Publius Ovidius Naso, known in English as Ovid, was an eminent Latin poet, especially regarded by both ancient and modern critics alike for his many elegies on love and for his great mythological epic the Metamorphoses.
He was born on the 20th of March, 43 BCE in Sulmona (mod. Abruzzo). His parents were wealthy equestrians who sent him to study rhetoric in Rome under Arellius Fuscus and Porcius Latro, setting him up for a standard political career. Upon returning from Greece, to where it was customary to go for education, he abandoned politics and pursued poetry, joining the literary circle of M. Valerius Messalla, one of the two distinguished literary patrons of the Augustan Age.
Much of his early career focused on love elegies in the style pioneered by Gallus, Propertius, and Tibullus. Some, such as the Ars Amatoria (“Art of Love”), were particularly scandalous in a time when Augustus passed adultery laws and generally tried to promote morality and sexual fidelity.
It was perhaps for this reason that Ovid was in 8 CE exiled by Augustus to Tomis (mod. Constanța) on the Black Sea, a port city surrounded by Getic tribes. The reasons for his banishment are uncertain, Ovid himself attributes it to “two crimes, a poem and a mistake” (duo crimina, carmen et error, Tristia 2.207). Commentators have long assumed that the poem is the Ars Amatoria and that the mistake was some scandal related to Julia the Younger, grand-daughter of Augustus and notorious for her adulterous escapades; she too was exiled that year. This interpretation remains unlikely, however, since for one, Ovid denies that his mistake was a wicked deed (scelus), and his Ars Amatoria had long been published.
In exile Ovid composed several works pleading with the emperors Augustus and, upon his succession, Tiberius. He was ultimately unsuccessful, and lived out his life in Tomis until he died in either 17 or 18 BCE.
There is some uncertainty in the dating of Ovid’s works. He published his first work, the Amores (“Loves”), in 20 or 19 BCE. However, the collection that has been transmitted to today is a revised version from much later than the original, with the dates estimated between 10 BCE and 1 CE.
In this work, Ovid follow Gallus, Tibullus, Propertius, and to some extent also Catullus in narrating through love poems a relationship with a pseudonymous beloved, named Corinna in the Amores. The themes his predecessors explored—the violence of love, love v. war, beloved’s (and lover’s) betrayal, the paraclausithyron—are pushed to their extremes, and what was once elegant and witty became with Ovid witty and devious. For example, lovers’ spats in Catullus and Propertius became very dark and violent in the Amores, with Ovid tearfully apologizing for giving his girl a black eye (1.7). In this way, the elegies are less serious, and should be taken as such.
The Amores are actually rather mild, especially when compared to the Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”), published in three books between 1 BCE and 1 CE. The first two books contained advice for men on seducing and retaining women, and the third book for women to seduce men. Ovid jokingly gives the reason for his third book:
Non erat armatis aequum concurrere nudas;
Sic etiam vobis vincere turpe, viri.
It’s not fair for armed men to battle nude women;
Thus, men, even to win would be a disgrace.
In between Amores and Ars Amatoria were the Heroides, a collection of epistles in verse from various “heroines” from Greek myths (plus Sappho). Also written around the same time was the Medicamina Faciei Femineae (“Women’s Facial Cosmetics”), and shortly thereafter too was the Remedia Amoris (“Remedy for Love”), a cheeky poem which depicts Cupid battling Ovid, the latter of whom had “declared war” against love.
These works are all unusual for their subject matter, in that they were written in elegiac couplets, while the standard for didactic poetry was hexametric verse (cf. Lucretius).
Ovid is best known for the Metamorphoses, a collection of mythological tales which exhibit some sort of physical change in the character. The Metamorphoses was written in epic verse (dactylic hexameter), thereby competing with the recently deceased Vergil and his Roman epic, the Aeneid. In doing so, Ovid follows the long Hellenistic tradition of eschewing narrative epic (like the Aeneid) for “Hesiodic” epic, i.e. with an emphasis on short stories and catalogs.
Ovid also began on the Fasti, a versification of the Roman calendar. The Fasti were likely composed to satisfy the demands of Augustus on the literary elite to promote what is essentially propaganda of the new regime. This includes a return to ancient values, and thus Augustus encouraged works which focused on the early Republic, especially in a moral, religious, and courageous light. The Fasti document festivals and religious cults from the earliest time, thus complementing Vergil’s Aeneid, which not only explained the origins of Rome but also attempted to legitimate Augustus’ rule; Propertius’ fourth book of Elegies, which narrated many scenes—both mythical and historical—of early Rome and the Republic; and Tibullus, who, while never making good on his promise to Augustus to write patriotic war poetry, does contrast the corrupt modern world with the idyllic and idealistic portrayal of simpler times in rural Rome.
Both the Metamorphoses and the Fasti also follow Propertius’s fourth book in hearkening back to Callimachus’ Aitia, a compilation of various etiologies in hexameters, itself almost an epic, and a source of inspiration for all three elegiac writers.
Despite the pious endeavor, Ovid was suddenly exiled from Rome to Tomis on the Black Sea, thus interrupting his research for the second half of the Fasti. The exile caused a major disruption in Ovid’s tone. Ovid had become mournful, constantly lamenting his banishment, and regretful, always pleading to Caesar to release him. He thus begins his next work, the Tristia, or Sadness, with the lines:
Parve – nec invideo – sine me, liber, ibis in urbem:
ei mihi, quod domino non licet ire tuo!
Go on, little book – I will not stop you – to the city without me
Alas for me, because your master is not permitted to go!
He does not hide how miserable his work has become, citing
flebilis ut noster status est, ita flebile carmen
Because my situation is doleful, so too is this song doleful.
The works plead with Augustus and then Tiberius for his return, neither of whom granted his request. It mournfully retraces the city of Rome and his own house, though some modern scholars detect a purposeful snubbing of Augustus, perhaps stemming from a bitter resentment for his new life.
The last surviving poem of Ovid’s is the Ibis, named after a non-extant poem by Callimachus, which in turn was named after the bird; both poems which are invective, rebutting “detractors”.
Upon the death of Augustus, Ovid wrote two poems on his apotheosis, one even in Getic, the language of the inhabitants of Tomis, neither of which survive.
Ovid died a few years after Augustus. He had composed his own epitaph, which is now inscribed on a statue in Constanţa, the modern city of Tomis:
Hic ego qui iaceo tenerorum lusor amorum
Ingenio perii, Naso poeta, meo.
At tibi qui transis, ne sit grave, quisquis amasti,
Dicere: Nasonis molliter ossa cubent.
Here I lie, player of tender loved, who
perished by my own talent, I Naso the poet.
But for you who pass by, whoever has loved, let it not be
Too heavy to say: May the bones of Naso softly rest.
Latin: PHI Latin Texts
English: Poetry in Translation (Metamorphoses, Love Poetry, Fasti)
English: Theoi (Metamorphoses, Heroides, Fasti)
English: Anthony Kline’s translations
English: Sacred-Texts (Metamorphoses, Love Books)
English: Giles’ Literal Translation of Metamorphoses I-IV
- Syme, Ronald. 1978. History in Ovid. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Boyd, Barbara Weiden, ed. 2002. Brill’s companion to Ovid. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.
- Hardie, Philip R., ed. 2002. The Cambridge companion to Ovid. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.