A friend of mine, an Ovid specialist, was delighted last week to see The Guardian celebrating his birthday with an article about Ovid's Ars Amatoria, his first century manual of seduction. It's not a bad article, though I've no idea how good the author's book is. Still, you could worse in introducing Ovid than to comment:
The Greeks may have written wonderfully about desire, but Catullus was the first classical poet to write about the joy and heartbreak of relationships. And Ovid left us a detailed, scandalous, hilarious, cynical, explicit and still user-friendly handbook on how to go about finding, and keeping, the man or woman of our dreams.
This fabulous poem, the Ars Amatoria, or The Art of Love, was first published around the time that Jesus Christ was teething. And it's still up to the job better than the stuff in the self-help section of the local bookshop.
The Ars is the ancient equivalent of a how-to book. It is a didactic poem - that is, a poem meant to teach you something. Its forebears in the genre of didactic poetry tended to be about respectable things such as farming and the natural sciences. Ovid's Ars Amatoria is quite a different proposition. Instead of teaching you the right time to prune your vines or how atoms work, it is full of brilliant information on sexual positions and how to apply makeup to maximise your pulling power. Ovid had taken a serious, learned literary genre and done something daringly racy and sexy with it.
It's been a long time since I've read the Ars, but as I remarked to my erudite friend last week, the gist of it, as I recall, is that men should basically stalk the women they fancy, while women should play hard to get. Frowning, he conceded that if it were necessary to sum up the poet's advice so crudely, I could do a lot worse.
Charlotte Higgins, author of the article and a new book on the Ars, instead highlights the importance of looking good, getting out there, self-belief, and keeping in touch. She picks some nice passages to illustrate what she's saying. I rather like:
What is softer than water,
What harder than stone? Yet the soft
Water-drip hollows hard rock. In time, with persistence,
You'll conquer Penelope. Troy fell late,
But fall it did.
Do persistence and patience always win out? I'm not sure, though it's a nice thought.