The languages of love: bites, hand-signals, and other notae in Augustan elegy and lyric

Elizabeth H. Sutherland

Notae represent in Augustan erotic poetry a system of communication. Lover writes on (in addition to about) the beloved, while beloved becomes writing-tablet; their roles may be interchanged. The lover’s competitors, or members of the community at large, become readers of the resulting erotic text. Critics of Roman love-elegy have acknowledged the beloved’s thematic importance as abstract materia for the poet’s work. I argue that the beloved’s body (and at times the lover’s body) is implicated in a extra-literary form of writing for both elegy and erotic lyric.

Lexically, the OLD tells us, the noun nota, notae can incorporate tattoos, labels declaring a wine’s grade, and brands identifying one’s property. It is concerned with the process of leaving marks on a surface. I discuss in this paper two related applications of nota and the related verb noto, notare. Nota appears frequently in the elegists, and once in Horace, as the mark that a lover leaves on a beloved. The poets’ treatment tells us that, like other applications, the erotic nota is a form of writing. Those who can read lovers’ notae know that their bearer, the writing surface, is in a passionate love affair. Notae are also a language of signals that lover and beloved use to communicate secretly in public.

Erotic notae overlap with two major concerns of elegy and erotic lyric. A love affair in either genre is always more or less illicit; the lover is interested in the degree to which his relationship is publicly recognized. He is also concerned with whether the beloved reciprocates his feelings. Notae are cited as written evidence that is useful either to the lover himself or to a third-party reader. For a lover eager to publicize his conquests, love’s traces are cause for exultation. The amator of Propertius 3.8 interprets violence from the puella as evidence that her feelings are sincere. The bruises that she leaves on him therefore serve as a means by which he might claim her as his property in the eyes of his rivals.

The lover’s primary concern, though, is with public identification of his affair. The erotic nota functions as a sign that one might want either concealed or displayed. Elegiac poets speak frequently of love-bites — imprinted by either lover or beloved — as proof that a relationship exists. (See, for example, Propertius 3.8.) A lover might, however, find himself “reading” notae that another man has left: at Propertius 4.3.26 and Ovid Amores 3.14.31-34, lovers refer to love-bites when lamenting their beloveds’ infidelities. The lyricist of Horace C. 1.13 reads the traces of his competitor, who has laid claim to the puella by displaying his prowess on her body.

The lover also instructs his beloved in how to hide or erase any marks visible on her body. The husband, or an established lover who fears deception, must become skilled in detecting and reading the illicit lover’s hidden languages. The nota is thus deeply imbedded in Roman amatory verse as a means of communication between lovers, whether it is inscribed on a body or on another surface. The elegist of Propertius 3.8 asks that his puella wiggle her eyebrows or trace notae with her fingers if she wants to communicate with him in public. This concern with the collision between public and private communication also appears in Tibullus 1.6, where the amator describes how he taught Delia to evade her husband. He finds that his lessons have been overly successful, for she has applied them to maintaining additional lovers.

We can see, therefore, that the love-bites of Roman erotic poetry have extensive semantic and symbolic associations. Representative for the amator of the depth of passion that exists between himself and beloved, they are also the point of connection between the couple and their society. Notae can be positive or negative; they can be a way for the poet to talk about his affair and its position in a larger social framework. Flexible in their application, variable in their moral coloration, notae provide an effective way of talking about the issues that arise in erotic verse.

Back to the Meeting Program

[Home] [ About] [Awards and Scholarships] [Classical Journal] [Committees & Officers]
[Contacts & Email Directory
] [Links] [Meetings] [Membership] [News]