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Ovidian Arts of Love

Ovid was a Roman poet writing in the later decades of Augustan rule. He had a an eclectic range of publications, including writings on the calendar (Fasti), an epic that related multiple transformations from Greek and Roman myth (Metamorphoses), letters from heroines of Greek myth (Heroides), and two collections of poems from exile (Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto). His first collections were Amores, love poems.  What concerns us here is Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), which covers three books and has a sequel, the Remedia Amoris (Cures for Love). Ovid’s book poses as practical advice for men and ‘girls’ on pursuing affairs of love. In the context of Augustan moral reforms and the legislation on adultery, Ovid’s poems were political and oppositional.

Ovid is considered a playful poet, full of tricks, who makes fun of sex and subverts the sexual values of his day (Augustan Rome).

The poem opens with a proclamation of identity. Rather than calling upon a Muse of a god, Ovid claims that he is a teacher of love, who is writing from experience. Rather than hiding the content of the poem within a mythological context, Ovid asserts that his guide is practical advice, as used by the poet himself. But if this is based on experience, is Ovid admitting to adultery and therefore to illegality? As he finishes his introduction, he gives his answer


Far away from here, you badges of modesty,

the thin headband, the ankle-covering dress.

I sing of safe love, permissible intrigue,

and there’ll be nothing sinful in my song.

Now the first task for you who come as a raw recruit

is to find out who you might wish to love.

The next task is to make sure that she likes you:

the third, to see to it that the love will last.

That’s my aim, that’s the ground my chariot will cover:

that’s the post my thundering wheels will scrape.

The poem does not relate to respectable women. Only those who the law allows to be seduced will be seduced by these tactics. Who is he thinking of?

He is not thinking of married Roman matrons. He is thinking of women we would describe as courtesans.

But how is he thinking abut his male reader. He is described as a recruit, very precisely a recruit into the army. The section finishes with Ovid in a chariot, celebrating the victory of his recruit. This is military imagery: the recruit conquers and possesses. The general directs.

Then, he moves on to how to find the girl;

The hunter knows where to spread nets for the stag,

he knows what valleys hide the angry boar:

the wild-fowler knows the woods: the fisherman

knows the waters where the most fish spawn:

You too, who search for the essence of lasting love,

must be taught the places that the girls frequent.

I don’t demand you set your sails, and search,

or wear out some long road to discover them.

Perseus brought Andromeda from darkest India,

and Trojan Paris snatched his girl from Greece,

Rome will grant you lots of such lovely girls,

you’ll say: ‘Here’s everything the world has had.’

Your Rome’s as many girls as Gargara’s sheaves,

as Methymna’s grapes, as fishes in the sea,

as birds in the hidden branches, stars in the sky:

Venus, Aeneas’s mother, haunts his city.

If you’d catch them very young and not yet grown,

real child-brides will come before your eyes:

if it’s young girls you want, thousands will please you.

You’ll be forced to be unsure of your desires:

if you delight greatly in older wiser years,

here too, believe me, there’s an even greater crowd.

The reader transforms from soldier to hunter. Again, this is a disturbing image. The girl is to be caught, captured, netted, hooked. And what sort of girl? Should the Roman wander seizing girls from distant places? No, Rome is the city of Venus. You could hunt young girls or older girls.

But where?

Just walk slowly under Pompey’s shady colonnade,

when the sun’s in Leo, on the back of Hercules’s lion:

or where Octavia added to her dead son Marcellus’s gifts,

with those rich works of foreign marble.

Don’t miss the Portico that takes its name

from Livia its creator, full of old masters:

or where the daring Danaids prepare to murder their poor husbands,

and their fierce father stands, with out-stretched sword.

And don’t forget the shrine of Adonis, Venus wept for,

and the sacred Sabbath rites of the Syrian Jews.

Don’t skip the Memphite temple of the linen-clad heifer:

she makes many a girl what she herself was to Jove.

And the law-courts (who’d believe it?) they suit love.

And so we have a list of buildings:

  • The Porticus Pompeianae: This in front of Pompey’s theatre and an enormous and grand structure to celebrate Pompey’s victories.
  • The Porticus Octaviae: built by the theatre of Marcellus by Octavian’s sister. It was a building which appears to have had a connection to the prominent women of Rome.
  • The Porticus Liviae: built for Augustus’ wife and on a grand scale, with monuments to domestic concord.
  • The Porticus of Apollo: part of Augustus’ house on the Palatine and in itself a victory monument for Augustus.
  • The law courts, where, one presumes cases on adultery might be tried.
Porticus Liviae

Porticus Liviae from the Severan Map of Rome.

He goes on to talk about Egyptian cults and the synagogue, places which might be seen as exotic and mysterious, perhaps even places of different moral values.


This is not a random selection of public buildings: with the exception of the Porticus of Pompey, the other buildings have either a close association with the imperial or with familial values. But for Ovid, they are places to pick up girls. The very places which were designed to celebrate the imperial family and its moral order have turned out to places for sexual encounters.

But Ovid’s favourite place to pick up girls turns out to be the theatre and the circus.

For the theatre, he uses the opportunity to recount the story of the Rape of the Sabines, returning us to the origins of Rome under Romulus.

They come to see, they come to be seen as well:

the place is fatal to chaste modesty.

These shows were first made troublesome by Romulus,

when the raped Sabines delighted unmarried men.

Then no awnings hung from the marble theatre,

the stage wasn’t stained with saffron perfumes:

Then what the shady Palatine provided, leaves

simply placed, was all the artless scene:

The audience sat on tiers made from turf,

and covered their shaggy hair, as best they could, with leaves.

They watched, and each with his eye observed the girl

he wanted, and trembled greatly in his silent heart.

While, to the measure of the homely Etruscan flute,

the dancer, with triple beat, struck the levelled earth,

amongst the applause (applause that was never artful then)

the king gave the watched-for signal for the rape.

They sprang up straightaway, showing their intent by shouting,

and eagerly took possession of the women.

As doves flee the eagle, in a frightened crowd,

as the new-born lamb runs from the hostile wolf:

so they fled in panic from the lawless men,

and not one showed the colour she had before.

Now they all fear as one, but not with one face of fear:

Some tear their hair: some sit there, all will lost:

one mourns silently, another cries for her mother in vain:

one moans, one faints: one stays, while that one runs:

the captive girls were led away, a joyful prize,

and many made even fear itself look fitting.

Whoever showed too much fight, and denied her lover,

he held her clasped high to his loving heart,

and said to her: ‘Why mar your tender cheeks with tears?

as your father to your mother, I’ll be to you.’

Romulus, alone, knew what was fitting for soldiers:

I’ll be a soldier, if you give me what suits me.

From that I suppose came the theatres’ usual customs:

now too they remain a snare for the beautiful.

Ovid would be a soldier if he could be rewarded with a girl. The women are prizes, to be taken violently, and then brought into the Roman household. The acts of sexual violence are made respectable by their inclusion in the very origin of the city of Rome.

That is certainly a contentious reading of early Roman history: the rape of Lucretia was an act of sexual violence that mobilised the Roman people to overthrow the Tarquins and establish the Republic. It is a parallel story to the killing of Verginia by her father, which was so as she might avoid rape, and which also led to the overthrow of the political regime. Romans did regard rape as a flagrant abuse of the free person, though it is not clear that slave men and women had any protection. It is an issue to which Ovid returns.

At the circus, Ovid’s lover gets close to the girl, very close. Close enough to touch. Ovid represents the attentions as welcome, but the girl is clearly not to be consulted before the amorous man is all over her.

You can sit by your lady: nothing’s forbidden,

press your thigh to hers, as you can do, all the time:

and it’s good the rows force you close, even if you don’t like it,

since the girl is touched through the rules of the place.

Now find your reason for friendly conversation,

and first of all engage in casual talk.

Make earnest enquiry whose those horses are:

and rush to back her favourite, whatever it is.

When the crowded procession of ivory gods goes by,

you clap fervently for Lady Venus:

if by chance a speck of dust falls in the girl’s lap,

as it may, let it be flicked away by your fingers:

and if there’s nothing, flick away the nothing. 

And he concludes the public courting of the girl by suggesting that a military triumph is an ideal place to win over the girl. The staging of great imperial triumphs is thereby converted to a sexual opportunity.

But then, after various discussions of female desire, how to dress, how to show that you care, things go private, as the lover gets into the house of his girl. He gets invited to dinner.

When Bacchus’s gifts are set before you then,

and you find a girl sharing your couch,

pray to the father of feasts and nocturnal rites

to command the wine to bring your head no harm.

It’s alright here to speak many secret things,

with hidden words she’ll feel were spoken for her alone:

and write sweet nothings in the film of wine,

so your girl can read them herself on the table:

and gaze in her eyes with eyes confessing fire:

you should often have silent words and speaking face.

Be the first to snatch the cup that touched her lips,

and where she drank from, that is where you drink:

and whatever food her fingers touch, take that,

and as you take it, touch hers with your hand.

Let it be your wish besides to please the girl’s husband:

it’ll be more useful to you to make friends.

And alongside advising the lover not to get involve in drunken fights, Ovid tells the lover to write messages in spilt wine, to whisper to the girl, and make friends with her husband.

But what’s this? The target is married! Ovid has somehow ‘forgotten’ that his advice is only to catch the unmarried. And how secret can this be? The husband has invited the prospective lover to dinner and he flirts with the girl? Maybe it is not meant to be realistic in any way, but there is perhaps an allowed infraction of the rules here: does the husband actually care?

But as the dinner is cleared and the diners move about, in the darkness of the Roman house (remember everything is lit by oil lamps), the lover bumps into the girl.

Then when the table’s cleared, the guests are free,

the throng will give you access to her and room.

Join the crowd, and softly approach her,

let fingers brush her thigh, and foot touch foot.

Now’s the time to speak to her: boorish modesty

fly far from here: Chance and Venus help the daring.

Not from my rules your eloquence will come:

desire her enough, you’ll be fluent yourself.

Your’s to play the lover, imitate wounds with words:

use whatever skill you have to win her belief.

Don’t think it’s hard: each think’s herself desired:

the very worst take’s pleasure in her looks.

Yet often the imitator begins to love in truth,

often, what was once imagined comes to be.

O, be kinder to the ones who feign it, girls:

true love will come, out of what was false.

Now secretly surprise her mind with flatteries,

as clear water undermines the hanging bank.

Never weary of praising her face, her hair,

her elegant fingers, and her slender feet.

Even the chaste like their beauty to be commended:

her form to even the virgin’s pleasing and dear.

Praise and flattery. The chaste are to be seduced. It is a game of the knowing. Even if the girl thinks that the declarations of love  false, she’ll play along.

And then Ovid returns to the issue of consent, unambiguously.

Though she might not give, take what isn’t given.

Perhaps she’ll struggle, and then say ‘you’re wicked’:

struggling she still wants, herself, to be conquered.

Only, take care her lips aren’t bruised by snatching,

and that she can’t complain that you were harsh.

Who takes a kiss, and doesn’t take the rest,

deserves to lose all that were granted too.

How much short of your wish are you after that kiss?

Ah me, that was boorishness stopped you not modesty.

Though you call it force: it’s force that pleases girls: what delights

is often to have given what they wanted, against their will.

She who is taken in love’s sudden onslaught

is pleased, and finds wickedness is a tribute.

And she who might have been forced, and escapes unscathed,

will be saddened, though her face pretends delight.

Phoebe was taken by force: force was offered her sister:

and both, when raped, were pleased with those who raped them.

He follows up with stories of mythological rapes, and quite how pleased the various women to be raped by gods. These are extraordinary lines. The rapist comes to be a god. The raped girl is secretly delighted.

How to read this book?

In a narrow sense, it is political. The moral views of the regime are openly satirised. The new buildings of Augustan Rome inspired not moral and military thought, but adultery. Ovid is advising his reader on how to break the law.

In a wider sense, it takes a view of contemporary Roman society. Men and women are seeking sexual adventure. There is a relaxed moral atmosphere. Affairs are pursued with a modicum of secrecy, but are seen as a norm of behaviour, tolerated in Roman social circles.

There is also a sense of Rome no longer being part of an older moral tradition. The traditions of Rome which are written into the poem are ones of sexually predatory behaviour. The rape of the Sabines becomes a foundation myth for Roman sexuality. But the gods are seen as sexually rapacious serial rapist.

What has disappeared from the traditions of the city is the sense of the virtues of women, and in particular those of the matrona. Those traditions were certainly live in Rome: they are  represented in Livia especially, but also in the art and in  idealisations of women.

What is lost is a tradition by which protection from sexual violence is symbolic of the liberties of a Roman citizen. Male sexual violence is an act of power through which the political and status relations are made clear. A tyrant can exercise sexual power over all his subjects. A master can lay claim to the body of his slave. Here, free women can be raped by free men. Consent is just assumed whatever a woman does or says to the contrary.

The sexual politics of the text are shocking for us.

Would they have shocked a Roman audience?

  • Violence is violence to the victim. It is demeaning to talk about cultural toleration of violence.
  • Different cultures do have different views as to what is acceptable in terms of violence, especially violence towards women. But Roman culture did seek to protect the bodies of its citizens.

Is it possible that by pointing to the traditions of sexual violence in Roman society and its traditions, Ovid is critiquing Roman social values?


Augustus               Poetry in the Age of Augustus               Moral Reforms                  Roman Sexual Behaviours               The Politics of Immorality          An End of Opposition     The New Age

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