Choosing Elegy:  The Judgment of Paris in Ovid's Didactic Poems

Elizabeth Forbis Mazurek

University of Notre Dame

This paper will examine Ovid's use of the Judgment of Paris myth in the Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris as both a rhetorical exemplum and a metaphor for the artistic merit of erotic elegy.  The Judgment story narrated by Paris himself in Heroides 16 (ll. 53-88) will provide comparative material useful for understanding Ovid's manipulation of this significant myth.

The Paris of Heroides 16 is a figure challenged by ignorance and libido, that is, someone badly in need of the kind of instruction provided by the praeceptor amoris.  In particular, Paris' version of the Judgment, in which he is led unconsciously by his subjective desire for erotic love to choose Venus' offer of Helen, is recast in the Ars Amatoria (1.245-48; 1.623-28) and Remedia Amoris (709-14) as simply a beauty contest that requires an objective and discerning judge.  The rich irony of this myth as didactic exemplum is revealed especially when read against its narrative form in Heroides 16.  The slick transformation of the artless Paris of the Heroides into a model of elegiac savvy for male pupils to imitate exposes the specious pedagogy of the praeceptor.  [Cf. P. Watson, CP 78 (1983) 123, on Judgment myth at Ars Am. 1.247-48 without reference to Heroides 16.]

At the same time, the transformation invites us to consider the literary significance of the Judgment myth for Ovid's (in)famous defense of his elegiac poetry (Rem. Am. 371-96).  From this perspective, the goddess Venus symbolizes erotic elegy and the goddesses Juno and Athena represent the weightier poetic genres, but primarily epic.  Paris becomes a figure for the elegiac poet whose preference of Venus characterizes his relationship to his chosen genre.  The Paris of Heroides 16 aligns himself with Venus/elegy according to his carnal desires.  In other words, he is not at all motivated by consideration of ars.  The image this suggests of the poet turning to elegiac poetry to articulate his sexual impulses is precisely what Ovid wishes to refute in the Remedia Amoris.  There he defends his allegedly offensive subject matter on the grounds that it is entirely appropriate to the form and style of elegy.  Artistic considerations far outweigh concerns about immoral content.  Thus, the Judgment of Paris in Ovid's didactic elegy is modified proportionately to a competition in formal aesthetics and its judge becomes a connoisseur of beauty.  Paris' artistically informed choice of Venus appears to be an important metaphorical explanation of the poet's preference of erotic elegy, especially since Ovid's defense slyly sidesteps the question of why he chose to write in the genre in the first place.

However, the ominous connection between the Judgment and its epic consequences, which the praeceptor acknowledges at Ars Amatoria 1.683-86, casts suspicion upon its apparent metaphorical function.  And Paris' ineptitude in Heroides 16 provides further evidence that the praeceptor is more than likely making a disingenuous maneuver in using the myth as artistic justification of erotic elegy.  This paper hopes, therefore, to demonstrate the value of an intertextual reading of these Judgment of Paris texts for gaining new insight into the inspiration for Ovid's elegiac curriculum.

(handout provided, 15 minutes)

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