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I hit you because I love you. But not as much as I love myself.

August 21, 2011

The late 1st century poet Ovid is often described as a love poet. His most famous collections of poetry include the Amores, poems describing his own erotic adventures with his mistress Corinna and a variety of others, and the Ars Amatoria, a handbook for finding and conducting love affairs. Ovid begins his Amores by suggesting that he had originally thought to write about “heavy fighting and violent war” (1.2), before being mercilessly attacked by Cupid, and forced instead to write love poetry. This initial entanglement of love poetry with thoughts and actions of violence is an appropriate beginning to the Amores and particularly emblematic of the portrayal of love in the poetry of Ovid. His depiction of relationships is infused with violent imagery, and the depiction of or apology for violent actions. Even otherwise unoffensive poems are suffused with images of war, robbery, hunting or wounds. In some respects, this is not surprising. The process of falling in and being in love is sometimes characterized by an alarming lack of physical and emotional control, so the idea of a deity forcefully causing that state, or the use of strong physical and emotive imagery to describe the feeling might seem a valid response, especially in a culture which fetishized empowered masculinity. Given that male sexuality was thought to be characterized by emotional control (especially in the Stoic milieu of the educated upper echelons of Rome) and physical domination, there was a great concern on the part of the love poets to prove that they were still ‘proper men’, for all their focus on poetry and amor. The violent martial and hunting imagery of Ovid in some respects fits into the same category as Catullus 16. However, it is also somewhat misleading for us to always describe the subject matter of Ovid’s poems as ‘love’, encompassing as they do a variety of feelings, the vast majority of which are lust. Not only that, but if Ovid can be said to consistently love anyone in his poems, it is himself. The women seem primarily to be a vehicle for him to glorify himself, his emotional turmoil, his cleverness, his poetic skill. The inevitable result of this objectification is the use of violence to enforce a certain masculine and poetic identity.

In establishing his poetic project in the Amores, Ovid’s depiction of becoming an erotic poet is full of violent imagery. In Amores 1.2, he writes of having Cupid’s arrow stuck in his heart, in his “conquered breast”, and he decides to capitulate, rather than go down fighting – all as if he is a wounded soldier in a hopeless battle. He then describes Cupid as a triumphant general with himself, wounded and chained, in the victory procession. In the following poem, he describes himself as having been “plundered” by the girl who is the object of his affections – it is as if he is a prisoner of war, or a corpse being robbed on a battlefield. The image of war continues throughout his poetry. The Ars Amatoria note that “love is a kind of warfare.” In Amores 1.6, his attempts to drunkenly enter his mistress’ house are compared pathetically to an invading army, and in 1.9, he again links the soldier and the lover at the door, saying “this one lays siege to strong cities, that one his harsh friend’s entrance: one breaks down gates, the other doors”. Cupid is the general, and every lover bears arms for him – indeed, Ovid takes pains to point out that the stage of life appropriate for making war is also appropriate for making love. By book II of the Amores, when he has succeeded in gaining entrance to Corinna’s house, he compares himself to a triumphant general, cataloguing the wars fought because of women, and pointing out that even animals will fight over a female. However, not all of his military references are as bathetic as this triumphant recruitment paean for Cupid. For in the next two poems, he relates that his mistress is very ill following a botched abortion. After expressing worry about her health and praying to manifold gods for her recovery (via an oddly cheerful paternity query), his tone switches to one of rage, asking: “where’s the joy in a girl being free from fighting wars, unwilling to follow the army and their shields, if without battle she suffers wounds from her own weapons, and arms unsure hands to her own doom? Whoever first taught the destruction of a tender foetus, deserved to die by her own warlike methods.” (Amores 2.14) While certainly not the last person in history to describe abortion using military metaphors, the use of war-images here, in light of their previous employment, is interesting – if Ovid’s erotic adventures are a military campaign waged in the name of Cupid, is abortion the collateral damage? Stranger still, despite his concern to illustrate his mistress’ abortion as an act of violence commensurate to warfare, the two poems chronicling it have very little to do either with the woman he supposedly loves, their potential child, or indeed, anything apart from bathos and poetic artifice. Mythical mothers and poetic archetypes such as Armenian tigresses receive for more attention, before a typically Ovidian bathetic reversal, in which he cheekily commands the gods not to enact the punishments he has been calling down. If this is warfare, it seems more ‘shock and awe’ than the pursuit of concrete military objectives.

Hunting too features in Ovid’s descriptions of love. The procuress in Amores 1.8 advocates conducting multiple love affairs on the basis that “the wolf eats best that preys on the whole flock.” The conduct of his love affaires is described as being like a hunter: “the hunter chases what runs: leaves what he’s captured and often searches for another quarry.” In the Ars Amatoria, he explicitly refers to the man seeking women as a hunter, asking “why enumerate every female meeting place fit for the hunter?” In the early Roman empire hunting was not only a popular elite pastime, but quite an artificial one, taking place on game reserves on estates – to which Ovid likens the leisure centres of Rome. Hunting expresses the wildness and unpredictability of love, but also exemplifies the artificial, narcissistic leisure-activity into which Ovid transforms it in his poetry.

Rape is also a pervasive obsession of Ovid’s. A recurring feature of his long poetic work The Metamorphoses, it also receives discussion in the Amores and Ars Amatoria. Gazing at his mistress in the arms of her husband at dinner, Ovid claims that he “cease[s] to wonder that the Centaurs full of wine snatched up lovely Hippodamia in their arms.” – centaurs, in ancient mythology, are notorious for their acts of mass drunken rape. In Ars Amatoria 1.4, he advocates the theatre as a place to pick up women on the basis of the rape of the Sabine women – the foundational act in which the men of Rome ensured the survival of their nascent city by kidnapping the neighbouring women – having occurred in a make-shift theatre in the days of Romulus. Most of the poem is not devoted to how to meet women at the theatre, but to long description of the rape, with the women described as lambs fleeing wolves and doves fleeing eagles, their expressions of fear eroticized as they are carried away, and ending with “Romulus, alone, knew what was fitting for soldiers: I’ll be a soldier, if you give me what suits me.” That Ovid seems to so enjoy this description could be excused, as the mythical incident has a great deal of dramatic potential, if it were not for the section later in the Ars Amatoria where Ovid claims that “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.” Ovid then makes it clear that he is not just referring to some kind of perverse coquettishness:

“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.”

According to Ovid, therefore, all women secretly want sex, whether they consent to it or not. That this assertion appears in a didactic discussion on how to conduct romances would seem to be the ultimate disturbing entanglement of violence with the erotic, but also the ultimate condemnation of Ovid’s erotic narcissism. Violence features so heavily in his erotic poetry in part because his poetry is focused around himself and his own erotic experience. Anything which does not conveniently fit into this must be objectified, forced to fit. One can play at being the moping lover if that suits one’s poetic intentions, but if all else fails, the amator does not have to be so unmanly as to slink away and write emotional poetry about his failures – for all his poetic fripperies, he can still enact an acceptable Roman manhood by, quite literally, forcing the situation.

Sex and relationships are often figured violently. Amores 1.7, in which he documents his response to hitting his mistress in a fit of anger, trivializes relationship violence, running a hyperbolic mythical gamut of disheveled ravished heroines and mock apology. While Ovid is happy to poach other men’s women (and women in his poetry are always the possessions of others), his reaction to seeing ‘his own’ woman being poached is to instantly consider violence: “it was as if I wanted to tear her hair, all done up as it was, and tear her tender cheeks, with anger, in my passion.” He is ultimately dissuaded from attacking her by her good looks – the poem seems to reduce her to an object for him to react to physically, emotionally and poetically. While him enacting or considering enacting such violence against her is considered legitimate and treated at length, her own threats against him are condescendingly condemned – he complains that his mistress is never happy, claiming: “if I praise someone, you try to tear my hair out.” Violence is used to express a lack of erotic agency. In Amores 2.9b, he addresses Cupid, saying: “Pierce me, boy! I’m offered naked to your weapons: this is your power, this is what your strength does.”, but in the Ars Amatoria, he says “the more he pierces me, the more violently he burns me, so much the fitter am I to avenge the wounds.” It is perhaps significant that while the Amores is an exploration of the experience of the amator, the Ars Amatoria purports to be a manual for success as one, granting the amator more agency.

Ovid finds it difficult to describe relationships and love affairs without resorting to violence and violent imagery. By evoking the violence of war, he tries to make his emotional disorientation and seeming lack of agency acceptable within the sexual parameters of the Roman man; with hunting, he makes his pursuit of love an acceptable activity, and with rape and relationship violence, he confirms to the reader that the ultimate reason for this continual, inextricable link between ‘love’ and violence is a desire for self-promotion, both poetically and erotically.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2012 3:47 pm

    I agree with some of this – Ovid’s attitude to women can obviously be seen as violent and sexist in some of the extracts you have highlighted; indeed he spends far too much writing about the fear of the Sabine women, almost as if he is relishing in their terror at their imminent rape. Yet have you considered the time in which Ovid was writing? While this essay is very good indeed, do you not think you have focused a bit too much on your own outrage of Ovid’s treatment of women? Our view of his idea of women is seen through modern eyes, and yes, any constructions of femininity seem to tell us more about the males opinion towards anything which isn’t male – women, foreigners, slaves – than what Roman women were actually like. Yet have you considered that Ovid is one of the few writers who expresses his adoration for the female sex? His poetry gives them more of a ‘voice’ than other poetry does (he has a tender side to his nature that is shown through his intense interest in the so-called ‘weaker’ sex, and above all, he imagines what their feelings might be, showing he can’t be accused of completely objectifying women), and while he does seemingly objectify women at times, you can’t say that he does this throughout his work – surely when he expresses his pain at his lover cheating on him in Amores 3.14 the readers first emotion is pity for his pain, not anger at his sexism! This pity is debatable, yet in many of his poems you can’t help but feel sorry for the unlucky lover – however I concede that you can’t feel sorry for him when he portrays a stalker/rapist!!!
    That brings me onto your idea of his egotism – I never really considered it, but when you think about it, what love poetry isn’t self-centred? He wouldn’t be writing about love if he didn’t bear the ‘vulnus’ of Cupid’s arrow, and writing love poetry seems to be his cure to being wounded like he is, possibly explaining why all love poetry will have a degree of self-centredness. Because really, being in love is a wounding thing, if you consider the pain it can entail at times.

  2. Chiara permalink
    August 25, 2012 1:52 am

    Thanks for this! I am going to have my students in ‘Sex and Gender in Antiquity’ read it for our Ovid day.

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