Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso)

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) (43 B.C.-A.D. 17) Roman poet and mythographer

An eyewitness to the social and political chaos that led to the formation of the Roman Empire, the elegaic poet Ovid captured in verse his heartache over personal disgrace and exile. The son of aristocrats, he was born on March 20, 43 B.c., at Sulmo, 90 miles east of Rome along the Pescara River in the Abruzzi high country. In boyhood, he shunned military training and weaponry. His ambitious father arranged two unsuitable marriages for him—both were short-lived—and rebuked him for choosing an unremunerative career in literature. In preparation for a legal career, Ovid's father had him and his older brother educated in rhetoric under two Roman teachers, the eminent orators Arellius Fuscus and Porcius Latro. In Ovid's teens, Augustus awarded him a key of distinction and a fine steed as tokens of his promise. After his brother's death, Ovid abandoned his job as a court magistrate, studied ethics and Epicurean philosophy for a year in Athens, and, with the poet Aemilius Macer, toured Sicily and Troy (present-day Hissarlik, Turkey).

At the founding of the Roman Empire in 27 B.c., Ovid became a court wit and man about town, financed by the family estate. He built homes and gardens on the Capitoline Hill and between the Claudian and Flaminian Ways and, under the patronage of the orator Messalla Corvinus, initiated a career in poetry, giving public recitations of his sparkling verse. At age 33, he issued the Amores (Loves, 10 B.c.), the forerunner of erotic verse in Ars amatoria (The Art of Love, ca. 3 B.c.), a guide to men and women in pleasing and keeping the affection of their beloved. The venture into blatant carnality affronted Emperor Augustus, who sought to reinforce his position with laws against adultery, in a return to old republican values.

At his height, Ovid published the Metamorphoses (Transformations, A.D. 8), an imaginative overview of 250 Greek and Roman myths similar in precivilized customs and behaviors to the Japanese mythographer Ohono Yasumaro's Kojiki (A.D. 712) and to the Mayan POPUL VUH (ca. 1558). Prophetically, Ovid's poems mused on the undeserved incarceration of Proserpina and Eurydice in the underworld and on the excessively ambitious Tiresias, the prophet who offended Juno, and Phaeton, the doomed youth who drove Hyperion's sun chariot. For Phaeton, Ovid composed a pensive epitaph: “Though he greatly failed, more greatly dared” (Ovid 1984, 1:83).

The Blunder

Ovid's downfall illustrates the need for discretion within the imperial state. Allegedly blaming the poet for corrupting the emperor's granddaughter, Julia the Younger, in A.D. 7, Augustus banned the poet's books for indecency and, for some stillunknown offense, exiled him to Tomis (present-day Constanta, Romania), a fogged-in sea town near the Danube River on the Black Sea. Julia, too, was exiled for her affair with Decimus Junius Silanus. Subsequent theorists surmise that Ovid learned some damning secret, perhaps a conspiracy, in the imperial household. On a bleak shore apart from his adored wife Fabia and daughter Perilla, he expressed thanks for avoiding execution or obligatory suicide, confiscation of his estate, and loss of civil rights. In a shaky sociopolitical era, Ovid's advice in A.D. 8 struck Romans as sound: “In medio tutissimus ibis” (You will go safest in the middle), a restatement of Aristotle's Golden Mean, “Nothing in excess.”

The poet ceased work on Fasti (Calendar of holidays, A.D. 17), a month-by-month compilation of the foundations for Roman religious customs and rituals. The work had given the poet an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the imperial descendants of the Julio-Claudian line, whom a new, amended calendar exalted. Ovid's text propagandizes Augustus as pater patriae (father of his country), a replacement for the mythic Romulus. The 12-book project, which Ovid dedicated to Germanicus, Augustus's grandson, required research in Rome's three public libraries, which came to an end upon the poet's exile.

Lacking source material for research, Ovid consoled himself with personal writing and spent the rest of his life composing autobiographical car- mina (poems). Spiritually isolated among the boorish Getae of Thrace (present-day eastern Romania, European Turkey, northeastern Greece, and southern Bulgaria), he had no audience who understood his Latin recitations. To reconcile himself to living among aliens, he learned Dacian-Getian, the local language. He felt that residence in Tomis required service in the home guard, an onerous duty for a melancholic exile in his late 50s. Eventually, the Getae valued him as poet-in-residence, absolved him of taxes, and freed him from civic duties. At his death and burial on an island in Lake Siutghiol, citizens raised a monument to him at the city gates.

Work in Exile

On the way east by sea, Ovid immediately began writing Tristia (Sorrows of an Exile, A.D. 10) and followed with Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from Pontus, A.D. 10), a survey of the sorrows incurred by an unwitting enemy of the state. In Tristia, the poet denied the emperor's charge of wickedness but confessed to folly. Ovid imbued his verses with a lugubrious tone. In self-pity, he mourned, “I must lose my native land for ever” (Ovid 1995, 15). He hinted that Augustus himself deserved blame for encouraging public immorality by sponsoring gladiatorial spectacles, where open seating was unsegregated by gender and where men arranged trysts with their lovers. To the emperor, Ovid proclaimed the injustice of banishment: “My tongue has told no secrets. I've said nothing, nor in my cups were words profane unfurled” (53). He confessed thoughts of suicide, which a friend prevented.

Ovid's disgrace ate at his composure and eroded his health, hope, and vigor. He allowed himself to vent his spite in Ibis (A.D. 11), a literary curse that lacerates an unnamed villain for defaming the poet, who had no opportunity for rebuttal. Other poems express his yearning for his wife Fabia, his grandchildren, and old friends; and for forgiveness from Augustus and Tiberius, the first emperor's successor. Despite pleas for amnesty or a change of location to “somewhere safer” (31), however, Ovid died at Tomis. An elegant lyricist of universal themes, he influenced generations of readers and writers with his views on imperial grudges and capricious exercises of power. His eloquent style influenced MARIE DE FRANCE and Chretien de Troyes, the popularizers of CRUSADER LORE, as well as the Parisian fabulist JEAN DE LA FONTAINE.


Habinek, Thomas N. The Politics of Latin Literature: Writing, Identity, and Empire in Ancient Rome. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Herbert-Brown, Geraldine. Ovid and the Fasti: An Historical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. 2 vols. Translated by Frank Justus Miller. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

----- . Sorrows of an Exile. Translated by A. D. Melville. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.