On Valentine’s Day, why not serenade your beloved in Latin? Not least because St Valentine was a Roman saint, martyred on 14th February AD 273, near the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber in northern Rome.
By coincidence, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312 – between the Emperors Constantine and Maxentius – marked the legendary moment Constantine converted to Christianity. According to the legend, Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the sky before the battle, and the words, ‘In hoc signo, vinces’ – ‘In this sign, you will conquer’. He duly fought under the cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, beat Maxentius and converted the Roman Empire to Christianity.
In fact, Constantine, like most Roman emperors, spoke Greek, and the sign really read, ‘En toutoi, nika’ – ‘In this, you will conquer’.
Anyway, back to Roman love poems for Valentine’s Day. Roman love poetry reached a peak in the first century BC in the poems of Catullus (84–54 BC), Horace (65–8 BC), Propertius (50–15 BC) and Ovid (43 BC– AD 16).
Here is Catullus on Lesbia.
Vivamus mea Lesbia,
omnes unius aestimemus
And here’s Propertius on Cynthia.
Cynthia prima suis miserum
me cepit ocellis,
contactum nullis ante
See if you can translate them both.
Poor old Ovid was so edgy in his love poetry that he was exiled by Augustus to Tomis, on the Black Sea; or Pontus, as it was called by the Romans, from ‘Pontos’, the Greek for sea. Thus Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea), his aching lament at his exile to this far-flung corner of the empire. Thus, too, his Tristia (Sad Things) – another collection of letters in exile.
It’s not entirely clear why Ovid was exiled. He said it was because of ‘carmen et error’ – a poem and a mistake. Some say the poem was his ‘Ars Amatoria’ – ‘The Art of Love’ – and its references to the crime of adultery.
See if you can translate the first two lines of ‘Ars Amatoria’.
Siquis in hoc artem populo
non novit amandi,
Hoc legat et lecto carmine
Here’s hoping you won’t be banished to the Black Sea by your beloved when they open your Valentine’s card. Good luck – and lots of love.
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