Background on Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso was born on March 20th in 43 BCE. He came from a landowning family of the equestrian class in Sulmo, a town forty miles east of Rome. Ovid’s birth year was a significant political year for Rome. Julius Caesar had been murdered a year earlier and by 43 BCE the Roman Republic finally collapsed. After Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus formed a political alliance known as the Second Triumvirate. This did not last long, for a little over a decade later Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. By 27 BCE, Octavian was able to consolidate power and establish his own dynastic rule in Rome. Despite the confiscations of property and wealth that were common at this time, Ovid’s family did not suffer from the political unrest.
Ovid’s father sent him and his older brother to Rome for their education where they were encouraged to pursue careers in law. They were educated in rhetoric under the tutelage of Arellius Fucus and Porcius Latro, two of the most important teacher of rhetoric at the time. According to Seneca the Elder, Ovid tended to be emotional and was more interested in writing verse. Ovid’s father attempted to encourage him to suppress his poetic talents, but Ovid found this hard to do.
Ovid’s brother died at the age of 20, at which time Ovid renounced law and began traveling to Athens, Asia Minor, and Sicily. During this time, he held minor public posts but he eventually gave himself over to a life of poetry and self-indulgence. It may have occurred to Ovid that with all political power now in the hands of Augustus, a political career would have been pointless and potentially dangerous — “Ambition for civic honor could not match the lure of the Muses” (Introduction to the Metamorphoses by Charles Martin).
The Roman literary world at the time was influenced by earlier generations of poets, whose work would soon become canonical (authorized, recognized, accepted). Lucretius and Catullus were dead before Ovid was born, and both Vergil and Horace were quite a bit older than Ovid. The latter two had lived and suffered through the political chaos of Rome that was the 1st century BCE. They had reason to support Augustus, who brought peace to a war-weary nation.
Ovid fell into different, younger circle of poets. Following the examples of his peers who he spent time traveling with, Ovid wrote erotic poems in elegiac couplets.
Each couplet consist of a hexameter verse followed by a pentameter verse. The following is a graphic representation of its scansion. The – is a long syllable, u a short syllable, and U either one long or two shorts:
- – U | – U | – U | – U | – u u | – –
- – U | – U | – || – u u | – u u | –
The poems were immediately popular. He began publishing in his early twenties: five books of his Amores (series of poems written in elegiac couplets whose subjects were love and poetry), the Heroides (series of 15 verse epistles in the voices of the abandoned women of myth and legend), and a tragedy in Latin, his Medea, which has not survived.
While older writers’ works, such as Vergil and Horace, could be seen as propaganda for Augustus, supporting his attempted reformation of Roman morals, Ovid was anything but a supporter of Augustan morality. His collection of erotic poems and those in the voices of women who had crossed the line between propriety and publicity were entertaining to the young people of Rome, but most likely did not win favor among the aristocrats.
Ovid’s writing was inspired by his indulgent life style. He married three times (two were brief, youthful marriages): according to him the first was unworthy of him, the second gave him a daughter who married twice and gave him grandchildren, and the third, whom he wrote of with respect and adoration, brought along a stepdaughter.
After the Amores, three didactic poems added to his reputation for lewdness: Medicamini Faciei (The Art of Cosmetics), the Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), and the Remedia Amoris (Remedies for Love). The Ars Amatoria is a parody of didactic poetry, a how-to book that teaches men the art of seducing women. In the Remedia Amoris, Ovid offers advice and strategies to avoid being hurt by feelings of love.
In Ovid’s time, privileged women were commonly forced into marriage against their will. A case in point at the time was Augustus’ daughter Julia who went through dynastic marriages to the emperor’s nephew Marcellus, the emperor’s lieutenant Agrippa, and the emperor’s successor Tiberius. Likely in an attempt to find personal satisfaction, she carried on a slew of notorious affairs, which (considering Augustus’ harsh laws against adultery) led to her exile. In this sense, one could argue that Ovid’s poems are geared towards those who suffered from the policies of Augustus’ regime.
Now we come to the Metamorphoses, which Ovid began writing around the year 1 BCE when he was in his early forties. The epic poem on transformations was arranged in fifteen books of dactylic hexameter (sounds like he was trying to upstage Vergil). At the same time he was writing Fasti: six books of elegiac couplets on the first six months of the Roman calendar; an aetiological work inspired by Callimachus’ Aetia. These books explain the origins of various religious rituals. However, the Metamorphoses is Ovid’s most famous work. In 8 CE, when Ovid was almost finished writing, something happened that forever changed his life. Augustus ordered him exiled to the settlement of Tomis on the Black Sea. Though able to retain his property and allowed to communicate with his wife and friends, he never returned from exile.
Ovid is the only source for the cause of his banishment, which makes it hard to decipher what was really going on. He explains that the cause was “carmen et error“; a mistake and a song (poem). Ovid claims that the poem was Ars Amatoria, though critics are skeptical because the time frame is a little off (the poem had appeared 8 years earlier — what would have taken Augustus so long?). It may have been the Metamorphoses that ignited Augustus’ anger:
“It is difficult to ignore that a poem built on constant metamorphosis points to a radical instability in the social world, a concept totally opposed to the secure dynasty that Augustus had hoped to leave behind” (Introduction to the Metamorphoses by Charles Martin)
The mistake Ovid may have made could be connected to the exile of Augustus’ daughter Julia. Seeing as Ovid does not speak of the details of the mistake, it is hard to discern its true nature. What is certain is that Ovid spent the rest of his life in exile and it had a profound effect on him, which is evident in his works while there: Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae ex Pontus (Letters from Pontus). These works were elegiac poems in which Ovid pleads with friends to help get him back to Rome and one in particular in which he appeals to Augustus to restore him.
Living out the rest of his days in isolation; often sick, not knowing the language (until later), and fearing barbarian attacks, Ovid died in 17 CE.
The History of Everything
“It is changing realities that consititue the only real permanence in the universe”
– W.R. Johnson on Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Ovid may have chosen to center on the theme of transformation because it allowed him to retell stories that were drawn from Greek myths that he liked (Roman conquest extended beyond just territory). These myths focused on how certain beings, both semi-divine and human, came into existence and why they were transformed into various animals, vegetables, and minerals.
Ovid was also influenced by the politics of his time. During his lifetime, Rome was going through a political, economic, and military “metamorphosis”. Diodorus of Sicily, a writer a generation before Ovid, wrote a universal history of the known world beginning with the Middle East and ending with Caesar’s invasion of Gaul. Diodorus was also convinced that the success of Caesar had ignited a transformation of the known world.
Like Hesiod’s Theogony, Ovid begins his work with Chaos, although it is somewhat different from Hesiod’s primordial deity — something similar to contemporary atomic theory! After Chaos “some god, or superior nature” (1.21) comes in and sorts everything out, as Ovid tells us. This seems to be a combination of Epicureanism and Stoicism. However, while the gods are present in Ovid’s work, the poem is not about them. Ovid sets his work outside the realm of religious mythology and instead is focused on nature and her progeny.
Opening of Metamorphoses:
My mind leads me to speak now of forms changed into new bodies: O gods above, inspire this undertaking (which you’ve changed as well) and guide my poem in its epic sweep from the world’s beginning to the present day
Before the seas and lands had been created, before the sky that covers everything, Nature displayed a single aspect only throughout the cosmos; Chaos was its name, a shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk and nothing more, with the discordant seeds of disconnected elements all heaped together in anarchic disarray.
A few lines down he discusses the birth of man:
Man was born, whether fashioned from immortal seed By the Master Artisan who made this better world, Or whether Earth, newly parted from Aether above And still bearing some seeds of her cousin Sky, Was mixed with rainwater by Titan Prometheus And molded into an image of the omnipotent gods. And while other animals look on all fours at the ground He gave to humans an upturned face, and told them to lift Their eyes to the stars. And so Earth, just now barren, A wilderness without form, was changed and made over, Dressing herself in the unfamiliar figures of men. (1.79-89)
As W.R. Johnson writes in his introduction to the Metamorphoses, “But in this passage the two strains of thought [Stoicism and Epicureanism] conspire to provide nature (here Earth) and humankind (in its noblest aspect) with a unity that can be seen independently of the traditional mythologies that religion and politics nourish and depend on” (xv). What would Hesiod think of this?
It is clear that Ovid often parallels the Metamorpohses with political figures from contemporary Rome. He parallels Jupiter, who comes off as a wayward tyrant, to Augustus. Was this his way of being subversive? At the end of his poem he claims immortality for himself, one that rival’s Augustus’ divinity and may surpass it. This closing line may have been written after Ovid had been exiled by Augustus. It is also important to note that Ovid was committed to “deflating the world of epic”. You could even call the Metamorphosis “pastiche epic”.
Ovid introduces a long speech by philosopher Pythagoras toward the beginning of Book 15. Pythagoras’ speech is significant because it provides a counter-perspective just as the poem is coming to its close. Pythagoras argues for a world “governed by unending and dynamic mutability, one in which the souls migrate forever from body to body, both the spiritual and the physical realms being subject to transformations without end” — a representation of the world as a metamorphosis (xx)! Pythagoras worships nature, which is tied to the earth. Now we see this binary between the gods and nature emerge. The gods are portrayed as contemptuous, vindictive beings! Even among the gods, it is the nature gods such as Demeter (Ceres) and Dionysos (Bacchus) (who were not admired by Homer and his patrons) whose virtues outweigh their vices. We also see Ovid subversively hinting at Rome’s eventual decline — what rises must also fall.
For those who want to take the time to get a little nerdy:
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Comp. W. R. Johnson. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 2010. Print.
Ovid. Metamorphoses: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism. Trans. Charles Martin. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Charles Martin. Comp. Bernard Knox. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004. Print.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. A. D. Melville. Comp. E. J. Kenney. Oxford [Oxfordshire: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.