This is Not a Love Poem

CW: Sexual assault, rape

5.199 in the Greek Anthology

Wine and toasts, the ploys, have put Aglaonike to sleep–
And the sweet love of Nicagoras has too.
Her things, all still dripping with perfume,
Are dedicated by her to Cypris,
The delicate spoils of a virgin’s passions:
Sandals and the soft garments which covered her breasts.
Witnesses to sleep and its occasional interruptions.

In Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s 1756 painting, Broken Eggs, the young woman’s loss of virginity Is represented by scattered, broken eggs. Not the eggs per se, but what they represent, accounts for the anxious expressions on the faces of the figures. The painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

οἶνος καὶ προπόσεις κατεκοίμισαν Ἀγλαονίκην
αἱ δόλιαι, καὶ ἔρως ἡδὺς ὁ Νικαγόρεω,
ἧς πάρα Κύπριδι ταῦτα μύροις ἔτι πάντα μυδῶντα
κεῖνται, παρθενίων ὑγρὰ λάφυρα πόθων,
σάνδαλα, καὶ μαλακαί, μαστῶν ἐνδύματα, μίτραι.
ὕπνου καὶ σκυλμῶν τῶν τότε μαρτύρια.

Alongside the familiar topoi of broken oaths, frustrated desires, and the like, the “love” epigrams of the Greek Anthology record crude renderings of sex, and sexual assault. The disturbing subject of the poem below is in tension with the elegance of its construction. That should prompt us to think hard about what an elegant facade makes it possible to say (under the breath, as it were) in the most seemingly benign of the love poems.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

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