Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso was his full Latin name) is generally recognized as one of the most important poets of classical Rome, and is certainly one of most influential writers in western literature. In his own day, he was both widely admired and publicly censured; in the almost two thousand years since his death, thousands of writers have mined his stories for material, have imitated his style, and have evoked his legacy through allusion and reference. His Metamorphoses remains a rich and widely used source for the tales of classical mythology, and his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) and even some of his love poems can still scandalize the unwary reader.
Ovid was born on March 20, 43 BC in Sulmo, the town that is now Sulmona, Italy. His family was an old “equestrian” line—that is, they were not part of the upper-crust patrician class of Roman society, but they were well-respected gentry who seemed to have considerable influence and connections of their own. Consequently, Ovid was born into a certain amount of privilege, and he was expected to take his place in the public life of Roman society when he grew up.
He was also born at a critical time in Roman history. In 44 B.C., Julius Caesar, who had risen to near-absolute power in the last days of the Roman Republic, was assassinated by a group of conspirators who feared that he would destroy Rome’s “republican” system of government. In the next year, the year of Ovid’s birth, Cicero was assassinated; he was one of Rome’s greatest orators and writers, and was one of the last great defenders of the Republic. By this time, chaos and civil war had erupted. When the dust settled, the old Republic had fallen, and one man was left in control of the remains: Julius Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavian, who took the name Caesar Augustus.
Ovid grew up in the relative peace and security of the new Roman Empire (although this early period is often called the “Principate” rather than the “Empire”). His family groomed him for public life and civic service. He was educated in rhetoric, and he held at least a couple of relatively minor posts for Augustus’ government. He was married twice early on, with both marriages ending quickly in divorce, while his third marriage lasted the rest of his life. But his first love was poetry, and even though his father seemed to have disapproved, he left government service at a young age to pursue a literary career.
He was writing in what has been called the Golden Age of Latin literature, and he became one of its leading voices: Virgil, Horace and Ovid are most frequently mentioned as the greatest of the Golden Age poets. But Ovid was a generation younger than the other two; he seems to have known Horace, but had only seen Virgil. His poetic inclinations were also markedly different. Virgil had written the great Roman national epic, the Aeneid, and at least on the surface he seemed to stand solidly behind the Augustan program of reform and civic responsibility that had brought stability back to Roman life. The younger Ovid, who did not have adult memories of the havoc that preceded the establishment of the Empire, turned his attention to love poetry and cast an ironic eye on the serious—and sometimes pompous or self-righteous—pronouncements about duty and morality that came out of Augustus’ government.
He first made a name for himself with the Heroides (the poems translated here) and the Amores (a group of elegiac love poems). But he gained notoriety with the publication of the Ars Amatoria, or Art of Love, which is a witty and amusing handbook on seduction for the men and women of Rome—a work that did not meet with a favorable response from the moralistic administration of the Augustan government. He then went on to establish his reputation as the greatest living poet of his time with a long mythological poem in fifteen books, the Metamorphoses. He also wrote a tragedy, the Medea; no copy of this play survives, but it was well regarded in ancient times.
He was at work on another long poem—the Fasti, a treatment of the tales and mythology surrounding the Roman calendar and festivals—when disaster struck. In 8 A.D., Augustus exiled him to Tomis, a frontier town on the Black Sea (it is now the city of Constanta, Romania); he was forbidden to return to Rome. No one knows exactly why he was exiled. He tells us himself that it was because of a “poem” and a “mistake,” rather than because of any crime. Most scholars agree that the poem must have been the Ars Amatoria which, even though it had been written years earlier, still rankled with Augustus. The mistake, however, is open to speculation. Augustus’ granddaughter, Julia, was exiled in the same year; her sexual and other adventures had become notorious, and it is possible that Ovid’s banishment was somehow connected to her escapades.
Whatever the cause, however, his exile was permanent. He continued to write in Tomis. He never finished the Fasti, but he wrote the Tristia (Sorrows) and the Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea). He even claimed that he had learned the language of the local population and had composed some poetry in it, although nothing of this kind survives. He never stopped trying to get his sentence of exile reversed, but he never succeeded. He died in Tomis in 17 or 18 A.D.
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