Let me provoke you today with some Ovid

Today I step out of my patristicist shoes and take off my theologian’s cap, to become for a moment what I started out as lo those many years ago: a classicist.

TV representations of ancient Rome often give you the impression of unbridled licence and unchecked immorality.  In fact, the ancient Romans were, just like all normal people, rather conservative in their views.   They were, as a matter of fact, rather negative about abortion.  Yes, it is true that there was infanticide at times, as in many cultures, but I suspect that was mostly among the very wealthy.

In any event, the ancient poet Ovid has something to say about abortion.  Here are two of his elegies from the Amores (not my translation) which say something about the attitudes of commen people.

I find these two poems provocative and moving.

Keep in mind that Ovid is one of those Neoteric poets, men who rejected the very long, epic style of poem, in favor of shorter, snapshots.  They also like to use lots of fancy references and hints to other places and people: sort of like post-modernists do when they write.

In this first elegy, a frightened Ovid is relieved that his mistress "Corinna" survived an abortion, from which she nearly died.  My emphases.

Book II Elegy XIII: The Abortion

Corinna lies there exhausted in danger of her life,
after rashly destroying the burden of an unborn child.
I should be angry: she took that great risk
and hid it from me: but anger’s quelled by fear.
All the same it’s me by whom she conceived – or I think so:
I often take things for facts that only might be.
Isis, of Paraetonium, and the joyful fields of Canopus,
you who protect Memphis, and palmy Pharos,
and the land where the swift Nile spreads in its wide delta,
its waters flowing through seven mouths to the sea,
by your sistrum I pray, by the sacred head of Anubis –
so may Osiris love your holy rites for ever,
and the slow serpent glide about your altar,
and the horned Apis follow your procession!
Turn your face towards us, and spare both in one!
Then you will grant life to her, and she to me.

Often she’s taken pains to attend your special days,
when Gallic laurel crowns your worshippers.
And you, Ilythia, who pity girls struggling in labour,
whose hidden child strains their reluctant body,
be gentle with her and hear my prayers!
It’s proper for you to demand gifts for yourself.
I myself, in white, will burn incense on your smoking altars,
I myself will lay at your feet the gifts I vowed.
I’ll add an inscription: ‘Naso, for saving Corinna!’
Make that occasion soon, for the inscription and the gifts.
If it’s still possible to warn you, girl, in such a state of fear,
let it be enough for you to have fought this one battle!

Abortion also scares, and scars, men.

At the time Ovid was writing, some Egyptian mystery religions were big in Rome.  Thus all the references to slithering.  But there is no self-deception about the poet’s own feelings.  In this poem, de-Nile is just a river in Egypt.
Were Ovid a Catholic, he might be writing about lighting a candle or having Masses said.  Some things are universal, aren’t they?

Ovid had the amazing ability, perhaps unlike any other Latin poet we have, of turning out verse afer verse of gorgeous flowing words.  Simply amazing talent.


The next poem also concerns abortion, but this time we see revealed something of the attitudes of the masses.  Read carefully and note also the comparison he uses.

Book II Elegy XIV: Against Abortion

Where’s the joy in a girl being free from fighting wars,
unwilling to follow the army and their shields,
if without battle she suffers wounds from her own weapons,
and arms unsure hands to her own doom?
Whoever first taught the destruction of a tender foetus,
deserved to die by her own warlike methods.

No doubt you’d chance your arm in that dismal arena
just to keep your belly free of wrinkles with your crime?
If the same practice had pleased mothers of old,
Humanity would have been destroyed by that violation.
and we’d need a creator again for each of our peoples
to throw the stones that made us onto the empty earth.
Who would have shattered the wealth of Priam, if Thetis,
the sea goddess, had refused to carry her rightful burden?

If Ilia had murdered the twins in her swollen womb,
the founder of my mistress’s City would have been lost.
If Venus had desecrated her belly, pregnant with Aeneas,
Earth would have been bereft of future Caesars.
You too, with your beauty still to be born, would have died,
if your mother had tried what you have done:
I myself would be better to die making love
than have been denied the light of day by my mother.

Why rob the loaded vine of burgeoning grapes,
or pluck the unripe apple with cruel hand?
Let things mature themselves – grow without being forced:
life is a prize that’s worth a little waiting.
Why submit your womb to probing instruments,
or give lethal poison to what is not yet born?
Medea is blamed for sprinkling the blood of her children,
and Itys, slain by his mother, is lamented with tears:
both cruel parents, yet both had bitter reason
to shed blood, revenge on a husband.
Say, what Tereus, what Jason incites you
to pierce your troubled body with your hand?
No tiger in its Armenian lair would do it,
no lioness would dare destroy her foetus.
But tender girls do it, though not un-punished:
often she who kills her child, dies herself.
She dies, and is carried to the pyre with loosened hair,
and whoever looks on cries out: ‘She deserved it!’
But let these words vanish on the ethereal breeze,
and let my imprecations have no weight!
You gods, prosper her: let her first sin go, in safety,
and be satisfied: you can punish her second crime!

What an amazing poem.  The poet’s rage and sorrow are nearly palpable.

Who knows what Einsteins or St. Francis of Assisis have been killed before birth?

Doesn’t this also say something about the poet’s sense of the role of women in society, in life?

He seems to be saying that women are, by their very nature, deeply connected to giving life, not taking it.  Thus, Ovid uses military imagery and then references the animal kingdom.  "Not even lionesses do this!"   The masses of people who see the funeral of the girl who dies from the abortion are also enraged. 

Every once in a while it is good to turn to different times and cultures for a reality check.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. jacobus says:

    Very interesting… While studying classics in typically secular and liberal grad school, I took a course on Elegy… we seemed to have skipped these…

  2. TNCath says:

    Very thought-provoking entry, Fr. Z, and a wonderful defense of natural law! Were Ovid a Catholic, I’m sure he and St. Thomas Aquinas could have had some interesting discussions.

  3. Maria says:

    Thanks very much for posting these, Father.

    I’m a Latin student but haven’t read Ovid so far. Who is the translator, pray?

  4. No provocation there, Fr Z. Just refreshment. TNCath got it exactly right.

  5. Thank you for all you do in bringing so much to those of us who check your web-site daily.

  6. *waves classicist banner enthusiastically*

    Thank you for a wonderful post on Ovid and his abortion elegies! We read these in my public high school’s Latin classes, back in VA, and you remind me that I need to return to Latin poetry some day soon.

  7. Rudy B says:

    Wow – I never would’ve thought Ovid wrote about this! Those Romans weren’t universally depraved as some claim they were (trying to defend their own hedonism). Thanks, Fr. Z!

  8. John Fannon says:

    What an indictment of our so called ‘enlightened’ times!

    In the UK one fifth of pregnancies end in abortion and
    the abortion zealots are still not satisfied.

  9. Rachel says:

    In the US it’s one fourth or more– hard to believe.

    Thanks for this, Father– I had no idea they even did surgical abortions in Ovid’s time, but that’s what “submit your womb to probing instruments” has to mean. I’ve learned something today.

  10. Dan says:

    Amazing stuff — so politically incorrect, so unvarnished.

  11. Andrew says:

    Ovid uses the word “fetus” which can mean both “pregnant” and “a fetus”. And speaking of “fetus” I find it interesting (even though I am not a classicist) to note how many Latin words are derived from “feo” (to generate): words such as fetus, fecundus, ferax, fertilis, and of course femina, and also femur (thigh) and even fenus (interest on loan) – all derived from the same concept. Pretty neat, isn’t it?

  12. Maria S. says:

    Thanks for this post, Father. Very thought provoking and insightful. Near the middle of the second one, I cried a little, because I just found out, after lots of hoping and thinking I was, that I wasn’t pregnant after all. The thought of one day possibly bringing a life into the world is truly a wonderful, amazing feeling and changes your whole outlook on the world. I still hope one day I’m blessed to do so.

  13. Malta says:

    very ironic, that a pagan that lived over 2,000 years ago has more to say on this issue than the majority of the “Christian” hypocrites in this country today. Abortion IS the defining issue of our day.

  14. Greg Smisek says:

    Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
    St. Gianna Beretta Molla, pray for us.

  15. Melody says:

    I once read a story in which a man talked with God, asking Him why such things as cancer had not been cured. He responded, “The one I sent to cure it was aborted in the womb.”

  16. David Kubiak says:

    Roman law prohibited abortion because it deprived the father of his rights over the child, which were technically absolute. Legally every father retained the ‘ius necandi’ over his children still ‘sub potestate’ until into the Christian era, but attested cases of killing an adult child are confined to early Roman history and so hard to verify. Fathers could and did, however, regularly order the exposure of a child if when presented to him at his feet he declined to pick it up and accept it into his ‘familia’; and abortion was not illegal if performed with the father’s consent.

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