Classic lines from ancient poetry to melt the heart of your lover this Valentine's Day.
Classic lines from ancient poetry to melt the heart of your lover this Valentine's Day.
11 February 2014

As Valentine’s Day approaches, UQ Chair of Classics and Ancient History Professor Alastair Blanshard turns to the past to offer classic lines to help melt the heart of your valentine.

You can blame the Romans for the cult of St Valentine.

Although the origins of the saint are obscure, the standard traditions describe him as a Christian priest martyred by the Romans in the third century AD.

How he became associated with romantic love remains a mystery.

It may be related to the fact that his Feast Day falls in February, which has always been a popular time for fertility festivals in the Northern Hemisphere; as cultures celebrate surviving the winter and look forward to spring.

In any case, while the Ancients would have sympathised with our desire to celebrate love as the snow begins to thaw and the sap begins to rise, they would not have recognised the soppy, sentimental version of love that we celebrate.

For the Greeks and the Romans, love was a dangerous, unsettling emotion.

Plato describes love as the bastard son of poverty, living a life of destitution, driven by desire and hunger.

Love turns soldiers into slaves.

It leaves chaos in its wake.

The poet Sappho coined the word ‘bittersweet’ to describe love:

Once again, Love, that loosener of limbs stirs me, 

Bittersweet, unconquerable, slinking creature

Yet, for all the pain that love brought her, Sappho still managed to produce one of the best descriptions of symptoms of love in Western literature.

She sets the bar high.

If you want to know what ‘true love’ feels like, Sappho spells it out:

… your sweet voice and charming laugh.

It makes
 my heart pound in my breast.

The moment that I look at you,

All sound escapes me.

My tongue is struck dumb, and 

All of a sudden a subtle fire rushes under my skin
I’m struck blind and my ears roar.

Sweat pours down me and I tremble

I am more faded than the grass

I resemble someone

Close to death …

This poem was one of Sappho’s most popular.

It was loved by the Greeks and Romans.

The Roman poet Catullus even produced a version to woo his beloved, Lesbia.

It is one of a whole series of influential, striking verse devoted to her.

If you’re looking for something to write in your Valentine’s Day card, you could do no better than the following - although you might want to substitute Lesbia’s name!

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,

We will count as nothing the

Disapproval of dried-up moralists.

Suns will rise and set.

But for us, when the short light has set

There is only never-ending sleep


Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred

And then another thousand, and a second hundred

Then yet another thousand and another hundred

We will get lost in the counting

So that no jealous person can ever begrudge us

the many kisses that we have shared.

Alastair J.L. Blanshard
 Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History

Media: UQ Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences marketing and engagement manager Melinda Kopanakis: +61 7 3365 2632,