The poet Ovid (43 bCe-17 Ce) lived in Rome under the reign of the Emperor Augustus in the 1st century BCE. He is best known for the Metamorphoses, an epic poem chronicling the history of the cosmos from creation to his own era. He incorporated many ancient myths and legends into this work, many of which had never been recorded. In doing this he preserved centuries of oral history for future generations to enjoy.
Ovid was born in 43 BCE in central Italy near the Abruzzi Mountains. At age 16 he left for Rome to study rhetoric. By 18 he had become a judge but was unsatisfied with a career in law. While in Rome he developed a passion for poetry and decided to make his living as a writer. He also found happiness with Fabia, his third wife, with whom he had one daughter.
Ovid began his career by writing love poems, and his first public work was titled Amore. His works were very popular, because they referred to the daily activities of “modern” young people. This was very unusual for poets of his time. As his career progressed, Ovid began writing more erotic poems. He considered himself an instructor for young lovers. This sometimes explicit poetry got him into trouble with the law. To counteract the amoral trend of Roman society, Augustus created new morality laws to help reinstate family structures. On hearing of these laws, Ovid decided to write a poem based on mythological stories he had enjoyed as a child.
The Metamorphoses was completed in 8 CE and consists of 15 books, 12,000 verses, and 246 legends. The poem’s title comes from the focus on transformation stories in which gods and spirits are changed into plants and animals. The first transformation story is the changing of Earth into Man, and the work ends with the story of Julius Caesar becoming a star. Ovid wrote it in dactylic hexameter, the meter closely associated with epics and the poets Virgil and Homer. However, the content is not that of a traditional epic. Instead of chronicling the story of a single protagonist, it spans all time, from Earth’s creation from chaos right up to the reign of Augustus. The theme is the same as in all of Ovid’s poems, love. Each story seems to glorify love—the emotion or the god Amor (Cupid).
Ovid’s attempt to evade punishment for his early risque poetry was in vain. He was exiled to Romania, where he is still considered a national hero. Because of his immense popularity with the Roman public, he was allowed to keep his fortune and continued to write and publish until he died in Tomis, now Constanta, in 17 CE.
Ovid’s greatest work influenced many of the writers that would follow him. Dante mentions him twice in his great Divine Comedy. Many scholars believe that Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet was based on Pyramus and Thisbe, which also features in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Jessica M. Masciello
See also Caesar, Gaius Julius; Lucretius; Poetry; Rome, Ancient
Ovid. (2005). The metamorphoses (F. J. Miller, Trans.). New York: Barnes and Noble Classics. (Original work c. 8 CE)
Radulescu, A. (2002). Ovid in exile. Iasi, Romania: Center for Romanian Studies.