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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Language, Literature and Humanities - Alexander von Humboldt Professorship

Naso magister erat – sed cui bono? On not taking the poet’s teaching seriously

Alison Sharrock, University of Manchester

The author of a didactic work which teaches something arguably illegal has a difficult problem on his hands when it comes to persuading his audience of the utility of his offering. Ovid's self-presentation as teacher of love in the Ars Amatoria andRemedia Amoris has to tread a careful path between the Scylla of teaching successfully but breaking the law, and the Charybdis of persuading the Emperor that his work was never meant to be put into practice and never taught anyone anything they didn't already know (quod nemo nescit - amare ,Tristia 1.1.112) – and was therefore a complete waste of time. In the poems from exile, especially Tristia 2, Ovid pushed the line that it wasn't his fault if people put his teaching into practice, a bit like the argument that shoot-‘em-up computer games don't breed violence. In the happier days of the erotodidactic poems themselves, Ovid relied on a few disingenuous "disclaimers" to protect him from the dull hand of the law, and stressed rather the practical and indeed essential value of his teaching. What he was really doing, however, was, we might say, not so much teaching a set of techniques but inculcating a mindset, education in its fullest sense by persuasion and attraction as much as by training. While modern scholars have sometimes worked hard to deny any utility to Ovid (see Kennedy, DF (2000) ‘Bluff your way in didactic Ovid's Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris’, Arethusa 33.2 : 159-176), in his own day and throughout the Middle Ages his work changed the face of didactic poetry and gave it impact (social, and possibly even economic) on behaviour beyond anything that the subversive but essentially playful poet could ever have intended.