Long before today’s dating scene, Ovid had compelling, if cynical, advice on seduction, says Roy Gibson

The American bestseller The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists by Neil Strauss caused a minor sensation last year by offering its male readers a detailed set of strategies to “get laid”. Almost two millennia ago, a rather greater drama was created by Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (Art of Love). Its publication provoked the emperor Augustus into exiling its author to the furthest fringe of the Roman Empire in modern-day Romania. It is not hard to see why.

Whereas The Game is dedicated to men’s pursuit of casual sex, the Art of Love offers men and women alike advice on conducting serial (and sometimes simultaneous) love affairs. The emperor, who had made adultery a criminal offence for the first time in western history not long before, was not amused. Like his 21st-century successor, Ovid makes no pretence of morality. Instead, he makes the figure of the heartless seducer the hero of his work for the first time in western literature. His bald assertion is that men and women must put aside scruples in pursuit of their erotic goal.

Three steps to bed

The Art of Love consists of two books addressed to men and one to women. Men must follow a simple, three-step programme: find, seduce and keep the girl (for as long as you find her interesting). Girls can be found in the porticoes and theatres of Augustus’ fabulous new Rome or – if one really must leave town – by the sea on the bay of Naples.

Flattery is the key to successful seduction and dinner parties are the perfect venue for making a start: “whatever you do or say more freely than you should can be put down to too much wine”. Attractive promises should be made without scruple – not least because women themselves are habitual deceivers. If further pressure needs to be applied, it can help to turn pale overnight and waste away with unrequited love. Once she is yours, avoid arguments, agree with her, let her win dice and gambling games, be there on time (preferably earlier), give her presents (tasteful rather than expensive), and praise her dress, hairstyle and performance in bed. This way, even if she is grimmer than the Medusa, any woman will be mild and gentle towards her lover.

But the lover must take care to conceal his simulations: art succeeds in love only if it is hidden (si latet, ars prodest). Once the affair is established, the man may begin to cast around for other women. But extreme caution is advised: never meet the other woman in places known to your girlfriend, and take care not to get your love letters to either woman mixed up.

But, Ovid insists, women must be allowed their peccadilloes too. If a man suspects he has a rival, he should be grown-up about it and not stalk her or read her mail or subject her to questioning (although Ovid admits that he draws the line at his girlfriend kissing someone else in front of him). Ovid’s Art of Love for men ends, as long anticipated, in bed. Surprisingly, it closes with some advice on achieving mutual sexual pleasure that is as unexpected in such a heartless work as it is unique in the ancient world (which did not much bother with such things).

The waiting game

Ovid insists that the initiative in love rests with men. In keeping with this, his advice to women is to wait to be approached. But while they are waiting there is plenty to do, although the emphasis falls almost entirely on the physical.

Hairstyles should be appropriate to the shape of a girl’s face, the colour of one’s tunic should complement the complexion, and make-up should be used – but always applied privately in order to preserve illusions. (Ovid is the only author from antiquity or the Middle Ages to have a good word to say about cosmetics.) Various “accomplishments” should be mastered: a sexy walking style (complete with off-the-shoulder dresses); dancing; singing; recitation of the great Greek and Latin poets from Sappho to Virgil (and Ovid himself); board games and, last but not least, the art of crying.

Once battle is joined with men, Ovid’s advice becomes more hard-nosed. Men who pay too much attention to their looks should be avoided (leave them to their boyfriends), and one should never, ever, reply immediately to a suitor’s letter. A short delay will make lovers keener.
At this stage of a relationship lovers should be kept in a delicate balance between hope and fear. Mistreatment may prove useful too: make him wait outside your house in the cold, make him suspect that he has a rival for your affections, even pretend that you have a husband who must never find out. But, however much you mistreat him, make sure that you sleep with him in peace and security – otherwise he may figure out that the game is not worth the candle.

There may be problems to be dealt with too: a chaperone to be eluded, predatory female friends to be avoided, or even – worst of all – the prospect of the infidelity of one’s lover. But Ovid’s advice here is consistent with that offered to men: best not to know.

As for men, instruction to women ends in the bedroom. But the difference is emblematic of the varying character of the advice offered to men and women.

Whereas men were offered advice on sexual pleasure (albeit mutual pleasure), women are advised to pick the sexual position that shows off their best physical feature or conceals their worst. Men control the game, women control themselves.
The Ars Amatoria – a haven for cynics? But Ovid knew that even the most heartless seducers fall in love – and he takes care to tell women so: “Often the pretender begins to love truly after all… so, you women, be more compliant to pretenders; one day the love will become true which once was false.”

And for those who did fall in love and whose affair became unhappy, Ovid went on to write the Remedia Amoris (Cures for Love).

CV Roy Gibson

Roy Gibson is professor of Latin at the University of Manchester and author of Ovid: Ars Amatoria Book 3 and Excess and Restraint: Propertius, Horace and the Ars Amatoria.