Monday, July 8, 2013

Ovid (43 BC-AD 17)

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) was born on March 20, 43 BC, into an upper-class family living in Sulmo (today’s Sulmona) about 100 miles (160 km) east of Rome. His father sent him to Rome to learn rhetoric and become a lawyer. He then lived in Athens, the Levant, and Sicily before returning to Rome and working as a minor bureaucrat. His heart always in writing poetry, he abandoned civil service, did what he loved most, and gave his first public recital in 25. He socialized with other poets enjoying the financial support of wealthy patrons and, among others, became friends with Horace. Along with Horace and Virgil, Ovid is considered one of the best poets in Latin.

He published his earliest surviving collection of poetry, the Heriodes (Heroines), in 19. It contains letters he imagined heroines like Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and Dido, ruler of Carthage, writing to their true but absent loves. Ovid also included an imagined letter by Helen and the response to her by Paris.

He published his Amores, poems addressed to an imagined lover named Corinna, in 15. He revised these in AD 3 and that is the collection we have today. In them he ranges over the wide variety of subjects which lovers might expect to encounter, including dead pets, sexual intercourse, sickness, and unfaithfulness.

His Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), published in 2, might be better entitled The Art of Seduction. In it he speaks of love, not as Jesus did, but as Venus would. His sophisticated readers loved the work but Octavius, ruler of the Roman Empire, hated it for undermining his own efforts to legally require sexual discipline.

Ovid completed his major work, Transformations (Metamorphoses), in AD 8. In it he engages the full range of Hellenian and Roman mythology. He begins with the creation of the world, retells and adds to Homer’s story of Achilles, and continues his tale right up to the death of Julius Caesar. He wove these stories together in a way that again made them meaningful to the people of his time.

In AD 8, for reasons unknown to us, Octavius banned Ovid’s books in Rome and exiled Ovid to a city on the Black Sea. Until his death nine years later, Ovid tried to return to Rome. Two collection of poems, Sorrows (Tristia) and Letters from the Black Sea (Epistulae ex Ponto), repeatedly express his sadness in exile and nag his friends to speak with Octavius on his behalf.

Like Homer, Ovid influenced an impressive variety of writers through the ages including Petrarch, Dante, Chaucer, Botticelli, Montaigne, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Dryden, Pushkin, and Joyce.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.