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Gendering the Golden Age in Ovid's Ars Amatoria

Zackary Rider

University of South Carolina

     This paper examines Ovid’s usage of historicizing rhetoric and Golden Age imagery in the Ars Amatoria, showing how the poet genders these concepts to provide contrasting characterizations of his male and female students.  Scholars such as Myerowitz, Labate, and Volk, focusing on the praeceptor’s praise of cultus at 3.101-128, have seen the poet’s persona in the Ars as a champion of modernity, preferring the sophistication of modern Augustan Rome to any imagined historical or mythological past.  Here I argue for a different reading of Ovid’s presentation, as the praeceptor’s outlook can be seen to change based on the gender of his addressee; while modernity is praised in the instruction offered to the female students of book 3, throughout the first two books of the poem (addressed to a male audience), the praeceptor shows a resolute preference for a remote past in which the poet’s ars was not necessary and sex was readily available.

     The argument for this interpretation is developed through comparison of the Ars with its didactic forerunner, the Georgics.  As has been shown most thoroughly by Leach, the earlier work is a constant touchstone for Ovid’s poem, as Ovid regularly adapts his amatory project to Vergil’s original agricultural framework.  Thus, to take an important example, Ovid’s claim to a knowledge derived from usus (1.30), his emphasis on courtship as labor (1.35-8), and his later concerns that the instruction of female students is akin to endowing serpents with poison or handing lambs over to wolves (3.7-8) all refer to Vergil’s so-called theodicy in Georgics 1, in which an original abundant Golden Age is supplanted by a harsher Iron Age that requires labor and ars.  As I argue, this gulf between an idealized past and a toilsome present recurs in the first two books of the Ars; in the first major digression of the poem, the narration of the Rape of the Sabine Women (set in a Romulean Rome routinely portrayed as a quasi-Golden Age), Ovid praises the success of Romulus’ act (1.131-2) while emphasizing the lack of ars the age required (1.106, 113; cf. 1.1.119).  A similar focus can be detected in the prehistory at 2.467-92, where Ovid notes that the earliest humans required no instruction or ars (2.477-80).

     This differentiation between an idealized past for the male student and idealized modernity for the female student should be viewed in relation to another Vergilian borrowing, Ovid’s use of agricultural metaphor to refer to the amatory project.  As Leach has shown, comparisons of courtship to farming are relatively common throughout the work, but here another gendered distinction is at work, for while the male student is often portrayed as a farmer (see, e.g., 1.757-8; 2.321-2), the female student is instead likened to the object of agricultural labor. Thus Ovid starts the instruction of his third book with cultus, which is as appropriate for women as it is for fields or grapes (ordior a cultu: cultis bene Liber ab uvis / provenit, et culto stat seges alta solo, 101-2).  Such a contrast serves to explain the contrasting views of the past in Ars 1 and 2 and Ars 3; it is the place of the farmer, not the farm, to long for the Golden Age. For the male student, the Golden Age becomes an idealized time of easy sex, free from the difficulties inherent in present-day girl-chasing; his present condition becomes analogous to that of the Iron Age farmer, forced to make use of an ars that does not guarantee success.  For the female student, this mythical past is a degenerate time, lacking the cultus which she requires—a cultus that ultimately benefits not her, but the praeceptor and his male students.

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