Ovid read publicly from his Amores in 25 b.c.e., when he was about eighteen, and they proved immediately popular in Augustan Rome, despite, or perhaps because of, Augustus’s efforts to promote morality, particularly marital fidelity, at court. The tradition of romantic and erotic elegies had been established by Catullus, who died c. 54 b.c.e., and Propertius, who died no later than 2 c.e. Ovid’s elegies are often examined in the context of the work of these two predecessors. The poems of Propertius in particular are often compared to those of Ovid, who appears to have imitated and in some cases parodied Propertius. In general, Ovid undermines serious, romantic love in favor of fun.
Typical marriages for free and literate Roman patricians or aristocrats, those most likely to be Ovid’s audience, were arranged. Adulterous relationships for both husband and wife appear to have been the rule rather than the exception. The male speaker in the forty-nine poems that make up the three books of the Amores takes this condition for granted and assumes his audience will be sympathetic. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first-person speaker and the mistress (sometimes Corinna and other times apparently not) are playful and promiscuous.
Most critics now agree that there was no model in Ovid’s life for Corinna, who appears by name in about one-fourth of the poems, but Ovid gives her realistic features. She has auburn hair, as readers discover in 1.14, in which her hair is ruined by being restyled, and she is attended by various servants. She appears to be married, although she could be a concubine.
The speaker is a poet from Sulmo (as was Ovid) who believes in the power of his art to win and sustain the affections of his mistresses. More specifically in several “programmatic” poems (1.1, 1.15, 2.1, 2.18, 3.1, 3.8, 3.15) the poet argues his confidence in the elegy as opposed to either tragedy or epic when it comes to assuring his fame. This argument constitutes one theme of the Amores. In effect Ovid argues for poems other than those that are filled with pathos or profundity. In 2.1, he says he would like every young man who is in love to be able to recognize his symptoms in these poems, “and ask himself in amazement ’How does this poet know/ about me and my personal problems?’” Perhaps this is the goal of most poets.
The perspective throughout is distinctively male. Not well-off financially, the speaker depends on his...
(The entire section is 1060 words.)