Classics Ovid
by
K. Sara Myers
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0039

Introduction

All of Ovid’s poetry bears the hallmarks of his distinctive style: humor, wit (often expressed through word play), great literary learning displayed with a light touch, self-awareness and literary self-consciousness (often characterized as irony), and a profound interest in the human condition. His extensive and varied poetic career exhibits his ability to innovate and manipulate the conventions and content of a range of literary genres, mainly through the expansion of the range of elegy. Ovid’s dense intertextuality also reveals him as a masterful interpreter of the earlier Greek and Latin literary tradition. Once viewed as apolitical, Ovid’s works are now read as challenging, commenting, and engaging with Augustus’s ongoing transformation of Roman cultural and political institutions.

Biography

Publius Ovidius Naso was born on 20 March 43 BCE in Sulmo (modern Sulmona) a town in the Abruzzi, some 90 miles (54 kilometers) east of Rome. The chief source for his life is his own “autobiographical” poem, Tristia 4.10 and elsewhere (no ancient “life” remains; see Kraus 1968 for sources, and Holzberg 1997 for cautious evaluation). Ovid tells us he was the second son of an established and wealthy family of equestrian rank. After studying rhetoric at Rome and Athens and beginning an official career in minor judicial posts, he renounced public life for poetry around the age of twenty. His first compositions were innovative amatory elegiac poetry, and he was soon moving in the literary circle associated with Valerius Messalla Corvinus. There followed many innovative amatory compositions in elegiacs (erotodidaxis, epistles). Around 1 CE he embarked on the larger-scale elegiacs of the Fasti and his epic Metamorphoses. By the year of his banishment in 8 CE, Ovid was Rome’s leading poet. Augustus in that year banished (in an act termed relegatio) Ovid to Tomis on the Black Sea coast (modern Constanza in Romania). Ovid gives as the reason two charges: a poem, the Ars Amatoria, and a “mistake” (Tristia 2.207: duo crimina, carmen et error), which he never specifies and which remains unknowable. Considering the gap between the publication of the Ars and his relegation (probably six years from 2 CE), Ovid’s misdemeanor must have been the more serious and relevant charge (see Green 1982). A connection with the banishment of Augustus’s adulterous granddaughter Julia in the same year has been suspected. After Ovid’s relegation, the Ars was banned from the public libraries, but his other works seem to have remained available. Ovid was forced to stay in Tomis until his death, probably in 17 CE, having failed to convince either Augustus, or later Tiberius, to recall him, despite requests through poetry written in exile (Tristia, Ex Ponto) and through advocates in Rome.

  • Green, Peter. 1982. Carmen et error: Prophasis and aitia in the matter of Ovid’s exile. Classical Antiquity 2:202–220.

    DOI: 10.2307/25010771E-mail Citation »

    Suggests that Ovid’s banishment was based on an unwitting political misstep on his part (perhaps knowledge of a pro-Julian plot).

  • Holzberg, Niklas. 1997. Playing with his life: Ovid’s autobiographical references. Lampas 30:4–19.

    E-mail Citation »

    Cautions that Ovid’s “autobiographical” references in his poetry often serve literary purposes.

  • Kraus, Walther. 1968. Ovidius Naso. In Ovid. Edited by Michael von Albrecht and Ernst Zinn, 67–166. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

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    Reprinted in 1972. Convenient German collection of passages concerning Ovid’s life.

  • Millar, Fergus. 1993. Ovid and the Domus Augusta: Rome seen from Tomoi. Journal of Roman Studies 83:1–17.

    DOI: 10.2307/300975E-mail Citation »

    Assesses Ovid’s works in context of his life and times as loyal to Augustus.

  • Syme, Ronald. 1978. History in Ovid. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Historical approach to Ovid’s poetry (chronology and historical information).

  • White, Peter. 2002. Ovid and the Augustan milieu. In Brill’s companion to Ovid. Edited by Barbara Weiden Boyd, 1–26. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    E-mail Citation »

    Survey of Ovid’s life and literary career.

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