Publius Ovidius Naso (better known as Ovid) was born in 43 B.C., one year after the assassination of Julius Caesar, in the town of Sulmo, just east of Rome. He was born into one of the most important time periods in the history of Rome: the civil wars that led to the transition from republic to empire.
Having murdered Julius Caesar, Brutus and Longinus were hunted down and defeated in the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. by Octavian and Marc Antony. That alliance did not last long, however, and in 31 B.C. Octavian and his right-hand man Marcus Agrippa defeated Antony and Cleopatra in the naval battle at Actium.
This battle was a turning point for Rome. Octavian returned a victor, and with the authority of divine prophecy and personal popularity he diplomatically siphoned control from the senate in what can be labeled a political war of attrition. He took on the name Augustus, and by the time of his death in A.D. 14, he had become the first emperor of Rome.
During his reign, Augustus enacted a program of cultural renewal — a blast from the past in which Roman tradition, morality and religion were restored front and center in Romans’ lives. Augustus wanted to create a unified people with a cultural identity, and so he built and restored temples, added laws that enforced morality, and enlisted Vergil to write an epic that would foster a renewed loyalty to Rome — the Aeneid.
It was in this environment that Ovid lived and wrote. No poet was less suited for these times of cultural renewal than Ovid; he was a Roman playboy who wrote scandalous love poetry and labeled himself “the well-known recorder of his own amorous follies.” His Ars Amatoria is essentially an instructional book on where to find women and how to seduce them — poetry not well received by a reforming emperor attempting to foster family values.
In the first years of the first century A.D. Ovid tried something new: he abandoned his love poetry and published his masterpiece, an epic titled the Metamorphoses. A response to Vergil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses directly challenges many of the themes that made Vergil so compatible with Roman national tradition. As a poem about metamorphosis, it underscores the instability of human lives and human institutions:
“nihil est toto, quod perstet, in orbe.” (XV. 177)
There is nothing in the whole world that endures.
Nothing, not even the great golden age that Augustus was ushering in, would endure.
Furthermore, Ovid does not shy away from portraying the darker side of both human and divine nature. The gods in the Metamorphoses are anthropomorphic and frequently immoral, unlike the flawed but primarily majestic deities of Homer or Vergil. Depicting the gods in such a negative light was another method by which Ovid parted from (and critiqued) tradition.
By A.D. 8, Augustus had had enough; he banished Ovid to a remote outpost on the Black Sea, where Ovid lived his remaining years in exile.
A fellow contributor wisely observed that traditions occasionally need to be abandoned — their historical nature does not guarantee their superiority. Fortunately, we have adopted certain rights that were not guaranteed to the imperial Romans — we have parted from some traditions. We should be thankful that we live in a nation that allows criticism as counter-cultural action, never forgetting that such self-critique is often necessary for progress.
—Ryan Slauer is a senior studying economics and Latin
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