Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC - AD 17) was born at Sulmo on March 20, 43 BC of wealthy parents who survived the civil war. Ovid and his older brother were taken by their father to study in Rome, where Ovid gave up legal studies for poetry. The popularity of that verse, his family connections and public offices he held all allowed Ovid to move in aristocratic circles, and he married three times.

His Ars Amatoria (which referred to the banishment of Augustus's daughter Julia's for an affair with the son of the emperor's old enemy Mark Antony) angered Augustus, however, and Ovid's attempted apology, Remedium Amoris, went in vain. Augustus was particularly offended by Ovid's flippant attitude to his morality drive establishing family values in Rome. Ovid then committed some unknown political indiscretion and found himself banished in AD 8 to the frontier town of Tomi, at the mouth of the Danube on the Black Sea. Attempts at reconciliation failed, even when Augustus was succeeded by Tiberius, and Ovid died in Tomi, probably in AD 17, as much a victim of Imperial politics as his own celebrity among the capital's fast set.

Ovid's poetry was enormously popular in first century Rome, and has been an important influence on European poetry from the Renaissance to the present. The Metamorphoses and Fasti provided abundant material to quarry, and the poetry appealed by its brilliant rhetoric, dissimulation and discrete irony. Ovid's wrote pleasingly from the first. His Amores extolled the charms of his mistress, Corinna, possibly a composite figure. The succeeding Heroides were elegies in the form of imaginary love letters from famous women in Greek mythology. Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) and Remedium Amoris (The Remedy of Love) were not only witty treatises on the art of seduction and intrigue, but went some way towards placing men and women on an equal footing. The Metamorphoses were some 250 interwoven stories written in the epic hexameter. His Fasti, an irreverent but informative poem on the Roman calendar, was terminated by the poet's removal to the Black Sea. There, in a garrison town among non-Latin-speaking barbarians, he wrote Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea), both protesting at his unjust exile with fine elegy and independence. Augustus and Tiberius remained unmoved, however, and Ovid was not recalled.

With the death of Virgil, Horace and Catullus, Roman poetry emerged into a new age, one deeply aware of the past Greek and Latin models, but also limited by the authoritarian and sometimes despotic government of Augustas and the early Caesars. Poets needed patrons, and patrons dabbled in poetry themselves, giving public recitations, but both moved warily under a government that blocked any return to the bloody insurrection that ended the last years of the Republic. The old themes continued, but the mythologies wielded little political or social clout. The treatment became more extreme, dealing with horrors, perversions and unpunished crimes, but characters were located in the safely distant past. Seneca's blood-stained tragedies reworked Greek myths, arguing for a return to stoic values. Persius wrote satires in a peculiarly crabbed style. Lucan's epic, the Civil War, became a protest against the political system that produced tyrants like Nero. Only in irreverent and satirical treatment of contemporary immorality did poetry come back into full flower, placing individual and amatory inclinations above matters of public duty. Propertius concerned himself with his mistress Cynthia, and then produced an odd mixture of Greek and Roman themes lit by candid confession. Later poets Statius, Martial and Juvenal reacted more sharply to the times, producing in Juvenal a satirist to rival Aristophanes.

Latin is still read, and the essentials of the language can be learned from books, cassettes, CDs and online. Useful books include: J.W. Duff's A Literary History of Rome (2 vols 1953,1964), G. Williams's Change and Decline: Roman Literature in the Early Empire (1978), B. Otis's Ovid as Epic Poet (1970), G. Galinsky's Ovid's Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects (1975), F. Verducci's Ovid's Toyshop of the Heart: Epistulae Heroidum (1985), P. Veyne's Roman Erotic Elegy (tr. 1988), J. Booth's Catullus to Ovid: Reading Latin Love Elegy: A Literary Commentary with Latin Text (1999), M. Simpson's The Metamorphoses of Ovid (2001) and P. Hardie's Cambridge Companion to Ovid (2002).

Suggestion: Love and Transformation: An Ovid Reader Richard A. Lafleur. Pearson Prentice Hall. 1999. $33.50.

Many cheap translations exist, generally adequate and often entertaining. But to hear the poetry properly, consider these selections of parallel texts with grammar, stylistic points and rhetorical figures noted, plus a pronunciation guide. You'll need some basic grammar first and a dictionary — or you can use the book as an ideal way of learning the language.

Learning Latin

Learning Latin

Latin is still read, and the essentials of the language can be learned from books, cassettes, cds and online. Virgil readings can be heard at harvard classics (Latin and translations) and bolchazy

Modern translations and imitations have various aims, as can be seen in the work of kline, fitzgerald and valery, mandelbaum and frost.

Online Latin dictionaries can be found at: univ. notre dame, freedict, humanum, persius, and freelang.


Virgil is well served by the Internet. Excellent sites with listings covering all conceivable aspects of Virgil, his times, and influence on later literature and thought, can be found at: studies in the classics, and voice of the shuttle.

For bibliographies, try a bibliographic guide to virgil's aeneid. The Aeneid was a favourite with history painters, a tradition continued in book illustration. Beginners will find the and bulfinch's mythology useful.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.