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16. Amores 1.10: Love for sale

© William Turpin, CC BY

This poem is conspicuously manipulative. We are led to expect a love poem, with the poet comparing his girlfriend to three legendary beauties. But we quickly learn that the poet is in fact angry, because his girl has asked for presents. The poet then shifts into his rhetorical mode, and argues elaborately that women should not charge for sex. Or if they do (the poet apparently changes his mind on this point), a man should pay with poetry, not cash.

The first six lines, with three mythological exempla in as many couplets, is one of Ovid’s most sustained and obvious allusions to his predecessor Propertius. Propertius 1.3 begins with a comparison of his sleeping girlfriend Cynthia to three sleeping heroines, in three couplets:

Qualis Thesea iacuit cedente carina
languida desertis Cnosia litoribus;

qualis et accubuit primo Cepheïa somno
libera iam duris cotibus Andromede;

nec minus assiduis Edonis fessa choreis
qualis in herboso concidit Apidano:


“Like the maiden of Knossos [Ariadne], who lay exhausted on the deserted shore while Theseus’ ship was sailing away; like the daughter of Cepheus, Andromeda, when she lay in her first sleep after her rescue from the hard rock; and like a girl [a Bacchant] exhausted from intense Thracian dances, who has collapsed beside the grassy Apidanus: so….”

In the Propertius poem, too, the relationship between the poet-lover and his girlfriend turns out to be more difficult than that suggested by the idyllic (and sexual) opening comparisons. But in Ovid the reversal is even more dramatic. Ovid’s three heroines are cited not because they are in a specific situation (asleep), but simply because they are spectacularly beautiful: Helen of Troy, Leda, and Amymone (lines 1–6). Now, although the poet had been possessive about his gorgeous girlfriend (lines 7–8), that’s all over: he has decided that she’s not attractive at all (lines 9–10). The reason for this change, we learn, is that she has asked for presents (munera, line 11). The poet realizes, now, that there’s something wrong with what we might call her personality (animus, mens), and that apparently means her beauty isn’t beauty at all.

We may pause here to reflect briefly on whether or not this is plausible. A disillusioned lover might well conclude that a woman’s moral flaws made her beauty irrelevant. He might even say, perhaps, that it made her beauty non-existent, at least to him. But that latter formulation, in this case, seems hard to accept as genuine: this girl is not just good-looking, she’s in the Helen of Troy league. The poet, then, can hardly be sincere: he’s trying to convince the girl, and perhaps himself, that there’s no physical attraction any more, but he’s protesting far too much to be convincing. We get a sense of his desperation, perhaps, in his odd arrangement of mythological exempla: he starts out with the glibbest of glib comparisons, to Helen, but then moves, through Leda, to the far more obscure Amymone. Is he not working just a little too hard to make his point?

Our poet’s long attack on the buying and selling of love is self-consciously rhetorical. The fictional audience changes from one particular girl (note the singulars in lines 7 and 10), to women in general (see the 2nd person plural at line 17 and subsequently). This is a standard rhetorical move, even in modern discourse: a single instance of something mildly offensive can provoke a harangue full of generalizations addressed to an entire class of likely culprits. But it is an overreaction: asking for a present does not actually make a woman a prostitute (see McKeown’s note on lines 17–18).

The most conspicuous feature of his “speech” is its variety, reflecting the age-old debating technique of trying out argument after argument in hopes of finding one that will work. And indeed, as he proceeds, our speaker seems to get more and more desperate to find a valid argument. His first point is the light-hearted one that neither Cupid nor Venus, as portrayed in literature, have any interest in money (lines 15–20). He then moves to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum and compares girls who ask for presents to common prostitutes (lines 21–24). This is followed by the equally insulting observation that female farm animals, unlike some women, require no payment for sex (lines 25–32). Less insulting, though equally carnal, is the argument that payment makes no sense, since sex is pleasurable for women too (lines 33–36). The next argument is even more obviously flawed: since it is immoral for a witness, juror, or lawyer to accept payment, it must be wrong for a woman to profit from her love affair (lines 37–42). The final argument is perhaps almost as weak: paying for favors dissolves any sense of gratitude (lines 43–46). The attack concludes with a flat assertion: nothing good ever comes of women trading sex for presents. The claim is supported by the examples of Tarpeia, who betrayed Rome to the Gauls for gold, and Eriphyle, who betrayed her husband in return for a necklace (lines 47–52). But of course just because deals sometimes go wrong is no proof that they always do.

At this point our speaker apparently contradicts everything he has said so far: it is acceptable, he says, for a girl to ask for gifts when her lover is rich (lines 53–56). It helps a little if we see this as a refutatio (here an “answer” to a question like “Are there any circumstances in which a girl should accept presents?”) But certainly we now have to re-evaluate. The mention of wealthy givers of gifts leads to the subject closest to our speaker’s heart, the question of what a poor man has to offer: love and devotion, certainly, but also poetry, which is better than fancy clothes and jewelry (lines 57–62). As we learned in Amores 1.3, poetry can make a girl immortal.

The final couplet adds a final twist: it’s not payment (pretium, line 63) that the poet objects to, it’s being asked. The girl will in fact get what she wants, but it has to be a surprise (desine velle, line 64). Her request for a present has not in fact led the poet to end the relationship, and we remember, now, that the girl is (supposedly) one of the great beauties of all time. The crisis has been averted, and the relationship looks solid after all.

But there is one slight problem. The girl surely did not ask for a poem; that would make nonsense of the poet’s reaction. But that is what she gets: the poet uses the future (dabo, line 64), but of course the poem is already there. We might wonder if that’s going to be enough.

Moreover, it is hard to forget the bitterness of the attack on mercenary women. The point, perhaps, is similar to that of a famous story told about George Bernard Shaw (and others). A society lady jokingly agreed that she would probably sleep with Shaw for a million pounds, but when he suggested five pounds she asked, indignantly: “What do you think I am?” Shaw’s answer was not chivalrous: “We’ve already established what you are, ma’am. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

Suggested reading

Curran, L. C. “Ovid, Amores 1.10,” Phoenix 18 (1964): 70–87.

Amores 1.10

Quālis ab Eurōtā Phrygiīs āvecta carīnīs
coniugibus bellī causa duōbus erat,

quālis erat Lēdē, quam plūmīs abditus albīs
callidus in falsā lūsit adulter ave,

quālis Amȳmōnē siccīs errāvit in Argīs, 5
cum premeret summī verticis urna comās,

tālis erās: aquilamque in tē taurumque timēbam
et quicquid magnō dē Iove fēcit Amor.

nunc timor omnis abest animīque resānuit error,
nec faciēs oculōs iam capit ista meōs. 10

cūr sim mūtātus quaeris? quia mūnera poscis:
haec tē nōn patitur causa placēre mihi.

dōnec erās simplex, animum cum corpore amāvī;
nunc mentis vitiō laesa figūra tua est.

et puer est et nūdus Amor: sine sordibus annōs 15
et nullās vestēs, ut sit apertus, habet.

quid puerum Veneris pretiō prostāre iubētis?
quō pretium condat, nōn habet ille sinum.

nec Venus apta ferīs Veneris nec fīlius armīs:
nōn decet imbellēs aera merēre deōs. 20

stat meretrix certō cuivīs mercābilis aere
et miserās iussō corpore quaerit opēs;

dēvovet imperium tamen haec lēnōnis avārī
et, quod vōs facitis sponte, coacta facit.

sūmite in exemplum pecudēs ratiōne carentēs: 25
turpe erit, ingenium mītius esse ferīs.

nōn equa mūnus equum, nōn taurum vacca poposcit,
nōn ariēs placitam mūnere captat ovem.

sōla virō mulier spoliīs exultat ademptīs,
sōla locat noctēs, sōla licenda venit 30

et vendit, quod utrumque iuvat, quod uterque petēbat,
et pretium, quantī gaudeat ipsa, facit.

quae Venus ex aequō ventūra est grāta duōbus,
altera cūr illam vendit et alter emit?

cūr mihi sit damnō, tibi sit lucrōsa voluptās, 35
quam sociō mōtū fēmina virque ferunt?

nec bene conductī vendunt periūria testēs
nec bene sēlectī iūdicis arca patet:

turpe reōs emptā miserōs dēfendere linguā;
quod faciat magnās, turpe tribūnal, opēs; 40

turpe torī reditū censūs augēre paternōs,
et faciem lucrō prostituisse suam.

grātia prō rēbus meritō dēbētur inemptīs;
prō male conductō grātia nulla torō.

omnia conductor solvit mercēde solūtā; 45
nōn manet officiō dēbitor ille tuō.

parcite, formōsae, pretium prō nocte paciscī:
nōn habet ēventūs sordida praeda bonōs.

nōn fuit armillās tantī pepigisse Sabīnās
ut premerent sacrae virginis arma caput; 50

ē quibus exierat, trāiēcit viscera ferrō
fīlius, et poenae causa monīle fuit.

nec tamen indignum est ā dīvite praemia poscī:
mūnera poscentī quod dare possit habet;

carpite dē plēnīs pendentēs vītibus ūvās, 55
praebeat Alcinoī pōma benignus ager.

officium pauper numeret studiumque fidemque;
quod quis habet, dominae cōnferat omne suae.

est quoque carminibus meritās celebrāre puellās
dōs mea: quam voluī, nōta fit arte meā. 60

scindentur vestēs, gemmae frangentur et aurum;
carmina quam tribuent, fāma perennis erit.

nec dare, sed pretium poscī dēdignor et ōdī;
quod nego poscentī, dēsine velle, dabō.

Listen to the Amores 1.10

Notes on Amores 1.10

1–2: Quālis: understand ea. The poet begins by comparing his puella to three beautiful heroines, concluding with tālis erās in line 7: “Just as x, y, and z were… such (i.e., so beautiful) were you.” Eurōtā < Eurōtās, -ae f. the Eurotas river,1 the river of Sparta. Phrygiīs < Phrygius, -a, -umPhrygian,” a territory in Asia Minor,2 hence “Trojan.” āvecta: “she who was carried away,” a reference to Helen. coniugibus  duōbus: “for her two spouses,” Menelaus and Paris.

3–4: Lēdē: alternative form of Lēda, raped by Jupiter in the form of a swan (in falsā  ave). callidus … adulter: Jupiter, renowned for his many sexual dalliances with mortals. in: “in the guise of” + abl. lūsit: here lūdō means primarily “deceive,” but it retains its erotic meaning of “sport amorously” and “be promiscuous” (see on 1.8.43 above).

5–6: Amȳmōnē < Amȳmōnē, -ēs, f. Amymone was one of the fifty daughters of Danaus, king of Argos. When Danaus came with his family to Argos, Poseidon blighted the city with drought. Danaus sent his daughters to look for water, but Amymone was attacked by a satyr. The satyr was driven off by Poseidon, who both successfully seduced Amymone and produced a spring. Argīs Argī, Argōrum, m. pl. “Argos” (an important city of the northern Peloponnese). premeret: premō can mean “be on top of, cover”; Amymone was carrying the jar on her head.

Fig. 22 Neptune (Poseidon) and Amymone. Mosaic from the House of Dionysus. 2nd Century CE. Paphos Archaeological Park, Cyprus. Wikimedia,

7–8: tālis  timēbam: the scansion of this line is unusual, especially in Ovid. Instead of a caesura in the third foot there is an elision (aquilamq(ue) in tē); the elision is combined with caesuras in the second and fourth feet: tālis erās | aquilamq(ue) in tē | taurumque timēbam. tālis erās: the narrator is addressing his puella and placing her in the same category with these three women of myth. aquilamque: Jupiter took the form of an eagle to abduct Ganymede. in tē: “for you”; in + accusative can indicate the person towards whom feelings are directed. taurumque: Jupiter took the form of a bull to abduct Europa. quicquid: “whatever,” i.e., whatever other shape, like that of eagle or bull, was adopted by Jupiter in pursuit of his love affairs. magnō dē Iove: “out of great Jupiter”; here is perhaps used humorously to indicate the material from which a thing is made.

9–10: timor omnis: the fear that she too, like Helen, Leda, Amymone, Europa, and Ganymede, would be abducted. animīque resānuit error: his “mistake” was being in love. faciēs  ista: either “that well-known face of yours” or “that well-known beauty”; in either case ista (“well-known, notorious”) indicates contempt. capit: “captivates/captures.”

11–12: note the slow, heavy pace of the spondees that make up the question, then the light rapidity of the dactyls that form the response.

13–14: simplex: “artless, naïve, lacking guile.”

15–16: nūdus: “naked, exposed” and “devoid of wealth” (OLD 10). annōs: object of habet; the point is that Amor is a child, uninterested in money or possessions. sordibus < sordēs, sordis f. usually “filth,” but here “greed.” ut sit apertus: “so that he is open in his ways” (Barsby); result clause (AG §537).

17–18: quid = cur. puerum Veneris = fīlium Veneris, i.e. Cupid. pretiō: ablative of price (AG §416). prostāre: “to offer oneself for sale,” used specifically of prostitutes. iubētis: the plural indicates that the poet is now addressing a more general audience, of women in particular. quō: “where.” condat < condō, condere, condidī, conditum “to put away”; subjunctive in a relative clause of purpose (AG §531.2). sinum: sinus, ūs, m. here a fold in clothing used as a pocket. Cupid doesn’t have a sinus because he is nūdus.

19–20: apta: governs not only Venus but also fīlius. An adjective modifying two or more nouns is usually plural, but it can be singular, and agree in gender with the nearest of the nouns (AG §286); supply est. ferīs: construe with armīs. aera merēre: “serve for money” or perhaps “serve as mercenaries”; there is an untranslatable pun here, since mereō is used for the activities of prostitutes, and (esp. with stīpendium) can mean simply “serve in the army.”

21–22: certō … aere: “at a set charge” (ablative of price, AG §416). cuivīs: “by anyone”; dative of agent with mercābilis (AG §375). mercābilis: “purchasable” (rare); she can be bought. iussō corpore: that is, by being forced to sell her body; ablative absolute (AG §420).

23–24: dēvovet  avarī: “even so she (haec, the prostitute) curses the power of the greedy pimp.” facitis sponte, coacta facit: the contrast between the willing puella and the unwilling meretrix is underscored by the reversed order of words (chiasmus).

25–26: in exemplum: in + acc., “for the sake of.” ratiōne: ablative of separation with carentēs (AG §400). turpe  ferīs: “It will be disgraceful for beasts to have a nature more gentle (than you).” mītius: comparative adjective modifying ingenium, “a gentler nature”; supply quam vōbīs. ferīs < ferus, ferī, m. “beast, animal” (not necessarily wild animal); dative of possession (AG §373).

27–28: poposcit: gnomic perfect (AG §475); note that poscō takes a double accusative (“ask X for Y”). placitam: “pleasing to him.” captat < captō (1) “try to catch (a lover)” (OLD 7d).

29–30: ademptīs < adimō, adimere, adēmī, ademptum “to remove”; take with virō, dative of disadvantage, “taken away from a man.” locat noctēs: supply , “hires herself out for the night.” licenda < liceor, licērī, “to bid for”; the gerundive indicates purpose: “comes to be bid upon.”

31–32: quod: “that which.” pretium  facit: “sets her fee.” quantī gaudeat ipsa: “for as much as she herself would like.” quantī is genitive to express indefinite value (AG §417). gaudeat is potential subjunctive (AG §447.3).

33–34: quae  duōbus = Venus quae ventūra est grāta ex aequō duōbus. Venus: here not the goddess, but sex itself. Note the word play on Venus … ventūra  /  vendit. ex aequō: “equally, to an equal extent.” ventūra est: for the future active periphrastic, constructed from the future active participle and forms of sum, see AG §195. illam: i.e. Venerem.

35–36: damnō: “(a cause of) financial loss”; dative of purpose or end, also called the double dative construction in combination with the dative of reference (mihi); it indicates that for which a thing serves or what it accomplishes (AG §382). lucrōsa < lucrōsus, -a, -um “lucrative, profitable” (rare). sociō < socius, -a, -um, “shared, common,” but the legal and political meanings of socius, -iī (“partner, ally”) are also relevant; sociō motū = sex, with an emphasis on mutuality.

37–38: nec bene …/ nec bene = male (litotes), “unethically”; other forms of unethical behavior are underscored by the anaphora. conductī: ”hired.” sēlectī iūdicis: Roman trials, both civil and criminal, were decided by judges (iūdicēs) chosen (sēlectī) by the praetor urbānus for inclusion on a list of potential jurors. arca < arca, -ae f. “chest,” especially “money box.” arca patet: i.e., the chest is open to receive bribes.

39–40: turpe: understand est. emptā  linguā: ablative absolute (AG §420). It was illegal for lawyers to receive payment for their services; they were supposed to speak as a personal favor when, in theory, they were convinced of the justice of the litigant’s cause. dēfendere: subjective infinitive. quod faciat magnās, turpe tribūnal, opēs = tribūnal turpe est, quod faciat magnās opēs; faciat is subjunctive in a relative clause of characteristic (AG §534–5). tribūnal: tribūnal, -ālis, n. “tribunal,” the platform on which a magistrate sat while judging cases.

41–42: reditū < reditus, -ūs, m. “revenue, return,” here of money made in bed (torī). faciem: a part representing the whole. lucrō: “profit”; ablative of price (AG §416). prostituisse: either a gnomic perfect (AG §475) or an aoristic use of the perfect (indicating that the action has occurred but making no statement about when, AG §473). The poets often use perfect forms with this aoristic meaning as metrically convenient substitutes for the present tense.

43–44: meritō: “with good cause, deservedly.” prō  torō = nulla grātia (dēbētur) prō male conductō torō. male: “with base intent,” i.e., in the exchange of sex for money.

45–46: conductor: “one who hires (someone else) for wages,” i.e. the man who employs a prostitute, the “john” (UK, “punter”). omnia solvit: “has paid off everything”; < solvō, solvere, solvī, solūtum, here “discharge the cost of, pay” (OLD 19); i.e. there are no strings attached. mercēde solūtā: ablative absolute (AG §420); “after the payment has been made in full.” nōn manet officiō dēbitor ille tuō = ille nōn manet dēbitor officiō tuō. officiō tuō is probably dative, “under any obligation to you.”

47–48: parcite = nōlīte.

49–50: nōn fuit armillās tantī pepigisse Sabīnās = nōn fuit tantī pepigisse armillās Sabīnās. pepigisse < pangō, pangere, pepigī, pactum “fix; strike a bargain (for).” The reference is to Tarpeia, the Vestal Virgin who betrayed Rome to the Sabines because they promised her the golden bracelets they wore on their arms. They fulfilled their promise by crushing her with their shields (also worn on the arm). nōn fuit tantī: “it wasn’t of much value,” i.e. “it wasn’t worth it.” Certain adjectives, including tantus, are used in the genitive to express indefinite value (AG §417). ut: “with only this result”; for the use of a result clause in a restrictive sense, see AG §537b.

Fig. 23 Denarius of L. Titurius L. f. Sabinus, 89 BC. Obverse: head of King Tatius. Reverse: Tarpeia between two soldiers about to crush her with their shields. Wikimedia,

51–52: ē quibus exierat, trāiēcit viscera ferrō / fīlius = fīlius ferrō trāiēcit viscera ē quibus exierat. Alcmaeon killed his mother Eriphyle, to whom Polynices had given a golden necklace in return for persuading her husband Amphiaraus to join the expedition against Thebes, where he was killed. monīle: emphatic: “and a necklace was the cause.”

53–54: mūnera poscentī quod dare possit habet = habet (id) quod possit dare poscentī mūnera. The subject is the dīves mentioned in line 53.

55–56: praebeat: hortatory subjunctive. Alcinoī < Alcinous,, m. Alcinous was king of the Phaeacians. His rich orchards welcomed Odysseus after his escape from Calypso and shipwreck.

57–58: pauper numeret: “let the poor man pay” (+ acc.). quod quis haberet: “that which each man possesses.” quis is an indefinite pronoun, which can be used in generalizations.

59–60: est quoque  dōs mea: “it is my gift (literally ‘dowry’) also.” quam = ea fēmina quam. voluī: understand celebrāre.

61–62: carmina quam tribuent, fāma perennis erit = fāma quam carmina tribuent perennis erit. The emphatic word is placed first.

63–64: nec dare, sed pretium poscī: objects of dēdignor and ōdī. dēdignor < dēdignor, -ārī, -ātus, “to refuse scornfully” (+ infinitive). poscentī = tibi poscentī. dēsine velle = sī desieris velle.