"The bad influence"

This is the longest of all the Amores, and occupies the central position in Book 1. It is, therefore, an important poem, and it is intriguingly different. The central speech, by far the longest speech Ovid gives to any female character in the Amores, is delivered by an anti-heroine. Dipsas is an old woman and a lena, a stock character of the comic stage variously translated as “bawd,” “procuress,” “brothel-keeper,” or “madam.” A better translation might be “panderess” (if the word were used these days) or perhaps “enabler,” since Dipsas is not actually an employer of prostitutes; she is an aged dependent and confidante of the poet’s girlfriend, presumably a slave or freedwoman, and perhaps originally the girlfriend’s nurse. She is now trying to control of the girl’s sex life, for entirely mercenary reasons.

Drunken old woman. Roman marble copy of third- or second-century-B.C. original. Glyptothek, Munich. Photo: Matthia Kabel.

One of the least attractive features of Roman literature, and indeed of Roman society, was its selection of elderly women as the objects of scorn and hostility (Richlin 1984 provides a good introduction). Poets could be unsparing in their references to wrinkles, bad hair, and worse, and they associated the physical degeneration of such women with sexual dissolution and drinking (the Romans regarded the two vices as closely associated with each other); particularly vivid is the Roman copy of a famous Hellenistic sculpture of a drunken old lady, now in the Munich sculpture museum.  Ovid’s character draws from this traditional stereotype: the name Dipsas itself suggests drunkenness, and the first thing we learn about her is that the name is completely appropriate. But Dipsas is also dangerous: the name evokes a snake as well as thirst, and the next thing we learn about her is that she is a witch. Some witches in classical literature are young and beautiful, but others, like Dipsas, are old and ugly. 

This is not an easy poem to like. Even if we get past the unpleasant demonization of an elderly female retainer, there remains the problem of subtlety. The poet begins by telling us who Dipsas is: a drunk (lines 3–4), a witch (lines 5–18), and an eloquent corruptor of chaste girls (lines 19–20), and he tells us about overhearing her speech (lines 21–22). Most of the poem is devoted to Dipsas’ speech—we have to imagine that the girl herself never says anything at all—on the subject of rich and generous lovers (lines 23–108). The speech comes to a sudden end when, we are told, Dipsas senses that she has been overheard (line 109). The poem then comes to an end almost as abrupt, with the poet wishing he had beaten Dipsas up (lines 110–112), and praying instead that she should be a homeless, cold and drunken pauper in what remains of her old age. As conclusions go, this is certainly clear and definitive, but it is not, at first sight, very interesting, or attractive.

It is the speech of Dipsas that provides the most obvious moments of interest, and even wit. As should be clear by now, Ovid in the Amores is nothing if not rhetorical, and the most surprising thing about Dipsas is that she is too: nec tamen eloquio lingua nocente caret (line 20). The formal rhetorical qualities of her speech have been well discussed by Nicolas Gross (1995–96), who even provides a formal outline (here given with some modifications):

23–26 exordium. Dipsas begins by telling the girl that she has attracted a rich suitor because she is so beautiful (captatio benevolentiae).

27–28 propositio. The basic argument of the speech is that Dipsas would be less poor if her mistress were rich.

29–34 egressio. Dipsas digresses, on reasons why the girl can and should accept a wealthy lover; the right stars are in alignment and the rich suitor is also handsome. (I suggest that this is part of the propositio.)

35–104 argumentatio. How to get the lover you want, and how to control him.

  • 35–38. While pretending to look down modestly, evaluate the present he’s bringing.
  • 39–40. The Sabine women might have been chaste, but they were primitive.
  • 41–48. Chastity now is obsolete (casta est quam nemo rogavit, line 44), and Roman women only pretend to be chaste. Even Penelope wasn’t really chaste: the contest with Odysseus’ bow was really about male sexual endowments.
  • 49–56. Life is short, and girls in particular have only a limited time to profit (literally) from their good looks. In fact they should maximize profits by taking multiple lovers.
  • 57–68. (Gross regards this section as part of the preceding one). This brings us (ecce, line 57) to your lover the poet: poetry is no good, and aristocratic birth is no good, if the lover is poor (pauper amator, line 57). Even being attractive is no good: nobody gets a night with you for free.
  • 69–86. How to get what you want from your lover: start with small requests, then ask for more once you’ve got him hooked. Play hard to get, but not so much that he loses interest; play lovers off against each other; go on the offensive when you quarrel, and don’t let arguments go on too long. Fake tears can be helpful, and lies are acceptable in love affairs.
  • 87–94. (Gross regards this section as part of the preceding one). Your servants and your relatives are all part of the process: they can advise your lover on what presents to give, and if they are subtle about it they can acquire presents for themselves.
  • 95–102. Also, you can invent reasons for your lover to give you presents: you can pretend it’s your birthday, and you can make him jealous; above all, show him the presents you get from his rival, and if there aren’t any go buy them yourself. And, finally, if he’s given you a lot already, you can switch to asking for loans, and simply never pay him back.
  • 103–104. Finally, you should learn the appropriate rhetorical skills.

105–108 conclusio. The girl should listen to Dipsas, and if she does she will be extremely grateful.

Part of the joke here is that of course we do not expect an aged and dissolute retainer to be an expert in rhetoric. It is the same joke, very roughly, as when Cockney ladies in Monty Python argue about the relative merits of French and German philosophers. But Dipsas’ rhetoric also brings her intriguingly close to the poet himself; it is the poet, after all, who relies on his rhetorical skills. Moreover, the arguments with which Dipsas begins (before she gets too preoccupied with presents) are the typical ones of the poet-lover, the famous carpe diem theme: chastity is overrated in general (lines 39–48), and a girl’s beauty does not last long (lines 49–50). Thus Dipsas sounds more and more like a projection of the poet rather than a “real” old woman. 

This perhaps suggests that we should read the poem not as a story, but as fantasy, rather like the address to an unresponsive doorkeeper in Amores 1.6. Consider the plight of a poet-lover whose girlfriend is unavailable or uninterested. A young man in this situation might, in theory, assess the situation objectively: he might accept that he is not handsome, or interesting, or even much of a poet. But our bumptious and self-confident poet has an explanation that is much more flattering to his own ego. There is Dipsas talking to the girl, corrupting her with all that talk about money and presents. He might be handsome, and interesting, and a great poet, but he is not rich. The mystery of his failure is solved.

Thus the poem can be read as a study in delusion. Such a reading, I believe, gives more point to the long speech of Dipsas: we are appalled not by Dipsas herself (too easy a target), but by a lover who simply can’t face reality. He should be angry at himself, or perhaps simply at life itself, but he transfers that anger (he is all too human) to his invented nemesis (lines 110–115). And such a reading perhaps gives more point to the elaborate description of Dipsas’ magical powers (lines 5–18). The poet ought to be able to get the girl, because he’s wonderful. If he can’t, it’s not just that Dipsas is persuasive. She’s also a witch. 

Suggested reading

Gross, N. “Ovid Amores 1.8: Whose Amatory Rhetoric?” Classical World 89 (1995–96): 197–206.

Meyers, K. S. “The Poet and the Procuress: The Lena in Latin Love Elegy,” Journal of Roman Studies 86 (1996): 1–21.

Richlin, A. “Invective Against Women in Roman Satire,” Arethusa 17 (1984): 67–80.

Photo:Drunken old woman. Roman marble copy of third- or second-century B.C. original. Glyptothek, Munich. Photo Matthias Kabel.