Just Ask Ovid, Dating Has Always Been a Numbers Game
By now most of us have seen the quote online that’s often wrongly attributed to Socrates where he’s supposedly bemoaning the bad behavior of children in his day through the mouth of Plato. Alas, while the quote is not that of Socrates, most of us know it well enough that we can at least recognize one of the many internet variants of it, and that quote from Kenneth John Freeman, describing the complaints of the ancient Greeks in 1907 is this:
The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise. Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves, of their households. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offences against Hellenic tastes, such as crossing their legs. They tyrannised over the paidagogoi and schoolmasters…
While the quote loses quite a bit of its impact as it loses its status as a nearly 2,500-year-old statement, nonetheless, the point is still driven home with the quote being from 1907, that many things just don’t change as the centuries go by. Generations come, generations go, there is nothing new under he sun. Freeman was also summarizing his readings from Xenophanes, Plato, and other ancient Greek writers, so, the attitude conveyed is properly that of a people who lived nearly 2,500 years ago and the idea is quite simple. They may have been his words but they were certainly describing the attitudes of the day.
Generations come, generations go, people and whole societies may change, but most of our behaviors and life circumstances do not. What about dating? I tend to think it’s always been a numbers game, so long as monogamy strict sexual codes (ones that have to do with power) have been enacted and enforced. These perspectives can help us, in turn, put our own lives into perspective through the long lens of history.
Interestingly, when it comes to things in our lives that we do through technology, we tend to take the opposite view. We tend to approach Facebook, Instagram, and all other sorts of new tech developments as if they’re all completely revolutionary, when, in actuality, they’re just rehashing our personal experience in the virtual world. This couldn’t be any more than clear in the world of Tinder and other places for online dating. Just ask Ovid and consult his Ars Amoratia, or, Art of Love, and you’ll see that even in the early days of the Roman Empire, dating was a numbers game. I can’t think of a more perfect writer from history to give us perspective and teach us some of the tricks of the old-school trade when it comes to dating.
Whether it was sending clay tablets back and forth (what a pain in the ass!) like Ovid had to do or swiping left or right in an app (much easier than clay tablets), dating was always a difficult, uncomfortable process, if we chose to make it so. He noted that, whatever the relationship you embark on, you’ve got about six to eighteen months of attraction before it all goes to hell, so you might as well enjoy those months, snarkily joking about the fleeting nature of attraction and the need to constantly seek attraction. He’s both playful and direct, oscillating between the two when speaking of his intentions and behaviors. When speaking of dating another man’s wife in a section titled To His Mistress, writing to her before an engagement that the three of them will attend:
Read in my Looks what silently they speak,
And slily, with your Eyes, your Answer make.
My Lifted Eyebrow shall declare my Pain;
My Right-Hand to his fellow shall complain;
And on the Back of a Letter shall design;
Besides a Note that shall be Writ in Wine.
When e’er you think upon our last Embrace,
With your Fore-finger gently touch your Face.
If you are pleased with what I do or say,
Handle your Rings, or with your Fingers play.
As Suppliants use at Altars, hold the Board,
When e’er you wish the Devil may take your Lord.
When he fills for you, never touch the Cup;
But bid th’ officious Cuckold drink it up.
The Waiter on those Services employ.
Drink you, and I will snatch it from the Boy.
The tension, the calculated signals, the under-the-table gestures to signal communication, all of it so powerful and all of it tells us of the difficulties of dating in the ancient world…though they still overcame, however, they must’ve.
For Ovid, he just loved enjoying a bountiful succession of women and had a thirst for novelty. For others, those of us who are more selective, less hedonistic, we understand that it’s going to take a lot of dating and a lot of talking to new and different people if we want to meet “the one” we feel best suits us and compliments our lives. This is just the reality of life, it takes exploration to discover what we like and to know it when we experience it. Ovid’s Love Poems can be found through an affiliate link here and they are a fascinating glance into the dating scene of the ancient world. At times, it’s almost a how-to guide for young Romans as Rome was solidifying its imperial status as an Empire. For me, when I was young, these poems helped me to take love, relationships, and dating with a big grain of salt and put much less pressure on the process. Utilizing the perspectivism of history, we’re able to see that in the grand scheme of things, what we think of as a big deal, at the moment, really isn’t all that important.
I see a lot of people who are quite simply tired of the numbers game. They’re frustrated and fed-up with the churn of people that are required and they long for a time when dating was simpler. The truth is, outside of arranged marriages and cultures which married solely for the consolidation of power (like the Roman society in which Ovid lived), very rarely has a profound love that didn’t take dedication won and enjoyed by anyone. People have always had to carve out their paths in life to find their other halves. In this sense, the apps have merely sped up the process and made it easier. We can now date from our phones during our lunch break or even when we have a brief moment in traffic while we wait for a train to pass (I don’t recommend this). Wherever we may find ourselves, we can open Tinder and flip through a few faces, hoping to find love or lust, whatever our poison may be.
I think it’s easy for us to become pessimistic about dating and relationships, thinking that competition is hard, sometimes insurmountable, but alas, this is really just the way it’s always been. Tinder really is a blessing in the fact that we don’t have to do these encounters in person anymore, face-to-face, and can quickly swipe and weed through so many people. Ovid tells us of his many excursions and the lengths he had to go to in order to make them work, the amount of socializing he had to do in Roman society in order to make them happen, and yes, for him, too, dating was a numbers game. There seems to be fluctuation at work, in world history, where the only times when dating wasn’t a numbers game was when sex was more regulated and strict, with systems like arranged marriages supplanting free and open dating. This has tended to oscillate throughout world history and after Rome declined, it became much, much worse. Power-grabs made dating something reserved only for the nobility and only to secure future power. See Henry VIII’s England and how many people were positioning themselves to utilize the institution of marriage to further their own families’ ends.
The hardest part about dating as a numbers game, of course, is overcoming that queasy sense of guilt in swiping left one someone or turning someone down based on something as basic as their picture. It should be noted that some science has suggested, for quite a long time, that when we’re out and about in public, we’re scanning people’s faces and traits to see if we can find a match. I think we all know that feeling of someone entrancing us into an attraction for them, almost like a spell had been cast. The Romans called it Cupid’s arrow and plenty of other myths have sprung up to explain this phenomenon of instantaneous attraction, but nonetheless, it’s as real today as it’s always been. I tend to think that some artifacts may be introduced and some elements lost when we try to perform this process over the Internet, but ultimately, the vast majority of it is the same — we can usually tell who we’re going to be powerfully attracted to, and who we’re not, though sometimes, our radar is miscalibrated. Such is life.
I think when we realize that this is just how it’s always been since we were first civilized with the advent of the agricultural revolution, we tend to feel a little less alone, a little less lost in a big, vast, open world, where the possibilities are endless. Endless possibilities are less than predictable.
In truth, Tinder really isn’t all that different from real-life dating. We should be thankful, honestly, that we have the luxury to “scan a room” of people from the comfort of our couch or on our lunch break at work, or from wherever we’d like. One cannot help but think what Ovid would have given to have the ability to do this from his cubiculum, or bedroom, casually scanning the beauties of ancient Rome whilst lounging in his toga. Nay, he had to actually get out and engage and engage with many, many people in order to secure dates which might pan out, and he also had to do so while running the risk of being seen by men who might be rather upset if he was caught flirting with certain women (though this never stopped him). While the details of Ovid’s ultimate exile are unknown, it’s been suggested that he was simply too much of a ladies’ man, sleeping with too many women, and ultimately being banished by the powers that be for his tact and ability. The stakes were much higher back then. All more things for us to be thankful for now.
So when it seems tough and like dating success will never come to you, just think about how far we’ve come and, honestly, how much easier we have it today. We can mechanize and automate our dating processes, which may come with some drawbacks, but what we have today is way better than anything that’s ever been before the technological revolution. Hopefully, this gives you a glimmer of hope when eyeing that next person you swipe right on.