The Ars Amatoria or The Art of Love is an instructional love elegy in three books by the Roman poet Ovid, penned around 2 AD. It claims to provide teaching in three areas of general preoccupation: how and where to find women in Rome, how to seduce them, and how to prevent others from stealing them.
After a first publication of two of the books, dated to around 1 BC, Ovid wrote the third dealing with the same themes from the female perspective two years later. The Ars amatoria is, in part, a burlesque satire on didactic poetry.
Aeacidae Chiron, ego sum praeceptor Amoris – As Chiron was to Achilles, so I am to Cupid – in other words, I taught Cupid everything he knows. Ovid offers advice to men on how to seduce and keep a woman, and to women on how to be attractive to a man. He advises that, if one is accompanying a lady to the horse-racing in the Circus Maximus, one should gallantly brush the dust from her gown. And if there isn’t any dust there, brush it nonetheless. A young man should promise the moon to the object of his affections in letters – even a beggar can be rich in promises. A small woman, meanwhile, would be better advised to receive her suitor lying down. But should make sure that her feet are hidden under her dress, so that her true size is not disclosed.
Although Ovid protests: Siqua fides arti, quam longo fecimus usu, Credite: praestabunt carmina nostra fidem – If you trust art’s promise that I’ve long employed my songs will offer you their promise. His erotic advice indicates a good understanding of women psychology, in part he is following a literary tradition, especially the two previous exponents of the Latin love-elegy, Propertius and Tibullus, and the mostly lost erotic poetry of the Greek Hellenistic period.
The first two books, aimed at men, contain sections which cover such topics as ‘not forgetting her birthday’, ‘letting her miss you – but not for long’ and ‘not asking about her age’. The third gives similar advice to women, sample themes include: ‘making up, but in private’, ‘being wary of false lovers’ and ‘trying young and older lovers’. Although the book was finished around 2 AD, much of the advice he gives is applicable to any day and age.
His intent is often more profound than the brilliance of the surface suggests. In connection with the revelation that the theatre is a good place to meet girls, for instance, Ovid, the classically educated trickster, refers to the story of the rape of the Sabine women. It has been argued that this passage represents a radical attempt to redefine relationships between men and women in Roman society, advocating a move away from paradigms of force and possession, towards concepts of mutual fulfilment.
Ovid likens love to military service, supposedly requiring the strictest obedience to the beloved woman. Women, meanwhile, he advises to make their lovers artificially jealous so that they do not become neglectful through complacency. For this purpose, a slave should be instructed to interrupt the lovers’ tryst with the cry Perimus – We are lost! And so compels the young lover to while away some time in a cupboard
It is striking that through all his ironic discourse, Ovid never becomes ribald or obscene. Of course embarrassing matters can never be entirely excluded, for alma Dione praecipite nostrum est, quod pudet, inquit, opus – ‘…”what you blush to tell”, says nourishing Venus, “is the most important part of the whole matter”‘. Sexual matters in the narrower sense are only dealt with at the end of each book, so here again, form and content converge in a subtly ingenious way. Things, so to speak, always end up in bed. But here, too, Ovid retains his style and his discretion, avoiding any pornographic tinge. The end of the second book deals with the pleasures of simultaneous orgasm. Somewhat atypically for a Roman, the poet confesses, Odi concubitus, qui non utrumque resolvunt. Hoc est, cur pueri tangar amore minus – I abhor intercourse which does not relieve both. This is also why I find less pleasure in the love of boys.
At the end of the third part, as in the Kama Sutra, the sexual positions are ‘declined’, and from them women are exhorted to choose the most suitable, taking the proportions of their own bodies into careful consideration. Ovid’s tongue is again discovered in his cheek when his recommendation that tall women should not straddle their lovers is exemplified at the expense of the tallest hero of the Trojan Wars: Quod erat longissima, numquam Thebais Hectoreo nupta resedit equo – Because she was very tall, the Theban bride (Andromache) never sat on her Hectorian horse.