Ovid on Abortion

Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, better known to us today as the Latin poet Ovid, was born March 20th 43 BC and died in 17 or 18 AD in exile from Rome in Scythia Minor which today is Constanta on the Romanian Black Sea coast.  The Emperor Augustus banished Ovid to this dark, remote backwater for “a poem and a mistake” and that is just enough to fuel speculation.  If there is any truth to the exploits detailed in his love poetry we may guess what his mistake was.

Historians point to the exile of Julia the Younger and Agrippa Postumus, grandchildren of Augustus, at around this time.  Julia’s husband was executed for conspiracy against Augustus.

Ovid was born in the year after the assassination of Julius Caesar.  He grew up in a Rome torn asunder by one Civil War after another.  First the republicans under Brutus and Cassius fought Anthony and Octavian.  Then war with Sextus Pompeius, the Sicilian Revolt.  Then the conflict between Anthony and Octavian.  Ovid came to maturity in the early days of the Roman Empire, where imperial favour was a pre-requisite for success.

Often ranked alongside the older pair, Virgil and Horace, as one of the big 3 of Roman poetry.  I found this elegy interesting because of the relevance of the topic to the big political hot potato in Ireland this year, the 8th Amendment.  In Ireland we do not permit abortion.  So we have an Irish solution, the outsourcing of our abortions to the UK.

Because the right to life of a foetus is enshrined in our constitution the government cannot pass sensible laws without a constitutional referendum.  Without sensible laws doctors are unable to make rational medical decisions.  They are bound instead by Catholic Dogma.  As a result we get situations like the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar.

Ovid was against abortion, and abortion was a far more dangerous procedure in Roman times.  Dangerous or not it was still practiced, and that is as true today as it was then.  You cannot prevent abortion, but you can strive to ensure that it is practiced as safely as possible.

Verses 4 and 5 refer to Priam (King of Troy) and Aeneas, in a nod to the ancestral lineage of the Emperor Augustus.  As you can see, in the Rome of that day every topic had the potential to be political.

Book II Elegy XIV: Against Abortion; by Publius Ovidius Naso

Where’s the joy in a girl being free from fighting wars,
unwilling to follow the army and their shields,
if without battle she suffers wounds from her own weapons,
and arms unsure hands to her own doom?

Whoever first taught the destruction of a tender foetus,
deserved to die by her own warlike methods.
No doubt you’d chance your arm in that dismal arena
just to keep your belly free of wrinkles with your crime?

If the same practice had pleased mothers of old,
Humanity would have been destroyed by that violation.
and we’d need a creator again for each of our peoples
to throw the stones that made us onto the empty earth.

Who would have shattered the wealth of Priam, if Thetis,
the sea goddess, had refused to carry her rightful burden?
If Ilia had murdered the twins in her swollen womb,
the founder of my mistress’s City would have been lost.

If Venus had desecrated her belly, pregnant with Aeneas,
Earth would have been bereft of future Caesars.
You too, with your beauty still to be born, would have died,
if your mother had tried what you have done.

I myself would be better to die making love
than have been denied the light of day by my mother.
Why rob the loaded vine of burgeoning grapes,
or pluck the unripe apple with cruel hand?

Let things mature themselves – grow without being forced:
life is a prize that’s worth a little waiting.
Why submit your womb to probing instruments,
or give lethal poison to what is not yet born?

Medea is blamed for sprinkling the blood of her children,
and Itys, slain by his mother, is lamented with tears:
both cruel parents, yet both had bitter reason
to shed blood, revenge on a husband.

Say, what Tereus, what Jason incites you
to pierce your troubled body with your hand?
No tiger in its Armenian lair would do it,
no lioness would dare destroy her foetus.

But tender girls do it, though not un-punished:
often she who kills her child, dies herself.
She dies, and is carried to the pyre with loosened hair,
and whoever looks on cries out: ‘She deserved it!’

But let these words vanish on the ethereal breeze,
and let my imprecations have no weight!
You gods, prosper her: let her first sin go, in safety,
and be satisfied: you can punish her second crime!