Then Ovid is your man – and woman, as the case may be …
Fidus amor. That’s “true love” in Latin. Historically, such love is often claimed to have emerged with the troubadours of twelfth century Provence. The troubadours used the Occitan term fin amor for this kind of love rather than the more famous amour courtois, “courtly love”, which is a modern concoction. However, “Fin amor”, is “derived from Latin fidus, ‘faithful’. Originally, fin amor was admirable and refined because it was faithful, by definition.” So the term, fin amor, comes from Latin, as do many in the romance languages.
But did the ancient Romans, for whom Latin was their mother tongue, have an idea of “true love”? A search for the combination fidus plus amor in the database Classical Latin Texts, yields only one exact match.
This match is however as unique as it is significant: it occurs in a line from the Roman poet Ovid’s second Heroides (“Heroines”), an elegiac letter written from the Thracian princess Phyllis (the aforementioned “woman”) to the Athenian king Demophoon. They had been lovers, but he has sailed off – and promised her to return within the month. When Phyllis writes her Heroides letter, however, many months have passed. How could it take her so long to realize that he has abandoned her? Her fidus amor, “true love” – as in “true to”, “faithful”, and “loyal” – she has been inventing all kinds of imaginary obstacles hindering Demophoon from returning to her. Thus, the idea of fidus amor is linked to a female figure besieged by deceit, lament, and tragedy. Eventually accepting that she has been abandoned by her beloved, Phyllis will end her life by hanging.
Ovid is the most prolific Latin poet of antiquity and one of the greatest writers on love of all time. Strikingly often, he merges his voice with that of female figures, as in his Heroides, which is among his earliest extant works and rewrites the entire literary history up until his own time – from a female perspective.
Notably, Phyllis, the first known figure in Western literature who claims to possess fidus amor, re-emerges in all of Ovid’s works that are conventionally known as his love poetry. In the Amores (“Loves”), the poetic “I” roams ancient Rome under the poet’s cognomen, Naso, in pursuit of the elusive Corinna – and brags about earlier literary achievements, such as his second Heroides and its evocation of Phyllis’ tragic, faithful passion. In his Ars amatoria (“The Art of Love”), Ovid poses as a Professor of Love (praeceptor amoris), and in his Remedia amoris (“Cures for Love”), he tries to renounce his favorite theme, love, possibly due to the censorship of the emperor Augustus. In the two last works, Ovid professes that he could have saved Phyllis if he had only had the chance to teach her to love wisely (sapienter amare).
The rich variety of Ovid’s portrayal of love – as violent and tender, hetero- and homoerotic, beastly and divine – means critics have sometimes denied him the honor of calling him a champion of “true love”.
A disheartening example of the antipathy towards the erotic Ovid is the case of the Norwegian poet Conrad Nicolay Schwach (1793-1860). During almost all his adult life, Schwach tried to publish his translation of Ovid’s Art of Love. His handwritten, still unpublished manuscript lies in the Gunnerus-library in Trondheim and between its leaves there are letters from potential publishers, who all praise the quality of Schwach’s translation, yet turn him down due to the work’s lascivious content. However, although Schwach never reached a wider audience with his Ovid translation, the very fact that he tried proves that even in the nineteenth century, which was oddly Ovid-hostile, the poet still had his friends.
And how could he not? For even if Ovid’s love is cynical, it is also innocent, if it is plight, it is also pleasure. And, if someone should contend that all these kinds of love are not really “true love”, then, in the midst of it all, there is Phyllis, ever-ready to guide us through Ovid’s love poetry – with her fidus amor.
Featured Image credit: Statue of Roman poet Ovid in Constanţa, Romania (ancient Tomis, the city where he was exiled). Created in 1887 by the Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari. Kurt Wichmann, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.