relationships outside marriage. Her most famous poem considered the eight adverse, physical symptoms of love. This treatment has lasted to modern times in descriptions like 'love is blind',  being 'dumb struck' by love and 'dieing for love'. It is "the love poem of the West".

Nick Lowe: Male love poetry is about power, dominant and submissive, bisexual. Sappho creates love triangles in which nothing external happens and you go into mythic fantasy on a stream of consciousness. She conjures up armies on the march, fleets on the sea, but Helen of Troy and love are what we admire.

Melvyn Bragg: What was Plato's influence.

Edith Hall: The Symposium, one of Plato's works, is mainly about love. It mentions Aristophanes' idea that all creatures go through life incomplete, looking for their other half that was separated from them in ages past.. For Plato, love, pursuit of beauty is a metaphysical pursuit, therefore Sappho's love poetry was given a position of great importance by him.

Melvyn Bragg: Other poets?

Edith Hall: Anacreon was a tune smith as well as a fantastic lyricist. When asked why he wrote about boys instead of gods, he said, "Boys are my gods". He compared Eros to a blacksmith who smashed him with a hammer before dropping him into the sea. He was the poet of gusto, celebrating things like 11 month drinking sprees.

Lyric poetry fell away in Greece, but was revived around 300 BC when Alexandrian Elegiac poetry entered the scene. Callimachus was the poet guru, whose day job included writing the 120 book catalogue for the Great Library of Alexandria. He was a leading figure in the Ptolemaic court and celebrated "small is beautiful", tending to write six line epigrams rather than multi-book epics.

Maria Wyke: Callimachus reflects on the nature of love in a rational way, and supported refined exclusivity in love and poetry writing. He hated recycled poems, promiscuous boy poems, and vulgar popular forms. But he worried about being too fastidious and ending up with no one to love, and no one reading his poems.

Nick Lowe: Catullus took on the polished, simple form, and addressed most of his poems to his lover Lesbia. She was a widowed aristocrat who got on the wrong side of Cicero. Catullus' father was a friend of Julius Caesar, he was certainly a poet who mixed with big people.

Melvyn Bragg: I hadn't read Catullus before, I found his poetry absolutely wonderful, with powerful love/hate metaphors.

Maria Wyke: Yes in one his poems, a young man unhappy in love castrates himself to devote himself to a goddess. For the Roman love poet, love leads to loss of family, home, city, and masculinity. It's fruit is loss of identity and total despair. It's an attack on the highly masculine Roman psyche where the male becomes soft and feminised.

Edith Hall: As the Roman republic begins to fall, and Cato's stoic values are lost, decadent, despairing public love affairs become normal and the poetry reflects this.

Nick Lowe: The Roman love poet hates and loves and knows not why. Love is pain. Slave torture metaphors, overpowering violence, descent into madness--all goes horribly wrong. 

Edith Hall: Slightly later, Ovid and Petrarch make love poetry even more dominant by extending love stories across book length narratives. Love affairs become a way of life to  the exclusion of everything else. But the pain is still there. In one account by Ovid, love is a gladiator tramping on your head until you cry for mercy. 

Melvyn Bragg: Next week Spinoza.

Caveat: The above is just a sketch. For the full version, hear it on In Our Time, BBC Radio 4 web site.