I set out yesterday to find a volume of Sidonius Apollinaris’ letters but ended with an even lesser known contemporary, Aristaenetus. He seems to have lived on either side of 500 C.E. and the introduction of this edition of his Erotic Letters (‘the first complete English translation of Aristaenetus in nearly three centuries’ and, curiously, published by the Society of Biblical Letters) of course makes the case that he deserves a wider readership and a kinder critical evaluation (a recent scholar called him “a jackdaw, embellishing his pages with vivid passages and phrases culled verbatim or with minimal alteration from a variety of earlier authors”). I am unconvinced but if you like New Comedy and its descendants you might feel differently. Here is one of his more charming passages – from Letter 1.3, given by the translators the title A Hetaira and a Youth Feasting Together Under a Tree. It reminds me of catching noodles in a bamboo flume (nagashi somen as here).
Together with Leimone, I pleasurably feasted in a garden that seemed just made for love and a good match for the beauty of my darling. There was an enormous plane tree providing shade; a gentle breeze; soft grass covered with flowers, as is typical during summer (reclining on the ground was like lying on the most expensive carpets); and many trees heavy with fruit: “pears, pomegranates, and apples, glorious in their yield,” to use Homer’s words in describing the grove of the harvest nymphs right there
This, though, was the greatest of all delights, by the Graces: While a man running irrigation channels quickly led the water to the garden plots and trees with his mattock, our servant, from afar, put bowls filled with the most delicious beverages into the watercourse so that they would be carried more speedily by the current, not jumbled all together, but one by one, separated from each other by short intervals. Each of the drinking cups, which charmingly sailed across the water like boats, carried with it a leafy shoot of the Median plant; these served as sails for our bowls on their merry journey. So, naturally steered by a calm and peaceful breeze, like ships sailing fast with the wind behind their stern, they, together with their delightful cargo, happily landed close to the drinkers. We, in turn, assiduously grabbed each cup, as it ran past, and drank down the moderate blend, which contained equal parts of wine and water. For the cupbearer, who knew how to mix things just right, had on purpose combined wine warmer than required with red-hot water. The heat was in proportion to the icy water that was about to cool down the mixture floating on its surface, so that, the surplus of warmth reduced by the cold, the resulting temperature would be as desired.
And the Greek:
Τῇ Λειμώνῃ χαριέντως ἐν ἐρωτικῷ συνειστιώμην παραδείσῳ καὶ μάλα πρέποντι τῷ κάλλει τῆς ἐρωμένης· ἔνθα πλάτανος μὲν ἀμφιλαφής τε καὶ σύσκιος, πνεῦμα δὲ μέτριον, καὶ πόα μαλθακὴ ὥρᾳ θέρους ἐπανθεῖν εἰωθυῖα (ἐπὶ τοῦ πεδίου κατεκλίθημεν οἷα τῶν πολυτελεστάτων δαπίδων) δένδρη τε πολλὰ τῆς ὀπώρας πλησίον, “ὄγχναι καὶ ῥοιαὶ καὶ μηλέαι ἀγλαόκαρποι,” φαίη τις ἂν καθομηρίζων τῶν ὀπωρινῶν αὐτόθι Νυμφῶν τὸ χωρίον
κἀκεῖνό γε, νὴ τὰς Χάριτας, ἐπιτερπέστατον ἦν· τοῦ γὰρ ὀχετηγοῦ κατὰ τάχος ἐπὶ πρασιάς τε καὶ δένδρα τῇ σμινύῃ καθηγουμένου τῷ ῥεύματι, πόρρωθεν ὁ θεράπων φιάλας καλλίστου πόματος πλήρεις ἐπὶ τὸν ὁλκὸν ἠφίει θᾶττον φέρεσθαι κατὰ ῥοῦν, οὐ χύδην, ἀλλὰ κατὰ μίαν, ἐκ διαστήματος βραχέος διακεκριμένας ἀλλήλων· ἕκαστον δὲ τῶν ἐκπωμάτων δίκην ὁλκάδων ἐπιχαρίτως διεκπλεόντων πτόρθον Μηδικοῦ φυτοῦ ἐπεφέρετο εὔφυλλον, καὶ ἦν ταῦτα ταῖς εὐπλοούσαις ἡμῶν φιάλαις ἱστία. τοιγαροῦν αὐτοφυῶς ἠρεμαίᾳ καὶ ἀταράχῳ πνοῇ κυβερνώμεναι, καθάπερ νῆες ταχυναυτήσασαι κατὰ πρύμναν ἱσταμένου τοῦ πνεύματος, σὺν τοῖς ἡδίστοις φόρτοις εἰς τοὺς συμπότας εὔδιον προσωρμίζοντο· ἡμεῖς δὲ ὑπουργῶς ἀνασπῶντες ἑκάστην παραθέουσαν κύλικα συνεπίνομεν ἴσον ἴσῳ κεκραμένην μετρίως· ὁ γὰρ ἔμμετρος οἰνοχόος ἐξεπίτηδες τοσούτῳ
θερμότερον τοῦ δέοντος τὸν οἶνον συνέμισγεν ὕδατι διαπύρῳ, ὅσον ἔμελλεν ὁ ψυχρότατος ὁλκὸς ἐπιπολάζον αὐτῷ τὸ κραθὲν ἐπιψύχειν, ὅπως ἄν, μόνης γε τῆς ἀμέτρου θέρμης τῷ ψυχρῷ μειουμένης, τὸ σύμμετρον καταλείψοιτο.