"Love and war"

This is an easy poem to like. Part of the appeal is that, for once, we can place it within a specific literary tradition without the aid of commentaries. We all know that “all is fair in love and war,” and poets have understood that young men in war and young men in love have much in common (see above all Henry Reed’s Lessons of the War). Part of the appeal, too, is that the poem is so self-consciously rhetorical. But the poem also presents problems of coherence. I will argue that this, too, is part of the appeal: we have a ponderous rhetorical discussion of something that turns out to be very physical and basic.

Greek and Latin poets often compared lovers and soldiers. Often, too, the two professions are regarded as polar opposites: on the comic stage the hapless young lover is regularly confronted with the miles gloriosus, and a life of love is stereotypically one of laziness, contrasted with the exertions of a military career. The paradoxical claim that lovers are like soldiers is usually made rather delicately, as in Horace’s famous Ode 3.26 (vixi puellis nuper idoneus, et militavi non sine gloria). But Ovid is taking the paradox and running it into the ground: we are, I think, supposed to be irritated by his obsession with this one point.

Ovid’s poetry, as we have observed more than once already, often reflects the rhetorical techniques that were the foundation of a Roman literary education. In this poem he seems to be going out of his way to put his rhetorical skills on display, almost as though that were the real point. The poet speaks directly, in the vocative, to an unknown “Atticus” (line 2), serving notice that he now needs to be persuasive. The address to Atticus also invites us to wonder, at least in the backs of our minds, what it is the two men have been talking about.

The first thirty lines present almost a caricature of a formal speech in defense of a particular proposition: militat omnis amans. The phrase is repeated word for word, to underscore that it is a proposition (lines 1–2). There follows a long list of comparisons, which are clever but unconvincing; it is not actually true, after all, that every lover is a soldier, or even very similar (see Murgatroyd 1999). Lovers and soldiers are alike, supposedly, in eight different ways: they’re young men (lines 3–6), they keep watch at night (lines 7–8), they travel (lines 9–14), they go on scouting expeditions (lines 15–18), they conduct sieges (lines 19–20), they conduct night maneuvers (lines 21–26), they evade guards (lines 27–28), and they have both successes and failures (lines 29–30). The poet uses a variety of verbal formulations to maintain our interest, but also to show us just how clever he can be. The high point of his rhetorical creativity is with the sudden direct address (apostrophe) to, of all things, the horses of Rhesus captured in the Iliad (lines 24–25). It is soon followed by what we might regard as a conspicuous rhetorical failure, when the poet, offering the last of his eight arguments, stumbles into a sexual double entendre (lines 29–30).

The list of comparisons is followed by a tentative conclusion (ergo, line 31): people should not say that love is lazy, because it’s not. This is a dramatically different claim from the one we thought we were dealing with, and it forces us to re-evaluate what has been going on. Our poet has been comparing soldiers and lovers only to support a more general proposition about lovers being lazy. He will return to this issue at the end of the poem.

A more difficult problem is what comes next, a sudden shift to Homer: Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, and Mars all had love interests (lines 33–40). The logic is simply not obvious, and part of the explanation may be that, as we have seen, our poet is conspicuously bad at rhetoric. But even if this is right, we would like to understand better than we do what is going on in our poet’s head.

One problem is that it is not clear what the Homeric examples are supposed to illustrate. McKeown takes the discussion of Homer as following directly from the claim that lovers are not lazy. But, as he says (in his commentary, ad loc.), “To point out that great warriors have been lovers is of only limited relevance to the thesis that lovers are active.” It seems preferable, therefore, to take the discussion of Homer as an amplification of the central proposition about lovers and soldiers. There is still a problem: the fact that Homeric warriors were also lovers does not prove that lovers are also warriors (Murgatroyd 1999). But our speaker has spent most of his poem desperately trying to make the case that lovers are soldiers; that he should resort with climactic desperation to a logical fallacy seems to me to make a certain psychological and comic sense. Groucho Marx, examining a patient in Day at the Races, famously says “Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.”

Part of the solution, too, may reside in a feature of Roman rhetorical structure, the refutatio (also called confutatio). Orators, after laying out their main arguments, sometimes mention an objection: “But you will say, I suppose, that my client has a long criminal record, and to that I say....” But the objection is often unstated: the audience is primed to expect an objection, usually about four-fifths of the way through the speech, and is thus prepared for an abrupt change in direction: “My client’s criminal record is irrelevant, because ....” It is easiest to spot a refutatio in an actual speech, but similar shifts of direction occur quite often in other prose works, and in some poetry. Thus in Amores 1.9 our poet has for 30 lines been insisting to “Atticus” that lovers are like soldiers. Once we see that the discussion of Homeric warriors is a refutatio, we can guess at Atticus’ objection: “Don’t be silly; soldiers and lovers are totally different,” or, perhaps “So, give me some examples.”

The last six lines change everything. The argument that has been unfolding since line 1 is “Lovers are soldiers, Atticus; so they’re not lazy.” But this, we now learn, has been a response to a personal attack: “I used to be lazy, but now I’m not, because I fell in love. Love is an excellent remedy for laziness.” The poem is not really about lovers and soldiers at all; it’s about the poet himself (ever self-absorbed), and about being in love.

Even more fundamentally, the poem is about energy; lovers need it, others don’t. And it is this, perhaps, that provides the point at the end of the poem. The ‘lover as soldier’ theme returns one last time. His girl’s beauty made him enlist in her service (line 44). In particular, he is now an energetic participant in the “wars” that happen at night (nocturnaque bella gerentem, line 45). Sex emerged as a preoccupation at the end of his long list of comparisons (lines 29–30), and here too what really interests our poet are his night moves.

Suggested reading

Murgatroyd, P. "The argumentation in Ovid Amores 1.9," Mnemosyne 52.5 (1999): 569–572.