The years between 2000 BC and 500 AD are known as the ancient period. Interestingly, there have been many notable poets and authors during these periods just like the medieval and renaissance periods. It is almost impossible to find most literary works of the ancient era as the preservation had been very limited. However, a few love poems, are also epic poems with volumes that include a minimum of 3 books and a maximum of 15. They have been passed through generations by word of mouth and few saved manuscripts. These poems served as inspirations for many great poems that were written in Middle Ages, early modern era, and even now. Also, love-themed poems have always captured the hearts of everyone alike. For birthdays and valentine’s day, many people love to quote lines from these famous love poems to add depth and meaning to their love messages. It is also important to note most ancient poems are translated into English from Greek, So, here are the 10 best ancient love poems explained with their famous lines.
The Love Song for Shu-Sin
(translation by Michael R. Burch)
The Love Song of Shu-Sin is also known as the Oldest Love Poem among the ancient love poems known in the literary world. It was written in 2000 BC, in cuneiform, a symbolic language in the Sumerian Kingdom. The poem was found during an excavation in the Mesopotamian region. The poem is quite similar to the ‘Song of Solomon’ from the Old testament. This world’s oldest love poem is written for the king Shu-Sin by a woman who was preparing herself to marry her or make her part of her harem, as it was a common practice in ancient times. Shu-Sin was king of Sumer, Akkad, and the Ur III dynasty. The poem beautifully displays her emotion and anxiety to meet the king and spend the night with him. The main literary device used in this poem is repetition. Here are a few lines that can be used as quotes:
- Darling of my heart, my belovèd,
your enticements are sweet, far sweeter than honey!
- Speak to my mother and she will reward you;
speak to my father and he will give you gifts.
- my Lord God, my guardian Angel and protector,
my Shu-Sin, who gladdens Enlil’s heart,
give me your caresses!
Elegy XI: His Note to Her from The Amores Book 1 by Ovid
Translated by A. S. Kline
The Amores by Ovid was written in 16 BC. It is known as one of the best poems written in Latin and elegiac couplets, which is the poetic form used in Greek poetry. Elegiac is the meter of the poem, made up of two lines. The first is a hexameter and the second is a pentameter The Amores has three books, and the main theme of the trilogy is love and war, along with humor and sincerity of love. Most of the portions, elegies are also considered an erotic poem, suitable for adults only. Here, one of the elegies, Elegy XI: His Note to Her, talks specifically about Ovid/the soldier’s love to Corrina. Which was prominent in most Roman soldiers’ life and culture. Soldiers and lovers share similarities in any century, like guarding someone or something they love, enduring many difficulties in their life and relationship, they spy on their enemies, and also conquering their love and enemies. So, the extended metaphor of love is war, perfectly suitable here. So, Ovid destroys the heavily guarded door to meet his lover Corinna in the sequel of The Amores. Comparisons between the poet’s life of leisure and respectable Roman careers, such as farming, politics, or the military. Elegy XI, in fact The Amores, is famous and appreciated for using older models with humor with improvisation. Here are few best lines.
- It’s easy to believe that you’ve felt Cupid’s arrows –
see the traces of your battles in me!
- If she asks how I am, say I live in hope at night:
you’ll carry the rest in your hand, flattering waxen words.
- Why should she weary her fingers holding a pen?
One word can take up the whole tablet: ‘Come!’
Ode to Aphrodite
Taken from The Poems of Sappho, translated by John Myers O’Hara
Ode to Aphrodite is also known as Sappho fragment 1. It was written in late 7th BC or early 6th BC by one of the best ancient and Greek poets Sappho. In this poem the speaker or poet is asking for Aphrodite’s help, so he can find his lover. This is one of the poems that was found in its almost complete text. The poem is also an allusion Iliad. It has seven stanzas and the longest-surviving portion or fragment from Book I of Sappho. The form of the poem appears like a prayer to ease his pains of his unrequited love. In response, the prayer of the speaker is answered, and the goddess Aphrodite assures him that lady will one day return and also accept his love too. The current poem was proposed in 1835 where the missing word in the 24th line by Theodor Bergk, and was accepted in the 1960s. Here are few famous lines from the poem.
- But in pity hasten, come now if ever
From afar of old when my voice implored thee,
Thou hast deigned to listen, leaving the golden
House of thy father
- “What my frenzied heart craved in utter yearning,
Whom its wild desire would persuade to passion?
What disdainful charms, madly worshipped, slight thee?
Who wrongs thee, Sappho?”
- “She that fain would fly, she shall quickly follow,
She that now rejects, yet with gifts shall woo thee,
She that heeds thee not, soon shall love to madness,
Love thee, the loth one!”
Song of Xiling Lake by Su Xiaoxiao
Translated by Unknown
One of the famous Chinese poets Su Xiaoxiao was also called Little Su. The poem Song of Xiling was written in the 5th century and has multiple names such as Song of the West Tomb, Song of Xiling Lake, Song of Su Xiaoxiao, and Song of the Same Heartbeat. According to the original text, the poem contains one quatrain, that is four lines and five words each in line. This is one of the poems that has been used as inspiration to many Chinese writers and artists. As it is one of the shortest with only one stanza, the below example is in its entirety.
I ride in a decorated carriage,
My darling rides a blue-white horse.
Where should we tie the knot for our heart?
Under the Xiling pine and cypress.
[To an army wife, in Sardis…] – by Sappho
Translated by Mary Barnard
The poem To an army wife, in Sardis, is also written by Sappho. It has seven stanzas, divided into sets of three lines, also called tercets. The current example was translated by Mary Barnard which was the originally written in Greek. This poem doesn’t have a rhyme scheme and is written entirely in free verse. Also, the lines do follow to an average length. There is also an allusion to Iliad. Through this poem, Sappho defines the power of love which can over-push us forward in life and help us grow in the world. Here are a few famous lines from the poem.
- of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is.
- being far away forget us,
the dear sound of your footstep
and light glancing in your eyes
- …would move me more than glitter
Catullus 5 by Gaius Valerius Catullus
Catullus 5 was written by Gaius Valerius Catullus, which was one of the 25 Catullus written for his love, Lesbia. It was probably written around 55 – 54 BC. While the current poem expresses his love and passion, most of Catullus’ poems describe his personal emotions that include, sadness, disappointment, sarcasm, etc. Originally written in Latin, Catullus 5 is well-known for its passionate love message, especially the opening. The common form of his poetry is hendecasyllable which is a line of eleven syllables used mostly in Latin and Ancient Greek poetries. Here are a few famous lines from the poem.
- Let us live, my Lesbia, and love,
- Suns may set and rise again;
for us, when once the brief light has set,
an eternal night must be slept.
- Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand, then a hundred;
Jason and Medea The Argonautica Book 3 by Apollonius of Rhodes
The Argonautica is one of the best written literary work from 3rd century BC. It is also an epic poem similar to the works by Homer. It tells the quest of the protagonist, Jason and the Argonauts, and their search for the golden fleece. The current examples is borrowed from Book 3 of the The Argonautica, particularly the section on Jason and Medea. Medea who is struck by Eros’ arrow of love and madly in love with Jason does her very best to help him in quest despite the dangers. She takes her sister Chalciope’s help and also use potions and spells for his aid. Medea secretly meets Jason at the temple of Hecate, where she serves as a priestess. When Jason realizes the love Medea has for him and is desperate to help him, Jason promises to marry her. Thus making her famous throughout Greece. Here are a few famous lines from the epic poem, Jason and Medea.
- “You have a home in Hellas [Greece] instead of some barbarian land” Jason to Medea
- Such was the fire of Love, stealthy but all-consuming, that swept through Medea’s heart. In the turmoil of her soul, her soft cheeks turned from rose to white and white to rose.
- His voice and the honey-sweet words that he had used still rang in her ears.
Pyramus and Thisbe from Metamorphoses, Book IV by Ovid
Babylonian Mythology – Ovid – 8 AD
Metamorphoses are composed of 15 books. The present example in this article is the love story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Book 4 of Metamorphoses. This Babylonian love story was written in Latin in 8 A.D. Similar to most poems written by Ovid, this is also written in narrative style and in hexameter verse, which is the oldest form of Greek poetry. While it is not confirmed or discussed much, it is also likely that Pyramus and Thisbe might be the inspiration for one of the best tragedies ‘Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. In this tragic story, Pyramus and Thisbe can only communicate through a crack in the wall between their houses because their parents refused to consent to their union. Finally, the lovers decide to elope and agree to meet under a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives before Pyramus. She is afraid when she hears a lioness roar of a lioness and runs from the meeting spot. In her hurry, she drops her veil. The lioness who had just hunted the ox tears her veil that was dropped. Pyramus arrives to the spot and believe the lioness had killed and eaten her. So, in grief he stabs himself. When Thisbe returns. She sees Pyramus dying and kills herself under the mulberry tree too. Below are a few famous lines.
- The proximity made the first steps an acquaintance,
In time love grew; the torches (marriage) also might have united them by law
- Also the more it is concealed, the fire (of love) having been concealed burns more.
- At nightfall they said, “Goodbye,” and each gave
Kisses to his/her side, not penetrating to the other side.
The Aeneid by Virgil
The Aeneid was written by Virgil, a Roman poet, around 30-19 BC. This masterpiece is considered one of the greatest works of Latin literature. It is organized into 12 books and written in dactylic hexameter. The first six books tell the story of Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy, and the remaining six books cover the victory of the Trojans over the Latins. As the hero Aeneas was already familiar with Greco-Roman legend, it was easy for Virgil to be easily inspired by Iliad and write about Aeneas’ legendary adventures. Virgil does a wonderful job by tying all the wars and roman gods and their legends to the Aeneid. However, The Aenid’s love story with Dido, the queen of Carthage. Their love remains respectful and strong, and also foreshadow’s her death. Here are a few famous lines from The Aeneid.
- Wars and a man I sing—an exile driven on by Fate,
he was the first to flee the coast of Troy.”
- With my own ears I drank
his message in. Come, stop inflaming us both
with your appeals. I set sail for Italy—
all against my will.”
- “Through pain I’ve learned to comfort suffering men”
Iliad by Homer
The Iliad is without a doubt one of the best epic poems written by Homer in the 8th century BC. It is also known as the Song of Ilion or Song of Ilium. The entire poem is written in dactylic hexameter which is credited to Homer. The Iliad is one of the oldest existing works of Western literature with the Odyssey. The Iliad has 15,693 lines and is divided into 24 books. While the themes of this epic poem is Pride, honor, and heroism are seen as prominent, love can also be included as one of the major themes. Though Helen was married to Spartan King Menelaus, during an attack, Paris falls in love with Helen. A few scholars believe that Helen was willing to leave with Paris and was not kidnapped. The Iliad is vague as to the friendship or romantic relationship of Achillies the main character in the epic poem. However, his love and fierce devotion pull Achilles into the battle. loves Patroclus with a fierce devotion which is expressed in The Song of Achilles.
- …There is the heat of Love, the pulsing rush of Longing, the lover’s whisper, irresistible—magic to make the sanest man go mad.
- Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.
- Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.