Dioscorides Elegy on an Act of Love to Engage ‘Woke’ Culture

Dioscorides Elegy A.P. 5.55 (G-P 5)

Translated by Steven J. Willett

Eros, Aphrodite and Two Lovers. This red figure skyphos came from the workshop of the Iliouperis Painter c 357~350 and is in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, New York.

Note: Our knowledge about Dioscorides is quite limited. Meleager refers to him (A.P. 4.1.24), and a scholiast to Apollonius of Rhodes cites him concerning Amphion’s lyre (Gow-Page, 2 p. 235). Dioscorides’ own poetry contains virtually no biographical evidence about his life. He wrote an epitaph on death of the poet Machon (A.P. 7.708), which would place his floruit in the late third century B.C. We don’t know where he was born, though he appears to have spent his life in Egypt and Alexandria. We have a total of 40 epigrams from him divided into amatory, dedicatory, sepulchral and satirical categories.

As a poet Dioscorides had a keen eye for color, complex allusions, humor and occasionally a touch of irreverence. His imagery often suggests a variety of emotional responses that cannot be given any single interpretation. His amatory elegies are equally divided between heterosexual and homosexual relations, both of which he handles with even skill. Two of his epigrams, A.P. 55 (the current translation) and A.P. 54, are unique in their skillful depiction of sexual intercourse. Nothing like them appears until centuries later in the poetry of Martial and Rufinus.

A highly subjective-sexual epigram in which the poet speaks with his own sensuous experience has so much to engage, or enrage, popular ‘woke’ culture that I can easily imagine the ensuing racket. But not here.

A.P. 5.55 (G-P 5)

Having stretched out Doris the rosy-rumped across the bed

in verdant flowers I’ve now become immortal.

For she bestriding me midmost with her exquisite legs

achieved unswerving Cypris’ lengthy race.

Her eyes are gazing languidly: like leaves in the wind,

while tossing all about, she trembled sanguine,

until sacred wine poured out white strength from us both,

and Doris languidly lay with relaxed limbs.

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9 Responses to Dioscorides Elegy on an Act of Love to Engage ‘Woke’ Culture

  1. EEngineer says:

    Life is to be lived.
    The journey is the destination.
    A truth so obvious most can not see it.
    So turns the wheel forever.

  2. jerseycityjoan says:

    Well that is certainly something to try to live up to.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Wow.

  3. jld says:

    Looks like we are not in “ancient times” anymore, or were ancient foibles more concealed?

  4. Barbara Ann says:

    Racy stuff! Great to see you posting again Professor Willett.

    “I’ve now become immortal” is excellent for conveying both the ecstasy felt in the moment and, in the genetic sense, the event which conveys the essence of our life into the next generation. I wonder why such poetic subject matter is absent for centuries afterwards.

  5. Leith says:

    Doris the daughter of Oceanus? Was it an allusion to a storm at sea and the afterwards calm.

    • Steven J. Willett says:

      The name ‘Doris’ is 1. a location on the Melian Gulf mentioned by Aeschylus and Hesiod among others and 2. as you say an Oceanid who with Nereus produced the Nereids. Dioscorides is not referring to any goddess, I would argue, but simply giving a common mythological name to a real woman who is a girlfriend, someone’s playful wife or a hetaira. I doubt she is a common prostitute from her behavior.

      • Leith says:

        Thanks for the response.

        What is the meaning of the fourth line – ‘unswerving Cypris’ lengthy race’? Cypris I guess would be Aphrodite. But ‘race’? Is he referring to their final race to orgasm after foreplay, or a race of long legged beauties, or Atalanta’s famous footrace? Sorry for my cluelessness. I do love poetry, but as you say in your post above, Dioscorides had a keen eye for complex allusions.

        • Steven J. Willett says:

          A literal translation of l. 4 would run

          “she achieved without a swerve the long race of Cypris.” Cypris of course is Aphrodite.

          The word dolikhos in l. 4 refers to a long race course as opposed to stadion. The final goal of the race for the lovers should be pretty obvious. Cypris goal applies to both Dioscorides and Doris.

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