Husband or Boyfriend? The Elegiac Lover in the Face of Adultery

Aaron Seider

University of Chicago

It is only through the calculated use of ars, the praeceptor tells his students in the Ars Amatoria, that they will find success in the game of love. His constant emphasis of the power of ars seems to imply, as Myerowitz notes, that "love is an occasion for man to function as the artifex."[1] However, if love is an opportunity for the user of ars to shine, then a passage concerning adultery (2.535-600) raises a difficult question: why is the praeceptor himself, supposedly an expert in the art of love, unable to follow his own advice when confronted with a cheating mistress?

I argue that the praeceptor's failure is caused by his emotional attachment. This feeling should not encumber an elegiac lover, at least according to the praeceptor, yet it renders him incapable of practicing his ars. My paper examines how the details of this passage reveal a blurring both between the categories of husband and young man, as well as between the different levels of attachment implied by those categories.

This blurring is first evident in the praeceptor's recapitulation of his response to his mistress' infidelity. Even though he urges his students to turn a blind eye on any dalliances, the praeceptor himself is unable to assume this blasé attitude. Instead, he tells of how his anger forced him into provoking a ruinous confrontation.

Next, I move on to the exemplum the praeceptor uses to illustrate his advice: the story of Vulcan's entrapment of Venus and Mars in flagrante delicto. Even on the surface, this exemplum is a revealing choice. The explicit identification of Vulcan and Venus as a married couple hints at the praeceptor' conception of his own relationship. Moreover, textual links to Demodocus' telling of this myth in Od. 8.266-366 invite a comparison, which reveals that the praeceptor's rendition of the story emphasizes Vulcan's anxiety and emotional attachment. Even though Vulcan, like the praeceptor, is most accomplished in his own field of ars, his distress over Venus' affair compels him to actions which only increase his misery.

Lastly, I turn to the praeceptor's closing instructions to his students. When he says that only husbands may set traps for adulterous women, his injunction calls attention to his use of a story about a husband as a negative example for an audience composed of young men (iuvenes 2.557).While this incongruity could be explained as the praeceptor's sloppy mistake, it suggests that he views his own relationship in terms of a marriage.

In my conclusion, I explore the implications of the praeceptor's ambiguous conception of the elegiac relationship and of his failure in following his own ars. I suggest that this conception and its consequences shed light on two issues central to the poem: the power of ars and Ovid's portrayal of the praeceptor.

[1] Myerowitz, M. (1985) Ovid’s Games of Love. Detroit: Wayne State Press, p. 36.


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page