BMCR 2007.06.43

Augustus: A political reading of Ovid’s erotic poems

, Ovid and Augustus : a political reading of Ovid's erotic poems. London: Duckworth, 2006. viii, 183 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 071563559X. £45.00.

This book is an attempt to decipher the political innuendos and references in Ovid’s erotic poetry. P.J. Davis (hereafter D.) revises some articles published between 1995 and 2001, presenting fresh material both in these revisions and in four new chapters. The volume also includes two rich indices, an index locorum and a general index, and an extensive bibliography. The notes at the end of the volume offer useful references and, occasionally, some discussions with other scholars. A preface precedes the development of the general argument, but there is no conclusion, only a final chapter which is called an epilogue. The final section in every chapter, which sums up its main points and explicitly states the author’s argument, may compensate for the absence of an overall conclusion.

The short preface sets out the issues that the book confronts. Excluding from his scope the biographical aspects of Augustus’ and Ovid’s conflict and refusing to consider the error, which allegedly partly justified the poet’s exile, D. intends to focus on Ovid’s writings and their relationship with Augustan ideology and to show that the former’s erotic poetry discloses an anti-Augustan point of view on Roman identity.

The first chapter (” Tristia 2: Defending Love Poetry”, 1-8) starts with the end of the story and examines Ovid’s pleas for his own erotic works in Tristia 2. This defense is used in the chapters which follow to read the poems defended here. D. shows how Ovid constructs a new literary history in order to neatly relate it to erotic themes. Consequently, the poet can assert that his works have done nothing but what had been done for ages by every Greek or Roman author and that, since none of them had ever been condemned, his punishment was out of proportion with his actions.

The two following chapters constitute a preliminary analysis for D.’s readings of Ovid’s love poetry: as it will be interpreted as anti-Augustan, D. rigorously aims at proving that Augustan ideology was explicit enough to enable contemporary authors to take sides with or against it.

In the second chapter (“Conflicting Evaluations of Augustus”, 9-22), he defines the criteria according to which an author may be described as pro- or anti-Augustan. He starts with discussing Duncan F. Kennedy’s now classic article and dismisses Kennedy’s skepticism about the relevance of such terms.1 Relying on Augustus’ Res Gestae and some texts from Tacitus’ Annales, he asserts that the opposition between pro- and anti-Augustan stances, far from being a modern reconstruction, is deeply rooted in Roman perceptions of the politics of the period. This is why, according to D., modern scholars are entitled to distinguish pro- and anti-Augustan texts and works: D. strongly opposes the idea that such judgments might only reflect the reader’s own commitment.

This demonstration evidently forms the basis of D.’s overall argument, as he intends to show that Ovid’s love poetry was deeply anti-Augustan and therefore needs to firmly establish the existence of such categories. From this point of view, the reading of Augustus’ and Tacitus’ passages are enlightening and contribute to proving that the princeps’ policy had been explicitly debated by his contemporaries: This argument justifies D.’s agenda in the rest of the book, but it also limits the range of his treatment of the question of Ovid’s relationship to the Augustan regime.

One wishes D. had more thoroughly dealt with all the implications of this relationship: the influence that a ruler can exert on a contemporary writer is not indeed confined to the writer’s acceptance or the rejection of his/her main political themes. It is significant then that D. rejects the term Augustan) in the third note of this chapter (see 130): D. objects that this adjective implies that Augustan ideology was the norm against which anti-Augustan stances had to construct themselves. Yet this term can also be used to account for a more complex reality in which all attitudes cannot be reduced either to adhesion or opposition to the new ruler; in particular, it can reflect the position of certain authors who did not openly promote the new regime but whose works were nonetheless permeated by Augustus’ ideology and achievements. In this sense, it is not certain that Augustan ideology was not de facto the norm.

Moreover, D.’s refutation of Kennedy’s article partly rests upon various unjustified shifts. For example, D; cites Kennedy saying: “The degree to which a voice is heard as conflicting or supportive is a function of the audience’s — or critic’s — ideology. . .”) (15) and gives the following summary of this sentence: “According to Kennedy, it is the reader’s ideological predisposition alone which determines his or her reaction to text. . .”) (15). Kennedy’s position is radicalized: where he mentions the degree to which a text was read from one perspective or another depends on the reader’s own sensibility, D. reads that the reader’s sensibility is the only determining factor in his/her reading. On the following page, he also assumes that the influence of the reader’s predisposition necessarily makes him/her read the text as coherent with his/her own point of view, as if it were always clearly defined and identified. It is all too easy then to reject the idea, oversimplified as it is: the reader’s ideology can be vague and s/he will necessarily search for his/her own ideas in the text, but will certainly receive it with a wide set of mental structures, both conscious and unconscious. As a consequence, the reviewer cannot endorse D.’s argument that, if Kennedy is right, Augustus would have read the Ars Amatoria according to his pro-Augustan stance as a pro-Augustan text. As a consequence, while D.’s points in this chapter rightly plead for the existence of pro- and anti-Augustan political positions as early as the first century B.C.E., they do not suffice to exclude the existence of more ambiguous positions and, above all, do not confront the many ways Augustus’ ideology may have influenced both the authors and readers of those times. As a whole, this chapter may justify D.’s own perspective, but it does not completely invalidate Kennedy’s analyses.

While the second chapter is focused on the possibility for an author to be pro- or anti-Augustan, the third chapter ((“Augustan Ideology: Secular Festival and Augustan Forum”, 23-48) is devoted to defining Augustan ideology. The term ideology itself is defined as the set of ideas promoting the legitimacy of power; in Augustus’ case, it notably includes his representation as a prince of peace even though he came to power through a bloody war and maintained a imperialist policy. To find testimonies for this ideology, D. turns not to literary texts (which he generally judges too ambiguous), apart from the Carmen Saeculare, but to sculptural and architectural works, the message of which is supposed to be plainer, even if it can always be subverted.

D. studies in particular two of the greatest symbolic manifestations of Augustus’ rule: the Secular Festival and the inauguration of Augustus’ Forum. He shows that Augustus was widely committed to the organization of the former: while the prince claimed a set of oracular documents as a basis for the Festival, it seems that these verses, if not a complete forgery, had at least been revised to fit his goals. Even the length of the saeculum had been changed from 100 to 110 years to make the commemoration possible in 17 B.C.E. The two main aspects of the Festival’s ideological agenda are the idea that a new golden age had come, and the celebration of gods or godly figures related to Augustus (such as Apollo), to the Julian family (as Aeneas or Romulus) or even to Augustus’ policy (as the Ilithyae, who, as goddesses of childbirth, were probably meant to represent Augustus’ attempt at restoring morality). Fifteen years later, the new forum was dedicated after Augustus entered his last consulship and was granted the title of pater patriae. The monument is firstly characterized by a strong enhancement of military values which leads to a celebration of Augustus’ military achievements and, in the end, equates him with Alexander. But, through its many representations of Roman past and heroes, it also exhibits a rereading of Roman history, which at the same time aligns Augustus’ career with that of the grandest figures of the republican past, thus illustrating the princeps’ respect for traditional political values, and justifies the promotion of the Julian dynasty as an heir to Roman destiny. This chapter displays a vast knowledge of Augustan Rome and offers convincing interpretations both of the Festival and of the Forum.

The fourth chapter (” Heroides“, 49-70) consists of an introduction and a conclusion which develop a general interpretation of the Heroides and frame more precise analyses of three poems. D.’s argument is that the laments of Ovid’s heroines reveal the costs of male glories: this critical position is expressed through their failure to reach happiness in the bonds of legal marriage (for different reasons, but generally speaking against their own wishes), and also through the rewriting of previous Augustan texts, which profoundly challenges their adhesion to the regime’s ideology. Whereas D.’s point that the Heroides question the prince’s concern with marriage and women’s faithfulness, one might be more reluctant to admit that this skeptical attitude towards Augustus’ moral policy is produced through a revision of some poems considered by D. in the core of the development.

D. selects Heroides 9, 13 and 7. The first of these texts is compared with Propertius’ 4.11: the parallel between the two elegiac poems is convincing, but whether the disastrous nature of Deianira’s marriage presents such a contrast with Cornelia’s marriage remains a question open to discussion. D. himself recalls that some scholars regard 4.11 as rather critical of the institution: he could have relevantly referred to Ralph Johnson’s brilliant attempt at an anti-Augustan reading of this last of Propertius’ elegies.2

But the reviewer’s main reservations concern the second poem considered by D.: the comparison between Heroides 13 and Propertius’ 4.3 is perfectly acceptable, but it can hardly be maintained, as D. does, that Propertius’ Arethusa supports war while Ovid’s Laodamia is a strong opponent of it. In particular, he asserts that Arethusa’s condemnation of the man who invented war is nothing but an expansion of her personal sorrows over Lycotas’ absence whereas her activities (such as weaving cloaks for him or learning geography in order to know where he fights) would reflect a deeper approval of war. This reading seems highly questionable and one cannot see how Arethusa could make a more general statement than by condemning the first war leader. As a consequence, another interpretation could be suggested too: she is opposed to war but concedes the validity of this war effort out of love for her husband. Should she abandon any interest in Lycotas’ fate just because she dislikes war? The interpretation of Propertius’ 4.3 is probably far-fetched because D. aims at relating a revision of Augustan ideology to a revision of Augustan poems, but, whereas D.’s close reading of the two Heroides is insightful and convincing, their relationship to the Propertian background might deserve further discussion.

The third instance selected by D. presents the reader with a more tangible case study. There is little doubt indeed that Ovid’s Dido gives voice to judgments that Virgil’s Dido is not allowed to express and that, in this sense, she casts a rather darker light on Aeneas’ achievements. That is to say that Ovid’s Dido deletes all ambiguity to pass a negative judgment on Aeneas whereas Virgil’s version remained more open to multiple interpretations. In sum, whereas D. seems to think that Ovid contests the viewpoint of his predecessors, one might rather like to say that Ovid deliberately chooses very ambiguous texts and pushes forward one (anti-Augustan) interpretation against another.

The fifth chapter (” Amores“, 71-84) also detects an anti-Augustan stance in Ovid’s elegiac collection. It rightly shows that the poet’s treatment of sexuality, military values and Julian myth is scarcely compatible with Augustus’ policy. On this ground, D. contests the more nuanced point of view presented by Mario Labate in L’arte di farsi amare, but Labate’s approach is wider and considers not only Ovid’s relationship to Augustan legislation, but also his links with the diverse themes and evolutions in life and politics promoted by the princeps. That is why the challenging of Labate’s arguments seems to achieve little here.

The sixth chapter (” Ars Amatoria“, 85-108) is a close examination of the fashion in which Ovid treats the main aspects of Augustus’ moral policy in the Ars Amatoria. D. starts with adultery since the accusation of teaching adultery is likely to have partially justified Ovid’s exile penalty. As the definitions of adulterium and stuprum only concern respectable women and, given that Ovid himself (even followed by some contemporary critics) afterwards pleaded that he had not described any form of forbidden love, D. looks closely at every passage where a distinction of this kind can be made. But it appears that all the hints at the women whom Ovid’s students could seduce are either vague or incoherent and that in certain passages he unmistakably refers to adulteria or stupra. All the analyses in this section are subtle and convincing: the conclusion undermines the idea that in the Roman society which Augustus intended to (re)create there was anyspace for a life devoted to such sophisticated pleasures as Ovid teaches and celebrates. D. then lists different themes about which Ovid displays representations which parody official images and ideas: the figures of the emperor and his family, Roman military values (ironically reinterpreted through the various forms of the militia amoris) and the legends of old Rome. The conclusion of the chapter comes back to the question of whether this critical stance should be attributed to Ovid himself or not. D. (admittedly) does not propose any personal, new answer to it and is willing to recognize that this is an enigma, but still expresses his confidence that Ovid’s poem endorses a distant and ironic viewpoint on Augustus’ ideology and policy. On this basis, he again challenges Labate’s position. Although this criticism can also be challenged for the same reasons as in Chapter 5, this chapter as a whole, probably the best in the book, is cogent and proposes valuable readings of Ovid’s poem.

The seventh chapter (” Remedia Amoris“,109-118) is essentially devoted to a reappraisal of the relationship between the Remedia Amoris and the previous love poetry. D. stresses the continuity in Ovid’s point of view and contests Conte’s judgment that an elegiac book which aims at curing love contains a strange paradox. Although Ovid for the first time pleads that his advice cannot offend any respectable woman, he does not renounce his amoral stance towards love: the military theme is still depreciated and mythological and legendary models, including some of the stories which had been used by Augustus to (re)construct Roman identity, are still introduced as paradigms for adultery and licentiousness. This argument rightly nuances the novelty of Ovid’s lessons in Remedia Amoris. Yet, one could remark that, if the Remedia Amoris do not completely reverse Ovid’s attitude to love, they can be seen as a step further in Ovid’s ironic deconstruction of the major elegiac themes and structures, so that continuity in Ovid’s erotic poetry would not be a synonym for continuity in elegy.

The eighth chapter (“Epilogue: Erotic Works in Exile Poetry”, 119-127) approaches different passages in Ovid’s exile poetry. D. shows how Ovid keeps claiming that he did not write about any sort of love which would involve a respectable woman. Some passages also reflect a new attitude on the part of Ovid, who revises his previous erotic writings. D. concludes this chapter and the entire book with some reflections upon the differences between Ovid and mime: if mimes represented illegal sexual affairs, they would not ironically challenge Augustan ideology in the same way as Ovid did; this difference could account for Ovid’s exile, whereas mime artists were welcomed at Augustus’ court.

In sum, this book can be seen as a new contribution to the already impressive bibliography dealing with Ovid’s exile and its causes. But D. is not so much interested in the historical aspects of the subject as in its literary implications, and his close readings of many passages in Ovid deserve attention and will have to be taken into account by other critics. However, they only cover one aspect of Ovid’s relationship to Augustan ideology: therefore, they should be seen as a useful complement to the recent scholarship on the subject, but they will probably not discourage the development of other studies, more sensitive to the diverse implications of the “Roman cultural revolution” achieved by Augustus.


1. Duncan F. Kennedy, ” Augustan and Anti-Augustan : Reflections on Terms of Reference” in Anton Powell ed., Roman Poetry and Propaganda in the Age of Augustus, Bristol Classical Press, 1992.

2. W.R. Johnson, “Final Exit: Propertius 4. 11” in Classical Closure, Deborah H. Roberts, Francis M. Dunn., Don Fowler, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, 163-180.