Self-Help, Safe Sex, and Latin Poetry

In the FT, Harry Eyres reviews Charlotte Higgins’ Latin Love Lessons:

I am extremely sympathetic with Higgins’s overall thesis that we would all do far better to spend more time with Roman poetry and less with popular psychology; indeed the recent renaissance of Latin as an exciting – not dry and dusty – language to learn, exemplified by the runaway success of Harry Mount’s amusing Amo, Amas, Amat, is one of the most encouraging cultural trends to emerge for ages. I also like many of Higgins’ commentaries on individual poems: her comparison of Propertius’s obsessive circling round the experience of being in love with Proust is spot-on. She loves Catullus also; not just the most famous poems about his obsessive love for Lesbia but the long, densely mythological tale of Peleus and Thetis.

But with one comment the admirable Higgins stopped me in my tracks and made me ponder whether it was quite so easy to assimilate the Roman poets to the world of Bridget Jones. This was a cheery injunction to her readers to indulge in safe sex at all times. What, I suddenly wondered, would the Roman poets make of the idea of “safe sex”?

Here I came back to Horace and the beautiful poem singled out by Martha Kearney that begins his last book of odes. It is addressed to Venus, the goddess of love: the 50-year-old poet implores the goddess to spare him a return of the love “wars” he thought he had put behind him. He begs her to go instead to the houses of amorous young men who, when they achieve their heart’s desire, will set up statues and institute festivals in her honour. He is past it; past the stage of “women or boys, of hopes of the mutual happiness of love, of drinking bouts and garlands of fresh flowers”.