Retrospect
Journal.

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY'S HISTORY, CLASSICS AND ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE

The Art of Love: Ovid’s Valentine Tips

The Art of Love: Ovid’s Valentine Tips

Ovid, famed for his erotic poetry, is a self-proclaimed expert on love. One of his better-known works, the Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”), instructs his readers – both male and female – on how to make themselves attractive to, and keep the affections of, their lover. Here, I will relate the best of his advice for students of Classics to utilise. 

While he does complain about his lover “nagging for too many presents” (1.10.11-2), Ovid advises that you give a gift when asked. In Book 2 of the Ars Amatoria he provides a few guidelines for appropriate and appreciated gifts for men to give their ladies: 

  • Don’t break the bank. Gifts should be small and meaningful, such as a basket of seasonal fruit. For added sentiment, he suggests you tell your beloved it is from your own country estate (even if you bought it from the Lidl around the corner). 
  • Take her preferences into consideration. Don’t give her flowers if she has hay fever, for example, or chestnuts if just last week she said she’s gone off them. This one is just common sense. 
  • Roses are red, violets are blue, poems don’t flatter much more than a few. Ironically, it turns out that, in Ovid’s experience, there aren’t many girls cultured enough to appreciate a poem written by their lover. A footnote should be added to this though: spontaneous poetic compositions are more likely to be successful – make your lover feel special. 

On that note, Ovid also has a few words to say on compliments: 

  • You don’t have to mean what you say. Say something nice about what she is wearing: ‘Purple suits you’, or ‘You look stunning in silk’. 
  • Combine them with tender moments of concern and effusive praise. If she’s wearing a nice dress, follow up with ‘aren’t you cold?’ and offer your jacket. If she has been singing or dancing, ask her to do it again, even if you were bored to death. 
  • Always describe her as kind and gentle. In today’s society, where gender norms and expectations have shifted, we don’t have to stick to this one. Instead, I suggest “you are a strong, independent woman” – it goes down much better. 
  • Discretion is advised. Not everything needs to be complimented. Don’t lessen the value of your compliments by offering them too frequently. If you are too liberal with the dosage, or unrealistic with the magnitude, your lover won’t believe you, and the message will be ruined. “Detection discredits you for good” (Ovid, Ars Amatoria 2.314). 

For ladies in particular, Ovid has some advice on how to attract and maintain the attentions of your lover. This ranges from hair and makeup to movement and dress colour, and pretty much all focuses on your appearance. Buckle in, because there’s a lot to cover here. 

  • Hair – Do whatever suits your face best. If you have a long face, Ovid recommends a nice centre parting, and for a round face he suggests piling it all on top and exposing your ears. However, he does point out that different men are attracted to different things, and though some like wild braids, others like it all loose about the shoulders. Basically, Ovid is hardly an expert, and wants you to do what you like. Just model yourself on your favourite Roman deity, and you’ll be sure to win all the attention. 
  • Clothes – Like with gifts, Ovid doesn’t advise spending huge amounts of money on excessive frills or expensive purple dyes. He extols the virtues of cheaper colours like sky blue, saffron yellow, and even brown. He has more advice on how to arrange your dress so that your figure appears to the greatest advantage: simply cover up any offending features with an attractive accessory. Ugly feet? Wear cute boots. Weird legs? Wear a long skirt. Flat chest? Wear a good bra. This is not the body positive advice that we like to see today, but do we follow it anyway? Yes, we do! 
  • Makeup – Ovid is far pickier about this. He concedes that he doesn’t need to tell girls how to do their makeup, but he does say that there is nothing more unattractive than cakey makeup. If you are having trouble with your complexion, he directs you to his poem about facial treatments, Medicamina Faciei Femineae. Disclaimer: I have never tried any of these remedies myself, so I cannot vouch for the results. Anyone who chooses to put twelve raw eggs and a variety of herbs, spices and oils on their face is welcome to report the results to me, but I take no blame for negative reactions. 
  • Mannerisms – Apparently, there is an art to laughing. Don’t get carried away, don’t cry, don’t show your teeth, and simply titter politely, in a ladylike fashion. Also walking. Clearly so many Roman women harrumphed like heffalumps down the via Appia that of it felt the need to advise women to sway their hips in a gentle breeze in a slightly suggestive manner.  
  • Talents – Ovid and Shakespeare were clearly in cahoots, as both deem that “music be the food of love” (Twelfth Night, Act I Scene i). Ovid finds girls who play the lyre and sing to be the most captivating (although perhaps this is an indirect compliment to himself…). He also insists that girls should be excellent dancers (presumably this helps with the way they walk), and they should enjoy playing board games. 

So, it seems that Ovid has more specifications for women than Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy. But no Austen novel is complete without the romantic heroine lying ill in bed. As we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, it seems suitable to relay Ovid’s advice for looking after your loved one when they are ill in case you both should come down with a case of lovesickness (otherwise known as c-Ovid-19). He says:  

  • “Then let her see, beyond doubt, how she’s loved and cherished” (2.321) – this quote speaks for itself. Bring your partner hot water bottles and mugs of tea and tuck them in gently. 
  • “Let her see you weeping” (2.325) – perhaps a little overdramatic, but still sweet. 
  • “Bring round some old crone to purify bed and bedroom” (2.329) – not advisable if you are still living under tighter restrictions. Also a bit weird… 
  • “But don’t let your services risk incurring the invalid’s displeasure” (2.332-3) – the most crucial advice of all. All well-meaning actions may be for nothing if your beloved’s recovery is disturbed by your actions. 

So there you have it – the complete guide to romance according to Ovid.

Written by Fiona Macrae

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