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Fashion Victim? Domination and the Arts of Coiffure in Augustan Elegy

Nandini Pandey

Ovid’s Amores 1.14, to an elegiac puella who has gone bald through excessive hair-dyeing, has been analyzed as a dubiously tasteful joke or a metapoetic warning against overadornment (Levy 1968, Scivoletto 1972, McKeown 1987, Zetzel 1996, Boyd 1997, Papaïoannou 2006, Turpin 2012, et al.). This paper argues that the poem’s literal and metaphorical depictions of master/slave relations also bear on the broader discourse about power, culture, and Romanitas that lies beneath the surface of Augustan elegy. In response to Propertius’ condemnation of hair coloring as foreign frippery (2.18B), Amores 1.14 uses the topic to suggest Romans’ increasing political and economic dependence on provincial subjects as they attempt to articulate their identities using imported labor and consumer goods.

This paper contextualizes recent studies of hair as a locus for feminine self-fashioning (Wyke 1994, Bartman 2001, Stephens 2008) within Roman elegy’s thematic interrogation of gender, socioeconomic, and imperial hierarchies (James 2003, Miller 2004, Davis 2006, Keith 2008, et al.). It stems from a larger interest in Ovid’s use of the relationship between dominae and their foreign-born slaves to explore power asymmetries and reversals. This is especially evident in the paired poems Amores 1.11/12 and 2.7/8, which depict the hairdressers Nape and Cypassis as experts in the arts of duplicity as well as style.

These figures map on to the dramatis personae of Amores 1.14, which revisits the themes of domination and rebellion from the perspective of the domina rather than her ornatrix. Yet here, it is not her hairdresser but her hair itself that rebels. This twists the convention whereby Roman women lashed out against their ornatrices using the acus (hair-needle), described and condemned at Ars Am. 3.239-42. This act of symbolic violence both perpetuates and threatens the master/subordinate power dynamic in recalling slaves’ ability to turn the tools of their trade against a cruel mistress. In Amores 1.14, Corinna’s hairdresser is “safe” from such abuse (16-18), but her hair is not so lucky. Despite its native docility, Corinna afflicts it with tortures described in military terms (vallum pectinis, saucia … acu, ferro … et igni, etc.) that enhance this scene’s allegorical bearing on political leadership. While Ovid elsewhere advocates total submission to Augustus and his kinsman Cupid (e.g. Amores 1.2.10), this strategy does not protect Corinna’s hair, questioning the value of obedience to a tyrannical master.

However, as so often in Ovid, the tables turn. Corinna’s refusal of clementia to her innocent ‘subject,’ her own hair, results in the cataclysmic loss of her erotic power. Ovid blames her downfall on her domineering behavior and cultivation of her public image at the expense of health – a lesson that reapplies to the Augustan body politic. He further complicates the geopolitical picture behind this domestic scene by advising Corinna to hide her baldness with “captive hair” from the recently conquered Germans (captivos … crines, 45-46). This completes her symbolic transition from domina into victim and suggests the physical and moral superiority of frontier stock to the effete urban population. A recollection of Apelles’ Venus Anadyomene, looted from Greece and displayed in the Forum Augustum (33; cf. Pliny, NH 35.91), further interrelates love of beauty and desire for domination with the threat of cultural decline. The poem’s final vision of Corinna in the guise of a German captive also engages with Ovid’s exploration of the latent reversibility of conquered and conqueror in his poems on the triumph (e.g. Ars Am. 1.177-228; cf. Beard 2009, Pandey 2011). While Amores 1.14 ostensibly concerns a different type of subjugation – slavery to fashion – it suggests a similar slippage. Foreign luxury goods, including hair and slaves, fueled the Roman economy and marked its domination. Yet they also spelled Rome’s sartorial ‘enslavement’ to the conquered; caused increasing resemblance, even identity, between between urban citizens and foreign subjects; and hint that without good leadership, Rome’s glory – like Corinna’s – might prove impermanent. 

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Problems of Triumviral and Augustan Poetics

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