"Violence and Love"

This poem, like Amores 1.5, plays with a topic about which it is hard for modern readers to be playful, physical abuse. The poet has used violence on his girlfriend, and now expresses his deep remorse. But scholars are divided on the extent to which that remorse is supposed to be sincere. No one doubts that there is some element of playfulness here, and for many readers that playfulness remains problematic. But some scholars have read the poem as expressing an underlying anxiety: the poet has committed assault, and tries to cover up his shame and embarassment with a pathetic attempt at humor.

The question of what we do with our modern sensibilities about subjects like sexual violence is complicated, and one that readers will have to answer for themselves. Here I will focus on a more preliminary question: what exactly has the poet done? What, in other words, is he apologizing so abjectly for? It is one thing if he has caused real physical harm, and then apologizes and tries to minimize the offense. It is quite another if the pain was trivial, and accidental. At the risk of reading the poem too literally, I believe we should focus on the fact that the poet apologizes not for a serious physical assault on his girlfriend, but for messing up her hair (lines 11 and 49), even if he also scratched her face in the process (lines 40 and 50).

The first eleven lines provide an obvious exploration of Latin sarcasm: the poet describes his offense in dramatic terms: he was insane (lines 2–4), and he committed an offense on a par with assaulting his parents or the gods (lines 5–6). This put him on a par with Ajax in his murderous insanity, and Orestes pursued by the Furies (lines 7–10). But all because he messed up a hairdo (digestos ... capillos, line 11). While it is possible that the poet is downplaying a real assault by calling it a trivial one, it is surely more likely that he is humorously inflating the importance of something that, if it was an assault at all, was of a very different kind. In Roman poetry, as we have already seen, the language of sex includes the language of violence.

The messy hair, says the poet, was attractive (line 12). He then elaborates, this time with three learned exempla: Atalanta and Ariadne (neither of whom is actually named), and Cassandra, who were all famous for their disordered hair (lines 13–18). The reasons were different: Atalanta lived in the wild, Ariadne had messy hair at the moment that Theseus abandoned her, and Cassandra was possessed. But all three women were also sex objects: Milanion won Atalanta in the famous footrace, Ariadne was in disarray because she had been asleep with Theseus on Naxos, and Cassandra ended up as the concubine of Agamemnon. We saw in Amores 1.5 (line 9) that Corinna came to bed with her hair down, and it seems clear that the poet is thinking of that kind of intimacy here. This could be a mere passing thought. But it seems more likely that it was a desire for intimacy that prompted him to touch her hair in the first place, and that they weren’t fighting at all. The poet had made a move, not an attack.

If so, the exaggerated remorse makes much more sense: there is an obvious parallelism between seduction and assault, but a seducer, if successful, sees the parallel as rhetorical rather than real. The poet continues with even deeper expressions of remorse: other people would call him names, and she reproached him with silent tears (lines 19–22). The poet cannot forgive himself for his offense: he’d rather lose his arms, what he did was worse than assaulting a Roman citizen, and worse even than sacrilege (lines 23–34). Indeed the assault was a kind of sacrilege, since the girl herself is a goddess (line 32). The remorse is described in terms that suggest serious violence, and it is easy to forget that this all started because of a hairdo.

The sarcasm goes up yet another notch as the poet sarcastically imagines himself as a triumphator, proudly celebrating this “assault” (lines 35–40). The girl was his prisoner, complete with the dishevelled hair of a captive (line 39), and, we now learn, with marks of some kind on her face (laesae genae, line 40). If this is anything approaching the bruising of a battered woman, the poet’s sarcasm here is simply grotesque. But we soon learn that what caused the marks (or mark) was only a fingernail (ingenuas ungue notare genas, line 50; see line 64). And the marks (or mark) was a byproduct of the messing up of the hair, not, apparently, an end in itself. Is the joke, then, that the girl is making a fuss about, literally, a mere scratch? This is not an easy conclusion, perhaps; even a scratch inflicted by an ardent lover taking what he wants is not a ready subject for humor. But, boorish or not, this does seem to be what Ovid is doing. And boorishness is easier to accept than brutality.

What follows is perhaps the most difficult and disturbing section of a difficult and disturbing poem, as the poet goes on to describe forms of assault that would have been “better” (lines 41–50). The first alternative he thinks of is love-bites, confirming that it is sex rather than fighting that is uppermost in his mind (lines 41–42). But talk of lovemaking then turns, apparently, into talk about fighting: if he was going to be angry, there were better alternatives; for example, he could simply have yelled at her, and threatened her (lines 43–46). But his second possibility reveals that they were not really fighting at all: he could also, he says, have taken off her top (lines 47–48). What he wanted, it turns out, was sex, and he could have threatened her, or he could have stripped her to the waist.  What he did was mess with her hair, which was his big mistake.

The poet follows with even more abject apology: he paints a touching picture of a dazed and weeping victim, and invites her to take her revenge (lines 51–66). She should scratch him back, and go for his eyes as well as his hair (lines 65–66). Is this a final attempt to get what he had wanted all along? 

It is striking that in the last couplet the poet begs his victim to fix her hair: doing so will remove all traces of his crime (lines 67–68). Again, we are faced with a choice: either he is spectacularly heartless, ignoring entirely that scratched face, or his offense was indeed a trivial one. We might also wonder when the hair was to be fixed: immediately, or after that final encounter?

Suggested reading

Greene, Ellen. “Travesties of Love: Violence and Voyeurism in Ovid Amores 1.7,” Classical World 92 (1999): 409–418.