Ovid’s Life, Works, and Times

by Eliana C.

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2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Most of what we know of the life of Publius Ovidius Naso comes from the poet’s own account. Information can be deduced from what he chooses to tell us directly and what his poetry reveals perhaps inadvertently: references to events that help us place the chronology of his works, mentions of various people within Roman literary circles, and the like.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Ovid was born in 43 BCE, and he lived until either 17 or 18 CE. Despite his family’s wishes to enter the political circle, Ovid left the politician’s life fairly young and turned his attention to being a full-time poet. (One sees in his early poetry claims that may have been an attempt to justify this decision to his family: arguments that being a lover is just like being a soldier, a common elegiac trope, and claims that his poetry will outlive him and do a better job of preserving his memory than anything else could). He was exiled from Rome in 8 CE and sent to the island of Tomis after somehow irritating the emperor Augustus. We are not entirely clear on what happened, although several theories have been offered up: a scandal involving the emperor’s daughter Julia, the impropriety gleefully vouched for in the AmoresArs Amatoria, and Remedia Amores (Ovid himself gives the Ars Amatoria as one of the reasons for exile), and even the suggestion that Ovid was not exiled at all—that he merely faked it for a plot device! (While entertaining, this last suggestion is rather unlikely). Despite his pleas, it appears that he never did return to Rome, and he died approximately a decade after his exile began.


4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Ovid left behind a long list of works, from his earliest Amoresdown through his final work, the Tristia and Epistulae Ex Ponto. He is perhaps best-known for his epic poem the Metamorphoses. While the dates of some of his earlier poems in particular are hard to place, the full list as we have it is as follows:

Amores: three books, formerly five, of elegiac love poetry that—whether inadvertently or on purpose—caused the death of the elegiac genre for the next 600 years or so

Ars Amatoria, Remedia Amores, Medicamina Facie Feminae: perhaps best understood as the Cosmo of the ancient age—suggestions on what to do to win love and affection, as well as how to dress for it. Written in elegiac verse.

Heroides: letters from heroines to their significant others

Medea (lost): a play, apparently exceptionally well-received, which has come down to us only in fragments

Metamorphoses: a fifteen-book epic poem dedicated to speaking of “forms changed into new bodies”

Fasti: a record of the Roman calendar and the stories that accompany various days and festivals. Incomplete.

Ibis: short poem written against some unknown enemy

Tristia: Ovid’s exile poetry, acknowledged by the poet himself to be not as good as what he’d written while in Rome

Epistulae Ex Ponto: letters written from Ovid’s exile back to his friends in Rome.


14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Ovid came of age in a world straining to regain a sense of order after nearly one hundred years of civil war. Only twelve when Octavian triumphed over Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, he lived under the emperor Augustus in the newly formed empire for almost all of his adult life. Perhaps because he was too young to remember all the years of warfare, his poetry lacks some of the hints of trauma and the sober undercurrent of his predecessors—elegiac (Tibullus, Catullus) and epic (Vergil) alike. This of course does not mean that Ovid wholeheartedly approved of the new regime, and much of his poetry can be seen as an attempt to subvert the new moral programs Augustus had designed to reform Rome. While he pays Augustus due homage in many poems (see his laudatory account of the apotheosis of Julius Caesar in Metamorphoses 15, for example) the ideas he advanced regarding sexual liberality and other “immoral” topics, particularly in the Amores, Ars Amatoria, and Remedia Amores, undermined Augustus’s family-oriented program for the new Empire. Furthermore, by renouncing war and a military lifestyle in favor of amorous pursuits and poetry, he rejected the common societal norms of his time.

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Further Reading

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Binns, J. W. Ovid. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973. See esp. 116-153.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Conte, Gian Biagio. Latin Literature: A History. Trans. Joseph B. Solodow. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. 340-366.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Latin Literature. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1960. 323-346.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Syme, Ronald. History in Ovid. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Turpin, William. “Life of Ovid.” Ovid: Amores Book 1. Dickinson College Commentaries. http://dcc.dickinson.edu/ovid-amores/biographical-information.

Source: https://iris.haverford.edu/echo/ovids-life-works-and-times/