The great mystery regarding the life of Roman poet Publius Ovidus Naso -- or as we know him, Ovid -- was what forced him into exile in A.D. 9.
That it was decreed by no less than Emperor Caesar Augustus himself is clear. Augustus's successor, Emperor Tiberius, later upheld that decision despite Ovid's pleas for leniency.
Ovid's offense must have been grave. Yet no record survives and Ovid himself never cleared up the matter. The closest he came was saying it involved a "poem and a mistake."
"My fate drew me on, and I was witty to my own undoing," he wrote in his work "Tristia."
Still, in its own way, the exile was the ultimate tribute. It showed that Augustus found the poet's works so powerful and so potentially dangerous that he actually feared their influence on Rome. Yet Ovid (43 B.C. - A.D. 17) was so popular that the emperor dared not execute him either. Exile was, apparently, the only solution.
Ovid had the last laugh. His work long outlasted the Roman Empire. Today Ovid is universally seen as one of the greatest and most influential of the classical poets and a major influence on Western literature. Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, Marlowe, Lord Byron and Shelley, among many others, drew directly from him.
Mastery Of Form
How did he transform and transcend? Ovid mastered the forms of the poets that preceded him--such as Virgil -- and merrily reinvented those forms by adding wit, whimsy, wordplay, satire, ironic detachment, double meaning and paradox, among other new literary conventions.
Sara Mack, professor of classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says the key to Ovid's spirit is his "airy mocking freedom."
"Ovid transformed everything he touched. Using the ordinary Latin poetic vocabulary in its simplest forms, he made it sing in a new way," Mack wrote in her study, "Ovid." And he could make the words sting as well as sing.
"Sacred cows were no match for his irreverence," Mack wrote.
Ovid didn't set out to be a troublemaker. Born into a wealthy Roman family, he was expected to enter into a life of politics. He studied in Rome under the top educators of his time and traveled widely before accepting a midlevel legal position in the government.
But he loved poetry, then considered the highest form of writing. Staying true to himself, he quit his administrative post to devote himself full time to poetry, much to the initial consternation of his family.
He was a popular success quite early on with the publication of "Amores" ("The Lovers") in about 25 B.C. The work was based on a traditional style of elegiac poems: short poems addressed to lovers, long on vivid imagery and strong emotion.
To make his work stand out, Ovid put his own subtle spin on the form. Some poems aren't addressed to lovers at all. Others include wry commentary or poke fun at traditional Roman beliefs regarding love. Some repeat what earlier poems described but with a different -- even contradictory -- perspective, inviting the reader to ponder what's being said and who's more truthful.
Ovid was one of the earliest users of what's now known as the "unreliable narrator" -- a voice speaking directly to the reader whose characterization of events is subtly contradicted by the descriptions he gives, forcing the reader to decide what's actually going on.
"The poet's fruitful freedom knows no bounds and takes no oath to tell it as it happened," he said in "Amores."
Building on the success he had with "Amores," he followed the work with a series of similar pieces, which were often witty, humorous and bawdy in tone. There was "Heroides" ("Epistles of the Heroines"), "Medicamina Faciei" ("The Art of Beauty"), "Ars Amatoria" ("The Art of Love") and "Remedia Amoris" ("Remedies for Love").
Completely New Approach
Constantly seeking to innovate, Ovid created a new literary form altogether with "Heroides," a collection of letters -- actually monologues -- supposedly written by mythical women to the men they love. For the first time such classical figures as Ulysses' wife, Penelope, Medea and Helen of Troy have their say. The work showed that a poet could write in voices completely different from his own.
Unafraid to speak his mind, Ovid ventured into social commentary with his next works. He used humor liberally to keep readers' attention. "Medicamina Faciei" was literally about the proper use of cosmetics, a subject that's turned into deadpan comedy by the grave seriousness with which it's discussed.
In "Ars Amatoria," Ovid uses the same method to poke fun at the rules of dating. The first two books are addressed to men. The final one was to women. All counsel such methods as flattery, deception, pretense and even outright lies. All are again discussed in a deadpan, even scholarly, tone.
That was followed by "Remedia Amoris," which counseled on how to cure love. One bit of advice: be sure to see your loved one in the morning before he or she has a chance to wash and present himself or herself.
Seeking new challenges, Ovid then turned to more ambitious projects. He wrote a tragedy based on "Medea" that was acclaimed in its day but unfortunately is now lost.
He spent the bulk of his energy on his magnum work, "Metamorphoses." Ovid used a theme of physical, and usually supernatural, change to link what are otherwise 250 otherwise unrelated tales from Greek and Roman legend. It's an epic poem in length and breadth but subverts the convention of such poems as Virgil's "Aeneid."
"Everywhere the strategy of the 'Metamorphoses' is to take the heroism out of the heroic while professing to write in the heroic mode," Mack noted. The poem is bawdy, irreverent and funny. Adventures become slapstick farces. Heroes dawdle rather than act. The gods themselves act childishly.
"Ovid's achievement in the 'Metamorphoses' is to transmute what ought to be a profoundly depressing vision of the existence into a cosmic comedy of manners," wrote E.J. Kenney, professor of Latin at Cambridge, in the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition.
Unfortunately, his irreverence got the better of him, and Caesar Augustus forced him to leave Rome for Tomis (modern-day Romania). Some scholars assume Augustus took personal offense at something Ovid wrote. Others see it as the result of the emperor's efforts to tighten social mores. Either way, Ovid was sent to such a far-flung outpost of the empire that hardly anybody there spoke Latin.
Ovid was dismayed but not deterred. He wrote "Tristia" ("Sorrows"), a lament of his exile that's one of the earliest examples of autobiography. In that and other works he pleaded to return to Rome. Yet he also asserted his independence in the work.
"Here I am, bereft of country, home and (family), everything gone that could be taken from me. My art is still my companion and joy. Over that, Caesar could not get jurisdiction," Ovid wrote.
The poet died in exile in Tomis in A.D. 17.