Publius Ovidius Naso, better known to history as Ovid (43 BC – 17 AD), was one of the most prolific writers of the early Roman Empire. Written mostly in the form of elegiac couplets, his works of poetry influenced many of the great authors throughout history, including Chaucer, Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. Beloved by the people of Rome, he made the tragic mistake of angering the Emperor Augustus and spent the rest of his life in exile.
Descendant of an old established equestrian family, Ovid was born on March 20, 43 B.C. c. in sulmo, abruzzo, 145 km (90 miles) east of rome. At the time of his birth, the Republic had fallen and the heir apparent of the fallen Julius Caesar, Eighth (the future Augustus), was persecuting his assassins; a civil war had begun. Like many others of his generation, Ovid’s family, especially his father, wanted him to pursue a career in law and politics, but Ovid’s lifelong dream was something else entirely. He was sent to Rome to complete his education under the orator Arellius Fuscus and the rhetorician Porcius Latro. A distinguished student, especially in rhetoric, he later toured the Greek islands as did many young Roman students to further his education.
Despite his parents’ insistence — his father often chided him for writing poetry — this lover of language dropped out of public life after only a handful of minor court charges for the life of a poet. At the behest of the orator and patron of the arts Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, he soon found success as a writer and soon became Rome’s best-known poet. Unfortunately, this notoriety could not protect him, and in 8 AD. he was banished from rome.
Many historians believe that Ovid, a contemporary of the Roman historian Livy, along with the poets Virgil and Horace, created a poetic style comparable to that of Greek writers of the ancient past. Unlike Virgil and Horace, however, Ovid was not considered part of the Emperor Augustus’ inner circle at the imperial court. For reasons that are unclear to modern historians, Ovid did not endear himself to the Emperor. This may be due to the type of poetry that Ovid wrote: Advice for the Young Lover. one historian even said that for ovid love was the only game worth playing.
Her first book of poetry was the extremely successful amores or ‘the book of love,’ published in 22 B.C. He recounted in a very cheerful style the misadventures of a young man and his love for an unattainable young woman. Her other works focused on a variety of themes: Heroides or ‘heroines’ was a series of 15 letters purportedly written by Greek and Roman mythological female figures such as Penelope and given to lovers of hers who had mistreated or abandoned them. . her mediacamina faciei femineae not only advocated the use of cosmetics by a Roman woman, but also provided recipes. another work remedi amoris or ‘remedies for love’ provided guidance to lovers on how to end a relationship. ars amatoria or ‘the art of loving’ were three books written in the 2nd century that talked about courtship and erotic intrigues, giving advice to both men and women. A good example of this advice can be found in the book I where she wrote,
The first thing you must do is find an object for your love, you who now for the first time come to fight in this new war. The next task is to conquer the girl you are attracted to; the third task is to make your love last. (branyon, 57)
ars amatoria has long been considered one of the possible reasons for his exile.
his most famous work, at least to most modern readers, is metamorphosis, 15 books composed in dactylic hexameter, a collection of tales drawn from classical and Near Eastern myths and legends, a chronology from the creation of the world to death. Of Caesar was an epic poem that spoke not only of humanity’s interaction with the gods but also of heroes and heroines such as Perseus, Theseus, Hector, and Achilles. It is one of the few works by Ovid that is not written in couplets.
completed before his exile, he opened book i with a statement of his purpose,
My mind is inclined to speak of bodies transformed into new forms. O gods, for you yourselves have wrought changes, blow on these my undertakings, and bring my song in unbroken chords from the very beginning of the world to the present time. (metamorphosis, 3)
he ended book xv talking about both the future of rome and his own future,
Wherever the power of Rome spreads over the conquered world, I will have mention on the lips of men, if the prophecies of the bards have any truth, through all the ages I will live in fame. (metamorphosis, 311)
To say the least, the theme of Ovid’s erotic poetry was in stark contrast to the moral reform proposed by the Emperor Augustus who, at first, believed that part of the demise of the republic and the current desperate state of the empire lay on lack of morality, a problem Cicero had written about decades earlier, before Augustus had him assassinated in 43 BC. The Emperor wanted his empire to return to a stricter observance of many of Rome’s oldest traditions, especially in the area of religion and the marriage bed. Unfortunately, Ovid did not believe that these reforms would affect everyone equally, more specifically the imperial house, since the emperor was known for his many lovers, and his daughter Julia was a renowned adulteress; she would eventually be banished, returning to italy only to die of malnutrition in 15 ce.
Unfortunately, Ovid could not keep his opinions to himself, expressing them within the lines of his poetry. he wrote that the emperor’s private life and marriage were in stark contrast to the strict rules he laid down for the general population. The Frankish poet was also candid about the Emperor’s wife, Livia. in his poetry he believed that a woman had the right to use cosmetics; However, with Livia, he said that she was too busy to pay much attention to her appearance, despite having staff to take care of her wardrobe and even a masseuse.
the emperor august was not pleased with the content of ovid’s poetry, and although the real reason became a state secret, ovid was banished in 8 ce to tomis, constanta in modern romania, in ovid’s words a place with a “most miserable climate”. Some historians point to the possibility that Ovid was involved in Julia’s alleged scandal. Whatever the reason for his exile, Augustus publicly asserted that the poet encouraged female adultery. In his own defense, Ovid argued that he made a mistake, not a crime. Furthermore, all of his works were banned from Roman public libraries. however, fortunately for future generations, due to his popularity among many private collectors, his works were able to survive.
There are those who believe that his exile was due to the atmosphere of the time. the people in the city were restless and close to rebellion in the provinces. others hold that he may have heard or seen something, and that the emperor needed to silence him, exile being the most logical option. Despite both public and private pleas, the Emperor and even his heir Tiberius would not relent, and the poet spent the rest of his life far from Rome in Tomis. while he was in exile, he continued to write; among these works were four books of poems titled epistulae ex ponto or ‘epistles from the ponto’ and tristia or ‘sorrows’, poems to his wife. In 17 CE Ovid died while still in exile. Although he requested to be buried in Rome, no one is sure if his request was honored.