By 18 BC, morality among the citizens of Rome had depleted by such degree that the emperor was impelled to enact the lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus, which instituted adultery as a crime punishable by death or exile. This was the Rome of Ovid’s time, but more importantly this was the audience for whom The Art of Love was written. When contemplating the decadent advice Ovid offers this Roman population in moral decay, one must consider what tools Ovid utilizes to persuade his audience to follow his teachings. Ovid seeks to conduct his audience by providing them with a myriad of examples from the most respected, yet most immoral entity in ancient times: the Roman gods. To decipher the manner in which Ovid accomplishes his feat one must not only consider his exploitation of religion as a mode of persuasion, but also these ancient beings themselves, whose scandalous lives and love affairs are deeply rooted with that same decadence and which Ovid tries to promote in Book I of his Ars Amatoria: rape.
Religion was the muse of Ovid’s controversial The Art of Love. The first book is primarily composed of references to ancient Roman myths and heroes; however, there are a few key allusions which not only justify but actually promote an immoral pursuit of women. Within the first pages, Ovid claims that his “art has come from Apollo.” While Apollo may be the god of many virtues such as of music, poetry and prophesy, his craft in attaining women’s love stands to be less than virtuous. Ovid himself describes an instance in his Metamorphoses in which Apollo’s love conquest ends in death. Once Apollo had forced Leucothoe to succumb to his lustful love, Leucothoe was punished by her father for the immorality of the act by being buried alive. This is the fate of a girl whose conquest was successful. Consequently, the women whom Apollo pursues unsuccessfully, such as Cassandra and Daphne, also meet a dreadful end. Apollo’s art in pursuing women not only leads to the ruin of respectable women but also reveals Apollo as a spiteful and malevolent lover. The glorification of Apollo is dangerous within the context of the Ovid’s piece because of Apollo’s need to punish the women who refuse his sexual advances in a cruel and vengeful manner. Ovid’s claim that his art came from Apollo, is the first instance in which Ovid supports the mistreatment women, particularly those who would reject his love.
The mistreatment of women is an underlying theme in Ovid’s Book I of The Art of Love, one that has been greatly romanticized by the myths and legends embedded into the text. One of the prime examples which fully portrays Ovid’s acceptance of the objectification of women is the story of Romulus and the Sabine women. When alluding to this story, Ovid focuses on the terror of the virgin girls as they flee from “the lust of a hand”. The language implication behind the kidnapping of these women suggests that upon their unwillingness to sanctify their marriage, they will be raped. The story takes a comedic turn through dialog when Ovid draws a comparison between daughters and mothers, insinuating that cooperating with these soldiers will allow the girls to become just like their mothers. By bringing comedy into this piece, Ovid not only detracts from the severity of the situation, but also de-victimizes the girls by insinuating that they are silly for not accepting Romulus’ men. By not allowing the rape victims to be victims, Ovid insinuates that rape is not a crime, but simply another approach to finding a suitable wife. The Sabine women are further objectified through Ovid’s depiction of them as the “booty” and the “rewards” for which he would gladly enlist in the army. By making these women the rightful prize of these soldiers, Ovid insinuates that every soldier is entitled to a wife such as a Sabine woman, and should therefore kidnap an eye-catching maiden.
Ovid claims that a woman who “is forcefully taken, welcomes the wanton assault” because it flatters her vanity. This not meant to be a justification for rape, but rather a reason to partake in it. Furthermore, the mythical examples Ovid uses to strengthen this case predate both himself and the argument—suggesting that these myths are not simply the exempla of his argument, but the core inspiration which sparked his ideology. The first two women which Ovid sites are Phoebe and Hilaria, who were kidnapped and “ravished” by Pollux and Castor whom in turn slaughtered their lovers; Idas and Lynceus. Although Ovid emphasizes the rape of these women as the focal point of the myth, the occurrence is only a sub-plot. Ovid manipulates the audience into “viewing the myths from a novel angle… by stressing a usually insignificant aspect of the story.”The story of Pollux and Castor is a heart-warming story of two brothers who loved each other so much, that upon the death of one, the other shared with him his immortality. Through the invocation of this popular myth of Gemini, Ovid summons a subliminal feeling of emotion and admiration for Pollux and Castor. The underlying message in their mention is not that women liked being raped, but rather that raping a woman does not make a man less honourable or less loved by the gods. Although also included to exemplify the desire for women to be raped, the story of Achilles and Deidamia delivers a dangerous message and offers the male audience yet another reason to rape women. The story tells of Achilles being dressed as a woman by his mother in order to protect him from certain death. His true identity is only discovered upon the rape of his chamber mate, Deidamia. Achilles’ masculinity is regained through the rape of Deidamia. By incorporating the story of Achilles, where rape is an expression of power and masculinity, Ovid is no longer advocating rape for the sake of the pleasure of women, but also for men looking to prove their manhood.
The myths which Ovid utilizes to fortify his romanticism of rape share in many vital similarities. The first of which, is the grandeur of the men who commit these rapes: Romulus, is the founder of Rome, Pollux and Castor are a constellation, and Achilles is a hero of the Trojan War. Ovid could have cited criminals or Greeks, but instead chose these intricate figures of Roman religion due to their status and marketability as role models. As Watson describes in Mythological Exempla in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Ovid utilizes his “mythological figure[s] as  model[s] to be emulated” One of the many reasons which allow Ovid to convince his audience to follow the example of these entities, is the belief that they are divine and above the law—but more importantly, above the notions of right and wrong. Had Ovid cited the rape of Roman virgins at the hands of a band of thieves or even slaves, his effect on the audience would have been much less convincing and more open to criticism. Likewise, had Ovid made reference to Castor’s death and acknowledged it to be the consequence of committing rape, his argument would have suffered a great blow and possibly scared away the lovers who considered rape a wise behavior of love making.
Another interesting characteristic shared by these rape myths is the comparative lowliness of these men’s status at the time of the rape and the necessity of the rape in order to fulfill their destinies. At the time that Romulus raped the Sabine women, he had not yet been able to fully establish the city of Rome; the Sabine women made this possible, as they provided the female population needed to form a prosperous nation. Likewise, Pollux and Castor would never have been able to achieve their status of stardom if they had not raped Phoebe and Hilaira—and Achilles, may never have become the hero of the Trojan war had he not exposed himself as a man to Deidamia. In this manner, the rape of these women enabled these famous men to fulfill their destinies.
Watson accuses Ovid of a “radical alteration of characters’ motives” in order to fit his argument. Romulus’ rape of the Sabine women is a great example of this. Although the soldiers enjoyed the prospect of bedding beautiful women, the Sabine maidens were not raped for the entertainment of the soldiers or even to achieve their own “desire.” Romulus, in fact, stages this kidnapping to enlarge Rome and secure its future glory and prosperity. In this light, the rapes not only seem inevitable but necessary—making the Sabine women heroines of Rome. When Deidamia begs Achilles not to leave her, Ovid attributes this plead to her enjoyment of being raped rather than any prior love she may have felt for Achilles or even the fear she may have felt upon the prospect of having been disgraced out of wedlock. In this manner, Ovid manipulates the motives of these characters to his will in order to achieve his persuasion.
It seems as though Ovid wishes to justify his ideals, and those of his religious figures, by suggesting that women are wicked and act in more repulsive ways than any of the men referenced in his text. Ovid sites a myriad of “crimes, every one, [which] arose from the lust of a woman.” In this manner, Ovid suggests that the fulfillment of a women’s lust is a crime to be weary of, while the fulfillment of a man’s lust is a clever approach to gain a wife. The women accused of these lust-related crimes are Pasiphae, Clytemnestra, Cre’sa, Myrrha and Byblis. These could possibly be noted as the most immoral and wicked women in Roman myth. The crimes which these women commit are horrific and unpardonable. The magnitudes of their crimes are so much greater than those of the rapists, that it enables Ovid to create a comparison in which the men come out victoriously. Furthermore, these women’s brutality justifies the violence which Ovid promotes against women—declaring that all women are capable of this violence if a man is “conveniently there.” The implication behind this statement, suggests that if men do not take force upon women, they will take violence upon a man.
In conclusion, The Art of Love: Book I not only persuades the audience to follow the examples of rape by the well respected figures in Roman mythology, but also manipulates the audience into “viewing the myths from a novel angle” in order to support and justify this sexual violence it in the eyes of even the most reasonable man.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.
—. The Art of Love. Translated by Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957.
Watson, Patricia. “Mythological Exempla in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria.” Classical Philology (The University of Chicago Press) 78, no. 2 (Apr., 1983): 117-126.