Ovid talks more about his own life than most other Roman poets. Information about his biography is drawn primarily from his poetry, especially Tristia 4.10, which gives a long autobiographical account of his life. Other sources include Seneca the Elder and Quintilian.
Birth, early life, and marriage
Ovid was born in Sulmo (modern Sulmona), in an Apennine valley east of Rome, to an important equestrian family, on 20 March, 43 BC. That was a significant year in Roman politics.[b] He was educated in rhetoric in Rome under the teachers Arellius Fuscus and Porcius Latro with his brother who excelled at oratory.
His father wanted him to study rhetoric toward the practice of law. According to Seneca the Elder, Ovid tended to the emotional, not the argumentative pole of rhetoric. After the death of his brother at 20 years of age, Ovid renounced law and began travelling to Athens, Asia Minor, and Sicily. He held minor public posts, as one of the tresviri capitales, as a member of the Centumviral court and as one of the decemviri litibus iudicandis, but resigned to pursue poetry probably around 29–25 BC, a decision of which his father apparently disapproved.
Ovid's first recitation has been dated to around 25 BC, when he was eighteen. He was part of the circle centered on the patron Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, and seems to have been a friend of poets in the circle of Maecenas. In Trist. 4.10.41–54, Ovid mentions friendships with Macer, Propertius, Horace, Ponticus and Bassus (he only barely met Virgil and Tibullus, a fellow member of Messalla's circle whose elegies he admired greatly).
He married three times and divorced twice by the time he was thirty years old. He had one daughter, who eventually bore him grandchildren. His last wife was connected in some way to the influential gens Fabia and would help him during his exile in Tomis (now Constanta in Romania).
The first 25 years of Ovid's literary career were spent primarily writing poetry in elegiac meter with erotic themes. The chronology of these early works is not secure; tentative dates, however, have been established by scholars. His earliest extant work is thought to be the Heroides, letters of mythological heroines to their absent lovers, which may have been published in 19 BC, although the date is uncertain as it depends on a notice in Am. 2.18.19–26 that seems to describe the collection as an early published work.
The authenticity of some of these poems has been challenged, but this first edition probably contained the first 14 poems of the collection. The first five-book collection of the Amores, a series of erotic poems addressed to a lover, Corinna, is thought to have been published in 16–15 BC; the surviving version, redacted to three books according to an epigram prefixed to the first book, is thought to have been published c. 8–3 BC. Between the publications of the two editions of the Amores can be dated the premiere of his tragedy Medea, which was admired in antiquity but is no longer extant.
Ovid's next poem, the Medicamina Faciei, a fragmentary work on women's beauty treatments, preceded the Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love, a parody of didactic poetry and a three-book manual about seduction and intrigue, which has been dated to AD 2 (Books 1–2 would go back to 1 BC). Ovid may identify this work in his exile poetry as the carmen, or song, which was one cause of his banishment. The Ars Amatoria was followed by the Remedia Amoris in the same year. This corpus of elegiac, erotic poetry earned Ovid a place among the chief Roman elegists Gallus, Tibullus, and Propertius, of whom he saw himself as the fourth member.
By AD 8, he had completed his most ambitious work, the Metamorphoses, a hexameter epic poem in 15 books. The work encyclopedically catalogues transformations in Greek and Roman mythology, from the emergence of the cosmos to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar. The stories follow each other in the telling of human beings transformed to new bodies: trees, rocks, animals, flowers, constellations etc. At the same time, he worked on the Fasti, a six-book poem in elegiac couplets on the theme of the calendar of Roman festivals and astronomy. The composition of this poem was interrupted by Ovid's exile,[c] and it is thought that Ovid abandoned work on the piece in Tomis. It is probably in this period, if they are indeed by Ovid, that the double letters (16–21) in the Heroides were composed.
Exile to Tomis
In AD 8, Ovid was banished to Tomis, on the Black Sea, by the exclusive intervention of the Emperor Augustus, without any participation of the Senate or of any Roman judge. This event shaped all his following poetry. Ovid wrote that the reason for his exile was carmen et error – "a poem and a mistake", claiming that his crime was worse than murder, more harmful than poetry.
The Emperor's grandchildren, Julia the Younger and Agrippa Postumus (the latter adopted by him), were also banished around the same time. Julia's husband, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was put to death for a conspiracy against Augustus, a conspiracy of which Ovid potentially knew.
The Julian marriage laws of 18 BC, which promoted monogamous marriage to increase the population's birth rate, were fresh in the Roman mind. Ovid's writing in the Ars Amatoria concerned the serious crime of adultery. He may have been banished for these works, which appeared subversive to the emperor's moral legislation. However, in view of the long time that elapsed between the publication of this work (1 BC) and the exile (AD 8), some authors suggest that Augustus used the poem as a mere justification for something more personal.
In exile, Ovid wrote two poetry collections, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, that illustrated his sadness and desolation. Being far from Rome, he had no access to libraries, and thus might have been forced to abandon his Fasti, a poem about the Roman calendar, of which only the first six books exist – January through June.
The five books of the elegiac Tristia, a series of poems expressing the poet's despair in exile and advocating his return to Rome, are dated to AD 9–12. The Ibis, an elegiac curse poem attacking an adversary at home, may also be dated to this period. The Epistulae ex Ponto, a series of letters to friends in Rome asking them to effect his return, are thought to be his last compositions, with the first three books published in AD 13 and the fourth book between AD 14 and 16. The exile poetry is particularly emotive and personal. In the Epistulae he claims friendship with the natives of Tomis (in the Tristia they are frightening barbarians) and to have written a poem in their language (Ex P. 4.13.19–20).
Yet he pined for Rome – and for his third wife, addressing many poems to her. Some are also to the Emperor Augustus, yet others are to himself, to friends in Rome, and sometimes to the poems themselves, expressing loneliness and hope of recall from banishment or exile.
The obscure causes of Ovid's exile have given rise to endless explanations from scholars. The medieval texts that mention the exile offer no credible explanations: their statements seem incorrect interpretations drawn from the works of Ovid. Ovid himself wrote many references to his offense, giving obscure or contradictory clues.
In 1923, scholar J. J. Hartman proposed a theory that is little considered among scholars of Latin civilization today: that Ovid was never exiled from Rome and that all of his exile works are the result of his fertile imagination. This theory was supported and rejectedDutch authors.
in the 1930s, especially by
In 1985, a research paper by Fitton Brown advanced new arguments in support of the theory. The article was followed by a series of supports and refutations in the short space of five years. Among the reasons given by Brown are: that Ovid's exile is only mentioned by his own work, except in "dubious" passages by Pliny the Elder and Statius, but no other author until the 4th century; that the author of Heroides was able to separate the poetic "I" of his own and real life; and that information on the geography of Tomis was already known by Virgil, by Herodotus and by Ovid himself in his Metamorphoses.[d]
Orthodox scholars, however, oppose these hypotheses. One of the main arguments of these scholars is that Ovid would not let his Fasti remain unfinished, mainly because this poem meant his consecration as an imperial poet.
In December 2017, Ovid's banishment was formally revoked by Rome's city council.
Ovid died at Tomis in AD 17 or 18. It is thought that the Fasti, which he spent time revising, were published posthumously.