Amores 1.2 essay

“Conquered by Cupid.”

It is not clear whether we are to read each poem in Amores 1 as building directly on the poem that precedes it. There can be little doubt that Roman poets constructed their poetry books with care, and probably assumed that the poems would be read, often, one after the other. But it does not follow from this that the book as a whole was supposed to provide a consistent storyline, with the poet telling us more and more about his (no doubt fictional) private life.

Nonetheless it seems natural at least to try to read the poems as providing a more or less coherent story, and in the discussions that follow I will assume that we are supposed to read each poem in order, with each one adding something to our picture of the poet and his love life. Amores 1.2 certainly picks up and develops one aspect of the poem that precedes it—the idea of the lover as Cupid’s victim. We may have ended Amores 1.1 with the introduction of the poet’s new love interest as muse, but we learn no more about her now. Instead, the poet offers us a display of the self-absorption that sometimes seems all too typical of young lovers, especially perhaps if they are also poets.

Once he realizes the truth, he has to decide whether or not to resist. He concludes, quickly enough, that resistance is generally a mistake (line 9–10), and supports this proposition with another rhetorician’s list of exempla (compare Amores 1.1.5–16): fire, cattle, and horses, all have easier lives if they take what comes to them (lines 11–16). And the poet, too, has to submit to the domination of a master, in this case Cupid: it will be easier for him if he accepts his new position as a slave (servitium) to Amor (lines 17–18).The first eight lines of the poem connect it more or less directly with Amores 1.1. The poet has been unable to sleep, and at first does not know why; it might be love, but, he says, surely he would have noticed (lines 5–6). This suggests to some readers that the poem is not connected directly to Amores 1.1, in which we were told of Cupid’s arrow and its consequence; Ovid, we might think, shouldn’t be so confused. But we need not be so literal, and indeed it makes little sense to take Cupid’s arrow literally. People who can’t sleep do not necessarily think all that clearly, and we can forgive our poet a little confusion about what his problem is. At any rate he figures it out, or perhaps remembers (sic erit, line 7): it’s the arrow(s), it’s Cupid/Amor, and it’s the poet’s captive heart (lines 7–8).

Slavery for the Romans was always associated with conquest, and the poet’s slavery is quickly recast as military surrender to Cupid (lines 19–22). This sets up the astonishing image that occupies about half the poem: the triumphal procession of Cupid (lines 23–49), leading as his captives young men and women in love (line 27), not least the poet himself (29–30).

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is worth noting how wonderfully funny this is. The Romans took their triumphs very seriously; the triumph was the peak of any politician’s career, and it enacted the ruthless militarism of Rome for all the city to see; the captives, after all, were led up the Capitoline to be executed.  And this most serious of Roman institutions is invoked by the poet to express the potentially happy, and certainly private, thought that Cupid has won the day: the poet has fallen in love. It is hard to think of a useful parallel for this outrageous juxtaposition: perhaps a heartbroken lover in 1945 comparing his or her emotions to Dresden or Hiroshima. Ovid’s image, of course is more light-hearted than this parallel might suggest, for the centerpiece of his image is both charming and silly: the triumphator, in this poem, is no battle-hardened Roman general, but a beautiful, and naked, boy-god of love (lines 38–42). But we should not forget the extraordinary juxtaposition of a potentially difficult love-affair, on the one hand, and, on the other, the abject physical subjugation at the heart of a Roman triumph.

The last four lines contain the poet’s plea for mercy: although he could appropriately be part of Cupid’s triumph, he’s not really worth the effort (49–50); Cupid should emulate his relative Augustus (the Julii were supposedly descended from Venus), and should protect his victim, not punish him. 

Is this a satisfying way to end? Augustus did pride himself on his clemency, and even if we ignore the fact that his enemies told stories about his ruthlessness it is surprising, and perhaps even jarring, for reality to intrude so suddenly after the long fantasy of Cupid’s triumph. 

But the reference to Augustus perhaps makes more sense if we see it as something we’ve been waiting for since the beginning of Amores 1.1. The poet had started out trying to write patriotic poetry—poetry reminiscent of Vergil’s great epic—but was ambushed by Cupid and sidetracked to love and elegy. Amores 1.2 offers a kind of substitute for that patriotic poetry: we get an account of a triumph, but its outrageousness only raises more questions about the poet’s patriotism, or loyalty to the regime. Those questions, in turn, prepare us for the final couplet: Augustus, it turns out, matters after all.

Suggested Reading

Athanassaki, Lucia. “The Triumph of Love and Elegy in Ovid’s Amores 1, 2,” Materiali e discussioni per l’analisi dei testi classici 28 (1992): 125–141.

Moles, J. “The Dramatic Coherence of Ovid, Amores 1.1 and 1.2,” Classical Quarterly 41 (1991): 551–554.

Image:  "Cupid and Pan," detail. Attributed to Federico Zuccaro (around 1600). J. Paul Getty Museum 72.PA.6. Photo: Randy Robertson