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.