” I was born for poetry. Whatever I tried to say came out as verse”. Ovid was a gifted observer of ”la dolce vita” that delighted the beautiful people of Augustan Rome with his how-to verses on love making. Unfortunately, the emperor was not amused. If ever there was a born writer it was a magistrate turned poet who relinquished a career in the bureaucracy of a world empire to devote himself to literature. His name was Publius Ovidius Naso, born in 43 B.C. and known to generations of tortured schoolboys as Ovid.
Ovid’s verses came out as the elegiac couplet, a form of subtle and counterpointed complexity that depended for its success on verbal balancing acts and grammatical splits. Ovid was the Nijinsky of this form, making the knottiest acrobatics look easy and limpid. He turned into impeccable elegiacs the Roman calendar, an application for a visa, fishing instructions,and even on one occasion, the soliloquy of a walnut tree.
But Ovid was more than a technical virtuoso. For two thousand years his works have been a treasure trove for other artists, and he left, in his last poems, a fascinating record of an individual in conflict with a watchful and suspicious authoritarian regime.
Ovid was born in the twilight of the Roman Republic. In 44 B.C., the year before his birth, Julius Ceasar was murdered in the Senate. By 23 B.C. when Ovid started to write and publish, Augustus,as Octavian had retitled himself, had gone far toward creating the new Roman Empire. One of the subtler tools he used in this work of transformation was literature as propaganda. Augustus had beleived that much of the rot in Roman culture could be blamed on modern morality, or the lack of it. The most gifted writers of the day, Virgil among them, were recruited, lured or persuaded to preach the new party line which was a return to the ancient virtue, ”pietas” , to the standards and values of Rome’s noble past.
But private behavior is harder to regulate than tax laws or even artists. Long before Augustus came to power, Rome had blossomed with its own high society, its ”beautiful people” Among these beautiful people were some in the highest circles of power and members of Augustus’s own family. In time, the beautiful people found a Virgil of their own: Ovid
Ovid’s origins were far from those of the fashionable elite of Rome, however. He was landed gentry, but not senatorial class, and received the conventional upbringing; correct teachers in Rome, studies in public speaking and the law, a year’s travel abroad and then straight into the lowest rank of the civil service. Ovid started at the bottom of the ladder, was assigned to prisons, firehouses and police stations and later he was promoted to magistrate. If he worked hard he might aspire, in time, to a seat in the senate.
But in his early twenties Ovid ”retired”. It was a waste of his talent. All this time he had been writing. Ambitious for literary success, he had found a patron as soon as he arrived in Rome. He met other poets and writers, he had his works read and criticized, and soon his lines were being quoted in fashionable circles. And for his first collection of poems, ”Amores”, Ovid, the boy wonder, the provincial upstart with a clever turn of phrase, chose to mock Augustus’s favorite poet, Virgil, auhor of the ”Aenid”, a classic in his lifetime, a living monument.
Elegiacs consist of a line of six measures, a hexameter, alternating with a five-measure line, a pentameter, and can be expanded to any length, from a single couplet. They are the meter of romance, love and sentiment. Virgil the epic poet, wrote solely in hexameters, like his model, Homer. Ovid,s first line, like Virgil’s is a hexameter; but then he goes on to write his pentameter. ”What happens to that second line?” he asks himself a few lines further down; ”ita beat”. The he supplies his own answer. ”Love stole it from a joke”.
The joke is not only on Virgil and his Homeric hexameters; it is on the whole fabric of Roman morality, which Augustus was trying to patch up into something decently modest. For ”Amores” are not really poems in the modern sense of the word; they are a scintillating collection of dramatic scenes, fantasies, essays, mental doodlings on a theme, and lyric evocations of sexual passion, making the pretenssions of Augutan ”pietas” seem ridiculous.
One poem, for instance, is set at the races. Cast in the form of a monologue, it depicts a young man trying to strike up a conversation with a girl sitting next to him. The man says he didn,t actually come to follow the races but to follow the girl. She can watch the horse if she likes; he’ll just watch her. And so on through all the gambits, baits, and lures of the civilized pick-up. The girl never speaks a word, but the young man, undeterred, draws on his charm and wit, and in the end, ”She smiles, and her eyes spoke Volumes”.
In Cupid’s distorting mirror, as it turns out, everyone looks ridiculous; husbands, wives, mistresses, the act of love, and even Ovid himself, who includes a clever and graphic description of the night the author found himself impotent, what he felt about it, and what his mistress did about it.
So, by his late twnties, Ovid was already an established author with a distinctive style. Ovid was essentially a popular writer, an entertainer, with a sophisticated readership, or rather audience, for in the ancient world poetry was often recited aloud. Ovid wrote for the sound of applause.
”It was not only Chaucer who read Ovid’s love poetry; every educated person with the slightest interest in the subject did so. Unfortunately much of his humor was lost on Medieval interpreters, and they often discussed his ideas over-seriously in the context which came to be known as “courtly love”–a concept which would have been alien–and ridiculous–to Ovid. His beloved was typically a pretty but ordinary courtesan, not a noble lady in a tower. He makes it clear repeatedly that for him love (read “sex”) is a game much like poker, demanding great powers of strategy and deception, but not the very foundation of life itself. The continuing fame of these poems was owed partly to his authorship of a much greater work, the Metamorphoses, by far the most important source for Greco-Roman mythology for later Europeans. …If his voice seems amazingly contemporary it is because of his “modern” cynicism and frank pleasure in sex for its own sake. Some readers find him offensive, but in a familiar way: there are plenty of men around today who think just like him. What can take the edge of the offense is his self-deprecating humor. Note the many passages in which he is clearly making fun of himself. What is definitely not contemporary about Ovid is his love for mythological allusion. The modern reader may feel frustrated by these “interruptions” which were read fluently as decorative touches in his own time by an audience extremely familiar with the myths to which he alludes.”
Ovid worked slowly. The ”Amores” came out over a period of two or three years. ”Heroides” followed three years later. ”Heroides” was a collection of letters that famous people supposedly addressed to their departed lovers. However, under the tactful mask of mythology, Ovid probably depicted his own friends, his friends’ wives and mistresses and probably himself. Two years after ”Heroides” came a second edition of ”Amores”
Meanwhile, Augustus had been pressing ahead with his plan for a new, great moral society. Laws regulating all aspects of family life and marriage were enacted, including an important piece of legislation in 18 B.C. that made it a crime, punishable by exile, to seduce a married woman. Virgil was dead by now, but other writers dutifully supported these policies and piled literary praises on the efforts of the princeps to launder the souls of his countrymen. Ovid was silent and would remain silent for another five years until by A.D. 1, a new work was ready for general publication.
If Ovid had deliberately set out to oppose Augustus, he couldn’t have chosen a better way to do it. Already, in ”Heroides”, one of his characters had said, ”I’m tired of the old fashioned virtue. I,ll tell you what virtue is. Its whatever makes you feel good”. And the word used for virtue is the Virgilian ”pietas”, everything that Augustus wanted to restore to Roman life. Now Ovid drew the battle lines even more sharply.His new book, flying in the face of the legislation against seducing, is a handbook on that gentle art. Called ”Ars Amatoria”, it is an ancient ”Sex and the Single Male”, and it scandalized Rome.
Ovid divided his advice into three parts. Finding them. Getting them. Keeping them. His guide is specific and practical, though readers looking for a marriage manual or pornography will have slim pickings. Only twice is Ovid explicit enough to raise a censor’s pencil. Once when he offers hints on how women should position themselves during intercourse so as to show off their good points, and a second time when he advises both partners in the sex act on the principles of mutual pleasure giving. For the most part, it is the psychology of the man-woman relationship, its shadowy tensions, the emotional landscape of longing, flirtation, and seduction, that fascinates Ovid. As for morals, they are of no interest to him. ”Militat omnis amans”, ”being in love is like going to war,” and all is fair in love and war. Love is contradictions; treachery, fidelity, lies and truth, pain and pleasure. Accept that, says Ovid; don’t fight it, you can’t.
The appeal of this kind of writing, of course, doesn’t lie in the value of the advice. Under the guise of instructing, Ovid was really describing what people were doing, even if they never dared to admit it. He tried to cover himself by assuring his readers that married, repectable free- women were not expected to be combatants in Cupid’s warfare. But everyone must have seen through this thin disclaimer. After all, Ovid had written, ”the chaste woman is the woman who has never been asked”.
”Ars Amatoria” created a furore, but ovid was quick to point out that in spite of all the criticism, or perhaps because of it, he was being read more avidly than ever before. He immediately brought out two more books, one of them called ”Antidote to Love”, in which he turns his previous book upside down and gives, among other things, a lecture on how not to enjoy the sexual experience.
Time passed. He worked on a project of setting the Roman calendar to verse and the poem ”Metamorphoses” , the story of transformed shapes and beings drawn from folk tales, mythology, religion and history. The scandal of ”Ars Amatoria” seemed forgotten…. in the summer of A.D. 8 he received a summons to appear before Augustus. He was banished to a garrison town on the Black Sea. Ovid was paralyzed with despair. He, Ovid, the greatest poet of his day, could not be incarcerated in the wildnerness forever. He was only fifty, still a young man. He would surely be allowed to return. Ovid never saw Rome again.
What exactly was the crime remains somewhat mysterious. Ovid may have allowed his villa to be used by Augustus’s adulterous granddaughter Julia, who was also exiled that same year. There is little to go on beyond speculation. Ovis had always depended on calm italian sun, good company, leisure and servants. Now he found himself struggling with sickness, loneliness, and helpless rage in a grim outpost of civilization. In short, for Ovid, it was like Siberia. There was no culture, the food was terrible and the water undrinkable. However, Ovid could still write.
The writings from this period are a remarkable and poignant document of the soul in anguish. Ovid fought back by writing, stubbornly refusing to become a non-entity. Pampered by life, he was ill prepared for this late struggle into manhood; Ovid had always been the clever child impressing his elders with his precocious brilliance. The record of this struggle shows him pathetic, silly, cowardly and whining. And he knows it. But such is his honesty that he conceals nothing, and the result is the exposure of a writer’s raw nerves. Augustus died and in the transfer of power to his son Tiberius, no one had the time to think of Ovid’s stale grievance. He was left to rot on the Black Sea. A veritable soul in hell who died in A.D. 17 or 18.
Ovid, did however have the last word. The barbarians plundered Augustus’s Rome, his Forum lies in ruins today, but Ovid’s work survives. Many, such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Moliere and Picasso,all owed and acknowledged their debt to him. Spring comes every year just as Ovid must have seen it in his mind’s eye two thousand years ago on the frozen shores of the Black Sea. Rosemary, basil, and wisteria perfume the little lanes under the cypress trees; the donkey bells tinkle between crumbling yellow walls; and people practice the arts of love.
”Now look at the painting below by Peter Brueghel, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (1558). Notice how he takes details of ordinary life from Ovid’s language: the farmer at his plow, the shepherd leaning on his staff, the fisherman down by the water. However, in Brueghel’s version of the story, these men are oblivious to Icarus’ plight. (If you haven’t found him yet, look in the water in the lower right corner.) Why do you think Icarus’s tragedy is reduced to a minor detail in the painting? In “Musee des Beaux Arts,” a poem inspired by this painting (which was inspired by Ovid), W. H. Auden explains:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along …
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure. The sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”