BMCR 2001.04.12

Ovids Amores. Gedichtfolge und Handlungsablauf

, Ovids Amores : Gedichtfolge und Handlungsablauf. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 128. Stuttgart-Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1999. 295 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3519076772 DM 130.00.

With this revised version of her 1998 Frankfurt dissertation, Barbara Weinlich (henceforth W.) intends to provide a new and coherent reading of Ovid’s Amores. In a brief introduction, she states her project in general terms: programmatic elegies will be considered as “milestones” within a series of poems in “linear development” organized according to a “dramatic” principle (p. 12). In treating every single poem, W. works on the assumption that the dramatic sequence of elegies traces a chronologically developed love story, and that the programmatic or metapoetic elegies are to be distinguished from the dramatic elegies by a change in the speaker’s persona. A chapter on methods (pp. 13-22) discusses Ovid’s place in the tradition of elegy, the question of persona, style and intention, and the prefatory epigram. After this W. gives a running paraphrase of the Amores, punctuated by remarks on structure at the end of each book. She concludes her study with a summary of results. Since the outline of the book makes it easy to find anything W. has to say about any given line of the Amores, there are no indices. This, as always, remains regrettable: an index of topics would have been helpful (such as militia and servitium amoris, the poetic personae, and the usage of terms like vates and poeta) as well as an index of quotations (even though W. adduces almost all of her parallels from Propertius and Tibullus). The natural audience for a book like this will be those interested in elegy, Ovid, and in the poetics of the Gedichtbuch. However, W.’s methods of criticism and competence as a Latinist may prove disappointing to such readers.

The idea of reading the Amores as if they told a story obviously merits consideration. According to W., the speaker begins the love affair from a position of power. He is a brilliant orator who can easily manipulate his lover’s feelings. W. observes, for example, that the protagonist in 2.5 makes a show of his despair at having been betrayed in order to impose his will on Corinna the more effectively. This eloquence, however, together with the protagonist’s sexual prowess, drives him to arrogance and heartlessness in the course of book 2, so that after his harsh criticism of Corinna’s abortion (2.13) he must resort to new courtship, evidently because Corinna has turned away from him. In this situation the miles amoris loses his independence, until by the end of book 3 he reaches a state of even more despondent serfdom than that of Tibullus and Propertius. In renouncing elements of irony and parody in the self-characterization of the Ovidian lover, this picture appears to be the main creative novelty in W.’s book. It emerges from a reading of the Amores that is a least fifty percent paraphrase. Shortened considerably, it could have been turned into an article capable of counter-balancing Holzberg’s (still superior) interpretation of the Liebesroman embodied in the Amores.

As for the programmatic elegies, W. mostly restricts herself to reporting what the speaker informs us about: his reasons for writing love elegy, possible future plans, and his claim to immortal fame. Like Holzberg, W. believes that the first edition mentioned in the prefatory epigram is purely fictitious conceit based on hellenistic hostility towards the mega biblion. She does not take 3.15.17 to imply necessarily the writing of tragedy, but I do not see what else the speaker could have in mind by referring to Bacchus instead of Apollo. The best element of this study is the basic assumption that Gedichtbücher are supposed to be read starting with the first and ending with the last poem. For example, when the protagonist invokes Venus in an oath to confirm that he was never unfaithful (2.8.27 f.), W. recalls how in 1.8.85 f. the old lena taught that, in matters of love, perjury in the name of Venus goes unpunished—which, besides being a fine observation, reinforces the premise that in reading a Gedichtbuch it is important to follow the sequence of poems as arranged by the author.

From the start, however, W.’s approach to the poetry book also suffers from serious methodological deficiencies. After deftly criticizing earlier scholarship for being too one-eyed, W. cites and attempts to build on three studies (Holzberg, Jäkel, Rambaux)1 which find “linear development” and a “dramatic principle” in effect in the arrangement of elegies. While the importance of these terms is stressed by the fact that they are printed in spaced type, they are never explained, an omission particularly aggravating in the case of what is “dramatic,” which W. never makes entirely clear. On the one hand, she characterizes a frequently employed communicative setting, in which the reader looks on while the elegiac first person addresses a fictitious counterpart, as a “stage effect.” In these cases, it seems as if the term “dramatic” is used by W. to denote a structural parallel between the way we watch a play and the way we read Ovidian elegy. On the other hand, “dramatic” is also employed in the common metaphorical manner, meaning “narratively centered on a protagonist and organized and structured towards an ending.”

Even more problematic is W.’s attempt to prove that the programmatic elegies (1.1, 1.15, 2.1, 2.18, 3.1, 3.15) and the rest, which form a love story, have different speakers, terming the persona of the first “Ovid the poet,” that of the latter “the Ovidian lover.” Clearly there is a difference between poems in which the elegiac first person discusses his approach to poetry and those in which he addresses the puella, himself, or the various tools or obstacles he encounters while trying to reach her. But does this really mean that we are supposed to envisage different people speaking? If so, both speakers would be elegiac poets (1.3), both would bear the cognomen “Naso” (1.11.27), and both would obviously have reason to stay in Sulmo (2.16.1). I do not see any reader either modern or ancient who could grasp the subtlety of W.’s concept. She is quite right in refusing simply to identify the elegiac first person with Ovid himself, but why this fictitious entity could not speak about love and poetry at the same time is beyond me.

W.’s work suffers from numerous factual, logical, or argumentative errors. In support of her theory about the personae of the Amores, W. points out that in 2.1.2. (one of the metapoetical elegies) the speaker’s cognomen is mentioned for the first time (p. 94), overlooking 1.11.27 (in a poem she attributes to the lover’s persona). On p. 57, I am baffled by her definition of militia amoris as an attitude of “meekness towards the mistress”—most likely the result of confusing militia with servitium. On p. 156, Scylla (2.16.23) is thought of as a maelstrom (“even more threatening because it is amalgamated with the myth of Nisus’ daughter”). And in her discussion of 3.13, W. believes Ovid’s use of the word coniunx necessarily means that the protagonist is suddenly portrayed as a married man, although in 3.4.37 the puella of a vir durus is called coniunx and although in 3.11.18 the speaker abjectly describes himself as ipse tuus custos, ipse vir, ipse comes. Mistakes such as these (of which there are plenty) undermine W.’s claim to being an “attentive interpreter” (p. 247).

W.’s understanding of Ovid’s Latin would be more clearly accounted for if, instead of paraphrase, she had given translations of the passages in question. W. renders 1.13.3 f. ( quo properas, Aurora? mane: sic Memnonis umbris / annua sollemni caede parentet avis) as: “to give thanks the speaker will see to it that the shade of her son Memnon will keep receiving his annual death rites,” probably thinking of some kind of sacrifice. Here she seems unfamiliar with the use of sic with the subjunctive mode as a prayer formula (as in English: so help me God!). In 2.2.36 ( et simulet lacrimas carnificemque vocet) the puella is not asked “to call the executioner” for her guardian, as W. thinks, but to call him a butcher. That W. uses pallia (3.2.25) in the singular may be due to sloppiness: Ovid certainly does not. In discussing 3.11.29 f. ( iam mea votiva puppis redimita corona / lenta tumescentes aequoris audit aquas) W. says the metaphor expresses “the beginning of a process of separation” because the speaker “is not taking the sea journey into consideration” (i.e. he does not say whether or not he is about to leave the safety of the harbor). This image of indecisiveness is supposedly meant to contrast with the ship metaphor in Prop. 3.24.15 f., where the harbored vessel signifies the end of love. Here W. understands the meaning neither of iam nor of the votive garlands (put up by sailors in Verg. Georg. 1.303 f. to give thanks after safe return—a parallel given in Brandt’s commentary). So, as in Propertius, Ovid’s protagonist clearly implies that his seafaring days are over.

These flaws are not compensated for by W.’s method of interpretation, which can often only be described as pure impressionism. This is particularly obvious in the discussion of 2.9 and 3.11, elegies that are divided into two in Kenney’s Oxford edition and recombined by W. for reasons of subject matter. Putting aside almost entirely the question of how Ovid signifies either closure or beginning, she finds clashes of emotions expressed in these elegies which unite them thematically so as to render a separation unnecessary. The same kind of thematic unity, however, links 1.11 and 1.12 (the love letter elegies) as well. Therefore, textual criticism exclusively based on the feelings expressed in these elegies will prove nothing: if we want to find out whether new poems begin in 2.9.25 and 3.11.33 we will have to get down to the nuts and bolts of philology, first and foremost by analyzing Ovid’s Latin. W. acknowledges this when she refers to Büchner’s contention that 3.11.32 does not show the characteristics of an ending in Ovidian elegy,2 but her observation that in the third book the so-called “Ovidian coda” is never employed (p. 267) refutes the argument taken from Büchner. Instead of scholarly arguments on whether 2.9 is one poem or whether 3.5 is genuine, the reader finds subjective opinions such as “the [emotional reactions] seem exaggerated and rather capricious” (on 2.9) or “one repetition seems clumsy, another reeled off” (on 3.5, which W. following Kenney considers spurious). This type of thinking becomes downright annoying when it evolves into popular psychology. On 1.7, we are told that “people generally beat their loved ones only when they get the impression that they are not sensitive enough. It is a way of forcibly restoring unity in love.”

These few examples out of many must suffice to indicate the scholarly qualities of W.’s book. Printing errors are unimportant and so few as to be negligible. Readers who publish in German, however, may like to know that to my taste the author’s choice of words is not always acceptable in scholarly prose, e.g. colloquialisms such as piesacken (p. 103) (to keep picking on someone), nicht klarkommen (p. 223) (being emotionally unable to deal with a problem), and, worst of all, bestes Stück (p. 222) (for the penis, although I concede that this is inspired by 3.7.69 pars pessima nostri).

In conclusion there is not much to be said for W.’s monograph Ovids Amores. The basic idea of reading the elegies as a Liebesroman is good, but not new: an article offering an interpretation to be pitted against Holzberg’s might have been enough to exploit its potential. As it is, the meager yield to be had from the book does not make reading through endless paraphrase riddled with inconsistencies and errors worthwhile.


1. N. Holzberg, Ovid. Dichter und Werk, München 1997; S. Jäkel, “Beobachtungen zur dramatischen Konzeption von Ovids Amores,” A & A 16 (1970) 12-28; C. Rambaux, Trois analyses de l’amour, Paris 1985.

2. K. Büchner, Die römische Lyrik. Texte, Übersetzungen, Interpretationen, Geschichte, Stuttgart 1976.