Ancient History & Civilisation

Ovid the Love Poet:
Life in the Fasti lane

In the year 2 B.C. a heavy-breathing love poet named Publius Ovidius Naso had just survived a political squeaker with Rome’s ruler for the past quarter century, Octavian Augustus. An unfortunate coincidence involving Ovid’s sexy new book on the art of love and the adultery scandal of the emperor’s only daughter Julia. The slut had promptly been banished by her father to a rocky islet off Naples.

Neither Ovid nor his book had met her fate. So far.

Lucky that you weren’t on her reading list or her kiss-and-tell list, he told himself. Stick to your wife and your girlfriends, all of them thankfully unrelated to the imperial family.

This was Ovid’s third literary attempt. His five-volume book Amores had won raves back in 15 B.C. but fulsome praise didn’t pay the bills. If his just-published Art of Love and its erotic companion Remedies for Love didn’t hit big, he’d be forced to grovel at the knee of his stingy father for a bigger allowance.

Focus, Ovid told himself. Focus on winning the right kind of attention from Octavian, that lecherous old hypocrite with his constant calls for morality and family values. Try to win his approval for a high-minded commission of some sort.

After years of fawning and lobbying, the poet’s efforts paid off. The emperor commissioned him to write a marvelous new work. Apparently Octavian craved a long poem in verse about the Roman calendar, its zodiac signs, and its time-hallowed holidays.

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Ovid loved women and knew how they liked to be aroused. In his poetry and his life, he honored females with foreplay.

Ovid was still cranking away on his unfinished epic Metamorphoses but it would have to wait. His poetic career was back on track. Just think: the emperor as literary patron!

Seven months later, Ovid had written five thousand lines of verse but completed just six months of his twelve-month calendar book. The topic fascinated him: the zodiac signs that determined the fate of humans; the nefasti days when business activity and assemblies were not permitted: the dies feraie, when holidays and festivals were held; the fasti, the days on which the courts and stores were open for business; and the unlucky days of the calendar. His book would be a celebration; a mix of myth and history, legend and sacred rite, the past linked to the present.

Right in the middle of this period of intense creativity and Ovid’s third marriage, this time to a woman he really cared about, the unluckiest day of his life occurred. A professional accuser went to Emperor Octavian Augustus, and straightaway the poet was arrested for treason against the emperor.

He knew he’d been framed; despite his protestations, the fifty-year-old Ovid was convicted. On a chilly December day in the year A.D. 8, he was banished to the forlorn little outpost of Tomis (now in Romania) on the shores of the Black Sea.

Since Ovid’s earlier work, sexy and outrageous as it was, had been in print for a number of years, his denunciation at this late date seemed misplaced. Puzzled fellow poets and friends, along with girlfriends and wives both past and present, were in anguish over the decision.

That same year, however, Emperor Augustus also exiled his granddaughter, also named Julia, indicting her for adultery as he’d done to her mother. And banishing her to another of Italy’s miserably small islands off the mainland.

Was there a connection, at least in the emperor’s mind, between the actions of the two Julias and the writings of Ovid the poet? In his letters from exile, Ovid complained and hinted as much but never revealed any details. Despite his talent, he never saw his beloved Rome or his cherished wife again, dying in Tomis at about sixty years of age.

Historians have chewed on this mystery from centuries. Today it’s thought that the lurid sex scandals of the imperial daughter and the granddaughter were cover-ups for conspiracies and aborted coups against the emperor. In both cases, key men involved in them were executed or exiled.

If these were attempts to overthrow, Ovid’s crime was probably one of omission. The crowd he hung out with included politically ambitious aristocrats. If he’d overheard rumblings of a plot, and done nothing about it, Roman law would label that treason.

Poor Ovid never completed Fasti, his calendar book. But the half-finished manuscript survived, more precious now than Ovid ever dreamed, the sole existing work about the wonderfully elaborate ways in which the Romans kept track of their lucky and unlucky days.

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