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Ovid - Overview of the Latin Poet

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

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The Latin Poet Ovid

The Latin Poet Ovid, Author of Metamorphoses

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Classical Writers > Roman Writers > Roman Poets > Ovid

Name: Publius Ovidius Naso
Occupation: (Roman) Poet
Important Dates:

  • Birth: March 20, 43 B.C. in Sulmo
  • Death: A.D. 14 in Tomi

Ovid was a prolific Roman poet whose writing influenced Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton. As those men knew, to understand the corpus of Greco-Roman mythology requires familiarity with Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Ovid's Upbringing

Publius Ovidius Naso or Ovid was born on March 20, 43 B.C.*, in Sulmo (modern Sulmona, Italy), to an equestrian (moneyed class) family**. His father took him and his one-year older brother to Rome to study so that they might become public speakers and politicians. Instead of following the career path chosen by his father, Ovid made good use of what he'd learned, but he put his rhetorical education to work in his poetic writing.

Ovid's Metamorphoses

Ovid wrote his Metamorphoses in the epic meter of dactyllic hexameters. It tells stories about the transformations of mostly humans and nymphs into animals, plants, etc. This is very different from the contemporary Roman poet Vergil (Virgil), who used the grand epic meter to showcase the noble history of Rome. Metamorphoses is a storehouse for Greek and Roman mythology.

Ovid as a Source for Roman Social Life

The topics of Ovid's love-based poetry, especially the Amores 'Loves' and Ars Amatoria 'Art of Love', and his work on the days of the Roman calendar, known as Fasti, give us a look at the social and private lives of ancient Rome in the time of the Emperor Augustus. From the perspective of Roman history, Ovid is therefore one of the most important of the Roman poets, even though there is debate as to whether he belongs to the Golden or merely the Silver Age of Latin literature.

Ovid as Fluff

John Porter says of Ovid: "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."

References:

Ovid - John Porter
Ovid FAQ - Sean Redmond

Carmen et Error and the Resulting Exile

Ovid's plaintive appeals in his writing from exile at Tomi [see § He on the map], on the Black Sea, are less entertaining than his mythological and amatory writing and are also frustrating because, while we know Augustus exiled a fifty-year-old Ovid for carmen et error, we don't know exactly what his grave mistake was, so we get an unsolvable puzzle and a writer consumed with self-pity who once was the height of wit, a perfect dinner party guest. Ovid says he saw something he should not have seen. It is assumed that the carmen et error had something to do with Augustus' moral reforms and/or the princeps' promiscuous daughter Julia. [Ovid had acquired the patronage of M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus (64 B.C. - A.D. 8), and become part of the lively social circle around Augustus' daughter Julia.] Augustus banished his granddaughter Julia and Ovid in the same year, A.D. 8. Ovid's Ars amatoria, a didactic poem purporting to instruct first men and then women on the arts of seduction, is thought to have been the offensive song (Latin: carmen).

Technically, since Ovid had not lost his possessions, his relegation to Tomi should not be called "exile," but relegatio.

Augustus died while Ovid was in relegation or exile, in A.D. 14. Unfortunately for the Roman poet, the successor of Augustus, the Emperor Tiberius, did not recall Ovid. For Ovid, Rome was the glittering pulse of the world. Being stuck, for whatever reasons, in what is modern Romania led to despair. Ovid died 3 years after Augustus, at Tomi, and was buried in the area.

Ovid Notes

*Ovid was born a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar and in the same year that Mark Antony was defeated by consuls C. Vibius Pansa and A. Hirtius at Mutina. Ovid lived through the entire reign of Augustus, dying 3 years into Tiberius' reign.

**Ovid's equestrian family had made it to the senatorial ranks, since Ovid writes in Tristia iv. 10.29 that he put on the broad stripe of the senatorial class when he donned the manly toga. See: S.G. Owens' Tristia: Book I (1902).

Ovid is on the list of Most Important People to Know in Ancient History.

Ovid - Writing Chronology

  • Amores (c. 20 B.C.)
  • Heroides
  • Medicamina faciei femineae
  • Ars Amatoria (1 B.C.)
  • Medea
  • Remedia Amoris
  • Fasti
  • Metamorphoses (finished by A.D. 8)
  • Tristia (starting A.D. 9)
  • Epistulae ex Ponto (starting A.D. 9)

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