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Ovid
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan


Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.


Suggested Background Reading

For the life of Ovid and general background material, see the introduction to Innes' translation of the Metamorphoses, esp. pp. 9-12.

Other useful sources are: The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd edition);   Suetonius, Life of Augustus 63-65.


Links in the following discussion are to the Selections from Ovid's Amores in the collection of translations of Classical authors, and to other works available on the Perseus website.


P. Ovidius Naso (Ovid)
43 B.C. - A.D. 17

List of Works

Amores — First edition ca. 20 B.C.; second edition shortly before the publication of Ars Amatoria

Heroides — Between the first and second edition of Amores

Ars Amatoria [The Art of Love] — Books 1-2: not before 1 B.C.; the third book is later in date.

Medicamina faciei femineae — Before the third book of Ars Amatoria

Medea — Date unknown.

Remedia Amoris [Cures for Love] — A.D. 1

Metamorphoses — From A.D. 2 onwards.

Fasti — From A.D. 2 onwards.

Tristia — A.D. 9

Epistulae ex Ponto [Letters from Pontus] — Books 1-3: A.D. 13; Book 4 posthumously.


Life and Works

Ovid was born in Sulmo, in central Italy. His family was of equestrian rank and therefore fairly well off (cf. Catullus' family background). Ovid was given the standard education for a young man of his rank and was groomed for a career in law (the ancient equivalent of the civil service). He held a couple of minor posts, but then turned to poetry, for which (he tells us) he had displayed a natural talent since youth. He soon won the patronage of M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus (64 B.C. - A.D. 8), a patrician who had won fame as an orator, soldier, and linguist and was a well-known patron of the arts.

[Messalla fought on the Republican side at Philippi but later became a supporter of Antony. He transferred his allegiance to Octavian in disgust at Antony's liaison with Cleopatra and fought against Antony at Actium. He was the man who proposed the title of pater patriae ('father of the fatherland') for Augustus in 2 B.C.]

Ovid was not a part, therefore, of the 'inner circle' of Augustan poets associated with Maecenas. He did become part of the younger, 'fast' crowd at Rome, however, the most prominent member of which was the emperor's daughter, Julia (see below).

Ovid's poetic output is quite varied. In addition to the Metamorphoses, he composed collections of sophisticated love elegies (the Amores), a collection of fictitious letters (in verse) written by famous women from ancient myth (Heroides), a poetic handbook on the use of cosmetics (Medicamina faciei femineae; cf. Amores 1.14), a tragedy (Medea, now lost, but much praised in antiquity: cf. Metam. 7), the Ars Amatoria (usually called The Art of Love among English writers, but in reality a technical handbook [in verse] on how to commit adultery [amor]: cf. Amores 1.4), and a poetic account of the Roman religious calendar (Fasti), describing the various annual rites, their origins, and the myths with which they were associated. Despite the variety of topics and genres evident in Ovid's works, there are certain elements that characterize his oeuvre as a whole (note, e.g., his interest in love themes and in the emotional distress of women wronged); above all, his works are marked by wit, sophistication, and irreverence, the latter often taking a particularly subtle form of parody. (E.g., the Ars Amatoria can be read as indirect mockery of Vergil's Georgics: where Vergil celebrates the life of the country and traditional Roman morality by composing a verse handbook on farming, Ovid composes a similar work celebrating the sophisticated life of the young man-about-town and the pursuit of amor.)

In A.D. 8, at the height of his career, Ovid was suddenly banished to Tomi on the northwest shore of the Black Sea. This would have been a devastating blow for any Roman, but was particularly distressing for Ovid, who found himself separated from his circle of friends and fellow literati, and from the sophisticated society of Rome in which he was at home. His final works are a series of laments addressed to Augustus from the lonely isolation of exile: Ovid begs the emperor's forgiveness at length, but is quite vague regarding the cause of his banishment. His most specific reference (Tr. 4.1099) mentions 'a poem and a mistake' (carmen et error) but expressly denies that he had committed any crime (scelus).

The poem in question is usually assumed to be the Ars Amatoria (published c. A.D. 1). This work clearly would not have found found favor with Augustus, who (as we have seen) promoted his reign as a spiritual and moral, as well as a cultural, renaissance. The man who sponsored the moral legislation of 18-17 B.C. and, more significantly, that of A.D. 9 clearly frowned upon Ovid's ditties on love affairs and parties, harmless as they may have been. Ovid was out of step with the official policies of Augustus' regime and seemed to go out of his way to poke fun at the high-sounding ideals of that regime as portrayed in the works of Horace and Vergil. (Contrast, e.g., Horace, Odes 3.2 and Ovid, Amores 1.9.) The timing of Ovid's banishment suggests that his exile may have been used as a symbolic gesture on the emperor's part, a signal that the regime was renewing its efforts to pull Rome out of its moral decline. (Note that the emperor's granddaughter Julia, the daughter of Julia and Agrippa [see below], also was banished in A.D. 8.) To that degree, the 'poem' to which Ovid alludes may have been no more than the stated excuse for his banishment.

As for the 'mistake': it seems that Ovid saw something that he was not supposed to have seen. The common assumption today is that he took part in one of the notorious escapades of the emperor's daughter *Julia.

[Julia (39 B.C. - A.D. 14) was Augustus' daughter by his first wife, Scribonia. (Ironically, given the way things turned out, many think that she is the divine child whose birth is celebrated in Vergil's fourth Eclogue.) Her life was far from enviable and gives a good indication of how readily female children in important families could become pawns in their fathers' dynastic machinations, particularly when 'dad' happened to be emperor. The women of Augustus' family were compelled to live lives of severe simplicity and to model themselves after the women of early Rome, becoming living symbols of Augustus' restoration of the pristine mores of the Early Republic: "The education of his daughter and granddaughters included even spinning and weaving; they were forbidden to say or do anything, either publicly or in private, that could not decently figure in the imperial day-book. He took severe measures to prevent them forming friendships without his consent..." (Suetonius: R. Graves tr.). At 14 years of age (in 25 B.C.), Julia was married to the dashing young *Marcellus (42-23 B.C. — the son of C. Claudius Marcellus and Octavia [Augustus' sister]). The marriage was dynastic in nature, intended to mark Augustus' son-in-law as the heir apparent. After Marcellus' sudden death in 23 (see Aeneid 6.854ff.), Julia was married (in 21 B.C.) to Augustus' leading military advisor, *Agrippa (64-12 B.C.), a man older than her father. Again, the intention was to ensure an orderly succession. Agrippa and Julia had a number of children, including another Julia (see above) and Agrippina, mother of the future emperor Caligula. On Agrippa's death in 12 B.C. Julia was again married off, this time to the future emperor *Tiberius (in 11 B.C.), who was compelled to divorce his wife Vipsania Agrippina (Agrippa's daughter by an earlier wife), with whom he was very much in love. The marriage of Julia and Tiberius, predictably, was not a happy one and Julia began to take part in a series of ever more scandalous affairs. Her profligate lifestyle eventually became an embarrassment to the Augustan regime. In 2 B.C. she was banished to a small island near Naples where she was put under house arrest, with severe restrictions regarding her visitors, her diet, and her daily pastimes. In A.D. 14 she died of malnutrition, virtually starved to death.]

Ovid seems to have been unfortunate enough to have gotten caught up in Julia's company and perhaps was involved in the affairs of the younger Julia (daughter of Augustus' daughter Julia) as well.

To a certain degree, Ovid's poetry can be seen to reflect an Augustan 'generation gap'. Where the poets Vergil and Horace give voice to the combination of angst, guilt, relief, and gratitude that mark the age that witnessed the collapse of the Republic and the rise of Augustus, Ovid's generation could not remember a time when Augustus had not been in control. (Note: Ovid was born after the death of Julius Caesar and was only 12 years old when the battle of Actium occurred.) Like the generation of the 1950s on this continent, Ovid's contemporaries knew only peace and plenty, and were quite willing to mock the older regime and its dour obsessions. To this degree Ovid can be seen as the antithesis of Horace and Vergil. One example: we have seen how the Jupiter of Horace's Odes (e.g. Ode 3.5) and of the Aeneid is associated with Augustus: both are stern authority figures who impose order and rationality upon an unruly and recalcitrant world. Contrast the Jupiter of Metam. 1.163ff. (pp. 33-36 in Innes' translation): the "mighty Thunderer" who lives in the Milky Way (which is expressly compared to the Palatine Hill, where Augustus' palace was located) and determines to wipe out the present sin-ridden generation in disgust at its crimes, promising to create "a new stock of men, unlike the former ones." There is nothing overtly parodic here, but it is tempting to see in this blustering Jupiter a caricature of the august god of Horace and Vergil, and to detect uncomfortable similarities to the Augustan Principate and its program of moral, social, and political regeneration.

Herein lies one of the principal distinctions between the poetry of Ovid and that of Catullus. In many ways, the two poets are quite similar: the works of both present the life of the wealthy, carefree, irreverent young man-about-town. In contrast to Catullus, however, Ovid's work seems continually to reflect an awareness of authorized forms of literary expression and moral deportment against which he playfully rebels. Catullus may poke fun at the censorious older generation (e.g., the "critical old men" of poem 5), but does so in a vein that recalls the rebellious youth of New Comedy. Ovid, by contrast, seems to enjoy tweaking "the Authorities" (i.e., the Augustan regime) in a manner that, for all its clever sophistication, suggests a type of adolescent naughtiness. Whether he intended the allusion or not, his relationship to the dour Augustan moral program recalls the contrast between the humorless Minerva and the rebellious young Arachne at Metamorphoses 6.70-128.

Others compare Ovid to Oscar Wilde: both were outsiders who used their subversive wit to gain admission to the upper echelons of society; both lived a life at odds with the official morality of the ruling regime (Ovid and the life of amor vs. the Augustan Principate; Wilde's not so covert homosexuality vs. the Victorian Age); both died miserable deaths when that regime decided that it was time to swat them down.

Ovid's poetry is often dismissed as frivolous fluff, and to a large degree it is. But it is very sophisticated fluff and, if read carefully, presents interesting insights into the less serious side of the Augustan Age.


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Last Modified: Saturday, 29-Mar-2014 09:37:06 CST
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