Mediterranean peoples: Ovid on identifying personified peoples in art to impress a girl (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mediterranean peoples: Ovid on identifying personified peoples in art to impress a girl (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 6, 2024,

Ancient authors: Ovid (first centuries BCE-CE), Art of Love / Ars Amatoria 1.219–127 (link).

Comments: In this somewhat humorous passage, Ovid gives some advice on how to impress someone you hope to date by displaying your geographic and ethnographic knowledge in your encounters with art and other visual figures as displayed in a parade. Try this out at your local museum without reading the captions. Beyond other things, this excerpt further suggests an awareness on the part of the population of foreign places and peoples (in this case with a focus on easterners) within their own civic landscape. However, this also illustrates some of the ambiguities that went along with viewers attempting to figure out what was intended by these representations. Ethnographic culture was in some sense a part of everyday life, but getting the names right may have been hard sometimes.

Works consulted: J. Hughes, “Personifications and the Ancient Viewer: The Case of the Hadrianeum ‘Nations,’” Art History 32 (2009): 1–20 (link).


Look! Caesar is preparing to add what was lacking to the conquered world: now, farthest East, you will be ours. Parthian, you will pay penalty. . . [omitted sentences]. Happy youths will look on with girls at their side, and that day [when Augustus triumphs over the Parthians] will make all hearts overflow. And when some girl among them asks the names of the rulers, or what places, what mountains, what rivers are flowing along, do you answer everything, do you wait until she asks you? Even if you do not know, tell her as if you knew it well. “That is the Euphrates river, his forehead fringed with reeds. The one with the dark blue locks hanging down must be Tigris. These are Armenians, here is Persia, sprung from Danai,” you should say. “That was a town in the Achaemenian valleys.” This one or that one is a leader, and you will have names to give them. Use correct names, if possible, but, if not, at least names that sound right.


Source of the translation: J.H. Mozley, Ovid: The Art of Love and Other Poems, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1929), public domain (Mozley passed away in 1929), adapted by Harland.

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