After a first publication (around 1 BC) of two of the books, Ovid wrote the third dealing with the same themes from the female perspective at a later date (c. AD 1).
The Ars amatoria is, on one of its many levels, a burlesque satire on didactic poetry. While claiming 'Aeacidae Chiron, ego sum praeceptor Amoris' ('As Chiron was to Achilles, so I am to Cupid' - in other words, 'I taught Cupid everything he knows'), Ovid hardly offers lore of great potency to his eager disciples. He advises that, if one is accompanying a lady to the horse-racing in the Circus Maximus, one should gallantly brush the dust from her gown. And if there isn't any dust there, brush it nonetheless. A young man should promise the moon to the object of his affections in letters - even a beggar can be rich in promises. A small woman, meanwhile, would be better advised to receive her suitor lying down... but should make sure that her feet are hidden under her dress, so that her true size is not disclosed.
Although Ovid protests 'Siqua fides arti, quam longo fecimus usu, /Credite: praestabunt carmina nostra fidem' ('If you trust art's promise that I've long employed/ my songs will offer you their promise'), his erotic advice comes less from 'longo usu' than from a literary tradition, especially the two previous exponents of the Latin love-elegy, Propertius and Tibullus, and the (mostly lost) erotic poetry of the Greek Hellenistic period.
This is no didactic poem in the straightforward sense, but a sophisticated urban Roman conversation piece, aimed at an audience of corresponding tastes and refinement. Nonetheless, Ovid's linguistic brilliance, his scholarship and his capacity for allusion (and the illusion of allusion) take the Ars amatoria far beyond the mere burlesque. The marriage of form and content he achieves makes it possible to argue that this is, indeed, a didactic poem - but what it teaches is not the 'Art of Love', but the art of seeing life poetically.
Appropriately for its subject, the 'Ars amatoria' is composed in elegiac couplets, rather than the hexameters more usually associated with the didactic poem. Students of Latin will therefore find this easier to read than the verse form in which Ovid is accustomed to writing.
The first two books, aimed at men, contain sections entitled, for example, 'Don't Forget Her Birthday!', 'Let Her Miss You - But Not For Long' and 'Don't Ask About Her Age'. The third gives similar advice to women: 'Make-Up, But In Private', 'Beware of False Lovers' and 'Try Young and Older Lovers'. In fact, however, Ovid gives no advice that is immediately usable, but employs cryptic allusions, while on the surface treating the subject matter in all its many aspects with the range and intelligence of urbane conversation. His intent is often more profound than the brilliance of the surface suggests. In connection with the revelation that the theatre is a good place to meet girls, for instance, Ovid, the classically educated trickster, refers to the story of the rape of the Sabine women. It has been convincingly argued that this passage represents a radical attempt to redefine relationships between men and women in Roman society, advocating a move away from paradigms of force and possession, towards concepts of mutual fulfilment.
The superficial brilliance, however, dazzles even scholars (paradoxically, Ovid consequently tended in the 20th century to be underrated as lacking in seriousness). The standard situations and cliches of the subject are treated in a highly entertaining way, spiced with ever-colourful details from Greek mythology, everyday Roman life and general human experience. Ovid likens love to military service, supposedly requiring the strictest obedience to the beloved woman. Women, meanwhile, he advises to make their lovers artificially jealous so that they do not become neglectful through complacency. For this purpose, a slave should be instructed to interrupt the lovers' tryst with the cry 'Perimus' ('We are lost!'), compelling the young lover to while away some time in a cupboard. Readers can follow the allusive chatter of the poet with a smile, without ever being able to be quite certain how seriously he means any of it. The tension implicit in this uncommitted tone is reminiscent of a flirt, and in fact, the semi-serious, semi-ironic form is ideally suited to Ovid's subject matter.
It is striking that through all his ironic discourse, Ovid never becomes ribald or obscene. Of course 'embarrassing' matters can never be entirely excluded, for 'alma Dione praecipite nostrum est, quod pudet, inquit, opus' '..."what you blush to tell", says Venus, "is the most important part of the whole matter"'. Sexual matters in the narrower sense are only dealt with at the end of each book, so here again, form and content converge in a subtly ingenious way. Things, so to speak, always end up in bed. But here, too, Ovid retains his style and his discretion, avoiding any pornographic tinge. The end of the second book deals with the pleasures of simultaneous orgasm. Somewhat untypically for a Roman, the poet confesses, 'Odi concubitus, qui non utrumque resolvunt. Hoc est, cur pueri tangar amore minus' ('I abhor intercourse which does not relieve both. This is also why I find less pleasure in the love of boys').
At the end of the third part, as in the Kama Sutra, the sexual positions are 'declined', and from them women are exhorted to choose the most suitable, taking the proportions of their own bodies into careful consideration. Ovid's tongue is again discovered in his cheek when his recommendation that tall women should not straddle their lovers is exemplified at the expense of the tallest hero of the Trojan Wars: 'Quod erat longissima, numquam Thebais Hectoreo nupta resedit equo' ('Because she was very tall, the Theban bride (Andromache) never sat on her Hectorian horse').
The polysemous word ars in the title is not, then, to be translated coldly as 'technique', but here really means 'art' in the sense of civilized refinement.
The work was such a popular success that the poet wrote a sequel, Remedia Amoris (Remedies for Love).
The assumption that the 'licentiousness' of the Ars amatoria was responsible in part for Ovid's relegation (banishment) by Augustus in AD 8 is dubious, and seems rather to reflect modern sensibilities than historical fact. For one thing, the Ars amatoria had been in circulation for eight years by the time of the relegation, and the book postdates the Julian Marriage Laws by eighteen years. Secondly, it is hardly likely that Augustus, after forty years unchallenged in the purple, felt the poetry of Ovid to be a serious threat or even embarrassment to his social policies. Thirdly, Ovid's own statement from his Black Sea exile that his relegation was because of 'carmen et error' ('a song and a mistake') is, for many reasons, hardly admissible.
It is more probable that Ovid was somehow caught up in factional politics connected with the succession: Postumus Agrippa, Augustus' adopted son, and Augustus' granddaughter, Vipsania Julilla, were both relegated at around the same time. This would also explain why Ovid was not reprieved when Augustus was succeeded by Agrippa's rival Tiberius. It is likely, then, that the Ars amatoria was used as an excuse for the relegation . This would be neither the first nor the last time a 'crackdown on immorality' disguised an uncomfortable political secret.
The Ars amatoria exerted considerable fascination from the start, and has remained a widely-read source of inspiration no doubt because of its literary brilliance and popular accessibility. A similar tone is struck on a smaller scale by the epigrams of Martial (late 1st-early 2nd cent. AD). The list of later manifestations of the poem's influence is immense: reference is made to the almost equally extensive literature on the subject. The Ars amatoria was included in the syllabuses of mediaeval schools from the second half of the 11th cent., and its influence on 12th and 13th cent. European literature was so great that the German mediaevalist and palaeographer Ludwig Traube dubbed the entire age 'aetas Ovidiana' ('the Ovidian epoch').
As in the years immediately following its publication, it has also subsequently fallen victim to outbursts (or exhibitions) of moral opprobrium. All of Ovid's works were burned by Savonarola in Florence in 1497; Christopher Marlowe's translation was banned in 1599, and another English translation of the Ars amatoria was seized by US Customs in 1930.
It seems possible that Edmond Rostand's fictionalized portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac makes an allusion to the Ars amatoria: the theme of the erotic and seductive power of poetry is highly suggestive of Ovid's poem, and Bergerac's nose, a distinguishing feature invented by Rostand, calls to mind Ovid's cognomen, Naso (from nasus, 'large-nosed').