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Check Your Mate: Ovid, the Game of Love, and Learning to Be a Man

Del Chrol

Marshall University

Ovid’s formulation of the rules of the game of love in the Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris challenge the deep seeded Roman belief in essential masculinity. 

That games are pedagogical is axiomatic. By creating an ordered universe with fixed boundaries and regular rules, players learn tactics and strategy, and upon repeated playthroughs of a game, learn structured strategic thinking and intersubjective understanding. Games can also teach practical skills, like complex cavalry maneuvers of the Lusus Troiae as described in Aen. 5.545-63, but also how to behave with decorum and ennoble the state, hence Augustus’ passion for it (Suet. Aug. 43). 

That love is a game is likewise axiomatic and cliché (cf. Myerowitz 1985, Kennedy 2006, Rosati 2006), but in the Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris Ovid takes the metaphor seriously. He systematizes the rules of erotic pursuit, regularizing his students’ reactions to normal human situations to accord with winning erotic strategies. Or, as he says, he makes ratio what was once impetus (Rem. 10). Here ‘game’ is not used informally as in the manipulation of social codes in order to achieve sensual goals, but formally, as a closed system with only two players in which each player’s payoffs are non-random, not purely determined by rules, and partially dependent on the actions of other players (Dodge 2012, Tadelis 2013). This systematization and regularization of romance Ovid asserts to have overtaken Rome even after his exile (e.g. Tr. 4.2.25).  

The most striking implication of Ovid’s formulation of love as a proper game is what it says about Ovid’s view on constructed gender.  Throughout the Ars and Remedia men and women have to be instructed in behaviors that should be natural, such as how to be angry, feel jealous, or have sex. Gendered performance is relational, not essential. In other words, the way a man feels is irrelevant to how those emotions are expressed, and the value of those emotional expressions is judged relative to how his female opponent receives them and if that expression achieves in advancing the game of their relationship within established conventions. 

Though others have addressed Ovid’s construction of a particular type of gendered imperial subject (Habinek 1997, Gibson 2006), none have used game theoretical principles to demonstrate that these subjects are part of a much larger game, totalizing gendered relations in Rome. These gendered subjects do not exist without their relational partner in Ovid’s erato-textual Rome, and conventional ideas of essential gender categories are dismissed.

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Learning the Rules: Games and Education in the Ancient World

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