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Ovidius (43 BC-17 AD) - OVID - in full Publius Ovidius Naso


Roman poet, noted especially for his Ars Amatoria and Metamorphoses. Ovid was the first major writer to grow up under the empire. He died far from home, in a desolate town by the Black Sea. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Ovidian stories were highly popular among artists, poets and in courts. In England the Metamorphoses was one of Chaucer's favorite books.

I'm sorry for any fool who rates sleep a prime blessing
And enjoys it from dusk till dawn
Night in, night out. What's sleep but cold death's

(in 'Elegy 9b', tr. Peter Green)

Publius Ovidius Naso was a member of the Roman knightly class. Ovid came from Sulmo in the territory of the Paeligni. His last name meant a 'nose', perhaps after some ancestor who had a big nose. Ovid's parents had destined him for a career in law. He studied rhetoric under Aurelius Fuscus and Porcius Latro and his education was completed in Athens, where he decided to become a poet, and rich and famous. With the poet Macer, Ovid travelled in Asia Minor and Sicily. In Rome he started to practise law as one of the judges who tried testamentary and sometimes criminal cases. Legal phraseology is seen later in his writing. Soon he decided that public life did not suit him. Ovid retired to devote himself entirely to writing. He was married three times; his only daughter was probably his second wife.

In a short while, Ovid gained the reputation of being the most brilliant poet of his generation. Among his first series of poems were love elegies, Amores, a fictitious romance between the poet and a woman named Corinna. Ovid never divulged the real identity of Corinna, whom he immortalized in his collection. She is slightly older than he, married to a much older man, and loves luxury. "So you and I, love, will enjoy the same wold-wide publicity, / And our names will be linked, for ever, with the gods." (from The Erotic Poems, tr. and ed. by Peter Green, 1982)  After several years as Ovid's mistress, she leaves him. Heroides was written in the form of love letters between mythological lovers, such as Paris and Helen, and Penelope and her husband Ulysses. The only exception is the fifteenth letter, in which the Greek poet Sappho writes to Phaon. This work shows Ovid's familiarity with Greek and Roman literature, as well as a knowledge of geography and astronomy.

About at the age of forty Ovid published Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), an instruction book about seducing in three volumes, two for men and one for women. Expressing his disillusionment with old ideals the poet stated: "Let others delight in the good old days; I am delighted to be alive right now. This age is suited to my way of life." In Remedia Amoris Ovid answered to his critics and playfully turned upside down many of the instructions given in Ars Amatoria. In 1497, The Art of Love was burned with mirrors, cosmetics, musical instruments, gaming tables, and the works of Dante and Botticelli for their "immoral" content in Fra. Girolamo Savonarola's "bonfire of the vanities" in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. 

The Metamorphoses, written in dactylic hexameters, was completed when Ovid was in his fifties. "My mind is intent on singing of shapes changed into new bodies", he said. The title of the work was a Greek word meaning 'changes of shape'. Its fifteen books dealt with mythological, legendary, and historical figures and recorded the history of the world from chaos to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar and the reign of Augustus. Hexameter was familiar to Ovid from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid. Characteristic of the epic is the view of the unpredictable nature of things and the instability of the forms of nature. Starting from Heraclitus's "all things flow, nothing abides", the idea that everything always changes had been an essential part of Greek thought, and was a driving force behind the history of the expansive Roman Empire. In the Metamorphoses men are transformed into women and vice versa; stones become people; a statue is changed into a woman; a girl becomes a laurel tree, Neptune changes into a fierce-looking ox. Early Christian leaders regarded this kind of bodily transformations as heretical, though in the book of Genesis Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt.

In the final metamorphosis the spirit of the murdered Julius Caesar is changed into a star. "However impossible these intensities might seem to be on one level, on another, apparently more significant level Ovid renders them with psychological truth and force. In his earlier books, preoccupied with erotic love, he had been a sophisticated entertainer. Perhaps here too in the Metamorphoses he set out simply to entertain. But something else joined in, something emerging from the very nature of his materials yet belonging to the unique moment in history-the moment of the birth of Christ within the Roman Empire." (Ted Hughes, in The New York Review of Books, July 17, 1997)

Ovid's expectations of a quiet life was ruined when emperor Augustus banished him in 8 AD to Tomis, a fishing village on the northwest coast of the Black Sea. Augustus had his works removed from public libraries, too. "So I have arrived, and here I am in that horrible place", he wrote in a poem. Ovid had been hailed as the successor to Virgil, but he lived his last ten years among barbarians, who "fend off the evil cold with skins and stitchred breeches, / and of their bodies the faces only show." For an urban poet who had declared Rome to be his only home, exile was the hardest punishment. Tomis had been founded by Greek traders and colonists, but at that time the Greeks had adopted the native garb and no one knew Latin. There was no Roman garrison. The Sarmatians of Scythian origins formed the majority of the people. 

In his own time Ovid was an immensely popular writer, but knew how capricious people are: "So long as you are secure you will count many friends; if your life becomes clouded you will be alone." The reasons behind the emperor's decisions are unsolved, but he may have objected to a rumored affair between Ovid and the emperor's nymphomaniac daughter Julia, whose portrait is drawn among others in Robert Graves's Claudius novels. Perhaps Ovid witnessed the affair between Julia and Silanus. Augustus himself wanted to restore old Roman family values and criminalize adultery, but he wasn't a good example: he had divorced his wife to marry his mistress, Livia.

The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
Golden Age No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc'd by punishment, un-aw'd by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast (…)

(in Metamorphoses)

Ovid's poems in exile manifested complicated motives. He sent poetic supplications to the Emperor, which were published under the titles Tristia (Songs of Sadness) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea). At the same time he covertly criticized Augustus's 'New Rome.' Among Ovid's later works is Fasti, poem of some five thousand lines on the Roman calendar, written and revised in the years between AD 2 and 17.

Unlike his Metamorphoses, the "calendar poem" on the holidays and feast days of the Roman calendar, is anchored in Rome: sacred rites, history and legend, monuments, and characters. Ovid dedicated the work to the Emperor, but ambivalently interprets the ideals of the Augustan period. However, he does not mock them openly although he nearly reveals himself when Romulus, the other pater patriae of Rome, becomes an autocrat and rapist. It is believed that before being exiled, Ovid had parts of the work in a reasonably finished state. Noteworthy, the poem to Book 1 had established Germanicus, the adopted grandson of Augustus, as the literary inspiration for Fasti. The change in dedicee took place possibly after the death of Augustus.

Ovid never returned to Rome. After Tiberius's succession the visit of his nephew Germanicus, also a poet, raised new hopes, but in vain. The relationship between Ovid and Tiberius never warmed over the years. Everything in the Metamorphoses changed, but in real life Ovid's exile was permanent. To the end, he keep up the hope of return to Rome. Ovid died in Tomis on the rim of the empire in AD 17 and was buried in the Sarmatian soil. Before his death Ovid had learned Sarmatian language, and even composed poems in it. The local people called him a bard. Tomi or Tomis of today is Constanta, a seaport in Romania, characterized by gloomy architecture and rusty cranes in the harbor. A statue of Ovid, designed by the Italian artist Ettore Ferrari in 1887, was erected in Piata Ovidiu.

With Ovid's death, the Golden Age of Roman literature came to an end. Full of veiled political and historical references, the Metamorphoses lived on to become one of the major sources of ancient mythology in the middle ages. The alchemist Petrus Bonus claimed that it dealt esoterically with the philosophers' stone. Through the Renaissance up to modern times, from Dante to Ezra Pound, Ovid has inspired generations of poets, but he has also enjoyed fame as an immoralist. This did not stop Martin Luther from reading his works.

Among several translations of Ovid's Metamorphoses is England's poet laureate Ted Hughes's selection (1997), which won the Whitbread Award in 1998. Hughes chose for his 24 translations some of the most violent and disturbing narratives Ovid wrote, including the stories of 'Echo and Narcissus,' 'Bacchus and Pentheus,' and 'Semele's rape by Jove'. The book followed the anthology After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (1995, ed. Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun), in which other prominent English-language poets, such as Seamus Heaney, Amy Clampitt, and Charles Simic, contributed their own interpretations of the great classic of ancient Roman myths.

For further reading: History in Ovid by Ronald Syme (1979); Ovid in Sicily by Allen Mandelbaum (1986); Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influence on Literature and Art from Middle Ages to the Twentieth ed. by Charles Martindale (1988); Ovid's Poetry of Exile by David R. Slavitt (1989); Another Reality: Metamorphosis and the Imagination in the Poetry of Ovid, Petrarch, and Ronsard by Kathleen A. Perry (1990); The Severed Word: Ovid's Heroides and the Novela Sentimental by Marina Scordilis Brownlee (1990); Ovid and the Fasti: An Historical Study by Geraldine Herbert-Brown (1994); Banished Voices: Readings in Ovid's Exile Poetry by Gareth D. Williams (1994); After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, ed. Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun (1995); Playing With Time: Ovid and the Fasti by Carole E. Newlands (1995); Harmful Eloquence: Ovid's Amores from Antiquity to Shakespeare by M. L. Stapleton (1997); The Face of Nature: Wit, Narrative, and Cosmic Origins in Ovid's Metamorphoses by Garth Tissol (1997); Contrast As Narrative Technique in Ovid's Metamorphoses by Richard Albert Spencer (1997); Tales from Ovid by Ovid, ed. Ted Hughes (1997); The Poet and the Prince: Ovid and Augustan Discourse by Alessandro Barchiesi (1997); Desiring Discourse: The Literature of Love, Ovid Through Chaucer, ed. by James J. Paxson and Cynthia A. Gravlee (1998); A Discourse of Wonders: Audience and Performance in Ovid's Metamorphoses by Stephen Michael Wheeler (1999); Readers and Writers in Ovid's Heroides: Transgressions of Genre and Gender by Efrossini Spentzou (2003); Fasti 1: A Commentary by Steven J. Green (2004)  - See also: Geoffrey Chaucer, Ted Hughes

Selected works:

  • Amores (about 20 BC)
    - Certaine of Ovids Elegies (tr. Christopher Marlowe, c.1599) / Amores (in The Amores (in Poetical Miscellanies the Fifth Part, tr. John Dryden, 1704) / The Love Books of Ovid, tr. J. Lewis May, 1930) / Heroides. Amores (tr. Grant Showerman, 1931) / The Loves (tr. R. Humphries, 1957) / Ovid's Amores (tr. G. Lee, 1968) / Amores: Text, Prolegomena and Commentary in Four Volumes (vols. I-III, ed. J. McKeown, 1987-1998) / Ovid's Amores, Book One (ed. Maureen B. Ryan and Caroline A. Perkins, 2011)
  • Heroides / Heroidum Epistolae
    -  Heroides. Amores (tr. Grant Showerman, 1931) / Ovid's Heroides tr. Harold C. Cannon, 1971; Howard Jacobson, 1974) / Heroides (tr. Harold Isbell, 1990) / Ovid's Heroines: A Verse Translation of the Heroides (tr. Daryl Hine, 1991) / Ovid's Heroides: Select Epistles (ed. Peter E. Knox, 1995)
  • Medea (play, lost)
  • Medicamina Faciei Femineae 
    - Medicamina Faciei Feminea (in The Art of Love and Other Poems, tr. J.H. Mozley, 1929; in The Love Books of Ovid, tr. J. Lewis May, 1930) / The Art of Beauty (tr. R. Humphries, 1957)
  • Ars Amatoria / Ars Amandi (about 1 AD)
    - Publii Ovidii Nasonis de arte amandi. Or, the Art of Loue
    (tr. Thomas Heywood, 1625) / Ars Amatoria (in The Art of Love and Other Poems, tr. J.H. Mozley; in The Love Books of Ovid, tr. J. Lewis May, 1930) / The Art of Love (tr. R. Humphries, 1957) / The Techniques of Love (tr. P. Turner, 1968) / Thomas Heywood's Art of Love: The First Complete English Translation of Ovid's Ars Amatoria (ed. Michael L. Stapledon, 2000)
    - Rakastamisen taito. Rakkauden parannuskeinot (suom. Seppo Heikinheimo, 1965)
  • Remedia Amoris  
    - Remedia Amoris (in The Art of Love and Other Poems, tr. J.H. Mozley, 1929; in The Love Books of Ovid, tr. J. Lewis May, 1930) / The Remedies for Love (tr.  R. Humphries, 1957; P. Turner, 1968)
    - Rakastamisen taito. Rakkauden parannuskeinot (suom. Seppo Heikinheimo, 1965)
  • Metamorphoses (completed in 8 AD)
    -  The XV Bookes of P. Ovidius Naso (tr. Arthur Golding, 1576) / Ovid's Metamorphoses Englished (tr. George Sandys, 1632) / Ovid's Metamorphoses in Fifteen Books (ed. S. Garth, 1717) / The Metamorphoses of Publius Ovidius Naso in English Blank Verse (tr.  J.J. Howard, 1807) / Ovid's Metamorphoses (tr. Charles Boer, 1989) / The Metamorphoses of Ovid (tr. Allen Mandelbaum, 1993) / After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (ed. Michael Hoffman and James Lasdun, 1994) / The Metamorphoses of Ovid (translated freely into verse by David R. Slavitt, 1994) / Tales from Ovid (tr. Ted Hughes, 1997) / Metamorphoses: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism (tr. Charles Martin, 2010)
    - Muodon-muutoksia (suom. V. Arti, 1935) / Metamorfooseja (suom. Alpo Rönty, 1997) / Metamorphoses selectae = Valikoima metamorfooseja (suom. Päivö ja Teivas Oksala, 2000)
  • Tristia (8-12 AD)
    - The Three First Bookes of Ovids de Tristibus (tr. Thomas Churchyard, 1572) / Ovid's Tristia, Containing Five Bookes of Mournfull Elegies (tr. Wye Saltonstall, 1633) / Ovid de Ponto, Containing Foure Bookes of Elegies (tr. Wye Saltonstall, 1639) / Publii Ovidii De Tristibus; or, Mournfull Elegies in Five Bookes (tr.  Zachary Catlin, 1639) / The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic epistles, Ibis and Halieuticon of Ovid (tr. Henry T. Riley, 1876) / Tristia, Ibis, Epistulae ex Ponto, Halieutica, Fragmenta (ed. S.G. Owens, 1915) / Ovid, with an English Translation: Tristia, Ex Ponto (tr. Arthur Leslie Wheeler, 1924) / Tristia (tr. L.R. Lind, 1975) / Ovid's Poetry of Exile (tr. David R. Slavitt, 1990) / Sorrows of an Exile (tr.  A.D. Melville, 1992) / The Poems of Exile (tr. Peter Green, 1994)
  • Ibis (about 11 AD)
    - Ouid his inuectiue against Ibis (tr. Thomas Underdown, 1577) / Ovid's Invective or Curse against Ibis (tr. John Jones, 1658) / The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic epistles, Ibis and Halieuticon of Ovid (tr. Henry T. Riley, 1876) / Tristia, Ibis, Epistulae ex Ponto, Halieutica, Fragmenta (ed. S.G. Owens, 1915) / Ibis (in The Art of Love and Other Poems, tr. J.H. Mozley, 1929; ed. Robinson Ellis, new introduction by G.D. Williams, 2008)
  • Epistulae Ex Ponto (c.12-16 AD)
    - The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic epistles, Ibis and Halieuticon of Ovid (tr. Henry T. Riley, 1876) / Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (tr. Arthur Leslie Wheeler, 1924) / Epistulae ex Ponto: Book 1 (edited with an introduction, translation, and commentary by Jan Felix Gaertner, 2005)
  • Halieutica
    - The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic epistles, Ibis and Halieuticon of Ovid (tr. Henry T. Riley, 1876) / Tristia, Ibis, Epistulae ex Ponto, Halieutica, Fragmenta (ed. S.G. Owens, 1915) / Halieuticon (in The Art of Love and Other Poems, tr. J.H. Mozley, 1929) / The Halieutica Ascribed to Ovid, 1962 (edited by J.A. Richmond)
  • Fasti (composed between 2-17 AD)
    - Ovids Festivalls, or, Romane Calendar (tr. John Gower, 1640) / Ovid's Fasti, or, The Roman Sacred Calendar (tr. William Massey, 1757) / The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic epistles, Ibis and Halieuticon of Ovid (tr. Henry T. Riley, 1876)  / Ovid's Fasti (bilingual edition, tr. Sir James George Frazer, 1931) / Ovid's Fasti: Roman Holidays (tr. Betty Rose Nagle, 1995) / Ovid: Times and Reasons: A New Translation of Fasti  (translated by Peter Wiseman, Anne Wiseman, 2011)
  • The XV Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, Entytuled Metamorphosis, 1567 (translated by Arthur Golding)
  • The Works of Ovid, Containing His Metamorphosis, Epistles, Amours, Art of Love, Remedy of Love, and Art of Beauty, 1810
  • P. Ovidii Nasonis opera, 1825-26 (5 vols., ed. Pieter Burman)
  • Poems and Translations: Including the First Four Books of Ovid’s Fasti: To which Are Added the Ancient Roman Calendar, 1839 (translated by John Taylor)
  • De arte amatoria libri tres, 1902 (ed. Paul Brandt)
  • Ovid's Selected Works, 1955 (ed. with introd. by J. C. and M. J. Thornton)
  • The Erotic Poems, 1982 (tr. and ed. by Peter Green)
  • Ovid in English, 1998 (edited by Christopher Martin)

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