Copyright Lucasaw at WikiCommons
Publius Ovidius Naso was born in the town of Sulmo (now Sulmona) on 20 March BCE, into an important equestrian family. His father sent him to Rome to study rhetoric, which he hoped Ovid would translate into a law career. However, Ovid always tended towards the emotional side of law, not the argumentative, and abandoned this career when his 20-year-old brother died.
Ovid travelled to Sicily, Athens, and Asia Minor, where he held various minor public posts. This career too came to a premature end, and he resigned his current office to devote himself full-time to poetry around 29–25 BCE. His father quite disapproved of this.
Ovid’s first public recitation came when he was eighteen, about 25 BCE. He joined the circle whom Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus served as patron to. Ovid also befriended poets under the patronage of Gaius Maecenas. Probably the best-known of these poets to the average modern person was Horace.
For the first 25 years of his literary career, Ovid mostly wrote erotic poems in elegiac meter. Most modern scholars believe his earliest extant work is The Heroides, consisting of letters from mythological heroines to their lovers.
Ovid’s next work was The Amores (The Loves), a three-book collection of love poems. Then came Medicamina Faciei Femineae (Women’s Facial Cosmetics), a poem about women’s beauty treatments which parodies serious didactic poems. One hundred lines survive.
Page from The Heroides
Then came Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a three-book poetry collection about the arts of love and seduction. The first two books purport to teach men how to seduce and keep women, and the third book tells women about their own seduction techniques.
Ovid’s next publication was Remedia Amoris (The Cure for Love), primarily intended for men. Some scholars feel this marks the end of his erotic poetry cycle.
Then came his masterwork, The Metamorphoses (first page pictured above). Over 250 Greek and Roman myths are contained within the fifteen books. (“Book” tends to mean “part” in classical literature, not an entire full-length manuscript.) Much of our modern knowledge of Greco–Roman mythology and mythohistory comes from Ovid’s preservation of these stories when they were relatively fresh in human memory.
Countless authors over the centuries have been inspired by The Metamorphoses, and many works of art and music depict scenes and characters. Though Ovid’s readership and massive influence on Western culture began waning after the Renaissance, a revival started in the late 20th century.
Copyright Sailko; Courtesy Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana
The Metamorphoses was Dante’s major source of knowledge about these myths too, along with The Aeneid. Many of the characters who appear in Inferno, and their stories, were drawn straight from the pages of Ovid.
Ovid appears in Canto IV of Inferno, among the great non-Christian poets stuck in Limbo, and is mentioned again in Canto XXV. Two of his stories from Metamorphoses are alluded to in Canto XXIX of Inferno and Canto XXII of Purgatorio.
Despite Ovid’s popularity, Augustus Caesar exiled him to the remote province of Tomis (modern-day Constanța, Romania) by the Black Sea in 8 CE. Perhaps Dante felt a special bond with him because he was a fellow exile.
The reasons for Ovid’s exile have always been unclear. There have been many theories over the centuries (obscene verses, disrespect to Caesar, knowing too much about Caesar’s alleged incestuous relationships, catching Caesar’s daughter and granddaughter committing adultery or sleeping with them himself, opposing authoritarianism), but no concrete proof has ever been established.
In the early 20th century, another theory was introduced, claiming Ovid never was exiled at all, and that his writings about it are meant as satire and fiction. Mainstream scholars oppose this idea.
Ovid Banished from Rome, J.M.W. Turner, 1838
Other works of Ovid’s include Ibis, Tristia, Epistulae ex Ponto, Fasti, and Medea (the lattermost of which, Ovid’s only play, is now sadly lost). A number of other poems are spuriously attributed to him.