The Broken Hopes of a Once Prosperous Life

From “An Old Woman’s Lament” [=P. Oxy. xv. 1921, no. 1794, p. 110 = LCL 360 122] 7-21

“…My life’s hopes are shattered
My home makes a hollow sound.
Luck turns for different people at random.

Wealth’s ‘right’ is just like the fall of dice–
A toss brings people good fortune on different days.
They fall for a good man and make a poor man wealthy
And sometimes they make the rich man poor.

This is how fortune alights on turning wings
Bringing luck up and down the ranks of people.

You know that I have shared food and drink with many
And in days past I was not an outcast.
My field was deep with grain and so was the threshing floor;
We had many sheep, but this plague has destroyed it all.

And so I drag myself around this crowded city
A beggar with no one to care for me.”

] ἐλπωραὶ δ᾿ ἐάγησαν
ἡμετέρης βιοτῆ[ς, αὖ]ον δέ μοι οἶκος ἀυτεῖ.
ἄλλοτε γὰρ ἄλλο[ι]ς ὄλβ[ο]υ λάχος ἀνθρώποισιν·
οἵη τοι πεσσοῖο δίκη, το[ι]ήδε καὶ ὄλβου·
πεσσ[ὸ]ς ἀμειβόμενος [π]οτὲ μὲν το[ῖς, ἄ]λλοτετοῖσι[ν
εἰς ἀγαθὸν πίπ[τει] καὶ ἀφνεὸν αἶψα τίθησι
πρόσθεν ἀνολβείοντ᾿, εὐηφενεόντ[α] δ᾿ ἄνολβον·
τοῖος διν(η)τῆσι περ[ιστ]ρέφεται πτερύγεσσιν
ὄ]λβος ἐπ᾿ ἀνθρώπους [ἄλ]λον δ᾿ ἐξ ἄλ[λο]υ ὀφέλλει.
ἡ δ᾿ αὐ[τ]ὴ πολέεσσι π[οτὸ]ν καὶ σῖτον ὄρεξα
τὴν ὁράας, ἐπεὶ οὔτι λιπ[ερ]νῆτις πάρος ἦα,
ἔσκε δέ μοι νειὸς βαθυλ[ή]ιος, ἔσκεν ἀ[λ]ωή,
πολλὰ δέ μοι μῆλ᾿ ἔσκε, [τ]ὰ μὲν διὰ πάντα κέδασσεν
ἥδ᾿ ὀλοὴ βούβρωστις, ἐγὼ δ᾿ ἀκόμιστο[ς ἀ]λῆτις
ὧ]δέ ποθι πλήθουσαν ἀνὰ πτόλιν ε[. . . ἕ]ρπω

“The story of a fallen woman. IV.” Christoffer Vilhelm Eckersberg 1808

It’s Awkward For The Wife

“There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” said Diana, Princess of Wales, and batted her eyes. That was 1995.

Deianeira, wife of Heracles, had to contend with similar, some years earlier:

Sophocles, Trachiniae 531-551.

Friends, while the stranger is inside
Taking leave of the captive women,
I’ve tiptoed outside
To tell you what my hands have done
And what’s being done to me.
You’ll come together in pitying me.

Like a sailor I’ve taken on board a heavy load,
Cargo humiliating for my heart—
A girl, but not still chaste. She’s his lover,
That’s my suspicion.
So now two women wait under one blanket,
As if one body, for my husband’s embrace.
This is how Heracles, the man they call trustworthy
and noble, thanks me for keeping his house all this time.

I don’t know how to be angry with the man
When this sickness so assails him.
And yet, what wife could share her house,
Share her marriage itself, with this woman?
I see her youth strutting and my own fading;
And we know the eye turns away
From the flower it once fondly plucked.

This frightens me.
Heracles may be called my husband
But he’ll be the younger woman’s man.

ἦμος, φίλαι, κατʼ οἶκον ὁ ξένος θροεῖ
ταῖς αἰχμαλώτοις παισὶν ὡς ἐπʼ ἐξόδῳ,
τῆμος θυραῖος ἦλθον ὡς ὑμᾶς λάθρᾳ,
τὰ μὲν φράσουσα χερσὶν ἁτεχνησάμην,
τὰ δʼ οἷα πάσχω συγκατοικτιουμένη.
κόρην γάρ, οἶμαι δʼ οὐκέτʼ, ἀλλʼ ἐζευγμένην,
παρεισδέδεγμαι φόρτον ὥστε ναυτίλος,
λωβητὸν ἐμπόλημα τῆς ἐμῆς φρενός.
καὶ νῦν δύʼ οὖσαι μίμνομεν μιᾶς ὑπὸ
χλαίνης ὑπαγκάλισμα. τοιάδʼ Ἡρακλῆς,
ὁ πιστὸς ἡμῖν κἀγαθὸς καλούμενος,
οἰκούριʼ ἀντέπεμψε τοῦ μακροῦ χρόνου.
ἐγὼ δὲ θυμοῦσθαι μὲν οὐκ ἐπίσταμαι
νοσοῦντι κείνῳ πολλὰ τῇδε τῇ νόσῳ·
τὸ δʼ αὖ ξυνοικεῖν τῇδʼ ὁμοῦ τίς ἂν γυνὴ
δύναιτο, κοινωνοῦσα τῶν αὐτῶν γάμων;
ὁρῶ γὰρ ἥβην τὴν μὲν ἕρπουσαν πρόσω,
τὴν δὲ φθίνουσαν· ὧν ἀφαρπάζειν φιλεῖ
ὀφθαλμὸς ἄνθος, τῶν δʼ ὑπεκτρέπει πόδα.
ταῦτʼ οὖν φοβοῦμαι μὴ πόσις μὲν Ἡρακλῆς
ἐμὸς καλῆται, τῆς νεωτέρας δʼ ἀνήρ.

Pablo Picasso, Femme aux Bras Croisés.
(1901-1902). Private Collection.

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

Boredom and Death: Ovid’s Briseis

Here’s a bit from Ovid’s Briseis as I read my way through antiquity’s versions of Homer’s unnamed Hippodameia (inspired by this essay). Ovid is a clever writer and capable of deep understanding and empathy. I don’t see a lot of that in this poem. A full translation is available on  The Latin text is available through Perseus’ Scaife Viewer.

Ovid, Heroides 3. 135-148 [Briseis to Achilles]

“Still now—I hope your father Peleus lives every year he can
And that Pyrrhus come to the same good luck in weapons as you
But just notice worried Briseis, brave Achilles,
And don’t torture the miserable with painful delay.

If your desire for me has turned to boredom,
Force me to die rather than live without you.
You’re forcing it as you act now—my body and complexion are ruined;
This bit of breath that keeps me upright is only hope in you.

If that leaves me? I’ll meet my brothers and husband
And it won’t be glory for you to order a woman to die.
Why bother to tell me to? Strike at my body with bared steel.
There’s blood here to pour once my chest is opened.
Let that sword of yours find me, the very one the goddess stopped
From entering the breast of Atreus’ son.”

Nunc quoque—sic omnes Peleus pater inpleat annos,
sic eat auspiciis Pyrrhus ad arma tuis! —
respice sollicitam Briseida, fortis Achille,
nec miseram lenta ferreus ure mora!
aut, si versus amor tuus est in taedia nostri,
quam sine te cogis vivere, coge mori!
utque facis, coges. abiit corpusque colorque;
sustinet hoc animae spes tamen una tui.
qua si destituor, repetam fratresque virumque—
nec tibi magnificum femina iussa mori.
cur autem iubeas? stricto pete corpora ferro;
est mihi qui fosso pectore sanguis eat.
me petat ille tuus, qui, si dea passa fuisset,
ensis in Atridae pectus iturus erat!

Léon Cogniet, Briséis rendue à Achille découvre dans sa tente le corps de Patrocle, 1815, Orléans, musée des Beaux-Arts

οἴμοι, not Alas, but FML, WTF, or SMH?

Euripides, Andromache 385-386

“Shit, what a bitter choice of lives
You have give me. If I win, I am tortured.
If I do not, I stand unlucky still.”

οἴμοι, πικρὰν κλήρωσιν αἵρεσίν τέ μοι
βίου καθίστης: καὶ λαχοῦσά γ᾽ ἀθλία
καὶ μὴ λαχοῦσα δυστυχὴς καθίσταμαι.

Sophocles, Trachinae 1230-1231

“Shit. It is bad to get angry with one who is sick
But it is hard to see someone thinking like this.”

οἴμοι. τὸ μὲν νοσοῦντι θυμοῦσθαι κακόν,
τὸ δ᾿ ὧδ᾿ ὁρᾶν φρονοῦντα τίς ποτ᾿ ἂν φέροι;

οἴμοι is often translated as “alas” but no one really says that anymore. Of course, there are other “untranslatable” particles that get alased: αἰαῖ, αἰαῖ, ὦ τάλας φεῦ, παπαῖ ( double it for fun φεῦ , παπαῖ φεῦ, “alas, oh, alas”); φεῦ is also “oh”, which seems pretty weak. We also find τάλας, οἴμοι μοι (trans. in the Loeb as “alas, alas”), ἰὼ ἰὼ (alas, alas in Loeb Aeschylus).

I tend to see all of these as something pitifully profane. When I spell out the profanities, some get upset. Recent comments on twitter reaffirm my belief that modern text-speak is a good substitution. But there is nuance here! The first example, in modern abbrevatory, would probably be FML while the second strikes me more as SMH.

Quintus Smyrnaeus, Posthomerica 5.465

“FML. Why do the gods hate me so much?”

“Ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τί νυ τόσσον ἀπέχθομαι ἀθανάτοισιν;

My proposed working Lexicon of compressed exasperation (here’s a glossary for the uncool):

αἰαῖ: FFS; sometimes, SMH

ἐέ: Ugh; also, K+FM

ἰὼ: SSSD; FML; WTF; cf.  ἰοὺ ἰοὺ, commonly “alas and alack”, ant. LOL and ROFL

οἴμοι: FML; SML; see φεῦ

παπαῖ: FFS; WTF; ant. LMFAO; cf. ἀπαπαῖ φεῦ, perhaps sense of GTFO+WTF

τάλας: FM; FML; cf. τάλας ἐγώ =WTF+FML vel. sim.

φεῦ: WTF; SMH; SML;  but κακῶς φεῦ=οἴμοι:

ὦ: OMG

Ὤ μοι ἐγώ: FML

ὢ πόποι: difficult, but IMHO+GF; also, WTF

taking suggestions to improve and expand

So, Euripides fr. 300

“WTF!?! But, really, FML? I have really suffered mortal fate.”

οἴμοι· τί δ᾿ οἴμοι; θνητά τοι πεπόνθαμεν.

Lucian, Gout 297

“WTF! FFS! This hurts! I am ruined!”

Οἴμοι, παπαῖ γε, τείρομαι, διόλλυμαι,

Aristophanes, Acharnians 1081

“FML. Shit luck! You’re laughing at me.”

οἴμοι κακοδαίμων, καταγελᾷς ἤδη σύ μου.

Epictetus, Encheiridion 26


“οἴμοι, τάλας ἐγώ!”

Euripides, Iphigenia 136-7

“FML, I lost my mind.
SMH, I have fallen into ruin”

οἴμοι, γνώμας ἐξέσταν
αἰαῖ, πίπτω δ᾿ εἰς ἄταν.

Lament for Icarus, Herbert Draper


There’s room for this in Latin too, but much less….