Venus In Vinis

For Ovid, business and occupation are the enemies of Cupid, but wine "prepares the heart for love"


It was Macbeth’s porter who gave the pithiest account of the relation between drink and love when he remarked that “much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to: in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.” But this notion of wine as an equivocator with love seems flat and un-nuanced if we compare it with Ovid’s much more detailed and searching ideas about the different kinds of support that lovers can draw from what he calls munus Bacchi, the gift of Bacchus.

In the Artis Amatoriae Ovid is full of good advice on the various roles that wine may play during the different stages of courtship. The lover’s first task is to find the object of his love, and here wine can be very helpful. “Banquets too provide opportunities, when the tables are set; you may find more than wine there,” Ovid reminds us; for “when wine has sprinkled Cupid’s thirsty wings, he abides.” It is wine that sets the psychological scene for the onset of love:

Vina parant animos faciuntque caloribus aptos: 

  Cura fugit multo diluiturque mero.

Wine gives courage and disposes men to passion:

  Care takes flight and is drowned in copious wine.

Wine guides our choice, and when it does so (a wonderful line!) Venus in vinis ignis in igne fuit, Venus in the wine was fire in fire.

When wine has helped the lover make his choice it does not desert him. It is also a loyal ally in the conquest. Ovid begins this section of precise advice for the wooer with a beautiful mythological excursion. He recalls that, when Ariadne was deserted by the faithless Theseus on Naxos, she was rescued by Bacchus, who was chasing the Bacchae along the seashore:

Iam deus in curru, quem summum texerat uvis,

  Tigribus adiunctis aurea lora dabat:

Et color et Theseus et vox abiere puellae:

  Terque fugam petiit, terque retenta metu est.

Horruit, ut graciles, agitat quas ventus aristae,

  Ut levis in madida canna palude tremit.

Cui deus “en, adsum tibi cura fidelior” inquit:

  “Pone metum: Bacchi, Cnosias, uxor eris.”

Now the god is in his chariot, which he has decked with grapes,

  And he gives the golden reins to his yoked tigers.

Voice, colour, and Theseus — the girl forgot them all.

  Three times she tried to flee, three times fear held her back.

She shuddered, like slender stalks that are ruffled by the wind,

  Or as the light rush that trembles in the boggy marsh.

To whom the god said “Lo, I am here, a more faithful lover.

  “Lay aside your fear, Cretan maid — you shall be the wife of Bacchus.”

In a typically Ovidian change of register, this highly worked passage is the prelude to some smart and sharply observed social realism, as we move from the shores of mythology to the dining rooms of imperial Rome. Take care not to drink too much, Ovid advises, but use the wine that is set before you as an instrument in your courtship. Wine will allow you to insinuate your passion to the woman you love: “Here you may say many things by innuendo, so that she may feel that they are said to her, and you may trace light flatteries in thin characters of wine (“Blanditiasque leves tenui perscribere vino”), so that on the table she may read herself your mistress.” The rituals of drinking, too, create openings for delicate compliments and significant gestures:

Fac primus rapias illius tacta labellis

  Pocula, quaque bibet parte puella, bibas.

Ensure you are the first to seize the cup her lips have touched,

  And drink from the spot from which she drank.

Wine may be a shield for the lover as well as a sword. Wary husbands can be disarmed by drink, Ovid tells us. And when it comes to elopement, here again wine is the lover’s friend — although on this occasion it would be wasteful to use up your best vintages:

Fallitur et multo custodis cura Lyaeo,

  Illa vel Hispano lecta sit uva iugo

A guardian’s watchfulness will be deceived by much wine,

  Even though the grapes were gathered on Spanish slopes

Spanish wine was not greatly esteemed in imperial Rome. 

Wine also helps the woman who wishes to be beloved. She must be careful how she drinks it, however:

Turpe iacens mulier multo madefacta Lyaeo:

  Digna est concubitus quoslibet illa pati.

A woman lying soused in wine is an ugly sight;

  She deserves to suffer any union whatever.

Rather, for the woman, wine is not so much a drink as a piece of symbolic advice on the unremitting discipline she must follow if she wishes to make herself lovely:

Ordior a cultu; cultis bene Liber ab uvis

  Provenit, et cultu stat seges alta solo.

I begin with the body’s care; wine comes from well — tended vines,

  And on well — tilled soil the corn stands tall.

“Don’t let yourself go” is not the message that our health fascists tend to see in a bottle of wine, but nevertheless it is one that Ovid can find there.

Ovid, like Macbeth’s porter, also understood that wine can be a false friend to lovers — but only if they either shun or abuse it. It is therefore useful to those who wish to fall out of love. The great enemy of love is business and occupation: Cedit amor rebus: res age, tutus eris, love gives way to business — be busy, and you will be safe. Wine, therefore, which unfits us for serious occupations, can (as Ovid has explained in the Artis Amatoriae) open the door to love, which slips into undefended hearts, Adfluit incautis insidiosus Amor. “Wine prepares the heart for love,” Ovid says towards the end of the Remedia Amoris, “unless you over-indulge, and dull and drown your spirits in too much wine.” So for those who wish to kill love, there are two courses available — either sobriety or stupefaction.

It is the abstainers and the drunks who are the enemies of Venus. But her true admirer is the moderate drinker, whose disposition is prepared for love by wine, and to whom wine is a faithful ally through all the various phases of desire.

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