In writing poems in elegiac couplets about a love affair (or affairs) Ovid was firmly within an established tradition. The elegiac couplet (on which see the next section) was originally used, first by the Greeks and then by the Romans, for short epigrams, often on erotic subjects. Catullus (c. 84 to 54 BC), wrote not only epigrams, but longer poems in elegiac couplets; he also gave to many of his poems a unifying story, about a difficult love affair with the woman he called Lesbia.
He was followed by C. Cornelius Gallus (c. 70 to 27 or 26 BC), who seems to have written four books of love poetry exclusively in elegiac couplets, probably called Amores. Almost none of Gallus’ verses survive, but they depicted his affair with a famous actress of the day named Cytheris, whom he calls Lycoris. Gallus seems to have done much to establish the conventional figure of the poet as the broken-hearted lover; the allusions in Vergil’s Eclogue 10 suggest that in one poem he portrayed himself wandering in the woods and carving his and Lycoris' names onto tree-trunks.
Perhaps the most important of Ovid’s immediate predecessors was Sextus Propertius (born between 54 and 47 BC; died before 2 AD). Propertius published four books of elegies, the first appearing around 28 BC, a few years before Ovid’s first poems in the genre. Like his older contemporaries Vergil (born 70 BC) and Horace (born 65 BC), Propertius came to be a member of the circle of Maecenas, the political advisor of Augustus, but at least in his first three books he rebelled against Augustan values more than Vergil and Horace ever did. Most of Propertius’ poems concern a romantic affair with a woman he calls Cynthia, and in many of them the poet is portrayed as desperately, even morbidly, uncertain of her affections. Propertius wrote with self-conscious artifice (he claimed to be a Roman Callimachus), deploying mythological examples that are often obscure.
A near contemporary of Propertius was Albius Tibullus (born between 55 and 48 BC; died in 19 BC), who wrote two books of elegies, the first at about the time of Ovid’s first Amores. Tibullus wrote poems concerning three different love affairs, with women he calls Delia and Nemesis and with a young man he calls Marathus. Tibullus’ poems are much less mythological than those of Propertius, and the emotions he depicts are much less tortured. A second poet associated with Tibullus was Sulpicia, the niece of Messalla Corvinus. Six of her elegies are preserved in the third book of the Tibullan corpus, and describe (without many details) an affair with a man she calls Cerinthus.
Ultimately, perhaps, evaluating Ovid’s Amores requires a first-hand knowledge of the tradition in which he was working; it is a truism of Latin scholarship that Ovid plays with, even mocks, the conventions of his predecessors. But for practical reasons the Amores make a good introduction to the genre; Ovid's Latin is relatively straightforward, at least compared to that of Propertius, and he offers a livelier account of the traditional Latin elegist’s difficult love-life than either Tibullus or Sulpicia. The figure of the poet-lover that Ovid presents in the Amores is also a new departure in the western literary tradition, worth attention in its own right: we get our first hapless, light-hearted, insensitive, and selfish womanizer.
The reader approaching the Amores for the first time should be alert to at least three features of the poetry. Most important, though most elusive, is the question of tone, though it is not easy to develop a sense for the essential flavor of the Latin poetic idiom. We are so accustomed to highflown language and ponderous allusions in our Latin that it is not easy to see when a poet is playing with the traditional language and mythology, but Ovid is (in my view) the best place to start: when he writes of abandoning the epic tradition (1.1), of the lover as a warrior (1.9), or the myth of Aurora and Tithonus (1.13), we get a clear sense of the playfulness possible in Latin poetry.
The second thing to be aware of in each poem is the structure of the “argument.” Ovid has traditionally been regarded as someone who wrote verse with such facility that he simply kept on going, making the same point over and over again with a kind of effusiveness that belies close analysis. But while it is certainly true that he does not write with the fanatical self-control of Vergil or Horace, it is also a mistake to ignore his careful attention to the construction of his poems. It is important to be aware of the way each poem develops: some thoughts lead naturally to others, and at some places the poet jumps to a new idea, but there is always a reasonable representation of coherent thinking. Moreover it is usually worth asking oneself how (or whether) the final couplet works as a satisfactory conclusion to each poem; there is often (perhaps always) a kind of punch-line at the end, and getting the point there is often the key to getting the poem as a whole.
Finally, it is worth remembering that poetry books in Ovid’s day were published with careful attention to their overall shape. Each poem was meant to be read, at least in part, as an element in the broader narrative of the poetry book, so it can be illuminating to ask how each poem relates to the ones preceding it, and serves as an introduction to the ones that follow.