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The Core Curriculum

Ovid

43 BCE – 17 CE
Dates are approximate

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)

A clear and accessible account of Ovid’s life and writings can be found in K. Volk, Ovid, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, with further bibliography. The full text of The Cambridge Companion to Ovid is accessible through the Columbia library website, with articles on literary style, issues of gender and politics, and reception of Ovid’s poetry.

Historical Contexts

Metamorphoses

Ovid's work is marked by a certain light touch - some have seen positive subversion - in dealing with matters of history and politics. When Octavian (soon renamed Augustus) defeated Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and established himself as sole ruler of Rome, Ovid was only eleven years old. He therefore saw little of the Civil Wars that afflicted Rome throughout the first century and cast such a dark shadow on the work of his predecessor, Virgil. Instead, when specters of Rome’s troubled past appear in Ovid’s first poetry book, it is no Roman general but the god of love, Cupid, who is leading a military triumph, and the poet willingly declares himself ‘fresh booty’ (Amores 1.2.29).  Later, in the Ars Amatoria, he goes to the Circus Maximus to witness first-hand a military triumph, but he does so because it is a good place to pick up girls: you can impress women by knowing the names of conquered chieftains, he says, and if you don’t know them, you can just make up plausible alternatives instead (1.227-8). Do we think of Anchises dutifully recounting names to a barely-comprehending Aeneas as the parade of future Roman history marches by in Aeneid 6? When the two passages are put side by side like this, the generation gap between Vergil and Ovid seems immense. 

Written by James Uden (Classics, Columbia University)

A clear and accessible account of Ovid’s life and writings can be found in K. Volk, Ovid, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, with further bibliography. The full text of The Cambridge Companion to Ovid is accessible through the Columbia library website, with articles on literary style, issues of gender and politics, and reception of Ovid’s poetry.

Heroides

“The Heroides are two sets of mythological letters written in elegiac couplets, the first of a group of fifteen written by women to men they have been or would like to be romantically involved with (the 'single' letters), and the second comprising three pairs of courtship letters between a couple engaged or about to be engaged in a relationship (…) Most think that the single Heroides were written between the first and the second editions of the Amores, that is, between rougly 20 and 13 BCE (…) The double letters, however, are often dated to about the time of Ovid's exile (8 CE) because stylistically and metrically they are more similar to his later poetry rather than his earlier”.

“This kind of writing, in which the author writes in the persona of a character (sometimes historical and sometimes fictional), was a part of the rhetorical training of upper-class Romans of Ovid's time, and Seneca's Susoriae and Controversiae provide not only examples but also mentions of Ovid's own rhetorical exercises (…) The primary differences in Ovid's treatment of these originally rhetorical themes are, first, that he writes poetry rather than prose and, second, that the poems focus on such a small portion of human experience, rather than encompassing the broader themes of the school exercises (...)”

“The Heroides, then, are not quite like anything that has come before them. There are probably examples of fictional letter collections before Ovid, but they are mostly the forged correspondence of historical figures who are likely to have written to one another (...)”

“Ovid himself claims to have invented this genre, whatever we understand it to be (Ars 3.346) (…) And yet the Heroides, while they are in some sense anomalous, are very much a part of Ovid's work as a whole. Like the Metamorphoses and parts of the Ars amatoria, they are interested in mythology, both in its canonical versions and its contemporary, 'Romanized' permutations. Like the Ibis and the Fasti, they presume a detailed and technical knowledge of variant versions of that mythology. Like the exile poetry, they minutely examine similar themes, relentlessly pacing over the same place. Their world is essentially the world of Roman love elegy, as seen in the Amores (…) Like the Ars amatoria and certain books of the Metamorphoses, they are interested in the unhappier parts of erotic experience, particularly women's. And like all of Ovid's poetry, they are immensely playful and immensely satisfying; the more you read them, the more they draw you into their world.”

 

Source: FULKERSON, Laurel. “The Heroides: Female Elegy?” , in A Companion to Ovid (ed P. E. Knox), Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK, pages 78 – 89.