Speaker addresses Ovid and love

by Liz Yepsen | 11/4/03 6:00am

Ovid's poem "Ars amatoria" cannot be used as a universal textbook on the art of making love, Katharina Volk told an audience in Reed Hall yesterday in her speech "Ovid on How to Make Love in Rome," hosted by the Classics department.

Ovid's "Ars amatoria," or The Art of Love, professes to teach the techniques of dating to an audience of young male Roman students.

"The book paradoxically professes to teach something that everyone already knows" Volk said.

The focus of the work is not on the experience of love, but the rational act of carrying it out and the technique of dating, Volk said.

Volk noted Ovid's play on the word "amor," or love, which can reference emotional love, sexual intercourse or the Roman god of love.

The "Ars amatoria" suggests techniques for talking and conversing with women, as well as good places to meet women in Augustan Rome. The reader should endeavor to find an object of love, win her favor and ensure the relationship is lasting.

So is the guide applicable to everyone? Volk argued that many specific references and attitudes make the work specific to young males of Augustan Rome. Volk referred to a "Roman coloring" of the poem, citing his tips picking up women at Roman gladiatorial games, triumphs and mock naval battles.

Volk pointed out that Ovid excludes married women from partaking in his teaching, and that his references to and parodies of specific elements of Roman education limits his audience to affluent young Roman citizens.

"Love as taught by Ovid is an activity that takes place exclusively in Rome" Volk said. "It is naturally assumed that the young man is in Rome, and no where else."

This specificity is unique to Ovid, Volk said, as instructional manuals of this sort, even when there is a specific student figure, are usually implied to be universal in their parts.

"Any society in any place and time will construct the art of love differently," Volk explained. "The love taught in the "Ars amatoria" is not something universal, but a phenomenon shaped by place, time and circumstances."

As for the art of sexual love, Volk noted Ovid is conspicuously less prolific. While the "Ars amatoria" does chronicle scenes of the act of love, Ovid neglects instruction on this aspect.

"Ovid appears to regard the very art of sex as something natural," Volk said. There is no need for instruction.

Ovid's emphasizes the need for contemporary instruction in the art of love, according to Volk. Volk explained Ovid's conviction that the women of old were less sophisticated and so were the men they were trying to seduce. One cannot practice Ovid's teachings in Rome if you behave "like a country bumpkin" Volk said.

As for practicing Ovid's teachings today, Volk advises against it.

"Don't try the "Ars amatoria" at home" she said. "It worked in Rome, but it may not work in New Hampshire."

Volk is a professor of Classics at Columbia University and has taught at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.