Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.29

Genevieve Liveley, Ovid: Love Songs.   London:  Duckworth (Bristol Classical Press), 2005.  Pp. 141.  ISBN 1-85399-670-X.  £10.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by D. Thomas Benediktson, The University of Tulsa (
Word count: 663 words

This is a useful book. It serves as a general introduction for the non-specialist to Ovid's elegiac poetry, in fact to all of Ovid except the Metamorphoses. Liveley presents a general introduction followed by chapters on the Amores, the Ars Amatoria, the Heroides, the Fasti, and the poetry of exile. A final chapter sees a recent Ovidian revival. Liveley's argument is that elegiac language and themes captured the best in Ovid's talent. Surprisingly, the author thinks the Metamorphoses a disappointment. I have been a reader, scholar, teacher and admirer of Roman elegy for thirty years, but I still find this akin to arguing that Edgar Allan Poe's strength was as a poet rather than as a writer of horrific short stories. It might have been an easier case to argue that the Metamorphoses are also at their best when they are most elegiac, but this is probably an issue reserved for a different book in the "Ancients in Action" series.1 Ovid: Love Songs is sprinkled with references to popular culture, with fine original translations of Ovid and non-technical references to secondary literature, making the book an "easy read" for students. Modern jargon is missing, replaced by important Latin jargon such as servitium amoris and puella, terms which convey important issues for the appreciation of Roman elegy. I might describe Liveley's stance as "moderate feminism." The book would be handy as ancillary reading in an undergraduate Ovid course or even for a graduate student preparing for qualifying exams.

The Introduction covers technical issues like meter, genre, and the life of Ovid, but also offers useful treatments of ancient conceptions of love and the oft-discussed 'insincerity' of ancient elegy. Liveley argues that in the Amores the narrator sees love as a "script." "Corinna" is a general representation of the female. Ovid's stances ("roles," Liveley calls them, keeping the "script" analogy) seem irreducible to standard terminology of gender (e.g. "misogyny") or class (e.g. "slavery"), but are complex and changing. The Ars Amatoria is seen by Liveley emphatically not as an advocacy of bad social behavior, but rather as the transfer of elegiac material into a didactic work. The stance of the pathetic lover has now become the stance of a learned teacher, but presented in the same language and themes as in pure elegy. The Heroides ("his most innovative work," page 59) are seen by Liveley as the same material once again, but now expressed by figures who had been marginalized in the original texts; she compares them to the famous Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead. But now the puella plays the role of the neglected lover, fulfilling the male role from the Amores. The author admits conventional criticisms of the style of the Heroides but sees the work as yet another novel adaptation of elegy to new purpose. To Liveley, even the Fasti is written in elegiac mode, as elegiac themes pervade the mythical events. She sees here a criticism of Augustus, an exercise of "Free Speech" (taking Fasti etymologically) couched as praise. Liveley sees the exile poems as elegiac reworkings of the Amores, e.g. Epistulae Ex Ponto 2.2 as an exclusus amator poem. Ovid's wife is now the puella, and again true Augustan praise is absent.

The book is cleanly and attractively printed, and includes suggestions for reading as well as a Glossary and an index. My only criticism would be possible confusion in chapter 3 in the discussion of Heroides 1.8 (pages 60-63), where the hero of the Odyssey is variously referred to as "Odysseus" and "Ulysses." Some readers of this book might not know that this is one individual; neither name appears in the Glossary or the Index. As I indicated above, the division of Ovid's work into epic (the Metamorphoses) and elegy (everything else) seems to me formal and artificial, but such a division would probably have been acceptable to the ancients. The book's value lies in its championing of Ovid's smaller, traditionally neglected and criticized works as anti-Augustan, elegiac "spin-offs."


1.   Sarah Annes Brown, Ovid: Myth and Metamorphosis (London 2005), which I have not yet read.

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:30:46, Friday, 03 April 2009