Sulmona, in the mountains about 90 miles east of Rome, is one of my favorite little cities in Italy. Ovid was born there during the five-day festival of Quinquartus, which opened the military campaigning season, (“the first day stained with the blood of combat in armed Minerva’s festival”) in the year “when both consuls died at Mutina.” For us, that’s 20 March 43 BC[E]. Tristia (Sorrows), his first poems from exile, includes a sketch autobiography. In it, Ovid calls out to the reader, “Listen posterity, and find out who this “I” was, this playful poet of tender passions you read.”
Ovid’s life began and ended outside of Rome. He declares Sulmo mihi patria est, (“Sulmona is my fatherland”) The initials of his phrase—SMPE—were made the emblem of the city and it appears around town, in sites refined and commonplace, like Rome’s SPQR. That line was written in Tomis, modern Constanta in Romania located on the Black sea at the margin of Roman civilization, where he died c. 17 AD.
The poet was the son of an established equestrian family and not one whose status was created in the recent civil war (“I was heir to an ancient line, not a knight new-made by fortune’s gift”).
He had a brother, a sort of twin, who had been born on the same day a year before him. Both boys were educated in Rome. The brother embraced oratory and the prospect of a public life (“My brother tended towards oratory from his early years; he was born to the harsh weapons of the noisy forum.”). The young man died just after his twentieth birthday, leaving Ovid bereft, “My brother had just doubled the first ten years of life, when he died, I went on, part of myself lost.”
Ovid was born to be a poet (“even as a boy the Muse was drawing me secretly to her work”). The father discouraged this propensity, admonishing him, “Why pursue useless studies? Maeonian Homer himself left no wealth behind.” He tried to give up poetry and actually started on a public career by holding minor judicial posts, but young Ovid couldn’t help himself, “I tried to write words that were free of meter. / But verse came, of itself, in the right measures, / and whatever I tried to write was poetry.”
Late in life Ovid expressed relief that his parents had died before the disgrace of his exile occurred. His piety evoked in him fear that this guilt might be known on the other side of the tomb:
I’m fortunate my trouble wasn’t while they lived / and that they never had to grieve for me / Yet if the dead are left something more than a name / if a slender ghost escapes the high pyre / if news of me has reached you, spirits of my parents / and my guilt is proclaimed in the courts of Styx / know, I beg of you, it would be a sin to deceive you / the cause of my exile was an error not a crime.trans. A.S. Kline
Ovid was the last superstar of the golden age of Latin literature. He is usually as the youngest of the trio of great Roman poets. The other two giants were a generation older. Horace was the role model of poetic versatility, “many-metered Horace captivated us when he sang his polished songs to the Italian lyre.” The master of Roman epic was more remote, having died when Ovid was in his early 20s, “Vergil I only saw.”
His immediate circle of poet peers came of age in the early years of Augustus’ rule, “Often Propertius would tell about his passions, by right of that friendship we were united / Ponticus too famous for epic; Bassus for iambics / were members of that mutual circle dear to me / [ … ]and greedy fate granted / Tibullus no time for my friendship / He came after you, Gallus; Propertius after him / I was the fourth after them in order of time.”
Youthful Ovid expressed what his readers experienced themselves. Thalia, “the joyous one,” was Ovid’s muse. Corinna was his flesh-and-blood inspiration and the star of Amores, his early poems about a young poet pursuing love. Ovid says this woman, the pseudonym was taken from the name of a Greek poetess, “stirred my wit, she who was sung through the City.” He had a habit of falling in love, but maintained this affairs were untainted by lechery.
Soft, and never safe from Cupid’s arrows, / was my heart, that the slightest thing could move. / But though I was such, fired by the smallest spark, / no scandal was associated with my name.
Scandal came later. Augustus sent Ovid away from Rome as an exile in 8 AD, by which time Ovid was known as Rome’s greatest living poet. Ovid is coy about the details, acknowledging a carmen, a poem, and an error, an indiscretion. Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a dissection of the methods of seduction, was the poem. Poems about sexual adventurism didn’t jibe with Augustus’ program of family values. The indiscretion was the more immediate cause; it seems to have involved Ovid’s friendship with members of the imperial family who were attempting to position themselves as successor to Augustus. Here Ovid got off easier than some others who were executed or whose conditions of exile were harsher.
The cause, too well known to all, of my ruin, / is not to be revealed by any testimony of mine. / Why tell of friends’ wickedness and servants’ harm? / I suffered things no less evil than exile itself. / Yet my mind refused to succumbed to misfortune / and proved invincible, relying on its own powers.
Ovid outlived his contemporaries and surpassed them. In exile on the Black Sea, poetry remained a natural consolation.
Here, though the noise of weapons surrounds me / I ease my sad fate with such song as I can / Though there’s no one to listen to me, / still this is the way I pass, and deceive, the days
And, he claims, condemnation didn’t inhibit his readership back home.
My Muse, you grant me solace, you come as a rest from, and a cure for, care / You are both guide and friend, who spirit me / from the Danube to a place in the midst of Helicon / you’ve given me something rare while still alive / the honored name fame only grants us when we’re dead / Nor has envy, that belittles present things, attacked any work of mine with malignant teeth/ Though this age of ours has produced great poets / has not been unkind to my gifts / and though I set many above myself, people say / I’m not inferior, and I’m the most widely read of all.
How far into the future did he assume his readership would persist? He couldn’t have known he’d be almost as famous today as he was on the day he departed from his home, which was close to the Capitoline hill, for the last time, “I went like one carried off before his funeral.” Or could he?
So if there’s truth in the poet’s prophecies / I’ll not be yours, earth, though I die today / Whether I’ve won fame through fashion or through poetry itself / It’s right that I thank you, honest reader.