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The Naso Equilibrium: Game Theory and the Game of Love in the Ars Amatoria

E.Del Chrol


The Naso Equilibrium: Game Theory and the Game of Love in the Ars Amatoria

That love is a game in Ovid is proverbial and well represented in classical scholarship (most famously Myerowitz 1985, Hinds 2006).  The extent to which love is a game and can be analyzed by Game Theory, however, is not.  This paper will use game theoretical principles to reveal nuances of Ars Amatoria. Specifically, I will propose the “Naso Equilibrium”, a modification of the “Nash Equilibrium” to describe Ovid’s focus on mutual orgasm as a key component of erotic relations. 

Erotic pursuits as presented in the Ars are more formally a game than previously recognized. Two parties are in competition and the payoffs of their actions are partially dependent on the actions of another, not due completely to chance or a predetermined cause-and-effect. Erotic didaxis differs from instruction in other bodies of knowledge in that love is a closed system. In this way, unlike handbooks that help a reader gain dominion over nature with success arising from real world effects like navigation or production of crops, or defeat an opponent with success arising from the valuation of a third party like a judge or deliberative body, the amatory arena is restricted to two competitors, and success depends entirely upon their gambits. Love is properly a game.

The Nash Equilibrium describes a state in a game where both parties understand the strategy of the other, and where neither one’s unilateral action can improve his state. This is a good way to understand the model of ideal sexual and romantic relations.  Throughout the Ars, Ovid presents ways for a lover to dominate his partner, and this brings a certain amount of fulfillment. But when he advocates both parties reaching the finish line at the same time he claims that the amount of joy is all the greater than mere domination (2.724-5, 3.793-4), sex doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. This preferred state of mutual sexual satisfaction is what I dub the Naso Equilibrium. The amount of joy in the system is at its maximum, and should either party move towards selfish action or domination, it would ultimately undercut that party’s pleasure.

When we analyze sexual encounters along the axes of payment and pleasure, the Naso Equilibrium, as part of a game that has multiple rounds and complex outcomes, furthermore explains the advice that seems to run counter to the primary instruction to mutual orgasm. When men are instructed to at least steal some joy if there’s not enough time to have a mutually satisfying sexual encounter (2.729-32) it maintains the male joy in the system. When women are told to fake their orgasms if nature has made them insensate or otherwise incapable of enjoying the sexual act (3.797-804), it creates a deluxe pleasure for the man greater than simple orgasm. Either pleasurable act is in turn rewarded by enhanced material and emotional benefits for the woman in sequential rounds and continued game-playing. Ultimately, the reading of the Ars by both parties sets up the optimal environment for each: two players knowledgeable in the rules may more efficiently feign ignorance of the game while covertly playing roles designed to satisfy all players.

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