Cupid is a rapist. A predominant model of erotic attraction is that of a pathogen: the lover, observing an attractive physical feature or social action, is infected through the eyes, and is laid low. The body is unwillingly penetrated, the lover is taken by storm, the lover is feminized. Eros’ nosopoietic effects are both physical and social; lovers waste away and behave like women.
This pathogenic model is present in a variety of genres, times and places in the ancient world. A consonance in descriptions from curse tablets, medical writers, lyric poets, elegists and novelists suggest that the subjective experience of erotic attraction was experienced similarly regardless of the class or gender of lover or beloved. Arising from the pathogenic model of erotics is an implicit criticism of any sexual activity.
Ovid’s Ars amatoria amplifies and complicates the pathogenic model. Lover-aspirants learn how to display the most virulent symptoms of love, and by faking the symptoms of the disease to generate genuine attraction in the object of their desire. However, Ovid repeatedly claims that there is a danger of cross contamination from the beloved back into the lover (e.g. Ars Am. 1.615-18). As a consequence, Ovid undercuts the promises of masculine control he makes at the outset of the Ars and the Remedia (e.g. Ars Am. 1.41-2). Ovid’s delimitation of sex to those who can have mutual pleasure (i.e. no boys: Ars Am. 3.683-4), considering the aforementioned social implications of erotics, may foreground male-female sexual activity to mystify a deeper anxiety over the potential deleterious effects of non carnal, emotionally rewarding same-sex attraction. The formal cavalier sexuality overlays a functional ambivalence about the implications of sex and intimacy. Taken a different way, the Ars and the Remedia make a strong case for the stifling of sexual behavior: the only way to win is not to play.
This paper will contend that arguments for restraint of sexual behavior are not merely the province of philosophers and censors, but rather are baked into a predominant metaphor for erotic attraction as well as our most famous handbook for lovers in the ancient world.