The Art of Making Love in Roman Culture, Part 1, What Is “His Task”

Many love scholars have heard of Ovid, the Roman poet of the ancient Roman Empire.He is famous for his series of three books, “Ars Amatoria” (The Art of Love). The books presented the poems with practical advice for men and women on how to make love.

Ars Amatoria presented a fascinating depiction of the hedonistic and sophisticated life of the Roman aristocracy of that time. Ovid’s advice can still be interesting to know for modern people. The books instructed men on how to find and keep a woman. The books also gave women advice on how to win and keep a man’s love.

The translation and publication of Ovid’s books in 1885 presented just a literal English translation in prose, not in its original poetic form. However, the recent translation and publication of 2001 provided their poetic translation.

Let’s take a look at some excerpts from the first book. Its content is mostly about how to find a woman and how to keep her (Kline, 2001, Translation of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria: The Art of Love). Ovid suggested learning how to love by reading his lines. He explains that love is led by art. Then he presents several examples. They are difficult to read without understanding the context of Roman culture at the time. Nevertheless, let’s try:

“Should anyone here not know the art of love,

read this, and learn by reading how to love.

By art the boat’s set gliding, with oar and sail,

by art the chariot’s swift: love’s ruled by art.

Automedon was skilled with Achilles’s chariot reins,

Tiphys in Thessaly was steersman of the Argo,

Venus appointed me as guide to gentle Love:

I’ll be known as Love’s Tiphys, and Automedon.

It’s true Love’s wild, and one who often flouts me:

but he’s a child of tender years, fit to be ruled.

Chiron made the young Achilles perfect at the lyre,

and tempered his wild spirits through peaceful art.

He, who so terrified his enemies and friends,

they say he greatly feared the aged Centaur.

That hand that Hector was destined to know,

was held out, at his master’s orders, to be flogged.

I am Love’s teacher as Chiron was Achilles’s,

both wild boys, both children of a goddess.

Yet the bullock’s neck is bowed beneath the yoke,

and the spirited horse’s teeth worn by the bit.

And Love will yield to me, though with his bow

he wounds my heart, shakes at me his burning torch.

The more he pierces me, the more violently he burns me,

so much the fitter am I to avenge the wounds.

Nor will I falsely say you gave me the art, Apollo,

no voice from a heavenly bird gives me advice,

I never caught sight of Clio or Clio’s sisters

while herding the flocks, Ascra, in your valleys:

Experience prompts this work: listen to the expert poet:

I sing true: Venus, help my venture!

Far away from here, you badges of modesty,

the thin headband, the ankle-covering dress.

I sing of safe love, permissible intrigue,

and there’ll be nothing sinful in my song.

Now the first task for you who come as a raw recruit

is to find out who you might wish to love.

The next task is to make sure that she likes you:

the third, to see to it that the love will last.

That’s my aim, that’s the ground my chariot will cover:

that’s the post my thundering wheels will scrape.”

Kline, A. S. (2001). Translation of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria: The Art of Love.

In another post, I quoted some other excerpts from the next part of the book.