8 Ancient Roman Love Hacks

The Roman author Ovid was born a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He wrote various works throughout his long career, but none so insightful for the everyday person as his Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”).

At first glance, the three books of Ars Amatoria are a collection of short poems playing with the common tropes of love stories – the locked-out lover, the slave go-between, the symptoms of love-sickness, the rich rival, the poor poet, infidelity and occasionally successful erotic encounter. But, they also include advice to the reader on how to be a good lover. Here are some of them:

1. Manage Your Smell

“[address] the odor in your armpit so that it does not go rancid and your legs so they are not rough with hair.” he says.

He also says, “See to it that he is well-composed, and his toga without stain. That the tongue not be unbending, and that your teeth be without tartar, Nor let your foot swim about while walking in a loose shoe(s). Don’t let a hair-cut badly fashion your stiff hair; Let your hair and your beard be trimmed by a familiar hand. And that it doesn’t stick up too much, and that your nails are without dirt. And no hairs stand out in the cavities from the nostril. Nor let the breath of your sad mouth be badly scented, Nor [smelling] as a man or billy-goat annoy nostils.” (I. 514-522)

2. Know Your Limits and Work Your Assets

“With little gesture make, whenever she may speak the woman who will have fat fingers and dirty nails. And to the woman whose breath of her mouth is burdensome, never speak hungry and always keep some distance away from your lover’s mouth. If your teeth are blackened, large, or not in line from birth, you will carry the greatest error by laughing.” (III. 280-286)

3. Make Your Choice and Own it

Ovid tells us, “you must act the part of a lover” in order to really become one. But, first of all, “choose someone to whom you can say “you alone please me”’ – that is, choose someone to be the recipient of your loving discourse. With this opening, Ovid goes right in to the heart of the conflict between love as a conscious, rational choice and as an irrational, overwhelming emotion. In the art of love, emotion and logic need to be balanced.

4. Go Out and Find Love

In any case, this section advises the reader to not sit complacently waiting for love, and instead to make an effort to go out and find it. “This woman will not come having fallen to you through thin airs: You must look with your eyes for a suitable girl” (I. 43-44)

Ovid’s favorite local hotspots for singles mingling included the circus, the arena, and even the open-air public market. But the go-to place for a veritable “galaxy” of beauties was the theatre. There, a Roman could find “crowds of lovely women, gaily dressed,” in search of art and culture.

4. Beware of Alcohol and Bad Lighting

Ovid explicitly advises his audience to beware of the combination of alcohol and low lighting in finding a lover, describing them as ignis in igne fuit (“a fire within a fire”) adding that “Nighttime darkness and wine harm your decision making and standards” (I.247) If you really want to know what she [or he] is like, look at her by daylight, and when you’re sober.”

5. Be Friends

Another possibility of finding love is, of course, through friendship. “Let love appear disguised by the name of friendship. With this entrance, I have seen the surrendering words of fierce women. This which has been the cultivator, a lover was made”. (I. 720-722)

6. Pay Attention to the Red Flags

Ovid also recognizes that there are always undesirable men, and warns women to be cautious. “Avoid those men who swears by looks and culture, who keeps their hair carefully in place. The things they tell to you they’ve told a thousand girls: their love wanders and lingers in no one place”. (III. 433-442)

7. Do not Brag about Your “Conquests”

Those notches on the proverbial bedpost might be a pleasure to brag about, Ovid suggests, but they won’t help your or your paramour’s reputation. If you really must spill the juicy details to a friend, at least refrain from painting yourself as the gods’ gift to women or men: “Let us… speak sparingly of our real amours, and hide our secret pleasures beneath an impenetrable veil.”

8. Pick Up a Book

Seagoing hero Ulysses was eloquent and so fluent in ancient tongues and storytelling that he had two goddesses after him. A good brain and sense of refinement matters in love. Ovid says, “Youths of Rome, learn, I recommend you, the liberal arts; and not only that you may defend the trembling accused. Both the public, and the grave judge, and the silent Senate, as well as the fair, conquered by your eloquence, shall extend their hands.”

No Such Thing as “True Love”: The Tragedy of Venus and Adonis

Adonis is a young man renowned for his beauty. But he is not interested in love and only wants to go hunting. When Venus sees Adonis, she falls in love with him and comes down to earth where she encounters him setting out on a hunt. She asks him to get off his horse, and speak to her,but Adonis does not want to talk to any woman, not even a goddess. So she forces him to listen. She lies down beside him, gazes at him, and talks of love. He manages to get away and goes to get his horse.

At that moment, Adonis’ horse becomes enamored of another horse and soon the two animals gallop off together, which keeps Adonis from going hunting. Venus approaches him, and continues to speak to him of love. He listens for a bit, then turns away scornfully. This pains her and she faints. Afraid that he might have killed her, Adonis kneels to stroke and kiss her. Venus recovers and requests one last kiss. He reluctantly gives in.

Unsatisfied, Venus wants to see him again. But, Adonis tells her that he is going to hunt the wild boar. Venus desperately warns him that if he does so, he will be killed by a boar. She then flings herself on him, tackling him to the ground. Adonis pries himself loose and, after lecturing her (the goddess of love) on the topic of lust versus love, he leaves, leaving the heartbroken Venus behind.

The next morning Venus roams the woods searching for Adonis. Hearing dogs and hunters in the distance, she thinks back on her vision that her beloved will be killed by a boar. Afraid, she hurries to catch up with the hunt. Soon, she finds Adonis, killed by a wild boar.

Devastated, Venus decrees that love will henceforth be mixed with suspicion, fear, and sadness. 

Artwork by ROOSDY.
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