43 B.C.-A.D. 18

Roman poet

Ovid was one of the greatest Roman poets and a leading figure in Roman society until the emperor Augustus banished him in A.D. 8. Traditional Roman values included military duty hard work, and civic service. Before Ovid, love had been considered a kind of destructive illness that threatened one’s personality. Ovid turned those ideas upside down as he celebrated love in his poetry as the more important and positive force in human nature.

Ovid's Life and Times. Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) was born in 43 B.C. in the town of Sulmo, about 100 miles east of Rome. He received the standard education for a person of his class, studying rhetoric* in Rome as he prepared for a career in public service. After his formal training, Ovid, like most educated young men, studied philosophy* in Athens and toured the lands of the eastern Mediterranean before returning to Rome. He held several minor government offices, a career he soon abandoned to spend his time visiting booksellers’ shops and becoming acquainted with the leading poets of his day. His career as a poet began when he was about 20 years old. Augustus had just begun his reign as emperor.

At that time, Rome was emerging from almost 100 years of civil war that transformed the serious, public-minded society of the Roman Republic* into the pleasure-seeking society of the Roman Empire. Ovid drew inspiration from the bustling urban life of Rome and became well known as a poetic spokesman for the younger, and more sexually liberated, element of society. His identification with this group was at odds with Augustus’s view that increasing sexual liberation threatened the family and the fabric of society. Ovid published his Amores (Loves) in about 16 B.C. and Ars amatoria (Art of Love) about 17 years later. By ad. 8 he was a prominent poet. Then suddenly in that same year, Augustus banished him from Rome to the remote town of Tomis on the Black Sea, where he remained until his death 10 years later. The cause of Ovid’s banishment remains mysterious, but some scholars wonder whether it was connected with Augustus’s banishment, in the same year, of his granddaughter Julia, who he discovered was committing adultery*. Augustus’s disapproval of Ovid’s Ars amatoria, combined with some minor court intrigue or knowledge of Julia’s behavior on the part of Ovid, may have led Augustus to his actions. Ovid himself wrote that he had been banished because of “a poem and an error.”

* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing

* philosophy study of ideas, including science

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* adultery sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than his or her spouse

Amores. Ovid’s first great work was Amores, a collection of love poems in which he claims for the poet and lover the same traditional Roman values associated with military and civic life: duty, bravery, perseverance, and toughness. He portrayed love and romance as tasks that required as much effort, skill, and daring as making a military conquest or ruling an empire. The main character of Amores is the poet-lover-conqueror who combines the virtues of the old Rome with the attitudes of the new in a witty, original, and somewhat subversive way.

In a second edition of Amoves, published about 3 B.C., a more mature Ovid shows the negative side of the main character. Because the character’s goal is the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself, he becomes a victim of the emptiness of a life dedicated to shallow “good times.” For Ovid, love’s true purpose is to uplift a person and allow him to achieve true humanity, not merely the satisfaction of his desires. This theme is developed more fully in his later works, Ars amatoria and Remedia amoris (The Cure of Love), in which he writes about how to fall out of love.

Ars amatoria. A didactic* poem in three books, Ars amatoria advises young men on the art of courtship. It is similar to Amoves in that it satirizes the civic virtues of the old Rome. In Ars amatoria, new Rome is about the pursuit of pleasure, especially sex, and Ovid plays the Professor of Love to his students, the young people of Rome. He details the many ways to take advantage of women, including a parody* of a victory parade through Rome, in which Ovid turns a glorification of Roman military virtues into a lesson on how to impress and seduce women.

In another section of the poem, Ovid sets out to give women guidance on successful lovemaking. He advises them to become the kind of sex objects that men want, thus facilitating the men’s efforts at seduction.

Metamorphoses. Ovid’s greatest work, the Metamorphoses (Transformations), was written as a kind of playful epic* in which the heroic vision of the world, as in Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, is transformed. The Metamorphoses begins with the formation of the world after Chaos and comes down to the present and to the emperor Augustus. However, Ovid rejects the classical virtues and values of the ancient world by creating an epic that uses central characters who are not gods and heroes but frail and flawed human beings. The Metamorphoses has many stories rather than just one. The traditional epic themes of glory and honor are replaced by the triumph of the human soul searching for the meaning of love and truth.

The Metamorphoses draws from many classical* sources to show gods in conflict with mortals*. The stories typically end with the transformation, or metamorphosis, of the human being into another form. One of the final metamorphoses is Julius Caesar being changed into a comet in the heavens. These transformations usually occur as a character’s punishment for opposing the divine will of the gods. But instead of glorifying the classical gods, as in the epics of Homer, some of Ovid’s tales show them as callous, self-absorbed, and vengeful. The last books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (there are a total of 15) contain many Roman myths as well as Roman historical references. These have provided us with a fascinating source of information about Roman folklore and tradition.

Ovid's Later Works. The Metamorphoses was the last work Ovid completed before his banishment. In Tomis he continued working on the Fasti (Calendar), which he had started earlier. In this work, which remained unfinished, Ovid described and explained the religious festivals of Rome. He also wrote Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from Pon- tus), poems in the form of letters to friends and relatives in Rome. All these works were motivated in part by Ovid’s desire to persuade Augustus to allow him to return from his exile. None of the later works approach the quality of his previous ones, but they serve to show how important the vibrant life of Rome and its people were as inspirations for his writing. (See also Civil Wars, Roman; Divinities; Education and Rhetoric, Roman; Epic, Greek; Epic, Roman; Homer; Literature, Roman; Love, the Idea of; Poetry, Roman; Social Life, Roman.)

* didactic intended to instruct

* parody work that imitates another for comic effect or ridicule

* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

* classical relating to the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome

* mortal human being; one who eventually will die


In the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Myrrha, a young woman whose forbidden passion has led her to commit a desperate act. She begs the gods that she be allowed neither to live (and thus pollute the living) nor to die (and thus pollute the kingdoms of the dead).

An unnamed goddess answers her prayer by transforming her into a myrrh tree and changing her eternal tears into myrrh, a fragrance used in the rites of the mystery religions. In this transformation, the horrors and chaos of the heart are made new and beautiful. Ovid shows the vulnerability of human beings and their great need for love, as well as their capacity for strength, honesty, and goodness.

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