Home > 1st Century BC, Ancient Rome Literature, Classics, Ovid, Poetry > An Amazing Dating Guide Book from Augustan Rome

An Amazing Dating Guide Book from Augustan Rome

 I took five years of Latin at school and though I am totally unable to translate anything, I am still fascinated by Ancient Rome. The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria, in Latin) is a poem composed of three books written by Ovid about love relationships. The first two books are aimed at men and were published one or two years BC. The first part teaches them where to meet women and how to conquer them. The second part explains them how to keep their conquests. The third part is dedicated to women and was published a few years later, probably upon women’s request, according to the afterword.

In my French edition, the poem has been translated in prose, as, according to the translator, the beauty of the poetry is hardly transposable in French. I appreciate that option, the reading is light and better reveals the modernity of the subject. This translation is meant to be read as any translated book and not to be used in Latin classes to train students. These translations are heavy because they stick to the text very closely to help students find their way in the puzzle of Latin language, which has a tricky way to construct sentences. However, I’m sorry for the English quotes, I didn’t find a version translated in prose in English, and I didn’t want to translate a translation. My edition also has many footnotes to explain the references to mythology and it is really helpful. Unfortunately, the numerous play-on-words included in the Latin text are impossible to translate, but it’s good to know Ovid was also witty and funny.

 The advice given to men explain how to act, how to be handsome and all the tricks that can be used to seduce and be loved. Some passages are incredibly modern, as this one, which could take place in a classroom or a cinema:

Don’t forget the races, those noble stallions:

the Circus holds room for a vast obliging crowd.

No need here for fingers to give secret messages,

nor a nod of the head to tell you she accepts:

You can sit by your lady: nothing’s forbidden,

press your thigh to hers, as you can do, all the time:

and it’s good the rows force you close, even if you don’t like it,

since the girl is touched through the rules of the place.

Now find your reason for friendly conversation,

and first of all engage in casual talk.

Make earnest enquiry whose those horses are:

and rush to back her favourite, whatever it is.

When the crowded procession of ivory gods goes by,

you clap fervently for Lady Venus:

if by chance a speck of dust falls in the girl’s lap,

as it may, let it be flicked away by your fingers:

and if there’s nothing, flick away the nothing:

let anything be a reason for you to serve her.

If her skirt is trailing too near the ground,

lift it, and raise it carefully from the dusty earth:

Straight away, the prize for service, if she allows it,

is that your eyes catch a glimpse of her legs.”

I know it’s a long quote, but it shows how eternal Ovid’s words are and how mankind remains the same in its intimate behaviours. The whole books are full of insightful details about dating, even if some advice sound outdated, insulting for women sometimes or if I don’t share his point of view on infidelity.

 To women, Ovid offers beauty advice: comb you hair, choose your clothes in the colour that suits you best, use make-up with intelligence, shave your legs and armpits but beware that all this work remains inconspicuous. Isn’t this amazingly up-to-date?

Then Ovid gives a definition of an accomplished woman, which has been perfectly summed up by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her hair and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions or the word will be but half deserved.” and “to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” No change some 1800 years later. What Ovid describes but of course not Jane Austen is which position a woman should prefer while making love, depending on her physical appearance.

 What sounds also contemporary is his way of claiming equality in pleasure, which has been denied to women during centuries. For a Roman of his time, this was shocking too, as women were considered as passive beings. He also calls for equality in the right of having love affairs, as in this passage:

Secret love’s just as pleasing to women as men.

Men pretend badly: she hides her desire.

If it was proper for men not to be the first to ask,

woman’s role would be to take the part of the asker.”

 In the end, this guiding book smells like freedom. Freedom to love. Freedom to dispose of one’s body. Freedom to have a private life and to prefer a rich intimate life to a wealthy public one. It’s only an evening read and it’s refreshing.

I can’t explain right how strange it feels to connect to the mind of a man who lived such a long time ago and still feel close sometimes. It’s the same perception to be flirting with eternity as I the one I experience when I hear concerts in Antique theatres. A feeling to walk on an eternal path.

  1. July 23, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Remarkable. It is extraordinary to find such ancient thoughts so current. I’ve found it myself in some Roman authors.

    I’ll look this out. There will be an English translation and it sounds rather rewarding.

    Times may change, fashions too, but people remain much the same.


    • July 23, 2010 at 11:17 am

      I found it extraordinary too. The publisher (Mille et une nuits) did a great job in chosing the translator, including relevant footnotes and an interesting comment.

      I hope you’ll have less trouble finding a good copy of Ovid than I had looking for Slaughterhouse 5. The quest of the Holy Graal was piece of cake compared to this. I eventually ordered it online, it’s going to be a blind date between this book and me.


  2. July 29, 2010 at 7:31 am

    Fascinating – I found a similar sense of recognition while reading Marcus Aurelius. Evidently we have more in common with the Romans than with some other ancient cultures.

    You’re reviews are so thorough I almost don’t need to read the book myself – thanks for sharing your thoughts


    • July 29, 2010 at 7:55 am

      Thanks for commenting, it’s always good to have a feedback.
      France is really tatooed by Roman history.
      In some cities, you can’t dig to build something new without finding Roman remains and stop the work to start archeological research. In the city near my home town, there are the remains of Roman thermae in the basement of the museum. In my home town, a street is named “rue des Romains” and not far from there, the ancient Roman road is still a road. In the city I live in, we have a wonderful festival in the Ancient theatre, the accoustic is fantastic and the place is magical.

      And the Code Napoleon, which is still the basis of our law, directly comes from Roman law.


  3. August 3, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I haven’t read any Ovid, having assumed it would be inaccessible to the modern reader. I am happy to be disabused of this mistaken notion, amazed and amused by how modern it sounds. I suppose every generation must consider themselves uniquely enlightened.

    It’s on the list for my next book buying spree.


    • August 5, 2010 at 12:46 am

      The translator is very important when ancient texts are involved. So, my advice would be to buy it in a bookstore and not online, to have a look at the translation before. Let me know how you liked it if you read it.

      Since I wrote this post, I’ve been thinking of the notion of “accomplished woman”. I immediately thought of Jane Austen when I was reading Ovid. Afterwards, I wondered what an accomplished woman would be nowadays. I couldn’t find any definition applicable to everyone. And I’m glad I couldn’t, it may means that we, women, can be considered as accomplished in many different ways.


      • August 5, 2010 at 10:32 am

        Good advice, but I confess that I have already had recourse to Amazon. And was rather taken, sight unseen, by a new translation which has not yet been released. It is published by Vintage, in whom I have much faith, but I will nonetheless proceed with caution.


        • August 7, 2010 at 11:47 pm

          I’ve subscribed to your blog, so I won’t miss your post on Ovid. I’m interested to read you thoughts about it


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