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 art and its appeal to his mistress’s vanity (her desire for eternal fame) to get by. As a lover he is at odds with men of affairs, whether businessmen or soldiers, but he makes use of their language in the process of presenting his case. For example, in 1.9, he argues that all lovers are soldiers, and they must use military tactics to avoid the guards and night patrols set out by sleeping husbands.
Of course the lover is jealous and suspicious, but the cause may have less to do with his mistress’s infidelity than with his own. In 2.7, for example, he uses metaphors drawn from the law in describing himself as a defendant unjustly accused of an affair with his mistress’s hairdresser, Cypassis. He insists no true gentleman would carry on with a mere maid, but in the next poem he smooth-talks Cypassis with an argument from Homer, pointing out that, after all, “Achilles adored his maid Briseis.” Clearly, the fun of the Amores requires the setting aside of conventional moral and ethical standards, and perhaps of the rules of logic...
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It could be said that the premise of the Amores is hedonistic, that the poems are founded upon the simple human drive to avoid pain and seek pleasure, even at great cost. Certainly the languid sexuality of 1.5, and the morning song 1.13, in which the lover pleads with the sun not to rise, are examples. In 2.15 he imagines himself as his girlfriend’s ring slipping inside her dress and fondling her breast, and in 3.4 he pleads to her husband to be more alert and more possessive, as the challenge will make their affair more exciting. The speaker’s most embarrassing moment is celebrated in 3.7, when he confesses his inability to achieve an erection, despite the professional efforts of his mistress (not Corinna, in this case, as he mentions her for having “inspired” his “record” of nine times “in one short night”).
One might argue that in the Amores Ovid offers comic relief to a society that tended to be stifling in its commitment to business and affairs of state and increasingly puritanical in its moral outlook. As studies of supposedly proper Victorians have revealed, repressive societies tend to force sexual play underground, not to eradicate it. Some critics have suggested that Ovid himself, who was married three times, may not have enjoyed the self-indulgent escapades of his speaker, but the poems remain an invitation to erotic love. In 2.4 the speaker says he offers no excuse for his “weak character” or lack of discipline, for he loves all types of women: “I admire a girl in make-up for what she is/ and a girl without for what she could be.”
There is a price to be paid for the unleashing of the libido, however, and occasionally Ovid reveals it. For example, in 1.7 he shows remorse for having beaten his mistress, and in 2.13 and 2.14 he shows his concern when she nearly dies after a self-inflicted abortion and then anger over the act itself. The third book of the Amores involves a sort of cooling off, as Ovid prepares his audience for other kinds of poetry. Poems such as 3.6, on rivers, and 3.10, on sexual abstinence practiced during the feast of Ceres, concern mythological tales rather than personal erotic adventures. The third book also includes a moving elegy to the poet Tibullus (3.9) and a dream allegory (3.5) that most critics think is not Ovid’s work.
Poems 3.11 through 3.15, the last five of the book, include an angry farewell to the bondage of love, a lament that the speaker loses Corinna because his poems made her too popular, an account of the legend of his wife’s hometown, and a plea to his mistress to deceive him if she does not really love him. The poet, who is supposed to be the master of illusions, now begs to be deluded.