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Excess and Restraint: Propertius, Horace and Ovid’s ’Ars Amatoria’ (BICS Supplement 89)

Ovid’s Ars Amatoria has long had a reputation for ‘excess’, both moral and stylistic. Augustus’ banishment of the poet to Romania in 8 AD – for teaching ‘foul adultery’ in the Ars – is partly responsible for this reputation, along with Roman love elegy’s well-known predilection for immoderate attitudes and alienation from the values of conventional society. The Ars is undoubtedly a work of subversive tendencies, but its larger reputation has made it difficult for readers to appreciate one of the most striking, yet characteristic, features of the poem. In the pursuit of erotic ends, Ovid recommends to his pupils stratagems of moderation and self-restraint. Ovid’s (hedonistic) middle way is both a novelty for elegy, which is more accustomed to thinking in terms of binary polarities or to pursuing extremes, and it is a witty attempt to wrest the theme of the moderate and the middle from the Augustan poet with whom it is most closely associated – Horace. Excess and restraint’s re-introduction of Horace into the criticism of Roman love elegy is accompanied by a novel attempt to use works by Cicero and Aristotle to engage with the Ars Amatoria, particularly the de Officiis and Nicomachean Ethics which both offer influential treatments of the ‘middle way’.

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