ars amatoria et remedia certaminis

Classicist, Daily Mail reader and/or The Times reader can be forgiven for spitting out their tea this morning over breakfast. On second thought, perhaps Daily Mail readers would be accustomed to such stories anyway, but reading an article such as this might lead Classicist to believe:

1) That’s tame, that bit of Ovid Amores III.4. Try Martial/Petronius/Juvenal/Lucan… … …

2) Of all the prescribed passages of Ovid Amores, must they have picked this one…?


Even the anteater is angry…

The articles can be found at the bottom of this page.

There is probably murmurings amongst Classicists in reaction to this article – this is certainly the case on the “Classcist International” group on Facebook. So let us take a step back and have a look at the issue and the report.

The choice of passage in the exam

The exam paper by OCR needs to feature a passage of suitable length and enough things to comment on from Cicero’s In Verrem II.1.53-69 and a passage from Ovid Amores III.2,4,5,14. For the latter half Amores III.14 was chosen. I must clarify that I haven’t seen the exam paper, so the information here is reconstructed from the newspaper reports and the curriculum.

The poem (see it here, scroll to bottom: is unlikely to be of a suitable length to be included whole. The newspaper reports tell us that this part, which the articles render in an English translation by J. Lewis May, is certainly included. Below is the translation, and the Latin lifted from The Latin Library:

‘… slip off your chemise without a blush and let him get his thigh well over yours.

‘And let him thrust his tongue as far as it will go into your coral mouth and let passion prompt you to all manner of pretty devices.

‘Talk lovingly. Say all sorts of naughty things, and let the bed creak and groan as you writhe with pleasure.’

illic nec tunicam tibi sit posuisse pudori
nec femori inpositum sustinuisse femur;
illic purpureis condatur lingua labellis,
inque modos Venerem mille figuret amor;
illic nec voces nec verba iuvantia cessent,
spondaque lasciva mobilitate tremat!

  At a glance this is certainly raunchy, but perhaps as raunchy as you would expect Ovid to be. At the risk of stating the obvious, the passage alludes to a passionate kiss, a bit of flirting and stripping. It probably implies “sexual intercourse, to quote both The Times and The Daily Mail, unless you wish to argue that the last two lines is only a transferred epithet (not a sleepless bed/person, but a creaking and groaning bed/person).

There may well have been tamer passages in the list of prescribed passages, yet I for one do not think that this is inappropriate. The newspaper articles give the impression that it is much more explicit than Ovid’s word – the articles has already interpreted the passage for its readers as an explicit text. The Times‘ choice of translation, from a book published in 1925, also amplified the sense of promiscuity. For sure I imagine that any students will probably have to draw the link between imagery and action when answering a question on Ovid’s wordcraf in the exam. In any case the original passage is implicit, not explicit.

In terms of the opinion of the professor who was interviewed over this issue, that: “Many teachers would have glossed over this extract, assuming no one in their right minds would set it in an exam,” I cannot agree. By professor John Ellis’ logic, there is one standard for inclusion in the syllabus and another standard for inclusion in the exam – this view is clearly unreasonable as well as not a reflection of the exam board’s thinking.

The Romans

OCR’s response to this news was:

“Ovid’s Amores poems are considered by professionals to be some of the finest examples of elegiac poetry that there are.

“To censor such material would only leave young adults with a false perception of their area of study. If such censorship were to be applied to English literature it would preclude coverage of the works of DH Lawrence, Chaucer and even Shakespeare.”

  And Ovid’s Amores is probably the finest example of love elegies in Latin. In any case, as Mary Beard and the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition in the British Museum are keen to remind us, the Romans are more liberal about displaying eroticism. The poetry is written shaped by the contemporary view of love, and to read this poetry is to understand a bit more of an aspect of the Romans.

In that sense, the Victorians may seem to be the opposite, being extremely implicit on love and never much implicit on sexual intercourse. That much is reflected in the Loebs and translations produced in the Victorian times. As Beard mentioned to The Times: “Happily, the time has long gone when generations of kids were forced to read some of the greatest Latin poetry, which Ovid undoubtedly is, in expurgated form.”


Mary Beard also told The Times: “The Amores is a hugely popular text and, inevitably, like many aspects of ancient culture, it prompts all kinds of discussion about gender, misogyny, eroticism, and how these were differently negotiated by the Greeks and Romans.” Beard then added that censorship rarely works anyway, as a clever schoolboy or schoolgirl would find signs from the translation or be able to read the Latin and realised that it was actually rude.

Dare I say it, there is also a sense of “Oooh la la” about the issue. In recent months there had been discussion of the next generation’s exposure to pornographic material and willingness to try sexual acts. Perhaps as a reflection of the Daily Mail‘s readership, the newspaper adopted a rather outraged stance; in contrast The Times‘ article was rather more playful and open.

In truth, we are unsure, as a country, as parents and as educational institutes, at how to approach matters of a sensitive nature and where that is the case, we prefer to put it at the bottom of the in-tray never to be dealt with. Yet do texts such as Ovid’s not present an oblique but a more comfortable way of approaching the theme of love and sex? And even if it is un-British to talk about sex, is it not equally un-British to complain about someone talking about sex (which children of that age certainly start to – I was there not so long ago).

Us Classicists

Playful was The Times‘ article on Ovid and exam, playful too was The Times‘ leading article, though beneath it lies a dagger aiming to strike below the belt. O tempora, et tu? Here is the first half and the headings:


Latin Lovers

“Are school exam boards making tests raunchier to seduce students?

“Given that exam boards rely for their income on pupils studying the subjects in which they set exams, are some whetting the appetites of 16-year-olds for courses whose appeal is shrivelling by sexing up, literally, subjects like Latin and Greek?

“Take the Ovid set text that OCR chose for this year’s Latin AS exam. It contains a description of sexual intercourse that translates as “… slip off your chemise without a blush and let him get his thigh well over yours. And let him thrust his tongue as far as it will go into your coral mouth and let passion prompt you to all manner of pretty devices. Talk lovingly. Say all sorts of naughty things, and let the bed creak and groan as you writhe with pleasure.” It was a step up from last year’s Greek AS paper, in which OCR set a text on the homosexual rape of a youth as an unseen translation”

  The leader then goes on to suggest more raunchy topics that other subjects can include except, for the other subjects, the examples are contrived and unrealistic. It is the case that these texts fit in our subject, and that is why we have included it. No paraphrasis, only paraclausithyron.

  The newspapers are there to be sold (much like exam papers, suggest The Times. See below). The moral indignation of The Daily Mail and the mocking of The Times will move on to another issue. The impression is that the exam boards are to blame, but it would be unfortunate if the populace somehow feel that Classics is irrelevant because of this news item. This, and the fact that it was a bit of a non-news item, must have two issues that irked Classicists.

  The leader, though in jest, must have implied something. The leader implied that the exam system of exam boards is imperfect. It might imply that Greek and Latin is not rigorous, but the case is not strong. Does it imply that Latin and Greek are only studied because it’s sexy? I do not think so. Do you? Or have you promoted Classics by “sexing it up”? Letters to editor, on the condition that we are the sole recipient. epistulae ex ponto will be given short shrift…

The atricles

Daily Mail:

The Times (article) [paywall]:

The Times (leader) [paywall]:

The Guardian‘s later response to the two articles:

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2 Responses to ars amatoria et remedia certaminis

  1. Soph says:

    A friend of mine at school suggested I read some of these newspaper articles for the specific reason that I took that paper myself. I can’t speak for every single Latin student in the UK but as for myself, my teacher didn’t ‘gloss over’ that section of poem 14. Yes it was a bit risqué and yes we giggled over it but we still learnt it as it could have come up in the exam.
    What surprised me was that a physics teacher was asked his opinion on it. I hold nothing against him, he could have learnt Classics at school but wouldn’t a Latin teacher have been better to ask? Plus, the risqué language was only a small portion of our course. We also covered poems 2, 4, 5 and 14 of amores 3. The first three had no such ‘inappropriate language’. Cicero’s in verrem didn’t really refer to anything either.
    Apologizes for the rambling, what I don’t see what the problem is. Considering the recent Saville case, children having access to pornography and the article in today’s Daily Mail (Monday 10th June) entitled ‘why does the BBC think violence against women is sexy’, our paper could be considered relatively minor.

    • Hi Soph,

      It’s good to hear from your point of view (not rambling at all!). We run a Twitter account too (@ClassColl) and we have seen various teachers who taught these poems (and Cicero, no doubt). They have not expressed a dissimilar view to you.

      But of course Latin teachers are not the best person to ask! Look at this (, they say sensible things! They don’t sell papers!

      A few has commented that this was a non-news items too. If I were a journalist, I would have done a good job because, in creating a hell Ovid mountain (sorry, bad pun) it caused scandal and draw people’s attention to the work. As I mentioned above The Times was rather more restraint. As Classicists, I rather enjoy getting outraged about Daily Mail being outraged, but tomorrow the Daily Mail will find something else to be outraged about!

      So the Physics teacher is entitled to be outraged, but then he did not choose Classics, and he shouldn’t choose subjects on that basis for a 16 year-old. IMHO.

      Storm in a teacup. On which note, I shall top up my tea! Good luck with your exams!

      Classics Collective

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