Who is this lecher boasting that he can go all night and one woman is not enough? What happened to the Propertius who is always pledging eternal loyalty to Cynthia alone, even when she is treating him like a doormat? It’s a reminder that poets are not necessarily diarists or autobiographers: if they are any good, they are artists, using their creative imagination. If you were a Roman who wanted to write love elegy and didn’t have a lover, you would invent one. If you did have one, you – and she or he – might have views on how literally the relationship should be turned into verse. Conversely, when they seem at their most imaginative and spontaneous, Roman poets may be following a convention or a model from centuries of Greek precedents that we may or may not know about. It all adds to the mystery that is one of the charms of poetry.

Hear the poem and follow in English here.

This ode is a lively and heartfelt tribute to the God of wine – if you want a potted biography in the form of mythological reference, here it is! Like Virgil’s Aeneas, Bacchus is one of the select band to make the journey to Hades and return to the upper world: in the most charming description of Cerberus in Latin, Horace shows the watchdog of the underworld in unusually gentle mood. The illustration of Cerberus is by William Blake.

Hear the poem in Latin and follow in English here.

Around 650 BCE, mourning a brother-in-law lost at sea, the warrior-poet Archilochus tells his friend that sorrow is something that the Gods expect us to endure. The illustration shows mourners from a Greek vase of the sixth century BCE. Archilochus is the earliest poet of personal experience that we have from Greece: learn more about him on his poet page here.

Hear the poem in Greek and follow in English here.

Todays new poem is one of Horace’s poems on the shortness of life: as a contrast, he refers to several mythological characters who suffer everlasting punishment in Tartarus, including forty-nine of the fifty daughters of King Danaus, who killed their husbands on the wedding night. The illustration by Waterhouse shows them eternally fetching water to pour into a vessel that can never be filled.

Hear the poem in Latin and follow in English here.