Died: c. 18 C.E.
Tomis (now Constanta, Romania)
Ovid was a Roman poet. His verse is distinguished by its easy elegance and sophistication (subtle complexity).
Ovid was born Publius Ovidius Naso on March 20, 43 B.C.E. , at Sulmo (modern Sulmona), Italy, about ninety miles from Rome. His father was wealthy and intended for him to become a lawyer and an official. He gave Ovid an excellent education, including study under great rhetoricians (masters of language and speech).
Ovid preferred exercises that dealt with historical or imaginary circumstances. His orations (formal speeches) seemed like poems without meter. His ease in composition, the content of some of his poems, and the rhetorical (having to do with language skills) nature of much of his work in general all reflect his training with the rhetoricians.
Ovid also studied in Athens, Greece, toured the Near East, and lived for almost a year in Sicily. His father convinced him to return to Rome, where he served in various minor legal positions, but he disliked the work and lacked political ambitions.
After leaving legal work, Ovid moved in the best literary circles. He had attracted notice as a poet while still in school and in time came to be surrounded by a group of admirers. This period of Ovid's life seems to have been relatively peaceful as well as productive. Of his private life we know little except that he was married three times.
Ovid's early work was almost always on the theme of love. He wrote three short books of verses known as the Amores ( Loves ). Most of these poems concern Ovid's love for a woman who is generally considered to be imaginary. During this time he also wrote his Heroides, a series of letters from mythical heroines to their absent husbands or lovers.
In 8 or 9 C.E. Ovid was banished to Tomi, a city on the Black Sea in what is now modern Romania. The reasons behind Ovid's exile have been the subject of much guessing. He himself tells us that the reason was "a poem and a mistake." The poem was clearly his Loves. The poem made fun of conventional (socially accepted) love poetry and offered vivid portrayals of contemporary Roman society.
This work was an immediate and overwhelming success in fashionable society, but apparently infuriated the emperor Augustus (63 B.C.E. –14 C. E.). The emperor excluded it from the public libraries of Rome along with Ovid's other works. The journey to his exile in Tomi lasted nearly a year. When he arrived, he found it a frontier post, where books and educated people were not to be found and Latin was practically unknown. Tomi was subject to attack by hostile barbarians and to bitterly cold winters.
The production of the last ten years of his life consists largely of appeals to be allowed to return to Rome, but Augustus was too bitterly offended to forgive him. The next emperor
Ovid's masterpiece is generally considered to be his Metamorphoses . It is an epic (a long poem centered around legendary heroes), fifteen books in length, and devoted mainly to the theme of changes in shape. The first twelve books were derived from Greek mythology, and books thirteen to fifteen devoted to Roman legends and history. The transitions between the various stories are managed with great skill. Metamorphoses owes its preservation to the incomparable narrative skill with which Ovid takes the old tales of a mythology and gives spirit to them with charm and freshness.
In ancient culture the influence of Ovid on all writers who followed him was inescapable for those who were consciously attempting to return to earlier standards. His stories, particularly from Metamorphoses, were a major source for the illustrations of artists.
In the Middle Ages (500 through 1450), especially the High Middle Ages (1000 through 1200), when interest in Ovid's works was primarily centered on Metamorphoses, Loves, and Heroides, Ovid helped to fill the overpowering medieval hunger for storytelling.
During the Renaissance period (the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries), Ovid was easily the most influential of the Latin poets. Painters and sculptors used his work for themes. Writers of all ranks translated, adapted, and borrowed from him freely. In English literature alone Edmund Spenser (1552–1599), John Milton (1608–1674), and William Shakespeare (1564–1616) show a deep knowledge and use of Ovid.
After the Renaissance, Ovid's influence was most often indirect. However, many authors and artists used him directly from then until modern times, ranging from John Dryden (1631–1700), who translated Metamorphoses, and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), who illustrated Dryden's work.
For More Information
Fraenkel, Hermann F. Ovid: A Poet between Two Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1945.
Holzberg, Niklas. Ovid: The Poet and His Work. Edited by G. M. Goshgarian. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
Otis, Brooks. Ovid as an Epic Poet. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
Thibault, John C. The Mystery of Ovid's Exile. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.