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Unlucky in Love: Games of Chance and Amatory Strategies in Roman Elegy

Christopher S Dobbs

University of Missouri - Columbia

In this paper, I examine the roles games of chance play in the amatory strategies of Roman elegists. I begin with Ovid’s assertion that “love is often won through playing” (ludendo saepe paratur amor, Ars Amatoria 3.368) and explore its veracity in Roman love elegy. Ovid makes this statement in his advice to women who wish to win lovers, stating that they should learn a wide variety of games, including several games of chance. He continues with the admonition that playing well is not the hard part: any woman trying to win a man’s favor must also maintain her composure and not surrender to the heated emotions that games arouse in their players (Ars Amatoria 3.369-380). Conversely, Ovid’s advice to men is to win the real prize by losing every game intentionally, including throwing dice and knucklebones so that they always produce the worst scores (Ars Amatoria 2.203-208); one must have unlucky rolls in order to get lucky, as it were. After briefly discussing how these amatory strategies can work in tandem, I explore their successes and failures in the other Roman elegists, a connection Ovid invites us to make when he wishes for his works to be mixed with those of distinguished authors, including Propertius, Gallus, and Tibullus (Ars Amatoria 3.329-340).

I center the remainder of the paper on Propertius, who has the most passages with ludic elements of the elegists and to whom Ovid alludes numerous times in the above passage (cf. Gibson 2003). I build on recent scholarship to demonstrate how the elegist uses games of chance to signpost his romantic failures (cf. Hutchinson 2006; Heyworth and Morwood 2010). For example, in Elegies 2.33b, Cynthia delights in playing knucklebones late into the night, disregarding Propertius’ entreaties to retire to the bedroom. Conversely, Propertius throws knucklebones with Phyllis and Teia in Cynthia’s absence and seems to be on the verge of sleeping with them when his rolls foreshadow his impending catastrophe. Propertius attempts to throw the Venus, the highest roll, the name of which has an obvious connection to his amatory pursuit, but only manages to throw the dogs, the worst roll (Elegies 4.8.45-46), before Cynthia returns, attacks the other girls, and foils his plans.

I conclude by arguing that although Propertius fails to win love through games, he is himself a kind of game. Propertius first hints at this status early in the Monobiblos when he comments that Fortuna always wanted to throw him about, using the same word as for throwing dice or knucklebones (me…quem semper uoluit Fortuna iacere, Elegies 1.6.25). The elegist cements his identity as a game when he states that if he is disturbed by the cost of the ivory knucklebones his mistress requests, then he is her plaything (iocus, Elegies 2.24a.13-16). Similarly, Propertius reconciles and sleeps with Cynthia after the Phyllis and Teia incident by giving her imperium and doing what she commands (Elegies 4.8.82). Importantly, the winner of Roman board games was hailed as imperator (Purcell 1995; Toner 1995), so Propertius never succeeds in his amatory pursuits by winning a game himself, but only when Cynthia wins at the game of Propertius.

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Playing with Time

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