Biography of Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, called "Ovid" in English, was born in Sulmo (now Sulmona), Italy. He is considered one of the most important poets of Latin Literature, along with Virgil. Ovid is also the first of the Roman poets to live wholly during the Augustan Empire, a time when literature and art flourished. Though we know little about his personal life, much of Ovid's verse is extant. Many call him the master of the elegiac couplet, a writing scheme frequently used for love poetry in which a line of dactylic hexameter -- six feet, where each foot is a dactyl (a long syllable followed by two short syllables)-- is followed by a line of dactylic pentameter -- five feet, where each foot is a dactyl. Ovid's poetry, though very imaginative and inventive, primarily draws its subjects from mythology and Roman history. Indeed, Ovid's breadth of research and knowledge is constantly on display in his poems, which abound with allusions and intertextual winks. He was also clearly a person of some power, for his poems contain many references (some of them quite unflattering) to powerful people of his time.

We do know the bare skeleton of Ovid's biography. He came to Rome as a young man and trained as a lawyer, studying under Arellius Fuscus and Porcius Latro, two famous teachers of Rhetoric. Ovid then pursued a career in the government, working in a minor administrative position, probably either as a tresuiri monetales, administrators of the mint, or a tresuiri capitales, administrator of prisons and executions. Eventually he rose to become a decemuiri stlitibus judicandis, a position similar to that of a modern-day judge. Many speculate that Ovid was on track for a position in the Roman Senate, but his government career seems to have disintegrated as his writing career began in earnest. Whether that is because a man of his position could not write such poetry, or because he merely chose to pursue poetry instead, no one knows. We also know that Ovid was married three times, a fact which may help to explain his cavalier -- and sometimes bitter -- treatment of love and marriage.

In 8 A.D. the Emperor Augustus exiled Ovid to the city of Tomi on the Black Sea. Ovid writes only that he was exile for a "song" and an "error." The "song" was probably the poem, Ars Amatoria, whose moral flexibility chaffed against the more conservative beliefs of those in power at the time. There is very little information about what possible error Ovid might have committed. Some scholars make note of the fact that Ovid was exiled in the same year that Augustus' granddaughter, Julia, was driven out of Rome for the crime of adultery. During this time, Augustus and his praetors had passed several laws trying to clean up Roman morals, probably because of the low birth rate of the middle and upper classes, which many thought was due to the proliferation of adultery. But there is no specific evidence, besides coincidence, that supports the theory of an affair between Ovid and Julia, and more information is unlikely to be uncovered.

Before his exile, Ovid wrote the Amores, a book of love poems; the Heroides, letters about heroines; the Ars Amatoria, a fairly raunchy book of advice about love and love affairs for Roman men and women; the Remedia Amoris, about the cure for love; and the Medicamina Faciei Femineae, about women's cosmetics and disguises, only 100 lines of which survived. While he was exiled, he was probably in the midst of working on the Metamorphoses and Fasti, a book on the months of the year, the latter of which he was likely forced to give up since he no longer had access to research material. While in exile he wrote two works about the pain of being separated from his life in Rome: Tristia, meaning Sadness, and Epistulae ex Ponto - i.e., Letters from the Black Sea. Several other works are mentioned in various texts, some of which may never have existed. The most famous of these "lost works" is a tragedy about Medea, unique in that it would have been extremely different from any of Ovid's other works. Despite his exile and the loss of information about his life, Ovid's prayer that his works would survive and be read far into the future has certainly become a reality.

Study Guides on Works by Ovid

Written in Latin between 1 B.C.E. and 2 C.E., The Art of Love is a three-book didactic elegy on how to seduce and maintain a relationship with a woman or man. The Art of Love contains various allusions to Greek and Roman mythology, especially the...

"Metamorphoses" means transformations, and transformation is the governming theme of the text. But, Metamorphoses is also a compilation of myths, some complimentary and some almost contradictory, that were well-known in Ovid's society. Indeed, one...