more on Ovid and Roman love elegy

In a footnote to my post on understanding Ovid’s love elegies, I briefly discussed Ch. 5, “Necessary Female Beauty and Generic Male Resentment: Reading Elegy through Ovid”, in Sharon L. James, Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). Prof. James responded with an email to me.  Since this was before my email and telephone policy statement, I will not post her email.  Her email was gracious and intellectually substantive.  Among her comments, she stated that she took a slight exception to my characterization of her book.  She described luxurious gifts to courtesans as professional necessities.  She also asked whether I had actually read Ch. 5 of her book.  In the spirit of intellectual sharing, here is the email I sent to her (with two minor points noted):

Dear Prof. James,

Thanks for taking the time to write to me. Your book taught me much about Roman elegy. More importantly, you communicate well your joy in a sustained engagement with Roman elegy. You even have changed some of your views of Roman elegy over time. That’s an inspiring intellectual example.

I did actually read Chapter 5 of your book. You claim that Ovid “exploits and exposes … a powerful {male} resentment against the docta puella, a {male} desire for physical and emotional revenge against her, an awareness of the risks {from men} faced by courtesans, and the constant, though submerged, consciousness of the social, legal, and sexual advantages of being an elite man {desperate for sex} in ancient Rome.” You declare, “In the second part of the chapter, I will look briefly at how in the Ars amatoria Ovid systematizes the lover’s resentment of the docta puella and demonstrates a {male} revulsion against women underlying elegy’s facade of passion.” (p. 157) Reviewing this, leading classical scholar Alison Sharrock writes, “I constantly found myself saying, ‘yes, that’s true, quite so.’”[1] She even adds, without a whiff of irony, “this book offers a corrective to male complacency.” If classical scholarship has read Roman elegy only from a male position prior to your book, then classical scholarship has completely failed to understand central aspects of the male position. Please consider more seriously my post on understanding Ovid’s love elegies.

I gave you credit for not simply declaring Ovid to be a misogynist and urging that the reading of Ovid be accounted a hate crime against women.  You render Ovid’s love elegies safe for academic study by revealing him to be actually exposing male resentment of women.  But that tactic lacks artistry.  It also buttresses academic myth-making of epic proportions.  Show your appreciation of Ovid by being more creative!

You ask: “does it make a difference to your interpretation if the women in the poetry are courtesans, who must make a living by sex?” Why must they make a living by sex, and by sex as a courtesan? I’d guess that most ordinary women and men in ancient Rome did not make a living by sex. For those not extraordinarily gifted with high sex appeal, making a living by sex wasn’t a good prospect. Undoubtedly very few women became courtesans. A larger number probably earned some money at some time working as pornai. I agree that the courtesan is an elegiac convention. Reading that generic convention into a socio-historical necessity of women earning a living is absurd.

Gold, gems, silk dresses, and Eastern jewels are not professional necessities for courtesans any more than stretch limousines are professional necessities for rock stars. Men giving women precious stones is conventionally linked to male sexual interest. But I don’t believe that the stones create the male sexual interest. Propertius 1.2 supports my belief. So does common male sense. Beautiful naked women arouse male heterosexual desire. You suggest that this male desire doesn’t scandalize classical scholars. Can’t we then agree that this male desire exists?

Courtesans selling their jewels to stay alive seems to me like a plot element out of a Victorian novel. In the socio-historical world, most ordinary Roman women and men probably never held a precious jewel in their own hands, to say nothing of owning one. Thus most Roman women and men stayed alive without ever selling jewels. Having power to appropriate a male’s material resources is a natural female desire.[2] That desire quite clearly appears in Roman elegy from the viewpoint of the docta puella. The woman’s luxuries symbolize this desire, realized through the woman’s learning in love and commerce. Selling jewels is a quite different type of commerce than that of primary concern to the woman of Roman elegy. Selling jewels just doesn’t fit into the game of Roman elegy.

I hope that my frank review of your work doesn’t offend you. Your dedication to your teachers and to your father in the introduction to your book suggests to me that your book was written in a spirit of good will. I hope that you will receive these comments in that spirit.


Douglas Galbi

{email sent Feb. 24, 2010}

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Textual notes:

[1] Hyperlink added to make reference explicit.

[2] I apologize for “appropriate”.  It’s academic cant with a treasured Marxist scent.  In species in which females typically have considerably higher parental investment than males, natural selection favors female behavioral strategies for acquiring material resources from males and male behavioral strategies for gaining reproductive opportunities with females.

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