Who is Ovid?
Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō (Latin: [ˈpuːbliʊs ɔˈwɪdiʊs ˈnaːsoː]; 20 March 43 BC – 17/18 AD), known in English as Ovid (/ˈɒvɪd/ OV-id), was a Roman poet who lived during the reign of Augustus. He was a contemporary of the older Virgil and Horace, with whom he is often ranked as one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature. The Imperial scholar Quintilian considered him the last of the Latin love elegists. Although Ovid enjoyed enormous popularity during his lifetime, the emperor Augustus banished him to a remote province on the Black Sea, where he remained until his death.
The first major Roman poet to begin his career during the reign of Augustus, Ovid is today best known for the Metamorphoses, a 15-book continuous mythological narrative written in the meter of epic, and for works in elegiac couplets such as Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”) and Fasti. His poetry was much imitated during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and greatly influenced Western art and literature. The Metamorphoses remains one of the most important sources of classical mythology.
In AD 8, Ovid was banished to Tomis, on the Black Sea, by the exclusive intervention of the Emperor Augustus, without any participation of the Senate or of any Roman judge. This event shaped all his following poetry. Ovid wrote that the reason for his exile was carmen et error – “a poem and a mistake”, claiming that his crime was worse than murder, more harmful than poetry.
The Emperor’s grandchildren, Julia the Younger and Agrippa Postumus (the latter adopted by him), were also banished around the same time. Julia’s husband, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was put to death for a conspiracy against Augustus, a conspiracy of which Ovid potentially knew.
The Julian marriage laws of 18 BC, which promoted monogamous marriage to increase the population’s birth rate, were fresh in the Roman mind. Ovid’s writing in the Ars Amatoria concerned the serious crime of adultery. He may have been banished for these works, which appeared subversive to the emperor’s moral legislation. However, in view of the long time that elapsed between the publication of this work (1 BC) and the exile (AD 8), some authors suggest that Augustus used the poem as a mere justification for something more personal. Ovid Banished from Rome (1838) by J.M.W. Turner.
In exile, Ovid wrote two poetry collections, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, which illustrated his sadness and desolation. Being far from Rome, he had no access to libraries, and thus might have been forced to abandon his Fasti, a poem about the Roman calendar, of which only the first six books exist – January through June.
The five books of the elegiac Tristia, a series of poems expressing the poet’s despair in exile and advocating his return to Rome, are dated to AD 9–12. The Ibis, an elegiac curse poem attacking an adversary at home, may also be dated to this period. The Epistulae ex Ponto, a series of letters to friends in Rome asking them to effect his return, are thought to be his last compositions, with the first three books published in AD 13 and the fourth book between AD 14 and 16. The exile poetry is particularly emotive and personal. In the Epistulae he claims friendship with the natives of Tomis (in the Tristia they are frightening barbarians) and to have written a poem in their language (Ex P. 4.13.19–20).
Yet he pined for Rome – and for his third wife, addressing many poems to her. Some are also to the Emperor Augustus, yet others are to himself, to friends in Rome, and sometimes to the poems themselves, expressing loneliness and hope of recall from banishment or exile.
The obscure causes of Ovid’s exile have given rise to endless explanations from scholars. The medieval texts that mention the exile offer no credible explanations: their statements seem incorrect interpretations drawn from the works of Ovid. Ovid himself wrote many references to his offense, giving obscure or contradictory clues.
In 1923, scholar J. J. Hartman proposed a theory that is little considered among scholars of Latin civilization today: that Ovid was never exiled from Rome and that all of his exile works are the result of his fertile imagination. This theory was supported and rejected in the 1930s, especially by Dutch authors.
In 1985, a research paper by Fitton Brown advanced new arguments in support of Hartman’s theory. Brown’s article was followed by a series of supports and refutations in the short space of five years. Among the supporting reasons Brown presents are: Ovid’s exile is only mentioned by his own work, except in “dubious” passages by Pliny the Elder and Statius, but no other author until the 4th century; that the author of Heroides was able to separate the poetic “I” of his own and real life; and that information on the geography of Tomis was already known by Virgil, by Herodotus and by Ovid himself in his Metamorphoses.
Orthodox scholars, however, oppose these hypotheses. One of the main arguments of these scholars is that Ovid would not let his Fasti remain unfinished, mainly because this poem meant his consecration as an imperial poet.