Publius Ovidius Naso ('Ovid') was born in Sulmo, north of Rome, in 43 BCE. Although educated to take part in political and public life, as an aesthete from the very start, he tells us in his first published collection of poetry that he has no intention of 'learning wordy laws by heart', or 'prostituting' his voice to the 'ungrateful Forum' (Amores 1.15.6). Ovid presents himself as a true literary celebrity at the height of his fame, until a political event compromised his favor with the emperor Augustus. He describes it as a 'carmen et error' (Tristia 2.207), a 'poem and a mistake': the poem was no doubt the Ars Amatoria ('Guidebook for Love'), which seems to have fallen foul of Augustus' conservative marriage legislation, but the mistake remains a mystery. He was exiled to Tomis on the Black Sea, and scholars estimate that he died there in 17 CE.
Ovid strikes us as a particularly modern poet. He knew how to take genres apart, recognizing and exposing their codes and patterns, then he delighted in reassembling them in surprising ways. He wrote love poetry on the model of the elegists of the previous generation, but replaced their earnestness with the teasing suggestion that his beloved was merely a literary invention to suit his whims. He wrote didactic ('educational') poems on the model of Vergil’s Georgics (on agriculture) and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (on Epicurean philosophy), but instead took as his topics hooking up (Ars Amatoria), hooking fish (Halieutica), cures for romantic malaise (Remedia Amoris), and recipes for women’s cosmetics (Medicamina Faciei Femineae). Most famously, he wrote a radical kind of epic poem, the Metamorphoses, in which the grand narrative we might expect from epic has been shattered into tiny pieces and rearranged into an elaborate interlocking mosaic, each miniature scene refracting the general theme of metamorphosis. The poem begins with the metamorphosis of chaos into matter and ends with the metamorphosis of Julius Caesar into a star, weaving together some 250 other mythological tales in between. Ovid later claimed that this masterpiece was incomplete (Tristia 1.7.14, 39-40), but few have believed him – he seems even here to be ironic, deliberately echoing Vergil’s status as the author of the incomplete Aeneid.
Written by James Uden, Classics, Columbia University
Works Consulted & Further Reading
K. Volk. Ovid, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010 (A clear and accessible account of Ovid’s life and writings)
The Cambridge Companion to Ovid (accessible online through Columbia library, with articles on literary style, issues of gender, politics and reception of Ovid’s poetry)