On Greatest Lit list:
• Art of Love (c. 10 B.C.E.)
• Metamorphoses (c. 8 C.E.)
My first reaction to Ovid's Metamorphoses was mystification. This was supposed to be one of the great books of Western culture. Ovid was said to be wickedly.... more
Lasting love and laughter
For generations of students, Ovid was the fun classical poet. If you grew up studying ancient literature, as people once did, you worked through the serious greats like Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, and Horace, then you got to kick back a bit with Publius Ovidius Naso (his full name). The guy had a wicked sense of humour, he satirized the earlier heavyweights, and he had a writing style that made him seem like a friend sharing a juicy story with you.
But it's been a long time since the Classics department was at the centre of any liberal arts educational institution. Nowadays we get a couple weeks of Greek mythology highlights in our English classes before moving on to Shakespeare and then modern prose and poetry.
That's okay by me. Our modern literature and its immediate forerunners are more important to us. But it does make it difficult to understand the classical works when we try to read them on our own. Even the most accessible authors like Ovid can be foreign. Without knowing all his references to the literature, mythology and politics of his time, we can't readily appreciate his cleverness. It's difficult to even get into that ancient frame of mind that would let us be entertained and provoked by his poetry.
It must have been great to be a writer in his day though. Patronized by Roman aristocrats. Hobnobbing with other great writers whose names would be remembered for millennia. Bacchanalian parties with the literary groupies of the time. For a while Ovid's life was pretty wonderful. He was born in Sulmo, east of Rome, and came to the capital of the empire as an adolescent. He travelled through Greece, Asia Minor and Italy as a young man before returning to Rome, ostensibly to study law but actually to become a writer.
His first poems were love elegies appearing in five books called Amores (Loves) about 15 B.C.E. Around this time he also produced Epistulae heroidum (Letters from Heroines, often called the Heroides) and the lost tragedy Medea.
But it was the scandalous Ars amatoria (Art of Love) in about 10 B.C.E. with its instructions on how to win and keep a lover, and its sequel, the Cures for Love, that made his reputation. His down-to-earth but clever style is exemplified in his opening epigram to Art of Love which appeared in three parts after some editing:
We who were once five books are now three:
The author preferred the work this way.
Now, if itís no joy to you to read us,
still itís a lighter punishment with two books less.
He became more respectable in later years, writing his masterpiece Metamorphoses (8 A.D.), which recast all ancient mythology from the creation of the world right up to the time of Caesar, and working on Fasti, which told the legends associated with each day of the Roman calendar.
However, something in Art of Love book came back to haunt him. Years after it was published, the Roman ruler Augustus cited it as cause for banishing Ovid to Ponto (the Black Sea). The exact reason has never been fully explained. But Ovid spent the rest of his life in exile, trying vainly to get himself back into the good graces of Rome. Among his efforts to please were five books of short poems called Tristia (Sorrows) and four books of letters to friends, Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea).
The average educated person, who is no longer exposed to ancient literature today, is still bound to feel Ovid's effect in other reading. Ovid has had a great influence on Western literature ever since he was rediscovered during the Renaissance. Many of the mythical characters and stories we know from the ancient world, such as Pygmalion, King Midas, and Narcissus, we know from Ovid's presentation in Metamorphoses. Chaucer and Shakespeare took tales and ideas from Ovid's works. Poets from John Dryden to Ted Hughes have reworked Ovid's verse. Even today Jeffrey Eugenides acknowledges Ovid as a main inspiration for his acclaimed novel Middlesex (2002) and popular televisions shows retell Ovid's stories in one form or another.
So it's worth reading the original (if you can call someone who borrowed from previous writers as much as Ovid himself did an "original") to find the source. Here's the trick though: for your first exposure to Ovid, get a good, lively translation that puts his words into a contemporary form. A dull, technically correct translation will leave Ovid forever ancient.