By Linda Hedrick
The Roman poet Ovid not only had his book, Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) banned, but he himself was banished from Rome for writing it in the year 8 CE. All of his works were burned by Savonarola in his infamous bonfire of the vanities in 1497. Christopher Marlowe translated it in 1599, and his translation was banned. U.S. Customs banned it in 1930 - nearly two thousand years later. This makes it a candidate, if not the winner, of the dubious distinction of being the longest (in time) banned book.
Publius Ovidius Naso (43-17 BCE) was a poet who is considered a master of the elegiac couplet, a poetic form first used by Greek lyric poets with alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and pentameter. This form is considered the oldest Greek form of epodic poetry (think "call and response") first used for funeral songs, then adapted to erotic poetry. The Romans took it to its zenith in the time of Augustus. Ovid is traditionally ranked with Virgil and Horace as the triumvirate of canonical Latin love elegists. His poetry was much imitated in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and greatly influenced European art and literature.
In 8 CE, Ovid was banished to Tomis, now in Romania, on the Black Sea. Augustus banished him alone, without the Senate or a Roman judge. There are no definitive writings on why, but Ovid himself wrote it was by reason of carmen et error - a song and a mistake. He claimed his actions were worse than murder. The Julian Marriage Laws of 18 BCE were enacted to promote monogamy in the interest of increasing the birth rate and strengthening families. Since Ovid's Ars Amatoria included adultery, it may have seemed in opposition to Augustus' legislation.
But since there were six years between the publication and the banishment, Augustus may have used the poem as justification for something else, some sort of political secret. What that would be is anyone's guess, but Augustus had also banished his grandchildren, Agrippa Postumus and Julia the Younger, about the same time, and Julia's husband, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was put to death for a conspiracy against Augustus. Ovid may have known about this conspiracy. Unless some new documents come to light, we may never know.
Ars Amatoria is a didactic poem in three books that teaches the arts of seduction and love. It serves in part as a satire on didactic poetry. The first book is for men and covers the seduction of women. Ovid establishes himself as a teacher of love, and tells of the places one can scout for lovers, such as a theater, a triumph, or an arena. He then goes into ways of seducing a woman at a banquet, the right time to seduce her, and care of the body.
The second book is also for men, and tells them how to keep a lover. He advises men to keep up their appearance, hide affairs, don't give too many gifts, don't forget her birthday, and don't ask her age. The end of this book promotes the joy of simultaneous orgasms.
The third is addressed to women and teaches seduction techniques. He is resolved to arm women against the measures the first two books advise. He tells women not to wear too many adornments, to read elegiac poetry, learn to play games, flirt, and take on lovers of different ages. He also advises that women should make their lovers jealous so they don't become complacent. He also discusses sexual positions, with advice on choosing an appropriate one for their own bodies.
Despite the real or imagined banishment and the subsequent bannings through the centuries, Ars Amatoria is still part of the curriculum of both high schools and colleges, as it was in medieval times. If all this fuss was created by Ovid, then kudos to him for his marketing genius.