Amores 1.4 essay

“Secret signs.”

If Ovid’s book is telling us the story of a love affair, the fourth poem suggests at first that the poet has made a lot of progress. The previous poem gave us nothing but arguments, which did not in the end seem to be those likely to win a girl’s heart; in Amores 1.4, it seems, she is the poet’s willing lover. But of course there is a snag: she is not free to be with poet, much as she might want to, as she has a man.

The identity, or rather the legal status, of this man is unclear. The Romans could use vir to mean “boyfriend” as well as “husband,” just as “stand by your man” is ambiguous in English, at least in country-western music. We will discuss this problem after we have considered the poem as a whole.

The poem opens with the poet speaking, at least in theory, to the girl. He’s heard that the vir is going to be at dinner with her, and he’s jealous. In the best traditions of male jealousy he focuses on the physical facts: the vir will be able to touch the girl, and he (the poet) won’t (lines 4–6). But it is harder to sympathize with our poet when he goes on to compare their situation to that of the Lapiths and Centaurs. This famous battle was provoked, supposedly, when the centaurs got drunk at the wedding feast in honor of Pirithous and Hippodamia, and tried to abduct the bride; the story (immortalized at Athens on the Parthenon metopes) exemplified primal conflict, between humans (the Lapiths) and the grotesquely semi-human centaurs. For the poet to compare himself to a centaur is a grotesque exaggeration: we can only laugh at the poet’s attempt to compare a fairly pedestrian sexual jealousy with a clash between civilization and chaos. Our amusement is only heightened when he explains, with the heavy-handed clarity of the truly self-absorbed, that of course he is not really a centaur (line 9).

Most of the poem consists of the poet’s “instructions” to the girl. The poet tells her to arrive as early as possible, not because they can have any real contact but because he just can’t wait to see her; all he can hope for is some quick footsie when they take their place at the table (lines 13–16). The poet then gives the girl elaborate instructions for secret communications (lines 17–28). And it is here that we get our first clear sense that he is not being reasonable or realistic. The notion that lovers could get away with writing notes on the table with wine is absurd (line 20), and that detail calls into question the practicality of the whole discussion: surely a husband, and the other guests, would notice if the girl watched our poet with the intensity that he demands.

Once we start wondering about practicalities, we perhaps ask ourselves an even more fundamental question: whether the girl is actually listening. Is she even present at all? Could this simply be an internal monologue? The earlobe signal (lines 23–24) could be a real signal. But some of the poet’s other suggestions seem oddly ambiguous: a girl could touch her cheek (lines 21–22), twist the ring on her finger (lines 25–26) or touch the table (lines 27–28) without thinking of these instructions at all. If a modern dinner guest were to decide that a girl who asked for the sugar was making a coded statement about him we might suspect he was fooling himself. Lovers, especially unrequited lovers, are notorious daydreamers.

The poet moves gradually from his fantasies about communication to simple jealousy (lines 33–34), and he becomes increasing preoccupied with the physical contact between the girl and her vir (lines 35–44). He knows about this physical stuff, he says, because he’s done it himself (lines 45–48), with his mistress (dominaeque meae). This sudden use of the third person presents a problem, since up to this point, supposedly, he has been talking to the girl herself (note the striking return to the second person in line 49: hoc tu non facies). The solution offered by McKeown is to see these four lines as an aside: the poet, like a character in comedy, comments on his own speech in words not to be heard by the addressee. If this is right it has an important consequence: we learn for the first time that the poet and the girl really have been having an affair.

The alternative is to see this domina as a different girl, with whom the poet had had exactly the kinds of dalliances he’s worried about here. This, as McKeown observes, would hardly be tactful: we would not expect an ardent lover to remind his new girl of her predecessors. But, in my view, this is precisely the point. The poet has lots to say, including things that in real life would be tactless: he can say what he wants in his own head.

The “instructions” continue: get the vir as drunk as possible, because that will give them a chance to be together (lines 51–54), and perhaps they can do some touching (whatever body parts happen to be available) when everyone gets up from the table (lines 55–58). Then comes, apparently, a dose of reality: the poet realizes that whatever fun he can have during dinner will be trivial compared to what happens when the girl has to go home with her vir (lines 59–62). The vir is going to be kissing her, and much more. All the poet can do is urge the girl not to show herself willing: the vir should not enjoy himself, much less the girl herself (lines 63–68).

Finally, in the last couplet, the poet asks her to lie to him: whatever happened at home with her vir, she should say categorically that nothing happened. The poet, in other words, wants to be deceived, at least on this crucial point.  This works well enough if we really are to see this as a real, if one-sided, conversation: there is a certain charm in a lover asking to be lied to, at least in these particular circumstances. But it works even better if we read the poem as fantasy. The poet’s imagination deals with the ultimate affront in two complementary ways: he first imagined the girl giving in to her vir only because she had to, and now he imagines her as so sensitive to his feelings that she will lie about it.  She’s the perfect lover, at least in the poet’s own mind.

Appendix: the vir.

Given the prominence of adultery in the western literary tradition, it is difficult for us to read Amores 1.4 without thinking of the vir as the girl’s husband. This might seem to be confirmed by the clear suggestion that the girl has to go home with her vir (lines 61–62), who will then exercise his legal rights (lines 63-64). 

But in his authoritative commentary James McKeown accepts the suggestion (made by Ian Du Quesnay) that the girl is a freedwoman, and the vir is her patron (i.e. her former owner), who has retained legal rights over her. McKeown observes that in Amores 2.5 Ovid uses similar legal language about his own girl, who is certainly not his wife. More important, McKeown finds it hard to believe that anyone would imagine a married couple furtively having sex at a dinner party (lines 47–50); as he says, on the authority of Ovid himself (Ars Amatoria 3.585f), “husbands do not have to seize fleeting opportunities” (McKeown 2, 77). It is worth remembering, too, that adultery was more than just one of the sexual vices that so offended the puritanical Augustus: in a remarkable intrusion into Roman legal tradition, Augustus made adultery a state crime, prosecuted in the same manner as treason, forgery, and poisoning. An extended fantasy about adultery is about as anti-Augustan as a poet could get.

I would suggest, nonetheless, that “husband” remains the most likely translation of Ovid’s vir. As McKeown observes, the Roman dinner party had become a stereotypical venue for adultery (see esp. Horace, Carm. 3.6.25ff). And his argument about husbands and “fleeting opportunities” is not necessarily convincing. In the first place, outrageous sexual activity is not always, or even often, prompted merely by opportunity; it is easy enough to imagine a dissolute married couple flaunting their sexuality purely for the fun of it, especially in Rome. 

More important, McKeown’s argument depends on a relatively “literal” reading of the poem as a whole. If it is a “real” set of instructions given to a “real” girl actually expected to pay attention, then the dinnertime behavior is, at least, very surprising. But if the whole speech is purely in the poet’s head, then the vir’s behavior makes perfect sense: with his beloved and his rival sharing a couch at dinner, our poet’s imagination simply gets the better of him.

Suggestions for reading

Ford, G. B., Jr. “An Analysis of Amores 1.4,” Helikon 6 (1955): 645–652.

Tracy, V. A. “Dramatic Elements in Ovid’s Amores,” Latomus 36 (1977): 496–500.

Davis, J. T. “Amores 1.4.45–48 and the Ovidian Aside,” Hermes 107 (1979): 189–199.

Yardley, J. C. “Four Notes on Ovid, Amores 1,” L’Antiquité classique 49 (1980) 265–268 [line 53].

Stapleton, M. L. Harmful Eloquence: Ovid’s Amores from Antiquity to Shakespeare. Ann Arbor, 1996, 11–15.

Miller, P. A. Subjecting Verses: Latin Love Elegy and the Emergence of the Real. Princeton, 2004, 169–183.


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