What was Ovid’s attitude towards women?

What was Ovid’s attitude towards women?

By Edward Saunders

A large part of Ovid’s early poetry is concerned primarily with the same age-old issues of love and relationships which have plagued humankind for millennia. He explores the joys and sorrows which love entails and, naturally, the role that women play within this. With each poem, Ovid portrays distinct personas which may allude to different aspects of his personality, in turn revealing the varying and at times conflicting attitudes which he may hold towards women. Indeed it becomes difficult to distinguish between these various Ovids, for much of what we have upon which to base our understanding of him is obtained through his own poetry. However, whilst the boundaries between the real Ovid and the personas that he chooses to portray become significantly blurred, we can still attempt to construct an understanding of Ovid’s attitude towards the role and value of women beyond, of course, being simply worthy subjects for his poetry.

Being only able to consider a small sample of Ovid’s poetry, the first persona of Ovid which I have analysed is that of the flatterer, portrayed in Amores 3.2. In this poem Ovid is at the circus, sitting next to an attractive girl who becomes a fixation of Ovid’s desire. The races themselves form an appropriate analogy for his pursuit of the girl but also, perhaps more strikingly, an excuse to spend time with her. For, within the first four lines of the poem, Ovid declares that he has not come because he is “a fan of thoroughbred horses” (non ego nobilium sedeo studiosus equorum), but rather in order that he may “speak with you [the girl] and sit with you” (et loquerer tecum veni, tecumque sederem). Confessing, “you watch the races, I watch you” (tu cursus spectas, ego te) he admires her beauty and quickly reveals his passionate interest in her body and, at the same time, his apparent indifference towards any of her other attributes. In fact, as far as we are aware, Ovid never actually engages in conversation with the girl, but imagining himself as the charioteer whom she supports, and drawing comparisons to the fierce contest of the races, he makes clear to the reader that he wishes to pursue her. Their only interaction comes at the end of poem when the girl smiles, which Ovid takes as a signal of things to come between them, and whilst it remains unclear as to whether his pursuit was successful, it is apparent that Ovid relishes this challenge. However, it is generally considered that Ovid never actually speaks aloud to the girl and that this monologue is, as suggested by Green in Ovid, The Erotic Poems, “an elaborate fantasy going on in the poet’s head.” Even his attitude towards the other participants in the scene (those sitting around her, the dust falling on her clothes), is a “hint at Ovid’s own obsessional mind”, and suggests that his fixation with the puella (girl), an object of his desire, extends nothing more beyond his view of her as a potential conquest and test to his skill as a seducer. This provokes the question of whether it is indeed love or lust which has seized Ovid in this poem, though whilst it seems more likely to be the latter, it is also possible that Ovid could well be alluding to the initial physical attraction that may, in time, kindle love.

However, the Ovid in Amores 3.4 is somewhat of a contrast, no longer the whimsical flatterer but an experienced lover, offering advice to other men who wish to keep their women from straying. The poem is didactic and suggests an Ovid with an understanding of the female plight that seemingly extends well beyond the previous Ovid’s scope for sensitivity towards women and alludes to a respect of female independence. He explains that “it is not right to watch over a free born girl” (nec ingenuam ius est servare puellam) and declares how it is foolish to guard over a woman, for if she is simply left unguarded she has nothing against which to rebel and is thus less likely to become adulterous. However, this more noble attitude quickly turns back towards the Ovid of 3.2, revealing how a woman who is watched over by her husband becomes “not virtuous but a much prized adulteress” (non proba fit sed adultera cara), and he explains how the added dimension of her faith or rather association to her husband only heightens her allure. Ovid views women (married women in particular, it seems) not only as objects to be admired but as objects to be pursued, and the pursuit of those who ought not be pursued is yet more thrilling. Furthermore, the rewards to which Ovid hints are not just personal but potentially financial, verging on the suggestion of procuring your wife which, arguably, is perhaps the greatest objectification of women possible.

Ovid’s Amores 3.5 appears to be the greatest contrast to the previous Ovid depicted in the Amores. The poem describes a dream which is itself an analogy of Ovid’s apparent situation in which he, the husband, is a bull, and his wife, a cow, who after settling with her bull chooses to move to an area of “more fertile grass” (herbae fertilioris humum) and “mixes herself into that herd” of other bulls (gregibusque inmiscuit illis). Ovid wakes up and after having had the dream explained to him is distraught that his wife could leave him. Having previously delighted in describing how a married woman is made more attractive by her inaccessibility it is striking how his attitude changes to despair when the situation is reversed and he finds himself faced with the thought of his own woman deserting him. Perhaps Ovid considers a ‘conquered woman’ as a possession who, in accordance with Amores 3.4, should require no supervision to retain. Equally, however, it is perhaps a suggestion by Ovid that relationships do in fact require work to maintain: the bull who paid his cow no attention was abandoned, and similarly a woman who does not duly receive such attention has the freedom to go in search of another partner who will offer her this instead.

This seemingly understanding approach towards the needs of lovers as well as the pain felt at their betrayal is mirrored in Amores 3.14, in which Ovid is despairing at being told explicitly about his wife’s affairs. For, on the one hand, he bemoans having the details of her illicit liaisons divulged to him so openly, begging that she keeps them to herself and exclaiming “what madness is it… to tell of deeds which you do secretly?” (quis furor est… quae clam facias facta referre palam?) He makes no objection to her committing the ‘deeds’ themselves and even says “that which you do now, do it” (quae facis, haec facito), which suggests a completely unique concern for his needs alone. It is his despair at the knowledge of the affair which troubles him, and in attempting to rectify the problem he begs only that she should not tell him and “make me miserable” (ne sit misero mihi), expressing no concern for what may have led his wife to such betrayal nor even at what point she became dissatisfied with him. In this sense Ovid’s attitude towards her is almost entirely dismissive, contradicting his previous allusion in 3.5 to the notion that relationships require work and are thus reciprocal arrangements. On the other hand, however, it is equally plausible to suggest that his complete lack of objection to her “sins” (peccata) demonstrates a respect for her liberty to act as she pleases, and by refusing to protest against her affairs (which, arguably, would be well justified) his acknowledgement of her independence is yet more striking. Thus from the same poem we are presented with Ovid’s two conflicting attitudes towards his woman, the selfish and the selfless, of disregard and yet of respect.

At the same time, however, when attempting to define these or indeed any aspects of Ovid’s personality it is important to consider that everything which we are able to learn about him can largely only be obtained through his poetry. The conflicting personas conveyed by Ovid appear to present equally contradictory attitudes concerning his view of women, though, whilst these could be dismissed as mere façades created for the sake of his poetry, the different perspectives which he provides within the theme of love lead us to question the morality and acceptability of the behaviour of these personas.

With this in mind, the Ovid who is presenting these perspectives is perhaps one who actually understands the rather sexist social system of his time. Instead of himself being each of those different personas (the flatterer, the tormented lover, the adulterer, the typical protagonists of love poetry) Ovid is perhaps a criticiser of the oppression and sexual exploitation of women that was inherent in relationships at that time. It was under the Augustan rule that Ovid wrote the Amores, amid reforms that attempted to instil in the citizens principles of loyalty in relationships and counter the adultery that had become commonplace. It is possible that Ovid wrote this poetry not only to express but to highlight to the people the outrageousness of such behaviour and the general acceptance of adultery which had become so widespread at the time. Nonetheless, by virtue of his writing about such issues, it is fair to assume that Ovid had at least some experience in dealing with lovers, and in fact, having apparently been married three times it is reasonable to conclude that Ovid’s attitude towards the women in his life may well have been somewhat mixed.