Be mine. Yours forever. You hold the key to my heart. Hamilton College Classics Professor Barbara Gold can’t help but notice the difference between modern Valentine’s Day cards filled with sentimental sayings and ancient Romans’ wrenching expressions of love.
Today’s valentines focus on sharing, caring, love and friendship. The beloved is portrayed as gentle, sensitive, tender and compassionate, says Gold. The ancient Romans had quite a different take on love.
“Love for them was interesting, both to live and to write about, because it was painful, like a disease,” Gold says. Roman lovers described themselves as “‘wounded, wretched, enslaved by their lovers, having their bone marrow on fire and suffering from double vision.”
“They melded coarse obscenities with deepest expressions of sexual, erotic longing,” she says. “Above all there was no sharing or caring and no real idea of a friendship of equals.”
For example, the love poet Catullus writes to his lady love, “I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do that? I don’t know but I feel it happening and I am tormented.” Gold notes, “The dream couples of ancient love poetry are hardly the stuff of today’s romantic. They inhabit a world of playful and elegant poetry far removed from the false sincerity of contemporary Hallmark romance. But the depth of the feelings expressed by the ancients is also far removed from the superficial and hyperbolic lovebites found in contemporary commercial expressions of love.”