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About the Lecture

The following is a synopsis of "Looks Count: Erotic Glances in Roman Art and Poetry", the fifteenth Bernice L. Fox Classics lecture  by Alden Smith of Baylor University at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois.

In this lecture I consider the problem of perception and posture in some selections of Latin poetry and Roman art. I begin my paper with a look at many examples of reclining couples in Roman art, suggesting that their posture and the way they look at each other suggests a kind of distribution of the dynamics of the relationship between them. But it is in poetry that we will learn better how the dynamics of these relationships play out.

That poets make the most of position and vision in their work is hardly a new suggestion. I consider the famous example of Cat. 45, where Septimius and Acme embrace and gaze at each other in an extremely affectionate manner. I also consider a less well known example of Propertius 2.13, where Propertius reclines upon his Cynthia in a manner not unlike Septimius and Acme. The position of the characters in both of these pieces heightens the eroticism of each poem; it also suggests something about the relationship of the poet and his lover. Propertius’ lover proves to be more than merely a docta puella: the diction of his poem and the position of his lover show that she is the domina on whom he reclines, and to whom he is entirely subject. She is muse and mistress, critic and consort.

I close the paper with a consideration of perhaps the most famous reclining couple in Latin literature, namely the portrayal of Venus and Mars from the opening of the DRN. Here, I suggest, is the locus classicus of the distribution of power between the lovers. The passages from the poetry that we consider help us to "reread" the paintings with which I opened this discussion. The ancient play between the lovers depicted in the paintings and portrayed in the poetry transcends these ancient texts, and is transferable perhaps not into modern party politics, but into the politics of the parties, on and off campus, of the modern world.