Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.21

Roy K. Gibson (ed.), Ovid, Ars Amatoria Book 3. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 40.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. x, 446.  ISBN 0-521-81370-0.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Barbara Weiden Boyd, Bowdoin College (
Word count: 1816 words

[The author of this review regrets the lateness of its completion.]

The explosion of the Ovid industry over the past 20 years or so has made every Latinist aware of the correlation between the texts we read (teach, write about) and trends not only in publication but also in taste. The sometimes perverse and always polymorphous Ovid, formerly considered by many to be the one Augustan poet born too late to be great, has proven himself (i.e., the forms and contents of his work) to be remarkably well suited to the contemporary critical regime. As a result, a perceived need has emerged for scholarly and teaching tools aimed at a wide variety of audiences with the purpose of making Ovid accessible to all who want to read him, and has resulted in the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy, as editions and studies the lack of which we might not have felt in the early 80s or before now command canonical status.

The appearance of Roy Gibson's commentary on Ars amatoria 3 (hereafter, A3) in the Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries series marks this change in status: previous volumes in this series have included commentaries on both the major works of authors less valued, or perceived as less influential, or simply less well understood, in earlier eras (e.g., the Callimachean hymns, Aratus, Bion) and the marginalized and/or fragmentary writings of writers long at the center of the canon, either because of other works, or by repute, or both (e.g., Cicero, Tacitus, Posidonius, Euripides, Antiphon). It strikes me therefore as both odd and appropriate that a work like A3, with its comparatively secure textual transmission and familiar place among the early amatory works of Ovid, should merit or even demand the thorough study given it here by G. The reader who consults this commentary will find something new and valuable on virtually every page, even as the overall impression is of an old reliable edition of a familiar work, as opposed to something that will, or could, make one see Ovid and/or the Ars in a new light. In this regard as in others, G.'s most obvious debt is to his explicit role model, James McKeown, whose influence is recorded not only in G.'s Acknowledgements (ix) but indeed throughout the notes (see in particular the attractive note on 322). Like McKeown's own commentary on the Amores (in four volumes, three already published: Liverpool/Leeds, 1987- ), this is a rich treasury of parallels, influences, analyses of diction and style, identifications of ambiguities, discussions of dating, and so on; G.'s occasional glances at the bigger picture, so to speak, are first and foremost utilitarian, and never close off the possibility of alternative approaches to A3. Perhaps G.'s greatest insight is the degree to which balance and moderation characterize not only the advice the Ovidian praeceptor (ostensibly) offers to his female audience, but also the style in which Ovid writes; furthermore, through a kind of contagious sympathy, the same balance and moderation have left their mark on G.'s commentary.

This edition consists of the usual components. First is a generous Introduction, including discussions of A3's structure, audience, and place in the didactic, technical, and erotodidactic traditions; the categories of women to whom this book is at least allegedly addressed and for whom it is allegedly written, with a detailed examination of their social status based on the latest scholarship concerning Roman women's legal and literary circumstances; and a consideration of the book's dating relative to the Amores (first and second editions) and the Remedia. The text of A3 follows -- essentially Kenney's text and apparatus (in the corrected second edition [1995] of the OCT), with a dozen and a half variations, each of which is duly addressed in the notes. Almost the entire balance of the book is devoted to the commentary, to which are appended an extensive bibliography and several indices (Latin and Greek words discussed; Passages discussed; Names).

Because of the accumulation of detail natural to a scholarly commentary, I shall not attempt to discuss every observation which I find noteworthy for some reason or which I wish to supplement. Rather, I propose to set out here a few of what appear to be the central themes that have guided G.'s practice in the composition of his commentary on A3 and to supplement this list with a few suggestions. It is in the nature of such reviews to attempt to find the Achilles' heel that has prevented a scholar from bringing to perfection the task he has set for himself; while it would be possible, were I so inclined, to catalogue the comments I looked for in vain, it may well be wondered what place excitement has among the criteria for evaluating such a scholarly tool. G.'s balanced approach, meanwhile, ensures that this commentary will prove of value to generations of Ovid scholars and students.

As I have already noted, the frequent note of moderation struck by the Ovidian praeceptor in his advice to his female readers is a recurring concern of G., and is indicative of his sensitive grasp of Ovid's style as well as his substance: "Perhaps Ovid's general lexical restraint throughout the book is related to his explicit and sustained focus on the subject of moderation ..." (12). Of course, G. recognizes that restraint and control complement -- indeed, are inherent in -- the didactic character of the Ars; his observation of the ideological consequences of such moderation results in what is nonetheless a striking, and quite appealing, departure from the usual tendency to seek out and interpret the conflict between Augustan and anti-Augustan perspectives and subject-matter in Ovid as a vehicle for self-perpetuating deconstruction. Rather, by blurring the boundaries between meretrix and matrona, G.'s Ovid is able to "contravene ... the spirit of moral reform expressed in the lex Iulia, which sought to polarise the two worlds, and to give honour and status to one and publicly degrade and humiliate the other" (34).

Closely associated with moderation is the theme of decorum, which G. pursues in a variety of ways. Following the example set by several earlier studies of the Ars, especially that of M. Labate (L'arte di farsi amare [Pisa, 1984]; see 22 n.57), G. points repeatedly to the influence of Cicero's De officiis on Ovid's detailed advice about decorum and notes how Ovid transforms the serious formation of the individual fit for society into a subject of frivolous elaboration in an amatory context. G.'s interest in decorum also manifests itself in his frequent comments on the levels of diction invoked by Ovid; particularly helpful is his attention to the lexicon of the Procris and Cephalus exemplum (see nn. on 3.683-746). Following in the tradition of S. Hinds (The Metamorphosis of Persephone [Cambridge, 1987]), G. explores the relationship between diction and genre in Ovid's two versions of this myth; but refreshingly, G. rejects a purely generic analysis in favor of an approach that blends due attention to genre with the more open-ended aims and methods of narrative analysis (see especially his introduction to the exemplum, 359-60, and the notes on the passage passim).

I have already touched on G.'s thoughtful handling of ideological issues involving Ovid's female addressees. His approach to a second cluster of politically-charged motifs in A3 again demonstrates restraint, viz., in his discussion of Ovid's famous rejection of the good old days (prisca iuvent alios ..., 3.121-22) and the consequent "tension between ancient and modern Rome" (n. on 123ff.) in the Ars. G. recognizes that, on one level, Ovid's attitude to the long-gone golden age is a response to the literary visions of his Augustan predecessors, first and foremost Virgil; but he moves out from this level of analysis to embrace Ovid's own complex understanding of the potential contradictions -- political as well as artistic -- inherent in his own poetics. G. draws attention subtly but repeatedly to Ovid's powerful self-awareness about the interplay of life and art, of cosmetics and poetics; for all his stylistic and thematic restraint, then, G.'s Ovid reveals one enduring and personal passion in A3: his own poetic autobiography (cf. especially G.'s nn. on 597 and 649, concerning the relationship of the Amores to the Ars).

I turn now to a brief list of desideranda. No catalogue of influences and allusions, however comprehensive, can be definitive; yet the Virgilian intertexts of the Ars -- vis à vis didactic first of all, but encompassing nothing short of the vision of an age -- are (with a few exceptions, like the passage on the golden age noted above) remarkably inconspicuous. The prominent imagery which opens A3, where we encounter a hypothetical male reader wondering why the Ovidian praeceptor now wishes to instill poison in the snake and let the she-wolf loose in the sheep-pen, entails a dense juxtaposition of Virgilian ideas: not only the unavoidable reminder of the poisonous snakes and predatory wolves that signify the beginning of the age of Jupiter at Geo. 1.129-30 (duly noted by G. ad loc.), but also the wolf simile at Aen. 9.59-64, used by Virgil to characterize Turnus' animal urge to attack the Trojan camp, but now transformed by gender reversal. Ovid's imaginary call to arms, emphasized by the clever echo of viri (3.6) in virus (3.7), announces a challenge to 'masculine' epic by 'feminine' elegy -- a turning of the usual tables confirmed shortly thereafter by the redefinition of Virtus as female (ipsa quoque et cultu est et nomine femina Virtus, 3.23).

Omissions too can be important. At 3.329-48, Ovid offers a catalogue of love poets among whose immortal works he hopes his will be found; G. discusses extensively the puzzling (to some readers, at least) inclusion of Virgil and Varro of Atax on this list, but does not comment on the equally puzzling absence of Catullus, primus inter amantes: cf. Am. 3.15.7.

Finally, I offer a modest suggestion to supplement G.'s careful observations on the structure of A3 (3-6). The couplet 99-100 is seen by G. as an announcement of poetic progress: the poet will begin his voyage in port, driven by a gentle wind; only later will dangerous blasts carry him out to sea. To describe the breeze under whose influence he hopes to launch his instructions, Ovid uses the phrase aura leuis; he thus anticipates and inverts the emotional high-point of the book, the story of Cephalus and Procris and the ambiguous role of aura therein: exemplum uobis non leue Procris erit, 3.686.

As is usual with volumes in this series, this book has been beautifully edited. I noted only a handful of typos and other errors: 16 'expostion' for 'exposition'; 150 'implict' for 'implicit'; 175 an apostrophe has become a comma in the Italian quotation; 199 'refering' for 'referring'; 267 'assignation' for 'assignment'. In the n. on 317, G. misidentifies the Propertian party-girl Teia (4.8.31) as Tarpeia. Greek quotations exhibit occasional extra spaces, but readability is not affected.

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