Monday, March 27, 2017



(Talisman House, 2016)

Down and Dirty in Ancient Rome

More than a half-century ago, in third-year Latin, my precocious classmate Luis asked our rather severe teacher Fr. Antonio if we could read Catullus. At the time we were slogging through Tacitus and were hoping desperately for something less ponderous. The good Jesuit responded firmly: “Tacitus is a prince of the Latin idiom; Catullus is only a court jester. And besides, his verses are not for your tender ears.” Perhaps one or two of us protested his dismissal but we knew well that Fr. Antonio would not relent. But he did excite our fantasies: we were eager to cause our tender ears to turn red.

Luis somehow procured a copy of Carmina Catulli and during siesta break we attempted over the next couple of weeks, with the help of the Diccionario Universal Español–Latino to unearth as much smut as possible. But the struggle was immense and we gave up rather quickly.

Had Peter Valente’s Let the Games Begin been available, our ears, and likely other parts, would have been blazing.

Valente’s anthology of Roman writers is perhaps the first to focus on the more salacious work of classical Latin. His choice of those to include—Catullus, Ovid, the Priapeia poets and Lucian— are presented in contrast to the staid and pompous letters of Pliny the Younger who seems totally oblivious to the goings-on of these more decadent poets. If “Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” Pliny pontificates while Catullus fornicates. And then he writes about it!

Valente’s versions are not translations in the usual sense: they are inventive rewrites, occasionally even re-imaginings. He takes creative liberty with his source matter, preferring to evoke the spirit if not the exact letter of these classical writers. The result is generally successful. He has managed, with his nimble phrasing, to capture the linguistic drive and often coarse tone of the originals.

His selection of writers is interesting. Catullus matches up well with the jocose poets of the Priapeia; Ovid and Lucian pair nicely as both are using satiric language to discuss desire, and in the case of Lucian, even death.

Valente shines with the bawdy lyrics of the Priapeia and Catullus. He deftly recreates the thrust (pun intended) of these poets. He feels free to introduce contemporary phrasing into the poems. Rather than seem out of place, his current colloquialisms work so exceedingly well that these ancient poets come off as hard-assed punks scribbling their profane lyrics on bathroom walls.

Here’s a portion of Catullus 98:

            That tongue of yours never stops spewing a load of garbage
wherever you go, but guess what! you might be lucky one day
            and get to lick a guy’s anus clean and polish his Doc Martins.

And here’s one of the poems from the Priapeia:

            Priapus you’ve been overworked fucking anuses and cunts day and 
and your own cock is weighed down by piss, shit, and female ejaculation
and to top it off our poet decided to mock you in his verses.
but don’t Blush, O Rigid God, yours is more heavenly hung than that of
our dear poet!

Valente’s versions of Ovid’s Remedia amoris are fairly faithful to the original but as with Catullus, he makes it new. We can hear Ovid’s tongue-in-cheekness, feel his indignation, delight in his delight at skewering convention. He does not attempt to recreate Ovid’s elegiac couplets. This is probably wise: in work translated into English, couplets tend to stilt the poetics of the work, force meanings, dissolve the phrasing into neat packets. Valente’s Ovid flows.

Lucian’s Dialogues are rendered with attention to the writer’s caustic phrasing and detached emotional tenor. His cynicism comes through admirably well, his messages are clear, and the tone just right.

Let the Games Begin reminds us, quite convincingly, that there is more to Roman writing than just Vergil, Horace, Cicero or Tacitus. These versions breathe new life into the work of these classical writers, extract the cultural messages fully intact. Valente’s versions are very welcome additions to the canon.


Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno is the author of more than a half-dozen books including biographies of Paul Bowles and E.E. Cummings, and a group portrait of American writers in Paris after World War II. He is also well-known as a translator and poet.  His most recent books of poems are Dix méditations sur quelques mots d’Antonin Artaud (Paris, Alyscamps, 2017), and Remission (2016) and Mussoorie-Montague Miscellany (2013), both from Talisman House.

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