Ovid was born in Sulmo, a town about 80 miles East of Rome, in the year after the assassination of
Julius Caesar, and 12 years before the
Battle of Actium brought an end to the civil war, when a period of relative peace and prosperity began.
Around 31BC (12) he was sent to Rome for his education. He then continued his studies in Athens, toured Asia Minor, and spent a year in Sicily.
Decides to write poetry
In around 18BC (25) he prepared to stand for the office of
quaestor, the first position of the ‘cursus honorum’ (course of offices) which led eventually to the
Consulship. He decided, however, to write poetry instead, and joined the circle of poets associated with
First poetry published
The Amores, which was probably his first work, first appeared in five volumes, but was subsequently reduced
to three, concerning which he wrote : 'We who once were five books by Naso now are three. The author
himself has trimmed us. Now even if you don't like what you read, at least
you're spared the punishment of two more books.'
This was followed by the Heroïdes, a series of letters
from women of myth to their husbands and lovers, the Ars Amatoria (The
Art of Love), the Remedia Amatoria (The Remedies of Love) and a tragedy,
Medea, which has not survived, but which Quintilian
thought one of the greatest Roman tragedies (Institutio Oratoria X.i.98).
He was at work on the Fasti, an
elegiac poem in twelve books on Roman festivals and cults, and his best known work,
the mythological and historical epic The
Metamorphoses, when he was abruptly banished by the
in 8AD (51). His sentence was decided and pronounced personally by the emperor,
the two causes of offence being a poem, the Ars Amatoria, and an
unspecified error. He was sent to Tomis (now Constanta in Romania) on the Black Sea, where he composed his
Tristia or Poems of Sadness, his Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black
which pleaded his case for return, and the Ibis, probably the longest
recorded curse in history invoking a range of horrible fates from Greek
mythology on an (unspecified) enemy (the Emperor Augustus?).
'Up to this time,
when I have already completed fifty years, all the song of my Muse has been
harmless; and not a letter of Naso, who wrote so many thousands, exists to be
read that is stained with blood: nor have my writings hurt anyone save me, when
his own Art proved the artist's bane. One man (and this is itself a mighty
wrong) suffers not my title to innocence to endure.... I shall be thy devoted
foe. Sooner shall moisture cease to be opposed to fire, and the sun's light be
joined to the moon; the same part of heaven shall send forth western winds and
eastern, and the warm south blow from the cold sky; spring shall mingle with
autumn, summer with midwinter, and the same region be both evening and sunrise;
sooner shall a strange concord unite the brothers' smoke, which ancient anger
separates on the kindled pyre then the arms that we took up be laid aside, and
between thee and me, shameless wretch, there be that friendship which thy crime
sundered. That peace shall we enjoy, while life remains to me, which wolves are
wont to keep with the defenceless flock. First will I join battle in the measure
I have begun, although wars are not wont to be waged in this strain; and as the
spear of the soldier who is not yet fired to battle first attacks the yellow,
sandy soil, so will I not yet shoot at thee with sharpened steel, nor shall my
javelin seek forthwith thy hateful life; and no name nor deeds shall I mention
in this work, and I will suffer thee a short while to dissemble who thou are.
Afterwards, if thou dost continue, my satire unrestrained shall hurl at thee
missiles tinged by Lycambean blood.... So many (woe upon thee!) And such
destructions shall come on thee, that I ween I too could be compelled to weep.
Those tears will make me happy without end; that weeping will be sweeter to me
than laughter.' This is merely the preamble.
He died at Tomis.
The true Midas is the poet, the true golden touch his transforming art.
Ovid's acheivement in the Metamorphoses is to transmute what ought to be
a profoundly depressing vision of existence into a cosmic comedy of manners.
A.D.Melville, Introduction to Ovid's Metamorphoses.
The Life of Ovid together with
Ovid Defended, reproduced from George Sandys translation of the Metamorphoses
PVBLIVS OVIDIVS NASO, descended of the ancient Family of the Nasones, who
had preserued the dignitie of Roman Knights from the first
originall of that Order, was borne at Sulmo, a Citie of the Peligni,
on the XIIII of the Calends of April, in the Consul-ships of Hircius and
Pansa both slaine at the battle of Mutina against Marcus
While yet a boy, his quick wit and readie apprehension gaue his parents an
assurance of a future excellencie: in so much as his father Lucius sent
him to Rome (together with his brother, a yeere elder than he, and
borne on the same day) to be instructed by Plotius Grippus, that Art might
perfect the accomplishments of Nature. In his first of youth he was much
addicted vnto Poetrie, wherein hee had an excellent grace and naturall
facilitie. But continually reproued by his father for following so
vnprofitable a studie, with an ill will he forsooke the pleasant walkes of
the Muses to trauell in the rugged paths of the Law, vnder Aurelius
and Porcius Latro; of whose eloquence and learning he was a great Admirer.
Neither attained he therein to a vulgar commendation, being numbred by
Marcus Annaeus Seneca among the principall Orators of those times. His
prose was no other then dissolued verse: his speech wittie, briefe, and
powerfull in perswasion. Hauing past through diuers offices of iudicature,
and now readie to assume the habit of a Senator; his elder brother and
father being dead, impatient of toyle, and the clamours of litigious
Assemblies, he retired himselfe from all publike affaires to affected
vacancie and his former abandoned studies. Yet such was the mutuall
affection betweene him and Varro that hee accepted of Command, and serued
vnder him in the warres of Asia, from whence hee returned by Athens,
where hee made his aboad, vntill hee had attained to the perfection of
that language. A man of a meane stature, slender of bodie, spare of diet;
and, if not too amorous, euery way temperate. Hee drunke no wine but what
was much alayed with water: An Abhorrer of vnnaturall Lusts, from which it
should seeme that age was not innocent: neat in apparell; of a free,
affable, and courtly behauiour; whereby he acquired the friendship of
many, such as were great in learning and nobilitie; among whom not a few
of Consular dignitie; and so honoured by diuers, that they wore his
picture in rings cut in precious stones. One haue I scene in a Cornelian,
of exquisite workmanship, with his name ingrauen on the one side and
certaine obscure characters on the other, supposed as ancient as those
times: I haue also an old Medall of Siluer stamped with his image: both
which are presented vnder his Figure, with the Reuerse of the latter. A
great Admirer, and as much admired, of the excellent Poets of those times,
with whom hee was most familiar and intimate. Being perswaded by some of
them to leaue out three verses of those many which he had written, he gaue
his consent, so that of all he might except three onely: whereupon they
priuately writ those which they would haue him abolish, and hee on the
other side those which he excepted; when both their papers being showne,
presented the same verses: the first and second recorded by Pedo
Albinovanus, who was one of the Arbiters,
Semi-bouemque virum, semi-uirumque bouem.
whereby it appeareth that his admirable wit did not want an answerable
iudgement in suppressing the libertie of his verse, had he not affected
it. An ample patrimonie he had in the territories of Sulmo; with a
house and a Temple in the Citie, where now stands the Church of Sancta
Maria de Tumba: and where now stands the Church of Sancta Maria de
Consolatione; he had another in Rome, not farre from the
Capitoll; with pleasant Hort-yards betweene the wayes of Flaminia and
Claudia, wherein he was accustomed to recreate himselfe with his
Muses. Hee had three wiues: whereof the first being giuen him in his
youth, as neither worthie nor profitable, soone after (according to the
custome of the Romans) he diuorced: nor liu'd he long with the
second, although nobly borne, and of behauiour inculpable. The chastitie
and beauty of the third he often extolleth; whom he instructed in poetrie,
and to his death entirely affected. Neither was her affection inferior to
his; liuing all the time of his banishment like a sorrowfull widdow, and
continuing to the end exemplarie faithfull. But in this eueryway happy
condition, when his age required ease, and now about to imploy his beloued
vacancie in the reuiew and polishing of his former labours, he was
banished, or rather confined to Tomos (a citie of Sarmatia bordering
on the Euxine Sea) by Augustus Caesar, on the fourth of the Ides of
December, and in the one and fiftieth yeere of his age, to the generall
griefe of his friends and acquaintance: who sayled into Thrace in a
ship of his owne, and by land performed the rest of his voyage. The cause
of this his so cruell and deplored exile, is rather coniectured then
certainely knowne. Most agree that it was far his too much familiarity
with Julia the daughter of Augustus, masked vnder the name of
Others that hee had vnfortunately seene the incest of Caesar: which may be
insinuated, in that he complaines of his error, and compares himselfe to
Actaeon. But the pretended occasion was for his composing of the Art of
Loue, as intollerably lasciuious and corrupting good manners. A pretence I
may call it, since vnlikely it is, that hee should banish him in his age
for what hee writ when hardly a man, and after so long a conniuance. Yet Augustus, either to conceale his owne crime or his daughters, would haue
it so thought: neither would Ovid reueale the true cause, least hee should
further exasperate his displeasure. After he had long in vaine solicited
his repeale by the mediation of Germanicus Caesar, and others that were
neere vnto the Emperour; or at least to be remoued to a more temperate
Clime; his hopes (as he writes) forsaking the earth with Augustus, he died
at Tomos in the fifth yeare of the raigne of Tiberius; hauing liued
seuen yeares in banishment. As Tibullus and hee were borne in one day, so
hee and Livie died on an other; that his birth and death might be nobly
accompanied. He had so wonne the barbarous Get's with his humanitie
and generous actions (hauing also written a booke in their language) that
they honoured him in his life with triumphant garlands, and celebrated his
funerals with vniuersall sorrow; erecting his tombe before the gates of
their citie, hard by a lake which retaineth his name to this day. His
sepulcher was found in the yeere, MDVIII, with a magnificent couerture
presenting this Epitaph.
Sed gelidum Borean, egelidumque Notum.
FATVM NECESSITATIS LEX.
Here lies that liuing Poet, by the rage
Isabella Queene of Hungarie in the yeare
MDXL shewed to Bargaeus a pen of siluer, found not long before vnder
certaine ruines, with this inscription; OVIDII NASONIS CALAMVS: which she
highly esteemed, and preserued as a sacred relique. Of the bookes which
hee writ, since most of them are extant among vs, I will onely recite
these following verses of Angelus Politianius.
Of great Augustus banished from Rome:
Who in his countrie sought t'interre his Age;
But vainly, Fate bath lodg'd him in this tombe:
1 From times first birth he chants the change of
Yet leaues he out the Remedie of Loue, a legitimate Poem (except
hee make it an appendix to the Art) and his Consolation to Livia for the death of
Drusus: which Seneca hath excerped and sprinkled
among his seuerall Consolations. Among such a multiplicitie of
arguments our gentle Poet did neuer write a virulent verse, but onely
against Cornificus; (maskt vnder the name of Ibis) who solicited his wife
in his absence, and laboured against the repeale of his banishment.
Concerning his Metamorphosis, it should seeme that he therein imitated Parthenius of
Chios, who writ on the same argument: as the Latin
Poets euen generally borrowed their inuentions from the Graecian
Magazins. I will conclude with what himselfe hath written of this
Poem, wherein I haue imployed my vacant houres: with what successe, I
leaue to the censure of others, which perhaps may proue lesse rigid then
2 The flames of Loue in Elegiacks sings, De Arte,
3 With curses doubtfull Ibis he insnares, In
4 Epistles dictates fraught with Louers cares, Epist.
5 In Swan-like tunes deplores his sad exile, Trist.
& de Ponto.
6 His verse the Roman Festiuals compile, Fasti.
7 Of fishes sings vnknowne to Latin eares, Halieutica.
8 Computes the stars that glide in heauenly spheres, Phaenomena.
9 His paper fils with Epigrammick rimes, Epigrammata.
10 The tragick stage on high cothurnals climes, Medeae
11 Whips Poetasters that abuse the times. In malos
I thanke your loue: my verse farre liuelier then
My picture shew me; wherefore those peruse:
My verse, which sing the changed shapes of men;
Though left vnperfect by my banisht Muse.
Departing, these I sadly with my hand
Into the fire, with other riches, threw.
Her sonne Althea burning in his brand,
A better sister then a mother grew:
So I, what should not perish with me, cast
Those bookes, my issue, in the funerall flame:
In that I did my Muse my crime distast;
Or that as yet vnpolished and lame.
But since I could not so destroy them quite;
For sundry copies it should seeme there be:
Now may they liue, nor lazily delight
The generous Reader; put in minde of me.
Yet they with patience can by none be read,
That know not how they vncorrected stand:
Snatcht from the forge, ere throughly anuiled;
Depriued of my last life-giuing hand.
For praise I craue thy pardon: highly grac'd,
If, Reader, they be not despisd by thee:
Yet in the front be these sixe verses plac'd,
If with thy liking it at least agree.
Who meets this Orphan-uolume, poore in worth,
Within your Citie harborage afford.
To winne more fauour, not by him set forth;
But rauisht from the funerall of his Lord.
He, all the faults, which these rude lines deface,
Would haue reform'd, had his mishaps giu'n space.
Since diuers, onely wittie in reprouing, haue profaned our Poet with their
fastidious censures we, to vindicate his worth from detraction, and preuent
preiudicacie, haue here reuiued a few of those infinite testimonies, which the
cleerest iudgements of all Ages haue giuen him. I will begin with the censure of
that accurate Orator
MARCVS ANNAEVS SENECA,One of his frequent and admiring
Auditors. NASO had a constant, becomming, and amiable wit. His Prose appeared
no other then dissolued Verses. And a little after. Of his wordes no
Prodigall, except in his Verse: wherein, he was not ignorant of the fault, but
affected it: and often would say, that a Mole misse-became not a beautifull
face, but made it more louely. Amongst the excellent of his time, wee may
VELLEIVS PATERCVLVS,Who writeth thus in his historie. It is
almost a folly, to number the wits that are euer in our eyes. Amongst these, of
our Age the most eminent are, Virgil the Prince of Verse, Rabirius,
Liuie imitating Salust, Tibullus, and NASO in the forme of his
absolute Poem. Nor doth
LVCIVS ANNAEVS SENECAdegenerate from his Fathers opinion: who
to that Verse, by him thus dissolued, The Rocks appeare like Ilands, and
augment the dispersed Cyclades, annexeth this, as saith the wittiest of
all Poets.. A constant Imitator of his, through all his Philosophie; but
especially in his Tragedies. Whereupon some haue coniectured that Seneca's Medea
belongeth to OVID. Whereof
QVINTILIANthus censures. OVID'S Medea seemeth to me to
expresse how much that man could haue performd, would he rather haue restrained
then cherished his inuention. And
CORNELIVS TACITVS,Neither is there any composition of Asinius,
or Messala so illustrious, as OVID' s Medea. The wittie
MARTIALfor the most part linkes him to incomparable Virgil:
as in this Epigram;
Th' art more then mad! those, whom
thou see'st so bare,
And in that to Instantius.
With OVID's selfe, or Virgil may compare.
Would'st thou adde spirit to my
And read immortall Verses? loue infuse.
Me, Mantua; SVLMO mee should stile diuine;
Were but Alexis, or CORINNA mine.
STATIVS PAMPINIVS,amongst the best Poets.
That honoured Day, the old Callimachus,
Nor is he onely approued by prophane
Authors. Thus learned
Philetas, Vmbrian Propertius,
Prepare to celebrate with one consent;
And NASO, chearefull though in banishment,
With rich Tibullus.
LACTANTIVS, OVID, in the beginning of his excellent Poem,
confesseth that God (not disguizing his Name) ordayned the world; who cals him
the Creator thereof, and Maker of all things. In the following booke. Which
that ingenious Poet hath admirably described. And
S. HIEROME;Semiramis, of whom they report many wonders,
erected the walls of Babylon; as testifies that renowned Poet in the 4.
book of his Metamorphosis. Nor is he forgot by
S. AVGVSTINE.And NASO, that excellent Poet. Now
descend wee to those, whom later times haue preferred for learning and
iudgement. Thus sings the high prais'd
ANGELVS POLITIANVS.Tis doubtfull, whether He, whom SVLMO
The World-commanding Tyber honour'd more,
Then his foule exile thee defam'd, O Rome!
Whom Getick sands (alas!) but halfe intombe,
Perhaps obserued by Augustus Spyes
To looke on IVLIA with too friendly eyes.
with the perfection of Eloquence. And the Censurer of all Poets,
IVLIVS CESAR SCALIGER,thus writes, when he comes to censure our
Author. But now we arriue where the height of wit, and sharpnesse of
iudgement, are both to be exerciz'd. For, who can commend OVID sufficiently?
much lesse, who dares reprehend him? Notwithstanding, I will say something; not
in way of detraction, but that we also may be able to grow with his greatnesse.
Then speaking of his Metamorphosis. Bookes deseruing a more fortunate Author;
that from his last hand they might haue had their perfection: which he himselfe
bewaileth in luculent Verses. Yet are there, in these well-nigh an infinite
number, which the wit of another, I beleeue, could neuer haue equall'd. And
thus exclaimes against Caesar in the person of OVID.
Tyrant, with me I would thou hadst
Now heare we the much-knowing
Nor thy black slaughters had my Fate fore-run.
If my licentious Youth incenst thee so;
Thy owne condemnes thee: into exile goe.
Thy Cabinets are stayn'd with horrid deedes:
And thy foule guilt all monstrous names exceeds.
Diuine wit, innocence, nor yet my tongue,
Next to Apollo's, could preuent my wrong.
I smooth'd th' old Poets with my fluent vaine;
And taught the New a farre more numerous straine.
When thee 1 prais'd, then from the truth I sweru'd;
And banishment for that alone deseru'd.
STEPHANVS.NASO, in his Metamorphosis, may well be called the
Poet of Painters; in that those witty descriptions afford such liuely patternes
for their pencils to imitate. And
MARCVS ANTONIVS TRITONIVS.This diuine worke is necessary,
and to be desired of all, that are addicted to Poetrie, both for the
gracefulnesse of speech, the admirable art of the Poet and delightfull varietie
of the Subiect. Neither was there euer any, that diligently collected, or
learnedly, elegantly and orderly expressed the fables, but OVID; who
composed out of Orpheus, Hesiod, Homer, and other the most ancient Poets,
so excellent and noble a Worke, that therein the learning of the Latines may
worthily glorie. Add wee that of
BERNARDVS MARTINVS:I conceiue the Poet of SVLMO did
follow the industrie and aduice of Zeuxes, in the composure of that
admirable worke of his Metamorphosis. For as that excellent Painter, about to
draw the Picture of Helena, had assembled together the most rare and
beautifull Virgins of Greece; that by examining their seuerall
perfections and graces he might expresse all in one with his curious pencill: so
he out of the innumerable volumes of the Graecian Poets, first gathered
these multiplicities of fables, composing the diffused and variously dispersed
into one bodie: and then diligently noting what in euery author was elegant and
beautifull, transferd the same to his owne, that nothing might be wanting to the
enriching and adorning of his so diuine a Poem. I must not omit this
testimonie of the learned
ANTONIVS MVRETVS.The Metamorphosis, a diuine Poem; shining
through-out, with all the lustres of conceit and eloquence. Nor this
HERCVLES CIOFANVS;in that a Citizen of SVLMO. A wittie
worke, repleat with solid manifold learning. Who peruse it diligently, shall
find such admirable fluencie, such fulnesse, so great a grauitie of words and
sentences; that few or none amongst the Latine Poets can be said to
transcend him. What should I say of that singular, and well-nigh diuine
contexture of Fable with Fable? so surpassing that nothing can be spoken or
done, more artificially, more excellently, or, indeed, more gracefully. Who
handling such diuersity of matter, so cunningly weaues them together, that all
appeare but one Series. Planudes, well knowing that Greece had not a Poem
so abounding with delight and beauty, translated it into that language. What
should I say more? All Arts, which antiquitie knew, are here so fully delineated,
that a number, expert in both tongues, of Prime vnderstanding and iudgements,
admire it beyond all expression. The first that writ a Commentarie on this
booke (whereof fiftie thousand were vented, and that in his life time) was
RAPHAEL REGIVS:who thus in his Preface. There is nothing
appertaining to the knowledge and glorrie of warre, whereof we haue not famous
examples in the Metamorphosis of OVID; (not to speake of stratagems, nor
the Orations of Commanders) described with such efficacie and eloquence, that
often in reading, you will imagine your selfe imbroiled in their conflicts.
Neither shall you finde any Author, from whom, a ciuill life may gather better
instructions . Conclude we with
IACOBVS MICYLLVS.Hardly shall you find a Poem, which flowes
with greater facilitie. For what should I speake of Learning? Herein, so great,
so various and abstruse; that many places haue neither beene explained, nor yet
vnderstood; no, not by the most knowing: requiring rather a resolution from the Delian
Let the ingenuous that affect not error, now rectifie
their owne by the iudgements of these. But incurable Criticks, who warre about
words, and gall the sound to feed on their sores, as not desiring their sanitie,
I forbeare to disswade and deliuer them vp to the censure of AGRIPPA.
Ovid Biography : Links
Translation from Ovid's Amores by David Drake : http://david-drake.com/ovid/amoresI-1.html
Translation from the Ibis from Michael Jarrett's web
pages : http://www.yk.psu.edu/~jmj3/cur_ibis.htm
Amores Book I, No V
Amores Book III, No XIV
Other classical poets