Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.08.35

Roy K. Gibson, Excess and Restraint. Propertius, Horace, & Ovid's Ars Amatoria. BICS, Suppl. 89.   London:  Institute of Classical Studies, 2007.  Pp. ix, 169.  ISBN 978-1-905670-02-4.  £30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Beert Verstraete, Acadia University (
Word count: 1642 words

It will come as a surprise to many who have read Ovid's Ars Amatoria only cursorily--even if, unlike early twentieth century Anglophone critics, they are not "shocked and scandalised" by its "material and moral excesses" (Gibson, 1)--that a good case can be made that Ovid (or more precisely, one might say, his poetic persona as praeceptor amoris) recommends in it stratagems of moderation and self-restraint. This, essentially, is the provocative but carefully argued thesis of Professor Gibson's (hence referred to as G.) monograph, which has grown out of his earlier commentary on book 3 of the Ars. At the beginning of his "Introduction", G. documents the Ars Amatoria's well-known reputation for its immorality and its flouting of traditional Roman mores, amusingly quoting from the advertisement on the back cover of a popular 1959 translation of the poem: "Ovid's Art of Love has been called, in the words of the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, 'perhaps the most immoral book ever written by a man of genius.'" (1) While such judgments are no longer prevalent, many critics miss or underestimate "the emphasis of the Ars Amatoria on moderation and restraint." (3) "Ovid's version of moderation is often playful and ultimately subversive; but his insistence upon it is clear." (3) Here Ovid breaks with earlier Roman elegy--especially Propertian elegy--which professes and celebrates the disregard of limits in the life of amor, but he shows, instead, an affinity with the ethos of the Mean and the Middle Way which pervades the poetry of Horace--and which, in turn, draws on the legacy of Aristotle's philosophy of ethics in the seminal Nicomachean Ethics.

In Chapter 1, "The Middle and the Extremes," G. explores these links, while also offering sample close readings of texts by Horace, Propertius, and Ovid which trace "their various intersecting engagements with issues of sexual (and poetic) moderation and extremism." (10) A close reading of key passages of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics establishes that "[m]aking the ethical mean 'relative to us' introduces great flexibility also in Aristotle's scheme"--a flexibility which provided "excellent material for satirists, elegists, and others not much interested in elucidating moral concepts in a 'scientific' way." (41) In Ovid above all, as G. stresses at the end of this chapter, "the concept is vulnerable to usurpation, even to reductio ad absurdum." (41) Close readings of passages in Horace, Propertius, and Ovid (in particular, Satires 1.2, Propertius 2.23, and Ars 3. 577-610) show the engagement of each of these poets with the notion of the Middle Way. In Horace, whose position on sexuality is basically Epicurean (or rather, neo-Epicurean, I would say, thanks especially to his satire's considerable and explicit intertextuality with Philodemus), the right Mean lies between adultery ("dangerous, infatuated, status-obsessed, deficient in pleasure," 25, as G. summarizes Horace's strictures) and consorting with the cheapest of prostitutes from "a stinking brothel." (21) "Propertius engages with Horace's second satire to make clear his own commitment to 'extremities', but in the Ars Amatoria Ovid exploits the same poem rather differently, albeit no less wittily and subversively." (34) He implicitly rejects Horace's Mean consisting in "the satisfaction of one's desires on a casual basis" (34) and "accordingly sets himself the task of finding a middle course between frustrated infatuation and casual sex." (34)

Chapter 2 elaborates on what has been said in the preceding chapter about Propertius' rejection of limit and moderation in his amor of Cynthia. However, Propertius (or we might say more precisely, his persona) also displays "a remarkable tendency to espouse apparently traditional moral values," and "the elegist appears internally at odds with himself through swinging between libertine and conservative tendencies, which are so little reconciled as to appear opposed 'extremes' of behaviour." (43). This inconsistency is thrown into bold relief by the contrast in moral tone between Propertius 2.15 and 2.16, and it is untypical of Greco-Roman love-poetry as a whole. (I would note that we also find it, although differently thematized and pitched, in Tibullus.) G. offers much good discussion of Propertius' intertextuality with the ethics of consistency in Greek and Greek literature (e.g., Horace, Satires 2.7). Near the end of this chapter, G. rejects the attempts by critics "to iron out contradictions and discrepancies in the elegist" (67) either "by appeal to the 'neutralizing' context of love poetry" (67-68)--all such poetry, by generic convention, excluding any seriously meant political or moral discussion--or "by reference to the poet's extra-textual biography or by appeal to his career as a poet." (68) However, I would submit that, thanks to the vivid glimpses Propertius gives us into his Umbrian origins and the bloody events of the Perusine War of his childhood--and we have no reason to doubt his basic veracity here--some consideration of how these might have impacted on Propertius' perception of himself as an Augustan poet is not out of order. Here I am less agnostic than G., who quotes approvingly Paul Allen Miller's postmodernist pronouncement that critics "'must accept contradiction itself as the fullest instantiation of the Propertian subject'" (68)

The third and longest chapter, "Ovid's Ars Amatoria and the New Middle Way," takes us into the heart of G.'s monograph. Much of the discussion is focused on book three of the Ars, which, addressed as it is to women, is the most audacious of the three books. Once more, G. makes good heuristic use of intertextuality, interfacing the Ars not only with Horace's Odes, Propertius, Ovid's Amores, but also with Hesiod's Works and Days and Cicero's De Officiis, as he charts the Ovid's new Middle Way. In its confrontation of Tragedy and Elegy, in which Ovid's chooses for the latter, Amores 3.1 shows the poet's earlier espousal of extremism in the life of amor, although differently from Propertius. However, "this implicit, but fundamental binary model is rejected in the template of the Ars Amatoria." (77) Ovid's new Way comprises a wide range of behavior and habit. Thus, "[s]tyles of bearing and gait are a significant and much discussed topic in the ancient world" (77), and here Ovid, as in other aspects of personal appearance and deportment, recommends "cultus" and "munditia" (the latter linked with the Horatian virtue of mediocritas) as constituting the proper Mean and as the perfect embodiment of the norm of "decorum." For women, this will "avoid the stereotypical dowdiness of the matron, and the over-ornamentation of the whore," (87) while, for men, it will eschew rusticitas, on the one extreme, and mollitia, on the other.

Pp. 105-112 of Chapter 3 deal with books one and two of the Ars, which are addressed to men. Not surprisingly, Ovid warns his male readers against immoderate drinking and against brawling. More sophisticatedly, he also offers detailed advice on the right styles of speech and letter writing to be employed in the courting of women. Later on, in the third book, according to G.'s heuristics of intertextuality here, Ovid harks back to Cicero De Officiis 1.132 in order to formulate his model of an elegant conversational style; this, falling between the extremes of the highly rhetorical and the plain unadorned and "being the same for both sexes, now emerges as a 'mean.'" (108) Thus, everywhere in the demimonde of the Ars, Ovid "creates a world...characterised by a restrained and moderate cultus." (114) G. leaves with the reader the question "[w]hether the result is a genuinely novel ethic of the 'middle way' for women, or largely a politically subversive refusal to accept Augustan moral categories."(114)

"The language of decorum, whether or not explicitly associated with the mean' is in fact generally important in the Ars Amatoria." (118) Thus, in chapter 4, under the heading of "Decorum" (the title of this chapter) G. pursues further the major points made in the previous chapter, and explores the implications of decorum as an aesthethic, behavioral, and even ethical norm, for both men and women. Particularly attractive for Ovid is "decorum's potential for eroticisation." (120). Once more, G. draws admirably on the intertextuality of the Ars, in particular with Cicero's De Officiis and Horace's Epistles, underlining among others, "[t]he importance of ethical decorum in Horace's collection and its virtual absence from Propertius and Tibullus." (130) G. introduces Horace's Ars Poetica and Ovid's Remedia Amoris in order to illustrate the intermeshing of the aesthetic and the ethical aspects of decorum which is so characteristic of the Ars. G. rightly summarizes this chapter: "By contrast [to Propertius], in the Ars Amatoria Ovid, with typical ingenuity and on his own terms, manages to unite personal decorum and aesthetic decorum." (147)

Importantly, in his brief "Epilogue," G. places the Ars Amatoria in the classical-literary tradition of the West: "To discover a vigorous afterlife for the erotic middle way, we must turn our gaze away from Latin poetry, and towards the literature of the early modern period. The same texts so often cited throughout this work--Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Cicero's De Officiis, the poetry of Horace--formed a common basis for elite education and culture from the Elizabethan period to the Restoration." (149) I trust that my very positive, indeed enthusiastic reception of this study of the Ars is clear to the reader. As I have already noted more than once, G.'s drawing out of the heuristic possibilities of intertextuality is exemplary. I have derived from his monograph a more finely tuned understanding and deepened appreciation of the (for the Greco-Roman world, at any rate) unique sophistication of the Ars Amatoria. It is a pity that G. has not provided the Latin and Greek passages with translations, as is the common practice now of North American classicists who wish to reach a readership beyond that of scholars well versed in the classical languages, for this monograph (highly philological and specialized though it may appear on first impression) has a great deal to offer also to the many non-classicists who must read the Ars in translation. I hope that G.'s literary-critical insights will find their way to them.

Read Latest
Index for 2007
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:32:09, Friday, 03 April 2009