Ovid: Art of Love and Rape
Ovid was the last of the great poets of the golden age. He belonged to a privilege group of Roman youths who liked to ridicule old Roman values. In keeping with the spirit of this group Ovid wrote a frivolous series of love poems known as the Amores, intended to entertain and shock. They ultimately achieved their goal. Another of Ovid's works was The Art of Love. This was essentially a takeoff on didactic poems. Whereas authors of earlier didactic poems had written guides to farming, hunting, or some such subject, Ovid's work was a handbook on the seduction of women.
The Art of Love appeared to applaud the loose sexual morals of the Roman upper classes at a time when Augustus was trying to clean up the mores of upper class Rome. The princeps was not pleased. Ovid chose to ignore the wishes of Augustus and paid a price for it. In AD 8, Ovid was implicated in a sexual scandal, possibly involving the emperor's daughter Julia. He was banished to a small town on the coast of the Black Sea, a place called Tomes, where few people spoke Latin or Greek. It was then that he composed his most popular work, the Metamorphoses.
The book of changes was a series of fifteen complex mythological tales involving transformations, especially rape, and also change of chaos into order. He felt he had no power so rape would signify his position in the Roman world. Although rape dominated the text, scholars are distracted by the fact that the violent scenario is set in a poetic form. It is distanced from reality and set in series of ornate languages and relies on literary themes. Rape is set to high culture. Some call the work pornography because its purpose is to titillate the reader.
The “gaze” is an important theme in Ovid’s work because in some sense the initial stage of violence is staring at someone. This theme brings the reader into the story and Ovid demands you imagine what is happening. He never describes a rape, he allows the reader to imagine it. He does allude to other acts of violence, such as cutting out the tongue of Philomela, which consequently substitutes for the act of rape. Ovid’s narrative highlights the thrill of fear; as if it’s an attractive quality to have, to inflict fear on the innocent. Fear and violence always ends with transformation. One is the transformation from rapist and raped.
In Ovid’s text, the rapist is the performer and the subject and the victim is the object being acted upon, with the verb being in the passive form. There is also a transformation of the experience. In Ovid, women are transformed into animals or even trees. Men, when raped, become effeminized. Rape violates natural boundaries and transforms those boundaries. The victim is usually disfigured and punished in Ovid’s works. There is a certain amount of sympathy for the victim in Metamorphoses because Ovid is projecting his own violation by Roman power.
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