The Latin Library has the following punctuation for lines 60–62 of book IV of Ovid's Metamorphoses, describing how Pyramus and Thisbe fell in love but were forbidden from marrying by their parents:

tempore crevit amor; taedae quoque iure coissent,
sed vetuere patres: quod non potuere vetare,
ex aequo captis ardebant mentibus ambo.

And Perseus similarly separates the quod clause from the preceding clause:

tempore crevit amor. Taedae quoque iure coissent:
sed vetuere patres. Quod non potuere vetare,
ex aequo captis ardebant mentibus ambo.
(Ed. Hugo Magnus, 1892)

This forces the quod clause in bold to describe what happens in the next line, rather than what happened in the sed clause immediately preceding it on the same line. The translation would then be something like this:

"...with time, their love grew. And marriage would have brought them together in law, // but their parents forbade it: and yet they could not forbid it, // both burned equally with captured hearts."

But it would make much more sense to me to remove the colon or full stop and translate it like this:

but the parents forbade what they could not forbid

That way, you don't need to connect the quod clause with ardebant, which I'd rather not do.

One could argue that it is sed vetuere patres. Quod non potuere vetare, [eo]...ardebant, "but the parents forbade it. They burned...with that which [the parents] could not forbid". Then quod would be a relative with enclosed antecedent as a complement modifying ardebant. But this seems a bit far fetched to me.

It's also that you then have two ablatives, where one must be the cause of their burning (eo, quod...), the other an absolute ablative of circumstances. And yet Lewis & Short group this quotation under "without ablative [complement]".

And I find the paradox "forbade what they could not forbid" much more powerful in a single sentence. It's a perfect paradox, so I think it cannot be (literally) translated as "but they tried to forbid", or it should have been an imperfect. So that makes it a strong paradox.

One translation from Perseus disagrees with me:

They wished to join in marriage, but that joy
their fathers had forbidden them to hope;
and yet the passion that with equal strength
inflamed their minds no parents could forbid.
(Brookes More, 1922)

The other, much older translation agrees with me:

For love to come to that to which it afterward did growe.
And if that right had taken place they had bene man and wife,
But still their Parents went about to let which (for their life)
They could not let. For both their heartes with equall flame did burne.
(Arthur Golding, 1567)

So should the punctuation and the translation be changed to what I consider the better interpretation? What do other editions and translations say?

4 Answers 4


Hmm. I find your analysis elegant and alluring, but I wonder whether it's simpler than that—could it be working from two slightly different senses of vetāre? You're far more versed in the lexicon here than I am, so I'm really just offering this as something that occurs to me in case it didn't occur to you, not as any kind of authoritative answer.

Could it instead be something like (working from your translation)

"...with time, their love grew. And marriage would have brought them together in law, // but their parents forbade it. Since they could not forbid it, // both burned equally with captured hearts."

In other words, could the second vetāre have a flavor of successful result where the first has more a flavor of attempt? In which case it might be something like (very inelegantly)

And marriage would have brought them together in law, // but their parents forbade it. Since they could not prevent it, // both burned equally with captured hearts."

You touch on something like this when you mention the perfect vs. the imperfect, but if they're both perfect then there's the same kind of dramatic irony that appeals to you in the repunctuation.

  • 1
    You know what, somehow I didn't think of quod being used as a conjunction. I have to admit it would solve any syntactic issues! So this is at least more than acceptable. However, I still think the paradox is nicer (more poignant?) if it's "they forbade what they could not forbid", in the same sentence...
    – Cerberus
    Mar 13, 2016 at 2:13
  • I agree with you. :) Mar 13, 2016 at 2:49

Prosody suggests punctuation before the quod. The line scanned looks like this:

sēd vĕtŭ|ērĕ pă|trēs quōd | nōn pǒtŭ|ērĕ vĕ|tārē

Clearly the principal caesura is between patres and quod, and that effect would be felt more strongly if it's a strong pause.

Moreover, the third line in this sequence lacks any conjunctions, relatives, or anything else that connects it to the former two.

While these two reasons are not in themselves sufficient, together I think it makes it more likely that we're supposed to understand a strong pause after patres.

That said, a master like Ovid is surely teasing us with intentional ambiguity.

  • That is an interesting approach. I certainly agree about the position of the main caesura. But isn't the end of a clause a good position for the main caesura anyway, even if it isn't is the end of an independent sentence? Do we really need a full stop or a semicolon to motivate (is that the right term?) the caesura?
    – Cerberus
    Mar 13, 2016 at 2:19

It seems to me that there's a strong reason to take quod non potuere vetare with the following line, namely, that their parents could and did forbid it! The whole point of the story is that their parents forbade the marriage, which is why it all ends in tears. It would be strange to say "They would have got married, but they didn't, because their parents forbade what they couldn't forbid".

Also, this reading gives point to the following line by drawing a contrast: the parents forbade the marriage, but they couldn't forbid their love. Otherwise the line Ex aequo... is rather pointless and tells us nothing we didn't know already.

ETA: syntactically, quod is not a conjunction but a relative pronoun, whose antecedent is the entire following line: "What they couldn't forbid, though, [was that] both burned equally...".

  • It would be "strange", yes, as in a paradox: that is exactly the figure of speech I was trying to read in it! A paradox usually relies on reading the same word in two different ways: their parents forbade (said no to) what they could not forbid (prevent). Perhaps it's wishful thinking and I should submit to the lectio simplicior(?). I do wonder, though: is unspecific cataphora possible in Latin? "What they could not forbid, both burned equally...": quod refers forward, but it refers to the entire clause. This sounds a bit iffy to me, just as in English; or is that nonsense?
    – Cerberus
    Apr 27, 2019 at 2:38
  • P.S. I still like the Golding translation from 1567 (vide supra) which / because it has the paradoxical variant!
    – Cerberus
    Apr 27, 2019 at 2:40
  • @Cerberus The loose cataphora seems normal to me, though I don't have a parallel off the top of my head. I'm not seeing how translating vetare as "prevent" helps, because it's still the case that the parents did prevent the marriage.
    – TKR
    Apr 27, 2019 at 21:02
  • Well, if you read taedae poetically/loosely as "being a couple", the parents tried to forbid that but failed.
    – Cerberus
    Apr 28, 2019 at 1:19

The problem, here, may be one of flow. The separation of the "sed" & "quod" clauses works: hard truth: (another) hard truth; it's punchy, driving the story forward; consequently, the "quod" clause flows into the next line: they-could-not-forbid-(therefore)-both-burned..

Your own translation: "but the parents forbade what they could not forbid.", sounds good, in English, but requires a jerky re-start for the next line.

Brookes More was probably more concerned with erudition than poetic flow; but, nothing wrong with that.

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