Today is the birthday (43 BCE) of Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, a Roman poet best known for the Metamorphoses, a 15-volume mythological narrative in epic verse, and for collections of love poetry in elegiac couplets, especially the Amores (“Love Affairs”) and Ars Amatoria (“Art of Love”). His poetry was much imitated during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and greatly influenced Western art and literature. The Metamorphoses remains one of the most important sources of classical mythology. Ovid is traditionally ranked alongside Virgil and Horace, his older contemporaries, as one of the three canonic poets of Latin literature. He was the first major Roman poet to begin his career during the reign of Augustus, and the Imperial scholar Quintilian considered him the last of the Latin love elegists. He enjoyed enormous popularity, but in one of the mysteries of literary history he was sent by Augustus into exile in a remote province on the Black Sea, where he remained until his death. Ovid himself attributes his exile to carmen et error, “a poem and a mistake,” but his discretion in discussing the causes has resulted in much speculation among scholars.
Ovid was born in Sulmo (modern Sulmona), in an Apennine valley east of Rome, to a well known equestrian family, a class that ranked above plebeians and below patricians. His father wished him to study rhetoric toward the practice of law, so he was educated in rhetoric in Rome under the teachers Arellius Fuscus and Porcius Latro with his brother who excelled at oratory. 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 capitals (prison officers), as a member of the Centumviral court (chancery court) and as one of the decemviri stlitibus iudicandis (civil judges), but resigned to pursue poetry probably around 29–25 BCE, a decision of which his father apparently disapproved.
His first poetic recitation has been dated to around 25 BC, when Ovid 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 Tristia 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). Ovid was very popular at the time of his early works, but was later exiled by Augustus in AD 8. 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 (clan) Fabia and would help him during his exile in Tomis.
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 completely certain, but 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 BCE. 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 BCE; 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 BCE. 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 (including advice such as “do not forget her birthday”), and a three-book manual about seduction and intrigue, which has been dated to 2 CE (Books 1–2 go back to 1 BCE). Ovid may have identified this work 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 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 8 CE, he had completed his most ambitious work, the Metamorphoses, a hexameter epic poem in 15 books which encyclopedically catalogs transformations in Greek and Roman mythology from the emergence of the cosmos to the deification of Julius Caesar. The stories follow each other in telling of human beings transformed to new bodies: trees, rocks, animals, flowers, constellations etc. At the same time, he was working on the Fasti, a 12 volume poem in elegiac couplets which took as its theme the calendar of Roman festivals and astronomy. Only 6 volumes were completed The composition of this poem was interrupted by Ovid’s exile, and it is thought that Ovid abandoned work on the piece in Tomis.
In 8 CE, Ovid was banished to Tomis, on the Black Sea, by the exclusive order of the Emperor Augustus, without any participation of the Senate or of any Roman judge. This event shaped all of his following poetry. Ovid wrote that the reason for his exile was carmen et error – “a poem and a mistake” that his crime was worse than murder, more harmful than poetry. We know no more than that, which tells us very little. 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 conspiracy against Augustus. That Augustus allowed Ovid to live suggests that whatever his crime was, it was unlikely to have been directed against Augustus per se. Most modern critics think that it had something to do with Augustus’ distaste for the rather loose morals of Ovid’s love poems at a time when the emperor was trying to clean up marriage in Rome in order to make the society more stable. But in the end, it is useless to speculate without more information.
In exile, Ovid wrote two poetry collections titled Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, illustrating his sadness and desolation. Being far from Rome, he had no access to libraries, and thus might have been forced to abandon the Fasti 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 9–12 CE. 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 13 CE and the fourth book between 14 and 16 CE. The exile poetry is particularly emotive and personal. In the Epistulae he claims friendship with the native people of Tomis (in the Tristia they are frightening barbarians) and to have written a poem in their language (Ex P. 4.13.19–20). And yet he pined for Rome and for his third wife; many of the poems are addressed 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.
Ovid died at Tomis in 17 or 18 CE. It is thought that the Fasti, which he spent time revising, were published posthumously. He was allegedly buried a few kilometers away in a nearby town.
The Metamorphoses is a sprawling work that explores the world from the beginning of time down to the life of Julius Caesar. It is a source, not only for tales of Greek and Roman sacred history, but also for historical narratives concerning people in the classical world who lived close to the time of Ovid. Book 15 has extensive discussions on Pythagoras and his work; 11 of 18 sections in this book are directly about Pythagoras’ philosophy. Among other things, Pythagoras was a vegetarian (as were many of his followers), and Ovid provides us with his justifications for such an unusual stance to take at that time:
Human beings, stop desecrating your bodies with impious foodstuffs. There are crops; there are apples weighing down the branches; and ripening grapes on the vines; there are flavorsome herbs; and those that can be rendered mild and gentle over the flames; and you do not lack flowing milk; or honey fragrant from the flowering thyme. The earth, prodigal of its wealth, supplies you with gentle sustenance, and offers you food without killing or shedding blood.
Flesh satisfies the wild beast’s hunger, though not all of them, since horses, sheep and cattle live on grasses, but those that are wild and savage: Armenian tigers, raging lions, and wolves and bears, enjoy food wet with blood. Oh, how wrong it is for flesh to be made from flesh; for a greedy body to fatten, by swallowing another body; for one creature to live by the death of another creature! So amongst such riches, that earth, the greatest of mothers, yields, you are not happy unless you tear, with cruel teeth, at pitiful wounds, recalling Cyclops’s practice, and you cannot satisfy your voracious appetite, and your restless hunger, unless you destroy other life!
But that former age, that we call golden, was happy with the fruit from the trees, and the herbs the earth produced, and did not defile its lips with blood.
There is no evidence that Ovid was a vegetarian but I thought it might be suitable, based on this excerpt, to give a recipe for an ancient Roman vegetarian dish – broad beans and leeks with cilantro. Something similar can be found here, although the latter is a recipe for mussels where the leeks and cilantro are merely flavoring agents. The recipe I give here is my own adaptation from Apicius’ De Re Conquinaria which gives a list of ingredients and not much else. Liquamen was a sauce made by fermenting fish, and was very common in classical era cooking. It was primarily a source of salt to season the dish. I use a diluted mix of Thai fish sauce (phrik nam pla) and water as a substitute. You will find many attempts to convert Apicius’ recipe for the modern kitchen, but they all make the same mistake; they list string beans as the main ingredient. This is absurd because all string beans were domesticated in the New World, and taken to the Old World in the sixteenth century. Ovid’s “green beans” are fresh broad beans (fava beans). However, when I made this dish I was forced back on string beans myself because broad beans are not in season yet. I ended up making it into a soup and then as a sauce for pasta. It can accompany a variety of meat and fish dishes.
©Fabaciae virides et baianae (broad beans and leeks)
1lb/500g green beans (preferably broad beans)
1 tbsp Asian fish sauce mixed with 1 cup water
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
1 tsp cumin
½ leek, sliced thin
Place all the ingredients in a heavy pot just big enough to hold them all. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the beans are cooked through.
Strain (reserving the cooking liquid) and serve as a side dish, or ladle into soup bowls as a first course with some crusty bread.