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Claudia and Claudius (Image: Tina Tiller, Author photo by Petra Mingneau)
Claudia and Claudius (Image: Tina Tiller, Author photo by Petra Mingneau)

BooksApril 18, 2023

Classics meets Cosmo: Dating tips from the 10th century

Claudia and Claudius (Image: Tina Tiller, Author photo by Petra Mingneau)
Claudia and Claudius (Image: Tina Tiller, Author photo by Petra Mingneau)

Poet Claudia Jardine on her obsession with a famously sexy book of Classical poetry, the Palatine Anthology, and how her own collection of poetry, BITER, is in conversation with it.

Awkward, explicit and funny, the poetry collected in the Palatine Anthology will make you reassess your assumptions about the literature of classical Greece and the Byzantine Empire. Some of the poems were so horny that even twentieth century translators refused to write them in English: they translated them into Latin instead. 

Fast forward to me, reading a 1000-year-old book as a postgraduate Classics student and making a beeline for the Latin passages. I started to suspect an obsession was developing. More people needed to know about these weird little guys and their heartbreaks and hot takes. I write for you now, as a conduit between our world and theirs, a brief history of this most scintillating and informative text, and thereby transmit to you some of the relationship advice contained within it.

In the first century BCE, a poet known as Meleager of Gadara bound some of his poems together with poems by 46 other poets. Some of these poets were his contemporaries, and others had been dead for 300 years. He called the collection The Garland, to say that each poem had been as carefully chosen as the flowers in a headdress. Meleager’s manuscript came to be known as an anthologia, “a flower-gathering,” a word we now use to signify a collection of wonderful things.

Claudia Jardine’s collection, Biter, beside a page from the Palatine Anthology.

Later scholars from the first and sixth centuries CE loved Meleager’s anthology so much that they added poems to it. The anthology grew and grew. More and more pages were added to the manuscript until a tenth-century Byzantine schoolmaster called Constantine Cephalas created a definitive fifteen-book edition by adding a few more books of second-century homoerotic verse, some poems found in Christian churches, some light verse, descriptions of famous statues and a collection of inscriptions from a temple in Anatolia. Something for everyone, especially if you were gay and loved art and poetry!

The next editor, however, had other plans. In the fourteenth century a monk called Maximus Planudes created an edition of the manuscript known as the Planudean Anthology in seven books. Maximus was selective. He opted to remove poems that he considered too explicit from his edition (More like, Maximum “Pah! @ nudes…”) and added 380 more. This edition of the text was first published in 1494, and for a long time the literary world was none the wiser about the invention of the first Sealed Section in a magazine the censored section of poems from the Classical and Byzantine period.

And then, as per the usual formula for massive developments in literary history, someone found something in a library in Germany. In 1606, French scholar Claudius Salmasius discovered the fifteen-book edition by Constantine Cephalas in the Palatinate Library of Heidelberg, and thus it became known as the Palatine Anthology. Salmasius had copies of the manuscript published in 1776 and later editors added Planudes’ additions as an appendix. Modern editors did not publish Greek to English translations of the more explicit epigrams until this century.

Let us move on to the lessons of love poets past. Note, I have included literal translations of the Greek as well as my translated versions of the poems in order to furnish readers with a full understanding of the text and the fun of translation.

1. Flirt like a human

Horses flirt by biting each other and making a display of urinating. Humans flirt by biting each other and quoting erotic poetry. If you (a human) wish to attract a mate, and you somehow get a little confused and do your best impression of a horse disguised as a marriage celebrant, do not expect your intended lover to respond warmly.

Κιχλίζεις, χρεμέτισμα γάμου προκέλευθον ἱεῖσα
ἥσυχά μοι νεύεις: πάντα μάτην ἐρέθεις.

– PA V.245.1-2, Macedonius the Consul (6th century CE)

You giggle, uttering the conductory neighing of a marriage (of horses)
silently you nod to me: every which way in vain you excite…

my literal translation

you giggle
you act like a horse officiating a wedding
you nod to me wordlessly
you do all you can to titillate at random…

From Good Love, BITER (p. 14)

Pedanius Dioscorides (Image: Getty)

2. Your vocabulary is limitless

Sometimes common language is not enough. Be not afraid. Be like Dioscorides and make a new word to describe your lover’s fantastic bottom. Ῥοδόπυγος (rho-do-pu-gos) means “rosy-rumped,” and as far as I can tell the following poem is the only extant text where the word occurs. Let us hazard a guess as to why Doris’ bottom is so red. Let us also insert an allusion to the river Styx, the boundary between Earth and the Underworld in Greek mythology, because said river was rumoured to give the power of invulnerability to anyone who bathed in it, and also because it sounds nice.

Δωρίδα τὴν ῥοδόπυγον ὑπὲρ λεχέων διατείνας
ἅψεσιν ἐν χλοερῖς ἀθάνατος γέγονα.

PA V.55.1-2, Dioscorides (c. 3rd century BCE)

With rosy-rumped Doris stretched to the utmost over the bed
in her blooming junction I became immortal…

my literal translation

she was bedfast, unfurled, slap-assed,
and in her verdant joinery I was Styxed…

From Slap-assed, BITER (p. 7)

3. Love can be a brigand

Did you seriously think dating would be a calm sea? Did you imagine the deities of Love would treat you lightly? Diophanes of Myrina does not agree. Diophanes thinks Love would prefer to make Commodore Norringtons of us all. Odds are, Eros the god of Love is watching you right now, and he is not afraid to throw a big fuss in your way. And while you are busy wondering what to do about your predicament, Eros will steal your clothes.

τρὶς λῃστὴς ὁ Ἔρως καλοῖτ᾽ ἂν ὄντως:
ἀγρυπνεῖ, θρασύς ἐστιν, ἐκδιδύσκει.

PA V.309.1-2, Diophanes of Myrina (c. 2nd century BCE)

Thrice a pirate Eros could be called, really:
he is watchful, he is bold, he strips clothes.

my literal translation

really and truly
Love may be labelled a pirate three times!
keeping watch!
acting bold!
stealing clothes!

From Pirate, BITER (p. 45)

4. Love can also be rabid dog

Strange things can happen under Love’s influence. Do not be surprised to find yourself seeing things. Thought you might have “a quiet drink with friends?” As if! It is normal to see the face of the one you love in all bodies of water, just the same way that a person who has been poisoned by a dog bite will be haunted by visions of the dog.

λυσσώων τάχα πικρὸν Ἔρως ἐνέπηξεν ὀδόντα
εἰς ἐμέ, καὶ μανίαις θυμὸν ἐληίσατο:
σὴν γὰρ ἐμοὶ καὶ πόντος ἐπήρατον εἰκόνα φαίνει,
καὶ ποταμῶν δῖναι, καὶ δέπας οἰνοχόον.

PA 266.3-6, Paulus Silentarius (6th century CE)

Suffering from rabies, forthwith keen Love fixed teeth
into me, and with madness my soul despoiled?
For to me in the sea your lovely image appears,
and in the whirlpools of rivers, and in cups of wine

my literal translation

did rabid Love fix its keen teeth in me
and maraud my soul with mania?
for you – [ggrRRR] you – [rrrrRUF] you – [rrrRA]
you – [ggRArArA] your – [ghhHAhHAhHAh]
your delightful image appears in my whirlpools and rivers
my open sea
my glass of wine

From Mad Dog, BITER (p. 36)

6. Loving whispers are the best music

Better than your Spotify Wrapped, better than Wet Leg by Wet Leg, better than SZA; the sound of someone you love whispering in your ear. Not even the god of music, shining Apollo, could change your mind about this one. Not even if he did his best rendition of Jim Croce playing ‘Time in a Bottle’. Not a chance!

ναὶ τὸν Ἔρωτα, θέλω τὸ παρ᾽ οὔασιν Ἡλιοδώρας:
φθέγμα κλύειν ἢ τᾶς Λατοΐδεω κιθάρας.

PA 141.1-2, Meleager (1st century BCE)

Verily regarding Love, I wish near my ears Heliodoras:
the sound to hear rather than the lyre of the son of Leto

my literal translation

more than the lyre of Apollo
I wish to hear you whisper in my ear
. . . oath

From Oath, BITER (p. 10)

Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Leon Gerome (Image: Getty)

7. Know what you like

During the sixth century, Paulus Silentiarius was a silentiary, a court official whose duty was to maintain order and silence in Emperor Justinian’s palace in Constantinople. In other words, Paul was a Shusher. And Paul had opinions. There were good ways of kissing, and there were… other ways of kissing. Paul recommends taking a sample, and then asking yourself what you really like.

μακρὰ φιλεῖ Γαλάτεια καὶ ἔμψοφα, μαλθακὰ Δημώ,
Δωρὶς ὀδακτάζει. τίς πλέον ἐξερέθει;

PA 244.1-2, Paulus Silentarius (6th century CE)

For a long period of time kisses Galatea, and loudly, soft kisses Demo,
Doris bites. Which (kisses) intensely excite more?…

my literal translation

Galatea kisses loudly and long
Demo kisses softly soft
and Doris is a biter
whose excite most?…

From Biter, BITER (p. 13)

8. Love loves second chances

Like many other brave and intelligent people, Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen novel. The author of this poem remains anonymous, but if they had lived into the 19th century, I am sure they would have loved Persuasion too. Love survives on serendipity and bravery. Sometimes people need to give each other another chance. Speak now, or never partake of the Sun-Maids.

Ὄμφαξ οὐκ ἐπένευσας: ὅτ᾽ ἦς σταφυλή, παρεπέμψω.
μὴ φθονέσῃς δοῦναι κἂν βραχὺ τῆς σταφίδος.

PA 306.1-2, Anonymous

As an unripe grape assuredly not you sanctioned; when the grapes were ripe,
you passed by.
Do not begrudge giving even a little of the dried grapes.

my literal translation

unripe, you refused me
fresh and ready, you passed me by
even so
grant me a little of your raisinhood

From Raisinhood, BITER (p. 50)

Further reading

Paton, W. R., The Greek Anthology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1916.

Smith, William, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, MA, 1849.

Despite attempts to suppress its transmission, the Palatine Anthology survived the monks and the moths and is currently available for free online in its original language, Ancient Greek, in the Perseus Digital Library.

BITER by Claudia Jardine ($25, Auckland University Press) can be purchased online and in store from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

Keep going!