“No tiger in its Armenian lair would do it, no lioness … But tender girls do it, though not un-punished”

I have posted this in the past, but it has been a while.  Perhaps new readers here have not seen this before.  I thought of it because, at the end, I post a video which a reader sent.


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, quite 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 common 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 after 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!

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.


Now the video.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I have not read those poems before, nor seen the video. Too much at once. The poetry is magnificent in its pathos and imagery. And, the sentiments are “modern” . Thank you for sharing all of these things. Very hard, however, to digest.

    As to the video, amazing. I wonder how long the little monkey lived? As I have not a television nor watched it for years, I am assuming it was a series-Jeremy Irons, I presume.

  2. StWinefride says:

    often she who kills her child, dies herself

    If not physical death, then certainly the death of her soul. And only when she can accept God’s Love, Mercy and Forgiveness can she learn to forgive herself and live again…

  3. Imrahil says:

    Yes, it is true that there was infanticide at times, as in many cultures, but I suspect that was mostly among the very wealthy.

    I guess so too… but still I do find it striking that these made it into a law written on the Twelve Tables that handicapped children had to be abandoned (if I’m correctly informed).

  4. Fabula Rasa says:

    I too have found these poems very moving over the years, and have taught bits and pieces of both of them.

    When we talk about childbearing in ages past, we often forget how shockingly high the maternal mortality rate was, and what it meant to take your life into your hands and get pregnant (for those who had a choice.) Often the frightened and foolish young women who turned to abortionists did so in a pure terror we have a hard time locating today; the U.S. might not have the best maternal outcomes in the world, but we are certainly among them, and we rarely associate a woman’s announcement of pregnancy with any sense of impending doom, given the advanced state of medical interventions available to save both mother and baby. (I say this as someone who has received those interventions gratefully.) It is something to reflect on in this season of Advent, as we prayerfully encounter Our Lady’s “yes.” It was not just a “fiat” that acknowledged the potential upheaval of her own life, of the lives of those close to her, and of everything she knew as normal; it was a “fiat” that encompassed the very real possibility of her own painful death, her own Calvary.

    At any rate, I mention the above not to relativize or minimize the grave sin of abortion, obviously, but merely to suggest that the motives of such poor women – oven of Ovid’s Corinna – might have partaken less of depravity than of terror. May God forgive them all, and may Our Lady strengthen all mothers.

  5. lizaanne says:

    The video has been removed – do you have another source for viewing?

  6. Charles E Flynn says:

    I find it odd that the translation above, by Anthony S. Kline, is available free on the Web, but has never been published as a book, as far as I can tell:


  7. “often she who kills her child, dies herself.” Hard truth, but truth nonetheless. Even with His all consuming mercy and love, the pain remains forever and takes different shapes and forms, but remains.

  8. StWinefride says:

    InfiniteGrace: Even with His all consuming mercy and love, the pain remains forever and takes different shapes and forms, but remains..

    Our Lord can take the pain away… He came to set the captives free…and in turn the rest of their lives can become a reflection of His Infinite Mercy.

    Let the greatest sinners place their trust in My mercy. They have the right before others to trust in the abyss of My mercy. My daughter, write about My mercy towards tormented souls. Souls that make an appeal to My mercy delight Me. To such souls I grant even more graces than they ask. I cannot punish even the greatest sinner if he makes an appeal to My compassion, but on the contrary, I justify him in My unfathomable and inscrutable mercy”. Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary of St Faustina, 1146

    Jesus, I trust in You…

  9. elestirne says:

    Beautiful and full of pathos. Honestly, though, I find it surprising that this is by Ovid, of all people, whom, I believe, was banished from Rome at least nominally for writing poetry about adultery (although this may have been merely the emperor’s excuse–I know little about it, anyway). Not a virtuous man. Still, even he could recognize murder as murder.

  10. elestirne says:

    In my previous comment, “at least nominally” should be in parentheses. Sorry.

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