Ovid’s Worst Lines: Seneca, Controversiae, 2.2.12

“Ovid rarely gave declamations on controversies, and those always of the ethical (character) variety. He was happier to declaim suasoriae (persuasion speeches). He hated to adduce proofs of any kind. In oratory, he did not choose his words with the same careless lack of restraint which he used in his poems, the faults of which he was not ignorant of – nay, he loved them! The surest proof of this is the fact that once, when he was asked by his friends if he would remove three verses from his poems, he asked in turn that he could make an exception for three verses, against which their request would not stand.

The proposal seemed fair, so they wrote in secret the three which they wanted to see removed, and he wrote down the ones which he wished preserved. In both pieces of paper there were the same three verses, of which the first was (as told by Albinovanus Pedo, who was among the judges):

semibovemque virum semivirumque bovem (Half-ox man, half-man ox)

The second:

et gelidum Borean egelidumque Notum. (Cold Boreas, and not-cold Notus.)

From which it is clear that this man of remarkable talent was not lacking the judgment to hold back the licentiousness of his poems, but rather, he lacked the will to do so. He would occasionally remark that that face was prettier which had a mole upon it.”

Declamabat autem Naso raro controversias et non nisi ethicas. libentius dicebat suasorias. molesta illi erat omnis argumentatio. verbis minime licenter usus est, non (ut) in carminibus, in quibus non ignoravit vitia sua sed amavit. manifestum potest esse (ex eo), quod rogatus aliquando ab amicis suis, ut tolleret tres versus, invicem petit, ut ipse tres exciperet, in quos nihil illis liceret. aequa lex visa est: scripserunt illi quos tolli vellent secreto, hic quos tutos esse vellet. in utrisque codicillis idem versus erant, ex quibus primum fuisse narrabat Albinovanus Pedo, qui inter arbitros fuit:

semibovemque virum semivirumque bovem;


et gelidum Borean egelidumque Notum.

ex quo apparet summi ingenii viro non iudicium defuisse ad compescendam licentiam carminum suorum sed animum. aiebat interim decentiorem faciem esse, in qua aliquis naevus fuisset.

5 thoughts on “Ovid’s Worst Lines: Seneca, Controversiae, 2.2.12

  1. Ovidi Medea videtur mihi ostendere quantum ille vir praestare potuerit si ingenio suo imperare quam indulgere maluisset. — Quintilian 10.1.97

    “It seems to me that Ovid’s *Medea* shows how much that gentleman could have accomplished if he’d preferred to rule his talent rather than indulge it.”

    Best literary judgement ever!

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