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43 B.C.-17 A.D.


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One of the most prolific poets of Rome's Golden Age, Ovid, the name by which Publius Ovidius Naso is commonly known, specialized in the witty and sophisticated treatment of love in all its permutations. Born Mar. 20, 43 B.C., a year after the murder of Julius Caesar, Ovid passed his youth in his native Sulmo, untouched by the civil wars. Shortly after peace resumed, when Augustus ruled unthreatened, Ovid went to Rome to continue his education. His father intended him for a political career, but Ovid quietly rebelled. The literary temptations in the capital and his own spectacular talents drew him inevitably into writing poetry. Before he was 20, he was reading his works to appreciative audiences, and by age 30, he was Rome's most successful poet. Success followed success for two more decades, when Augustus suddenly dispatched Ovid, then 50, into exile. The exact circumstances behind this event remain unclear even today. Ovid himself deliberately obscured them (as did the emperor), merely referring to a poem of his and some mistake. The place of exile was Tomis (modern Costanza, in Romania), a rather primitive town on the Black Sea. Arriving there in the spring of 9 A.D., Ovid fought his loneliness and longing for his friends and beloved Rome by writing poetry about exile. The last datable poems refer to the year 16, and presumably he died soon after, an unhappy man of 60 whose suffering exposed the authoritarian nature of Augustus.

Ovid's poetry falls into three divisions: the works of his youth, of his middle age, and of his years in exile. In the first period, Ovid continued the elegiac tradition of Roman poets Sextus Propertius and Albius Tibullus, both of whom he knew and admired. Ovid's Amores are erotic poems centered on Corinna, but they display little real feeling and are characterized by artificiality and cleverness. Other works of his are didactic poems, including Medicamina Faciei Femineae, a fragment of writing on cosmetics; and Remedia Amoris, a kind of recantation of the Ars Amatoria. Ovid's Medea, a tragedy highly praised by ancient critics, has not been preserved. His interest in mythology is reflected in his Heroides, or Epistulae Heroidum, 21 fictional love letters, mostly from mythological heroines to their lovers.

In his middle period Ovid wrote the Metamorphoses (8 A.D.), his greatest poetic achievement. Using Greco-Roman mythology as the material of his 15 books and change as his theme, he particularly isolates love as the agent of change, love now seen in its more profound ethical dimensions. Among readers of the late Middle Ages, the Metamorphoses rivaled the Bible in popularity. The other work of the middle period is the Fasti, a poetic calendar describing the various Roman festivals and the legends connected with each. Of the projected 12 books, 1 for each month of the year, only the first 6 are extant.

The works composed during his exile are pervaded by melancholy and despair. They include the Tristia, five books of elegies that describe his unhappy existence at Tomis and appeal to the mercy of Augustus; the Epistulae ex Ponto, poetic letters similar in theme to the Tristia; the Ibis, a short invective invoking destruction on a personal enemy; and the Halieutica, a poem extant only in fragments, about the local fish. The Nux and the Consolatio ad Liviam are usually considered wrongly attributed to Ovid. A poem written in Getic, the native language of Dacia, has not survived. With the exception of the Metamorphoses and the fragmentary Halieutica, both of which are in the dactylic hexameter meter, all the poetry of Ovid is composed in the elegiac couplet, a meter that he brought to its highest degree of perfection.

Ovid was one of the most influential of Roman poets during the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century) and the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century). Italian poets Ludovico Ariosto and Giovanni Boccaccio and English poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower found in his mythological narratives a rich source of romantic tales. English poets Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and many others were also influenced by him.

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