Ovid the Poet Not exactly considered a “serious” poet or author, Publius Ovidius Naso, or Ovid as he is more commonly called, captured the spirit of Greek and Roman mythology in his most noted work The Metamorphoses. The stories told in this work are commonly thought of as not serious enough for adults. Therefore, many of these stories have been “dumbed down” and transposed into child book form. Though most of these stories are very serious, many do not see them as sophisticated literature. True as this is, his works are still great and reflect much of the attitude and culture of his time. Behind his fables, Ovid was a fantastic storyteller and a master at capturing the spirit of the ancient times as well as portraying his own life through his work. Like many poets of that time, Ovid’s father wished him to be a lawyer.
His father sent him from his home in Sulmo, where he was born, to Athens to obtain a legal degree and study rhetoric. “Indeed rhetoric was the core of Roman education in Ovid’s time, as it had been for almost a century before his birth as it was for centuries after his death” (Luce 785). When his formal training was complete, Ovid studied philosophy. Ovid then came home to start a serious career. “It did not work.
Fathers of poets seem to have a penchant for trying to turn their male offspring into lawyers, doctors, or engineers. Usually this stratagem is effective because most sons are not poets. Most fathers confronted with the problem of a versifying son, therefore, turn out to be right; Ovid’s father turned out to be wrong” (Luce 785). Ovid sincerely attempted to satisfy the demands of his father, but failed horribly. He abandoned his law studies and he drifted off to book merchants and poetry readings. He also married, but swiftly divorced, the woman his father had chosen for him. He was clearly strong-minded and independent.
Ovid became more interested with the world of poetry. He also became acquainted with most of the leading poets of the time. Thus, at approximately at the age of twenty, Ovid launched into his career as poet. Up to this point, the poet’s life was basically ho-hum. “Until the catastrophe in A.D.
8, when Augustus exiled him to Tomis on the Black Sea, Ovid’s life appears to have been uneventful” (Luce 785). In the next years of his life, he married a total of three times. “This might suggest domestic turmoil of an unusual sort; but given social fragmentation of his time, even this apparent disorder may have been merely ordinary. In any case, the third and final marriage seems to have been an extraordinary one, and Ovid’s devotion to the wife he left in Rome when he went to Tomis is manifest to her in his final volumes” (Luce 785). Soon in Ovid’s life appeared an adversary, though. Augustus Caesar, the grand nephew to Julius Caesar, took the empirical throne. Augustus was bent on reforming Rome in a time of spiritual freedom.
He saw the “free love” attitude of Ovid’s time as wrong and demeaning to the family. He soon made laws against certain acts between two unmarried people. At this point Ovid was just discovering and enjoying this time of freedom. “While Augustus was devoting himself to the reform of a social order that nearly a hundred years of cival war had left in ruins, Ovid devoted himself to the refinement of his craft and of his observations of Roman high society and politics” (Luce 786). The difference between the two’s mind set is described by T. James Luce as “The confrontation between two irreconcilable visions of human life, the collisions of political necessity with poetic freedom, of pragmatic with a humanism that is grounded in religious intuitions, of the contingencies of history with moral imagination” (Luce 788).
Ovid found himself exiled to Tomis from Rome. The exact circumstances of this exile are unknown, for even Ovid himself shrouds them in mystery. He and his friends who practiced the same loose mindset did not take Augustus’s efforts seriously. “What Ovid and his playmates did not understand, what would have appalled them had they been able to grasp it, was that Augustus was utterly, deadly serious in his efforts to purify and revitalize the social patterns of Rome” (Hendry 250). Yet Ovid continued in his activities and his writings.
He poked fun at the members of high society and publicly criticized the movements of the emperor and other politicians. “Ovid, whose eye is on the beautiful people and their foibles, glances at the emperor in these years (23 – 3 B.C.) occasionally, and his attitude is one of mild flippancy and tolerant good humor” (Luce 786). Augustus was not pleased, nor was he amused, with Ovid. He banished the poet to the island of Tomis with no explanation left in history. There are speculated versions of the story.
“Ovid laments having seen something, but refuses to specify what it was for fear of reawakening the imperial wrath” (Luce 787). Ovid was banished, suspiciously, from Rome about the same time that Augustus himself also mysteriously exiled his granddaughter, Julia, from Rome. A connection between the two is plausible. It is thought that perhaps Ovid was a semi-innocent bystander in a scandal in which adultery was discovered. Ovid may have been a confidant to either Julia or to her lover, had sympathized, and had helped in the concealment of this scandal. “Ovid discusses his banishment and its causes in a long poem, but though he fastens the blame for his exile directly on himself, the precise nature of his wrongdoings eludes us, for what seems an apology to his prince is in fact an elaborate self defense and self-justification” (785).
In his days in exile, Ovid spent his energy writing apologies and justifications to his “crime” in attempt to escape from exile along with love letters to his last wife. Despite his attempts to be released, Ovid died exiled from Rome. “Ovid’s poetry falls into three divisions: the works of his youth, of his middle age, and of his years in exile. In the first period, Ovid continued the elegiac tradition of Roman poets Sextus Propertius and Albius Tibullus, both of whom he knew and admired. Ovid’s Amores are erotic poems centered on Corinna, but they display little real feeling and are characterized by artificiality and cleverness. Other works of his are didactic poems, including Medicamina Faciei Femineae, a fragment of writing on cosmetics; and Remedia Amoris, a kind of recantation of the Ars Amatoria.
Ovid’s Medea, a tragedy highly praised by ancient critics, has not been preserved. His interest in mythology is reflected in his Heroides, or Epistulae Heroidum, 21 fictional love letters, mostly from mythological heroines to their lovers” (Redmond). “The commentator of his day, he presented most of his findings in the form of love elegies on themes from seduction to abortion, and distilled his professorial wisdom into the witty and comprehensive art of love” (Godolphin xxvi). Ovid’s works reflected the issues of the time and the attitude of its people. His poems and writings left an impression in history that, maybe not completely accurate, was entertaining. In his middle period Ovid wrote The Metamorphoses in 8 A.D., his greatest poetic achievement. Using Greco-Roman mythology as the material of his 15 books and change as his theme, he particularly isolates love as the agent of change, love now seen in its more profound ethical dimensions. Among readers of the late Middle Ages, the Metamorphoses rivaled the Bible in popularity.
The other work of his middle period is The Fasti, a poetic calendar describing the various Roman festivals and the legends connected with each. Of the projected 12 books, 1 for each month of the year, only the first 6 survived into the present. “Ovid is the storehouse of classical mythology” (Godolphin xxvii). The Metamorphoses provided extensive insight on mythology of the times. Melancholy and despair pervade the works composed during his exile. They include The Tristia, five books of elegies that describe his unhappy existence at Tomis and appeal to the mercy of Augustus; The Epistulae ex Ponto, poetic letters similar in theme to The Tristia; The Ibis, a short invective invoking destruction on a personal enemy; and The Halieutica, a poem extant only in fragments, about the local fish. The Nux and The Consolatio ad Liviam are usually considered wrongly attributed to Ovid.
A poem written in Getic, the native language of Dacia, has not survived. With the exception of the Metamorphoses and the fragmentary Halieutica, both of which are in dactylic hexameter meter, all the poetry of Ovid is composed in the elegiac couplet. These works contained some history of ancient Rome and the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of Ovid himself. “Whenever the characters of an author suffer, they do so at the behest of their author- the author is responsible for their suffering and must justify his cruelty by the seriousness of his moral imagination” (Trilling 88). Ovid transposed his own pain and suffering to his characters.
The love elegy was one of Ovid’s trademark writings. He was one of the few poets who used this style of writing. “In classical Latin poetry there would be no more love elegy after Ovid” (Luce 792). Love was a small subject of his poems in the way that most of his major works did not involve it. His middle stage poems are characterized by a lack of caring and most of his exiled work is that of sorrow and melancholy. “For although love will continue to haunt him throughout his career, the genre that Catullus began and that Propertius and Tibullus developed Ovid has let go of- because, in effect, he has demolished it” (Luce 792).
So, basically, Ovid took out a style of writing with him. “Ovid must be counted as a major figure in the making of modern literature. His ability to tell a story, as shown in the vast number of tales in the fifteen books of The Metamorphoses, and his keen interest in psychologyhelped to bring about the shift from medieval to modern literature” (Godolphin xxvii). Ovid was truly a writer of his time. He showed the mentality of the times of ancient Rome intermixed with his own feeling and views.
Though much of his life is shrouded in obscurity, he still managed to adequately convey Rome and its mythological side. In addition to this he passed along a bit of history with his entertaining works.